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

Bloomsbury, pp.417, 16.99

To the French, Albion’s expertise in perfidy will come as no surprise. But centuries of warfare have given them time to learn. With their experience only dating back to 1914, the Germans clearly found it difficult to grasp during the second world war that nowhere is the truth more expertly and instinctively spun than in the land of the gentleman.

While a schoolchild soon masters the lie simple, and the lie financial merely requires a degree of brazenness easily developed by proximity to other people’s money, the lie belligerent demands an instinct for dis-simulation that must be bred in the bone of its practitioners to be carried off convincingly.Thus, alongside the exquisite entertainment to be derived from Double Cross, Ben MacIntyre’s account of the wartime operation to feed false information to the enemy, there ought also to lurk some unease about the source of our alarming genius for deceit.

One clue may come from the name chosen for the umbrella group made up of different Intelligence services that ran the system. Officially it was the Twenty Committee, but the Latin numerals XX comprised the sort of rebus-like pun enjoyed by minds at a slant to the straightforward view of life.

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The committee’s raw material consisted of 24 German spies out of a total of 126 who had surrendered or been captured, the remainder having been imprisoned or executed. Initially the goal was simply to replace any valuable information they might have sent back with useless news. But under the impetus of an ingenious officer named Tar Robertson their handlers began to invent an almost entirely imaginary world from fictitious informants. These included indiscreet senior officers, gossipy aristocrats (the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Mountbatten among them), a group of pro-Nazi Welsh fascists, an Indian poet, and a secretary in the War Office — ‘less than beautiful and rather dowdy in her dress, but delightfully indiscreet’— who had supposedly been seduced by one of the agents, Juan Pujol Garcia, otherwise known as Garbo to the British, and Arbel to the Germans.

Perhaps another pointer comes from the committee’s taste for cricketing metaphors, introduced by the chairman, J. C. Masterman, who liked to describe its operations in terms of sticky wickets, slow balls, and stumpings, and often stressed the need for double agents to have ‘a good deal of net practice before they were fit to play’. This widely shared idiosyncrasy introduced a note of ludic illogic wholly suited to a war of bluff and make-believe. It encouraged mad ideas to promote confusion, such as dropping lazy homing pigeons into enemy territory equipped with misleading information and fake German markers in the belief (mistaken) that they would choose to stay and join real German homing pigeons carrying real information rather than return to their own lofts. But it also prompted the master gameplan that became the XX committee’s greatest achievement, Operation Fortitude.

The purpose of Fortitude was to persuade the German High Command that the D-Day landings in Normandy were a feint. Gradually, but with increasing urgency, the team of double agents and their imaginary informants drip-fed into their reports the sort of information — hospitals cleared, leave cancelled, munitions stockpiled, and eventually Orders of Battle — that indicated the assembly of a massive invasion force in the east and southeast of England. Like any fable, it could only succeed by inducing the audience to suspend their disbelief. But by then the agents’ credentials were beyond question. For almost two months after the Normandy invasion, no fewer than 22 German divisions were still in place around the Pas de Calais waiting for the arrival of this phantom army.  

The journalistic verve with which MacIntyre tells the story of ‘the most successful strategic deception of all time’ — the XX committee preferred to call it ‘the greatest Test Match of the century’ — is what one might expect of an associate editor of the Times. He is alert too to the irony of the committee’s blindness to the presence of Anthony Blunt, a Soviet double agent, in their own ranks. But the heart of the book lies in his sympathy for the agents themselves, generally categorised by one handler as ‘vain, moody and introspective’, but here shown to be complex individuals of exceptional courage and moving vulnerability, among them the extraordinary Lily Sergeyev, who in anguish at the death of her dog came close to betraying herself and the entire double cross operation.

This, MacIntyre’s third foray into the records of the XX committee, will surely attract as large a readership as its predecessors. But having made himself at home in the murkiest depths of human corruption, treachery and betrayal, the author might now consider a project of more immediate and electrifying interest. No one is better qualified than he to write the inside story of the Times under Rupert Murdoch.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, D-day, Espionage, History, Non-fiction, Spy, War