'Oswald John Job' - Britain's Forgotten Traitor by Ed Perkins
My character, you could say, is unscrupulous, selfish, disloyal, given to lying and drawn to criminal behaviour. Well, not my own, though some who know me might disagree with that, but the character of Oswald John Job, the subject of my book, Britain’s Forgotten Traitor.
Job was born in London to German immigrant parents, married at Deptford, then ditched his wife and infant daughter. He did time in jail for being part of a gem gang. Then he emigrated to Paris alone, started his own business, and found himself sentenced for fraud.
After marrying again (bigamously) and re-inventing himself as respectable, his scurrilous side surfaced once the Second World War began.
Paris was occupied by the enemy, Job was interned and, by his own admission, eventually struck a deal with the Nazis whereby he’d be released if he agreed to return to Britain to spy for them.
So, Oswald John Job was not a nice man. But the odd thing is that when you live with someone’s story for the best part of three years, travelling across Britain and to France in search of facts about a person, you start to care. At least I did.
Job became like a disreputable uncle who was the black sheep in the family. The one you put up with because, for all his faults, he has somehow become your responsibility.
And as you write up his story you find yourself wanting to stop him in his tracks.
‘Why on Earth are you doing that?’ you want to say to him early on. ‘You’re lucky to have found a loving wife and a beautiful baby. You can’t leave them on their own just to swan off to France.’
Further into the tale when he claims he’s near to a breakdown behind the wires of his internment camp, you itch to intercept him and shake some sense into him.
‘For goodness’s sake, don’t do anything rash,’ you find yourself saying. ‘Don’t you realise the tide of the war is turning? If you can just hang on another year or two, all will end well.’
Then, when you pen the bit about him agreeing to work for the Germans, you feel like giving up on him altogether. Why would he do that and let everyone down?
Job, 58 when he died, claimed he only agreed to the mission as a means of getting back to Britain. It was a well-worn, classic spy’s excuse. And he lied so often, who would believe him?
I wrote several drafts of the biography and it was during one of those rewrites that I realised how much I had come to care for the self-centred old rogue. You get to know a character intimately as you delve into his story.
Those of you who have read Britain’s Forgotten Traitor will know that, although he claimed he only agreed to take on the spying mission to get back to England, the path he takes leads eventually to the hangman.
And every time I started working on the chapter where I knew he would end up executed, I found myself welling up.
It was no surprise that he found himself in the condemned cell but something kept tugging at me, saying, ‘This is all wrong. It shouldn’t be happening.’
And I realised that my instinct was telling me to re-examine the evidence that convicted him.
The Old Bailey jury didn’t take long to find Job guilty.
The evidence was overwhelming. He’d confessed to accepting a mission to spy for the Germans. He arrived with invisible ink in his razor and keys. He’d been carrying jewellery to give to a German agent in London (not realising that he had been ‘turned’.) He’d been taught a secret code with which to receive wireless messages. And he kept up his cock-and-bull story of his escape long after he arrived in England.
Even after his death, more evidence was found that showed he’d offered to spy for the Germans as soon as he’d been interned.
So why did I start to believe there had been a miscarriage of justice?
As I said, when you live with a character for years you get to know them as if they were family. And I began to think I could ‘read’ Job better than the judge or jury.
He was charged, not with accepting a mission to spy, but with arriving in Britain intending to spy.
Job, a ‘shabby’ character’ by all accounts, was certainly capable of being willing to spy… if there was something in it for him.
I suspect he took on the German espionage mission fully intending to carry it out… because it got him out of internment and he expected to be handsomely rewarded for his treachery.
But once he’d got away from Occupied France and found his way to neutral Lisbon, he had time to reflect. His German controllers were hundreds of miles away. They had given him little or no money, but in his pocket he had jewellery worth about £10,000 today that he was supposed to deliver to a stranger.
I believe this onetime gem gang member would have realised that if he carried out his mission he’d be risking his life for nothing. He’d never shown any interest in politics or ideology. There was nothing in it for him, so why would he do it?
I think he flew into England thinking that if he stayed mum and stuck to his story, he’d not only be free of the Germans, no one in Britain would have a clue about it and, in time, he could keep the jewellery for his own profit.
In other words, he didn’t arrive in Britain intending to spy.
But, tragically, he didn’t say that in court. It may have cost him his life.
I want to say, ‘Oh John Job. Why didn’t you listen to me?’ But, of course, it’s much too late.
Ed Perkins's book Britain's Forgotten Traitor is available for purchase now.