Ceri Shaw



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'Snow' by Madoc Roberts - A Review

user image 2011-12-16
By: Ceri Shaw
Posted in: Book Reviews



Buy 'Snow'  HERE ( Kindle edition available )

Snow is that rare thing an important work of historical research that reads like a fast-paced spy thriller. Although it must be added that the events recounted therein would be deemed highly improbable if they were fiction. The central character Arthur Graham Owens is a study in vanity, folly , recklessness, courage and determination combined. This deeply flawed character commands respect, despite his many weaknesses, because his antics contributed more to the Allied war effort than he, or his MI5 'handlers' could ever have imagined.

Snow offered his services to German Intelligence in Hamburg in 1935. The strength of his allegiance to the Nazi cause must be doubted however when we take into account MI5 observations which record him shopping for photographic equipment and magazines packed with pictures of outdated military vehicles . Indeed it is doubtful that he ever supplied his Abwehr paymasters with anything of real significance.

During a bizarre episode in Wandsworth Prison in 1939 Snow attempted to contact the Abwehr in Hamburg with a radio set which had been supplied for the purpose. He had been detained by British Intelligence on the suspicion that he was a double agent and was attempting to prove his potential value to MI5. The transmitter promptly blew a fuse and after repairs had been carried out several more attempts were made before the response signal, 'OEA' was received. A few miles away at an RSS ( Radio Security Service ) listening station an amazing discovery was made. Instead of going directly to Hamburg the messages from Owens were intercepted by a spy trawler off the coast of Norway. From here they were re-transmitted after being encoded using the German Enigma machine. Consequently British Intelligence were able to listen in to both transmissions , one coded and one in plain text. Since Owens had been instructed to broadcast at 4 in the morning all that the RSS had to do to break the German cipher for the day was compare and analyse the two messages. Thus, unwittingly, the Welsh 'master spy' gave British Intelligence access to secret German military communications throughout Europe.

After serving as a double agent for two years Snow was debriefed following a top level meeting with the head of the Abwehr in Portugal. The account of these interrogations is as detailed as it is fascinating. According to Snow he was confronted with the fact that he had been operating as a double agent almost immediately upon arrival in Lisbon. And yet, the Germans chose to do nothing about this and sent him back to Britain with 10,000 GBP and a variety of concealed explosive devices to carry on his good work! One can hardly blame MI5 for being somewhat sceptical.The detailed exchanges between Snow and his interrogators are a study in mind-boggling duplicity. The records of these discussions have been meticulously reaearched by the books authors with reference to original source materials from the archives of the British Security Service ( MI5 ). Fortunately they are presented in a thoroughly engaging manner and the reader will have fun trying to work out what really happened in Lisbon. Whatever your conclusion you are sure to sympathise with the MI5 operative who concluded that "I am more than ever convinced that Snow's is a case not for the Security Service but for a brain specialist" and also with interrogator Tommy Robertson:-

"....Robertson was sure that he was lying. But Owen's story was so inconsistent that he could not determine the nature of the lie or its purpose."

Following the Lisbon incident Snow spent some time at HMP Dartmoor. MI5 did not feel they could trust him anymore and they wanted him out of the way. Even while in prison Owens was able to procure information from fellow prisoners which was of value to the war effort. Conversations with a fellow prisoner ( a Danish internee ) led to revelations concerning the German V2 program which were promptly passed on to MI5.

Following the war and his release from prison Owens retired to live quietly in Wexford, Ireland where he died in 1957. He had a reputation as a Welsh Nationalist and became a regular attendee at Sinn Fein meetings where he would clap speechesvery loudly , often delivered in Gaelic, even though he did not speak the language. He was also a regular fixture at the local pub from where he often had to be carried home.

As a work of historical research 'Snow' is a gold mine of information on British clandestine operations in WWII. As a biography it reveals a complex and conflicted character whose true motives may have been as much a mystery to himself as they are to the reader. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone with a love of history or a fascination with the complex, inscrutable and frequently perverse characters who make it.

The short promotional video below perfectly demonstrates why this book cries out for a movie adaptation. Any budding script writers out there?

Review by Ceri Shaw Google+ Email

Madoc Roberts
12/16/11 06:52:59PM @madoc-roberts:

Thank you for your review Ceri. I think you have understood the problem that Mi5 faced when dealing with Arthur Owens and yet from these difficult beggining scame the double cross system which did such good work during WWII. His family also suffered especially his daughter who went on to become a Hollywood film star. Nothing is ever straight forward with Snow but it was fun writing it and I am glad that you enjoyed it.


Ceri Shaw
12/16/11 06:01:02PM @ceri-shaw:

Read our interview with Madoc Roberts, author of 'Snow' here:- http://americymru.blogspot.com/2011/12/welsh-double-agent-arthur-owens.html