You are hereDouble Cross : The True Story of the D-Day Spies By Ben MacIntyre

Double Cross : The True Story of the D-Day Spies By Ben MacIntyre

At the Tehran conference in 1943, the Allies laid the plans for the invasion of Europe, codenamed Operation Overlord. It was a high-risk strategy, and to maximize the chance of its success it was essential that for as long as possible the Germans should be uncertain where the invasion would take place. To this end, Operation Bodyguard was created. It was an immense undertaking, involving the construction of false tanks and aircraft, sending masses of fake radio signals and even `creating' whole dummy armies, apparently directed at spurious targets on the continent. But within this activity, the most important element of deception was that provided by Operation Fortitude. This was specifically aimed at convincing the Germans that the invasion would take place at the Pas de Calais, rather than the actual site chosen, the Normandy coast. It was hoped that when the invasion started, the Germans would assume it was only a diversion and so would not move their strong tank forces away from the Calais area, thus giving the Allies time to establish themselves on shore.

The core of Fortitude was the Double Cross system, where enemy spies were `turned' and became double agents acting for Britain. This is the subject of Ben Macintyre's book. It was a system developed by an eccentric, but brilliant, MI5 officer, `Tar' Robinson. By mid 1943, he realized that every German agent in Britain was actually being controlled by MI5 and so he could start feeding misinformation to the German handlers of the turned spies. In practice, the nucleus of Double Cross was just five agents. They were a very exotic bunch: a rich serial-seducing playboy Yugoslav (codename Tricycle), a Polish patriot fighter pilot (Brutus), a bisexual Peruvian playgirl (Bronx), an hysterical Frenchwoman (Treasure), and the most successful of them all, a Spaniard (Garbo) with a wild fertile imagination that proved extremely useful in constructing information to feed the Germans. In addition, there was another key player, a German citizen and friend of Tricycle called Johnny Jebsen. He spent most of his time in Portugal working for the German military secret service, the Abwehr, and did not openly work for the British until late in the war. Their handlers and MI5 officers were almost as strange. For example, Tar's team included John Masterman, whose life revolved around cricket and who referred to agents `making a good innings' and being ready to be `put in to bat'.

Feedback via the decrypts from Blechley Park showed that the deception was working, but tension mounted as D-Day approached, and events occurred that could have destroyed the whole operation. One was the activity of a freelance spy operating from Portugal who had been feeding bogus information to the Germans by purporting to be located in Britain. At one point, by chance, he was close to naming the actual D-Day landing place. Another was the unstable character of Treasure, who was besotted with her dog, and who blamed the British for its death. She seriously considered betraying the double cross operation to the Germans. Even more serious was the arrest of Jebsen in Portugal by the Abwehr and his removal to Berlin. This was done by a group that was part of the plot to kill Hitler, but was worried that if Jebsen defected it would be used as the pretext for Himmler to replace the Abwehr with his own SD security organization, and they themselves would be arrested. Ironically, Jebsen would have been only too willing to help them, but he was quickly transferred to the SD. Despite being tortured, he never revealed any secrets and Fortitude remained intact right up to D-Day and beyond.

Espionage and counter espionage are strange shadowy worlds, full of uncertainty, and where things are frequently not as they appear. For example, could one ever be sure that a double agent was not really a triple agent, working for the Germans? The agents were also difficult characters to control, motivated as they were by mixtures of patriotism, and baser reasons such as simple greed. This was particularly true of Jebsen, who ran lucrative and risky currency scams on the side. This often resulted in difficult relationships between the agents and their handlers. Amid this deadly serious game there was also sometimes humour, such as the utterly mad proposals by Flight Lieutenant Walker to set up an operation using squadrons of pigeons to destroy `incoming enemy pigeons', and later to run a `double cross' system for pigeons, whereby they would be infiltrated into German pigeon lofts! Needless to say there is no evidence that these schemes contributed anything to the war effort.

After the war, agents and MI5 officers went their own varied ways. Most settled quietly: Brutus in London; Garbo in South America, running a bookshop; Bronx in France to run a gift shop; Treasure in Michigan having eventually married an American serviceman. Tricycle continued his flamboyant lifestyle, marrying two 18 yr. olds. Jebsen was presumed killed in the final chaotic days of the collapse of Germany. Tar retired to look after a sheep farm; Masterman became Provost of an Oxford college, wrote detective novels and continued his life-long devotion to cricket. Walker of course spent the rest of his days breeding pigeons.

This is a superb book. Ben Macintyre's convincingly takes us into the topsy-turvy world of espionage and counter espionage. The narrative could have been disjoint, because it is essentially the stories of five double agents who never met, but he links them seamlessly via their roles in the ongoing operation, and gives a real feeling for the characters of the extraordinary players involved in the Double Cross operation and the crucial times in which they worked. It is also well researched and amply documented by references. I strongly recommend it.

Brian R. Martin


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