Truth is often much much weirder than fiction
Ben Macintyre, who rather seems to have cornered the market in factual books about espionage in this country, both during the Second World War and then later, during the period of the Cold War, has here written a complex account of the part that not just spies, but those who were double agents, or even triple agents, turned, and turned again – or always firmly on the Allied side, but convincing Germany they were her spies.
At times, this engagingly written but dizzying book – I struggled to keep track of the agent, their British code name, their German code name, plus the fact that code-names sometimes got revamped and changed – read almost like a comedy, as the subterfuges dreamed up got wilder and wilder. In fact, the ‘game’ of course was deadly, and the double agents were dangerously playing not only with their own lives, but the lives of thousands of others.
Macintyre concentrates on a handful of agents, who were employed, so their German handlers thought, to provide information about Britain and her military plans. In fact, these agents – flamboyant, hedonistic, larger-than-life to a man and woman, were feeding their German handlers misinformation, and as the plans for the Allied offensive which became the Normandy landings progressed, a complex structure of legerdemain was taking place, in order to get the German Secret Service, and the military, to be looking in the wrong direction, convinced that the Allied attack would happen elsewhere.
To that end, one of the double agents created a completely fictitious cohort of spies, including a mythical group of disaffected Welsh Nazi sympathisers, and several of the non-existent spies were also ‘minders’ for still more spies. And to stretch the joke still further, it was the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) which ended up paying for the Double Agents whom they thought were spying for Germany, to feed them this disinformation.
Not only was every active agent which the Abwehr thought they had planted in Britain in fact a double agent working FOR Britain, but the Allies even had planted ‘’Double Agent Pigeons’ in Occupied France, as homing pigeons were employed as couriers. (You have to read the book!) Massed dummy tanks at a location to confuse spyplanes about where landings would start from, in order to divert attention to a false destination, an actor impersonating Monty and seen in a neutral country, to disguise the fact that the real Monty was elsewhere, preparing invasion, and even a beloved small dog whose possibly planned smuggle into Britain, going astray, nearly jeopardised the whole effort
In amongst the brilliant games being played, to achieve deadly ends, win or lose, and amongst the self-congratulation about British intelligence, and the extraordinary personalities of the double agents and their handlers, there is much evidence of pettifogging accountancy bureaucracy, and even extraordinary meanness, showed by a book-keeping mentality, and what at times seemed like a real lack of appreciation showed by those within the British Civil Service who were responsible for meeting expenses claims, from those often profligate, overblown, histrionic, but remarkably brave double agents, who risked not only their own lives, but the lives of many others, within their hands. Had the war of ‘misinformation’ not been the success it was, the already horrific loss of life on the D-Day landing would have been immeasurably higher, and Allied failure here would have led to a very different outcome, and no doubt prolonged the war.
Behind the derring-do, lies of course, the horror which that derring-do was designed to end.