BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
, October 27, 2012
The True Story of the D-Day Spies
by Ben Macintyre
Paperback: 432 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
One of the greatest military exercises of all time was World War II’s Operation Overlord, the successful landing of Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. Such a feat was made possible only by meticulous planning and preparation, an integral element of which was deceiving the Germans by feeding them false intelligence.
An earlier book by the same bestselling author, Ben Macintyre (also a columnist and associate editor of the London Times), was Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II (reviewed by the present writer in News Weekly, November 13, 2010). It told of how the British succeeded in deceiving the Germans on the eve of the Allied landing on Sicily in July 1943.
Macintyre’s latest book, Double Cross, examines the manner in which the British used double agents against the Germans in the lead-up to the D-Day Normandy landings.
Having successfully cracked Germany’s secret wartime communication codes early in the war, the British were able to identify with relative ease, and swiftly capture, spies who had entered the country. During these spies’ imprisonment and interrogation, British counter-intelligence officials would assess whether they could be recruited as double agents, and, if so, would give them that option.
These double agents were augmented by individuals who volunteered to British authorities to be double agents. The scheme was masterminded and managed by Lt Col. Tommy “Tar” Robertson, a colourful Scottish officer in Britain’s State Security Service, MI5, who proved to be particularly adept at determining the potential of a double agent.
The individuals profiled in Double Cross were an eclectic array of individuals. Pujol Garcia, a Catalan, repeatedly volunteered to British authorities in Lisbon to serve the Allied cause before he was accepted.
Serbian businessman Dusko Popov was recruited into the Abwehr (German military intelligence) by his old university friend, an Anglophile German, Johnny Jebsen. He simultaneously made overtures in Belgrade to officers of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, to work as a double agent.
Popov’s business interests gave him the cover he needed for trips abroad to the United States, Britain and the Iberian peninsula.
However, double agents such as Popov did not come cheap. America’s FBI dismissed Popov because of the huge bills he ran up to support a life of luxury and womanising. Some double agents were such spendthrifts that they managed to run out of money supplied to them by both their British and German handlers!
Spies always ran the risk of being captured and, under torture, revealing the workings of their networks. German spies, in addition to learning how to operate radios, were taught by the Abwehr to insert a coded message which would indicate to their controller if they had been captured by British authorities and were being forced to transmit a reassuring message. This was normally the first detail that “Tar” Robertson wished to discover from would-be double agents.
Robertson and his assistants managed to deceive the Germans by creating a network of fictitious spies for each double agent. The British then used these double agents to pass onto the Germans “chicken feed” — that is, information that was considered to be low grade or routine as well as more sophisticated intelligence that the British knew the Germans already possessed.
Having gained the confidence of the German operatives, the double agents would then be fed, by the British, false and misleading information.
The success of the deception reached its climax with the D-Day landings. Robertson’s disparate team of double agents succeeded in deceiving the Germans that the Allies’ main invasion force would embark for France across the narrowest part of the English Channel, the Pas de Calais, and that the Normandy landings (240 kilometres to the south-west) were merely a diversion.
The Germans were so taken in that they decorated some of the double agents, even for information they were providing some time after the D-Day landings.
Macintyre makes the observation that a key factor in the continuing deception was the conflict between the Abwehr and the Nazis, particularly the SS and the Gestapo. Many Abwehr officers were anti-Hitler.
Paradoxically, it was their opposition to the Nazis that sealed the fate of double agent Johnny Jebsen. In early 1944, an anti-Nazi Abwehr officer Erich Vermehren defected to the British in a blaze of publicity. Abwehr officers rightly sensed that Jebsen was also preparing to defect. This could have jeopardised their plans to assassinate Hitler and seize control of Germany from the Nazis; so five weeks before D-Day the Abwehr abducted Jebsen from Portugal and took him to Germany. Jebsen, despite being tortured, betrayed nobody and the exact circumstances of his death later that year are unknown.
Despite MI5’s brilliant covert operation, the network it created was — unbeknown to them — compromised by one of its own British officers, the traitor Anthony Blunt, who forwarded MI5’s secrets to Soviet intelligence.
Double Cross is a fascinating and highly readable account of the frequently overlooked fact that the remarkable military success of the Allied D-Day landings owed a lot to the connivance and work of an odd assortment of double agents.