Ghosts of wartime spies haunt Welsh hotels

The decorous world of Welsh hotels has acquired a new mystique with the revelation that MI5 chose them, against countrywide competition, as a bolthole for its most valuable wartime spies.

Secret double agents, whose deception of the Nazis was so effective that several were decorated by the Abwehr secret service, were scheduled to join hikers and retired couples at such nooks as the Swallow Falls hotel in Betws-y-coed if a German invasion force landed on the Channel coast.

Masterminded by MI5’s “Twenty committee”, named because the Roman numerals for 20 form a double-cross, the plan directed agents to the Snowdonia spa, and similarly quiet hotels, in Llandudno and Llanrwst. The operation was codenamed hegira after the Arabic term for the prophet Muhammad’s enforced departure in 622 from Mecca.

“Seven agents were scheduled to check in to these unlikely hiding places,” said Phil Chamberlain, whose study of newly released papers on the episode will be published in next month’s History Today magazine. “They were codenamed Gelatine, Dragonfly, Tate, GW, Mutt, Stork and Snow. For Snow, who was the first important German agent to be turned, it would have been a homecoming – his real name was Arthur Owens, the owner of an electric battery company, born in Wales. He’d been told by the Abwehr to recruit a Welsh nationalist and he found a retired policeman. But MI5 turned him too, and he became agent GW.”

Operation hegira was run in ways still used by the secret service today; only last month, in its advertisements for recruits, MI5 was seeking bland-looking operatives from ordinary backgrounds.

The hotels were chosen at a temporary MI5 north Wales office in Colwyn Bay, where officers inquired about bookings for “holidaymakers” seeking seclusion. Staff at the Swallow Falls, still thriving along with the White Heather in Llandudno, and the Eagles hotel in Llanrwst, said no trace of the double agents appeared to survive in old registers.

But if Owens was taken on a familiarisation visit, he might be remembered by those who stayed at the White Heather in 1941. The “Twenty committee”, which aborted hegira when no German invasion took place, made no secret of its dislike of him in a memo attacking his laziness and cost. One of the files found by Mr Chamberlain at the National Archive calls him “a typical Welsh underfed type, very short, boney face, ill-shaped ears disproportionately small for size of man, shifty look”.

In spite of the sneers, the episode may be a boost for Welsh tourism. A tourism spokesman, Heledd Llewelyn, said: “We often refer to Wales as Britain’s best kept secret – MI5 obviously agree.”

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