Winston Churchill famously quipped, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” It’s the kind of sentiment that makes good government types wince, but in war, all bets are off. During the first half of World War II, the British lurched from loss to loss on the battlefield — for every El Alamein, there were numerous setbacks. But the Brits truly excelled at constructing world-class lies, spun out by crafty intelligence officers, which would play a role in the eventual victory over the Nazis.
British writer Ben Macintyre has made a virtual cottage industry bringing this murky region of World War II espionage to light. In “Agent Zigzag,” he told the story of double-crossing double agent extraordinaire Eddie Chapman. In “Operation Mincemeat,” it was a crazy plan involving a vagrant’s corpse dumped at sea in the run-up to the invasion of Sicily. In “Double Cross,” the latest installment of Macintyre’s madcap chronicles of spy vs. spy, it’s the elaborate (and outlandish) deception deployed to wrong-foot the Nazis about where (and when) the Allies would invade France.
It should be said loud and clear that Macintyre is a supremely gifted storyteller. He spins quite a yarn. His books are absurdly entertaining. I would kill for his keen wit. He takes us into a world of bounders, spivs, roués, and men (and women) on the make. This is the lighter side of World War II, if there is a lighter side to a conflict that claimed some 70 million lives. Macintyre homes in on folly and the peccadillos of spies and spooks, and good for him.
Now for the bad news: Macintyre overplays his hand in this new book. There is plenty to amuse; almost every page offers up a zany anecdote or preposterous ploy — how about double-agent homing pigeons? But getting to D-Day is awfully slow going. Walk-on characters appear on nearly every other page — keep a notepad handy — and worlds within worlds of deceit and illusion manage to confound both Nazis and readers alike. Much of this material is irresistible and fun, but Macintyre’s narrative could use a great deal of streamlining.
That said, if you have patience enough, “Double Cross’’ is a blast. Macintyre peers into the looking-glass world of Operation Fortitude, which was run out of a cramped London office by a team of MI5 officers led by Thomas Argyll Robertson, a dashing upper-class Englishman with a fondness for tartan trousers. “Tar,” as he was known, assembled a team of eccentric agents who the Germans thought were spying for them but in reality were working for the other side. The British had cracked Abwehr (German military intelligence) wireless codes, the so-called Ultra decryptions of high-level communications, “the most important intelligence triumph of this or any other war.” This gave the British an unmatched advantage: They could comprehensively monitor all German intelligence traffic and act accordingly.
The Fortitude team included “a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman, a Serbian seducer, and a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming.” Members concocted fake intelligence, which they passed on to their respective German handlers. The name of the game: convince the Nazis that the Allies would invade Norway and northeastern France around Pas de Calais, rather than cross the English Channel and land at Normandy.
The lineup of the team alone suggests the comic potential of what unfolds. Tar, Macintyre writes, “flourished in that gray area between ingenuity and insanity.” We get equal amounts of both in “Double Cross.’’ There are clandestine meetings galore in Lisbon and Madrid, where Abwehr and British agents played endless cat-and-mouse games. Dusan Popov, our Serbian playboy, aka “Tricycle,” carries on multiple affairs and gets the Abwehr to underwrite Double Cross operations via clever financial shenanigans. After a disastrous trip to New York, where he tries to create a US spy network, he leaves a trail of debt and bills MI5 for 18 silk shirts and a dozen monogrammed handkerchiefs. (Say what you will, the man had style.) The Peruvian Elvira de La Fuente Chaudoir, an inveterate gambler and habitué of London’s clubs, fed her German handlers a diet of gossip picked up on the party circuit. Agent “Garbo,’’ the Spaniard, passes on nuggets from a band of (fictional) Welsh fascists. There is also a sixth agent, the German bon vivant and shipping heir Johnny Jebsen, a friend of Popov who played dangerous games with his handlers.
Amazingly, the corrupt, gullible, lazy officers of the Abwehr ate it all up. Tar and his colleagues lived in perpetual fear that they were being played by the Germans, and not the other way around. Amazingly, the Germans were fooled. Macintyre draws on declassified MI5 documents, but also quotes extensively from the memoirs of the agents themselves. Some of the dialogue seems too good to be true — as does the impact of Operation Fortitude. It barely rates a mention in the latest blockbuster histories of the war by Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, but Macintyre argues that the likes of Popov and Co. saved many lives. Deception certainly had its place in the Allied arsenal: Hundreds of fake tanks and dummy installations were fashioned to fool the Germans into thinking the invasion would take place elsewhere. But once the mayhem of the Normandy landings commenced, it was gut, determination and dumb luck that won the day.
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