The invasion of Western Europe by Allied troops in June 1944 was one of the central events of the Second World War. The invasion itself was not a surprise – the Germans knew it was coming. But they had no idea where it would occur – potential landing zones ranged from Norway to the South of France. This set up one of the great intelligence battles of the war: the Allies were desperately anxious to keep the exact location a secret while the Germans were equally intent on finding out.
These complex, multifaceted efforts are the subject of English author Ben Macintyre’s latest book Double Cross. Like "Agent Zigzag" and "Operation Mincemeat," his earlier books about World War II espionage and counterespionage, this is a wonderfully entertaining story of deception and trickery that is told with verve and wit. What makes it even better is that the story is both improbable and true.
The effort to keep the Germans guessing had two basic elements. First, the establishment of the First United States Army Group (FUSAG) based in southeast England near Dover. The entire army group was a ruse – complete with fake barracks, tanks, airplanes, and landing craft – designed to lead the Germans to believe that the attack would come directly across the channel near Pas de Calais. Even after the invasion, the allies maintained the FUSAG fiction to let the Germans think that Normandy landing was a diversionary tactic. It worked – the Germans kept an entire Army Group at Pas de Calais awaiting the second wave. By the time they realized there would be no second landing, the Allies were firmly established in Normandy.
The second thrust was a network of secret agents who consistently fed the Germans inaccurate and misleading information. To say the least, they were an eccentric group. Macintyre describes the leading agents as “a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman, a Serbian seducer and a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming.” But if the agents were a “mixed, even motley crew,” the men and women of MI5 who ran the agents were “in some ways, even odder.”
But the most amazing part of the story is probably that the Germans thought all the agents were still working for them. In June 1943, the British director of the operation “reached the startling conclusion that every single German agent in Britain was actually under his control. Not some, not most, but all of them.”
Juan Pujol García was one such agent. He approached the British several times and offered to act as a secret agent but was rebuffed. So he approached the Germans in Madrid and offered to spy on the British. The Germans took him on and gave him money to relocate to the British Isles. He got as far as Lisbon and started sending the Germans fantastic – and totally invented – intelligence culled from guidebooks, newsreels, and an old map. His messages were intercepted by MI5, which was understandably puzzled by this German agent who apparently knew very little about what he was reporting on.
When they finally found him, he was whisked to London and put to work as a double agent. Remarkably adept and resourceful, he invented a network of 27 fictional agents and sent nearly 2,000 messages to his German handlers over three years. The Germans never suspected they were being tricked: shortly after D-Day, he was awarded an Iron Cross for “extraordinary services.” He was also awarded an M.B.E. – not surprisingly – in secret.
Even readers familiar with World War II will be surprised by parts of the story. For example, it’s hard to imagine that the Germans never learned they were being played – there were numerous signs that should have alerted them. Equally surprising was how lucky the British were as the operation unfolded. Double agents are almost by definition a pretty unstable lot and the MI5 handlers did not always use the best judgment in dealing with them. One agent (“the mercurial Frenchwoman”) who agreed to work for the British asked only to be able to bring her beloved dog to England. MI5 refused, put the dog in quarantine and later, apparently, killed it. When the agent found out, she seriously considered alerting the Germans to the entire project.
This is a wonderfully entertaining, cleverly written story. It is, of course, about much more than double agents – including, for example, a group of “double-agent pigeons.” But no novelist could possibly invent such a story line and amazing cast of characters. Macintyre’s early books about espionage in World War II have been bestsellers, and this will be no exception. Indeed, he seems to have established a history subgenre of his own: “unbelieveable but true WWII espionage.”
If there is a broader lesson here (and in his other books), it is that the Second World War was not only won on the battlefield. It was a war in which the ability of the Allies to disguise their own intentions and mislead the enemy and to anticipate the actions of the Axis powers played an absolutely critical role.
“Believe me," wrote the Duke of Wellington, "not every man who wears a uniform is a hero.” To this, we might add a Macintyre corollary: “In World War II, not every hero wore a uniform.”
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.