Second world war deception operations are now widely known, particularly those which misled the Germans into thinking that the D-Day Normandy landings were merely a diversion. Great use was made of captured German agents in Britain who sent disinformation about invented army divisions and ships allocated to the supposedly ‘real’ landings still to come.
Much less well known, though of arguably equal consequence, was a similar deception operation in the Middle East, based on an MI6 agent known as CHEESE. He came to be regarded by the Germans as their most valuable source in the region, despite the fact that the disinformation he fed them helped prevent them capturing Cairo and the Suez Canal, lose them Tobruk, starve Rommel’s Afrika Korps of fuel, and kept vital German divisions in the south of France and the Balkans while the Allies established and expanded their Normandy foothold.
Sir Michael Howard, official historian of British strategic deception, described him as ‘the most successful channel at their [British] disposal’. The detail quoted in this book suggests that Nigel West’s judgment that CHEESE ‘accomplished more, over a longer period, than any other single Allied agent’ may not be an exaggeration. Of 26 imaginary Allied divisions supposedly identified by CHEESE, 21 were confirmed by the Germans and entered into their estimate of the Allied order of battle.
He was Renato Levi, an Italian Jew, cosmopolitan and multilingual, who spied for the French, Italians and Germans, or so they thought. In fact, he had been in contact with MI6 since 1939, when he reported an approach by the Germans. Encouraged to accept, he was eventually tasked by his German case officers to get to Cairo and report on Allied military intentions and capabilities. He got there via a British passport and the RAF, both courtesy of MI6, and began to build up what — in the eyes of the Germans — became a most successful and extensive network of sub-agents.