Anyone who has read anything by Ben Macintyre before will know that they are in for a treat. He is a wonderful storyteller and, in this book, he is on territory he seems to understand brilliantly and relish. The Allied military planners were working on the the great assault on Nazi Occupied Europe - the D-Day invasion would decide the outcome of the war. In order to convince the Germans that the invasion was coming where it was not actually coming, and not coming in the place where it was actually coming, a huge amount of effort was expended. There were dummy planes, tanks and even dummy armies in place to fool the Germans. There were even pigeons masquerading as German carrier pigeons (lots more on pigeons in the book - they play a larger part than you might imagine!). There were impersonators to convince the Germans that military leaders were elsewhere. Counterfeit generals led non-existent armies. Radio operators created a barrage of fake signals. Finally, there were spies. The Allies had a harder task than it appears in hindsight, knowing that it succeeded, as the targer range for a cross-Channel invasion was small. There were only a handful of suitable spots for a massed landing and it was important that the entire might of the German forces were not waiting when the Allies landed.
Tar Robertson created a bodyguard of liars - the "Double Cross System" coordinated by the Twenty (XX) Committee. They specialised in turning German spies into double agents. Every single German agent in Britain was under his control, enabling huge and co-ordinated lies to be told. The task of Operation Fortitude was to bottle up German troops in the Pas de Calais and keep them there - this ability depended on Robertson's spies. These included a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman who adored her dog, a Serbian seducer and an eccentric Spaniard with marital problems. These spies never met, but together they created false trails, gave false information and often created totally false networks of sub-spies, including a group of entirely fictional Welsh fascists - all of which the Germans swallowed completely. In some cases, very extensive lies were not even noticed by the Germans, whereas the Allies had much confidential information (courtesy of Bletchly Park) even before the Germans themselves were aware of it. It is astounding to realise the control the Allies had over information sent to the Germans and the inventive ways to which this was put to use.
This then is a great book of subterfuge, downright lies, great ingenuity and often, great courage, for no reward other than a belief in freedom. Many of these individuals had families threatened by the Germans, at least one person connected to the group was arrested, and there was always the risk of being discovered which would undoubtedly have led to many more deaths of Allied troops when D-Day arrived. Nobody could tell this story as Ben Macintyre does, with dry humour, great understatement and a great deal of respect for his subjects.
on 10 June 2012
"Double Cross" is a fascinating account of how a group of German spies were `turned' by the British and the plot to deflect the Nazis away from the real D-Day landing site. Working closely with their Allied handlers this small handful of people were able to spin a tale of deception that kept Hitler looking the other way while the British, American and Canadian governments plotted a way into occupied France to liberate Europe. Even with all their excellent planning the run up to D-Day was incredibly tense and the deception was still no guarantee of success. In fact many men were hurt or killed during the Normandy landing. I shudder to think what the outcome could have been without these spies and the plot masterminds.
Macintyre does a great job of guiding us through the multiple spies, their Axis and Allied code names and their coordinated spy masters. There's a chart at the beginning designating all the players but Macintyre takes pains to clarify everyone throughout the text. It can nonetheless be a bit muddy to keep straight. The back stories of agent are fascinating and show their humanity. Each spy has their own unique reasons for being a double agent. Though some are idealists others seem like mere adventurers, some as opportunists, others just want to stay off the front lines or make some easy money. I believe that no matter what their initial reasons for turning double agent in the end they decided to do what was right for themselves, their families, and the world. They did so at great personal danger.
Macintyre has a sly sense of humor when describing some of these character's foibles. There are hilarious sections where he describes pigeon agents (yes, I mean the birds were being taught to dissemble for Britain) who were sent to Germany to overthrow the native birds. They would do this by infiltrating German roosts and when discovered it was hoped the German would annihilate the wayward pigeons and their own message carriers. Then the Nazis would have no way to sneak message by bird into Britain. Take THAT you evil doers! To bolster Britain's cover that a vast army was assembling across the channel from Calais, poised to invade there rather than at Normandy, a decoy army complete with planes and barracks were made of wood, canvas, and glue. He describes how FUSAG's (First United States Army Group) props were sometimes nibbled and destroyed by wayward cows. Luckily the Germans never got close enough to spot the foil. It was Macintyre's ability to make these incidents and people come alive, to show their dedication and passion, which made this book sing. There's even a (to me and I bet to many) surprise ending! In the afterward he describes what these spies did after the war. Macintyre manages to make clear a very intricate plan and an even more complicated group of people. Great stuff.
At the Tehran conference in 1943, the Allies laid the plans for the invasion of Europe, codenamed Operation Overlord. It was a high-risk strategy, and to maximize the chance of its success it was essential that for as long as possible the Germans should be uncertain where the invasion would take place. To this end, Operation Bodyguard was created. It was an immense undertaking, involving the construction of false tanks and aircraft, sending masses of fake radio signals and even `creating' whole dummy armies, apparently directed at spurious targets on the continent. But within this activity, the most important element of deception was that provided by Operation Fortitude. This was specifically aimed at convincing the Germans that the invasion would take place at the Pas de Calais, rather than the actual site chosen, the Normandy coast. It was hoped that when the invasion started, the Germans would assume it was only a diversion and so would not move their strong tank forces away from the Calais area, thus giving the Allies time to establish themselves on shore.
The core of Fortitude was the Double Cross system, where enemy spies were `turned' and became double agents acting for Britain. This is the subject of Ben Macintyre's book. It was a system developed by an eccentric, but brilliant, MI5 officer, `Tar' Robinson. By mid 1943, he realized that every German agent in Britain was actually being controlled by MI5 and so he could start feeding misinformation to the German handlers of the turned spies. In practice, the nucleus of Double Cross was just five agents. They were a very exotic bunch: a rich serial-seducing playboy Yugoslav (codename Tricycle), a Polish patriot fighter pilot (Brutus), a bisexual Peruvian playgirl (Bronx), an hysterical Frenchwoman (Treasure), and the most successful of them all, a Spaniard (Garbo) with a wild fertile imagination that proved extremely useful in constructing information to feed the Germans. In addition, there was another key player, a German citizen and friend of Tricycle called Johnny Jebsen. He spent most of his time in Portugal working for the German military secret service, the Abwehr, and did not openly work for the British until late in the war. Their handlers and MI5 officers were almost as strange. For example, Tar's team included John Masterman, whose life revolved around cricket and who referred to agents `making a good innings' and being ready to be `put in to bat'.
Feedback via the decrypts from Blechley Park showed that the deception was working, but tension mounted as D-Day approached, and events occurred that could have destroyed the whole operation. One was the activity of a freelance spy operating from Portugal who had been feeding bogus information to the Germans by purporting to be located in Britain. At one point, by chance, he was close to naming the actual D-Day landing place. Another was the unstable character of Treasure, who was besotted with her dog, and who blamed the British for its death. She seriously considered betraying the double cross operation to the Germans. Even more serious was the arrest of Jebsen in Portugal by the Abwehr and his removal to Berlin. This was done by a group that was part of the plot to kill Hitler, but was worried that if Jebsen defected it would be used as the pretext for Himmler to replace the Abwehr with his own SD security organization, and they themselves would be arrested. Ironically, Jebsen would have been only too willing to help them, but he was quickly transferred to the SD. Despite being tortured, he never revealed any secrets and Fortitude remained intact right up to D-Day and beyond.
Espionage and counter espionage are strange shadowy worlds, full of uncertainty, and where things are frequently not as they appear. For example, could one ever be sure that a double agent was not really a triple agent, working for the Germans? The agents were also difficult characters to control, motivated as they were by mixtures of patriotism, and baser reasons such as simple greed. This was particularly true of Jebsen, who ran lucrative and risky currency scams on the side. This often resulted in difficult relationships between the agents and their handlers. Amid this deadly serious game there was also sometimes humour, such as the utterly mad proposals by Flight Lieutenant Walker to set up an operation using squadrons of pigeons to destroy `incoming enemy pigeons', and later to run a `double cross' system for pigeons, whereby they would be infiltrated into German pigeon lofts! Needless to say there is no evidence that these schemes contributed anything to the war effort.
After the war, agents and MI5 officers went their own varied ways. Most settled quietly: Brutus in London; Garbo in South America, running a bookshop; Bronx in France to run a gift shop; Treasure in Michigan having eventually married an American serviceman. Tricycle continued his flamboyant lifestyle, marrying two 18 yr. olds. Jebsen was presumed killed in the final chaotic days of the collapse of Germany. Tar retired to look after a sheep farm; Masterman became Provost of an Oxford college, wrote detective novels and continued his life-long devotion to cricket. Walker of course spent the rest of his days breeding pigeons.
This is a superb book. Ben Macintyre's convincingly takes us into the topsy-turvy world of espionage and counter espionage. The narrative could have been disjoint, because it is essentially the stories of five double agents who never met, but he links them seamlessly via their roles in the ongoing operation, and gives a real feeling for the characters of the extraordinary players involved in the Double Cross operation and the crucial times in which they worked. It is also well researched and amply documented by references. I strongly recommend it.
Ben Macintyre is a consummate storyteller. More than that, his research is meticulous and in Double Cross, he adds another strand to his other books about secrets, spies, skulduggery and double dealing.
I love the way he brings a specific period so vibrantly to life. We're familiar with the Second World War. Germany invaded Poland, Chamberlain didn't get assurances requested and Britain went to war. It lasted a few years, the Germans, who were bad, lost and Britain, which was good won. Nothing could be further from the truth and as the years have gone by, factual papers have been released, along with requests under the Freedom of Information Act which paint a far more complex and intriguing story.
This book centres on the months before the D Day landings and the extent to which secret service agencies manipulated and managed information, disinformation and downright lies in order to fool Hitler and gain an advantage in the war games. Frankly, I found it astonishing. I knew of agents, but didn't understand how they were handled by both German and British secret services. Hence the 'double cross'. The complexities of who to trust and whether their messages were fact or fiction defies but belief. Even British carrier pigeons, disguised by rings to make them look like German pigeons played a part. I was captivated from start to finish. A spellbinding story, that reads like the best thriller. It's real edge of the seat stuff at times; all down to Ben Macintyre's skill in presenting page after page of hard fact that reads like fiction.
Ben McIntyre can spot a good yarn and tell it compulsively - I never tire of recommending Josiah the Great. The author's dabblings in the behind-the-scenes stories of World War II have also been rewarding, but Double Cross is something of a disappointment.
No doubting that the five double agents (who never met) portrayed here were brave, audacious people; no doubting, either, that the Intelligence staff who manipulated them were bold and imaginative. The games they played almost certainly helped win the war, saving many lives. Equally, they gambled dangerously for the highest stakes.
While Double Cross takes the reader through the various separate stories, the fact that some of this is reworking of previously known material gives the book something of a second-hand feel. Like another reviewer, I wondered how much invention had gone into a long and detailed account of the meeting at which Tar Robertson sacked one of his agents.
Recommended for newcomers to the story but only with reservations for those with previously high opinions of the author.
on 10 April 2012
This extraordinarily well researched book is an absolute winner. Ben Macintyre has put together, in an immensely readable form, some of the most fascinating stories of the spies who did so much to help our Country. His style is easy to read and yet, allows the stories to be told in such a way that one almost feels that one knows each of the characters he explores - and what characters they are!
There are some very interesting titbits such as how each Agent was given their code name, and why. I suspect that this book will
appeal to a wide cross-section of the Public and whether you are a serious Historian or someone with just an interest in WWII stories, you cannot fail to be both entertained and enlightened.
Buy it and enjoy, you won't regret it.Double Cross
on 4 September 2015
Having thoroughly enjoyed Macintyre's Kim Philby book, I decided to try this one. Although not quite as epic, Double Cross is still very good. What struck me most is just how surprisingly useless the Abwehr was, with only about 10 agents active in Britain (it thought) - in reality all of them, without a single exception were double agents! Clearly, Germans at the time were a lot better at engineering tanks and warplanes than they were at the spying game. This aside, Double Cross is the story of the agents (a bunch of pretty colourful types - gambling girls, playboys, crooks, hysterics, and of course a chicken farmer) and their handlers at MI-5.
One often feels that the whole espionage scene suffers from a rather inflated sense of importance. The Double Cross spies, however, arguably made a real mark by deluding the Germans into thinking that the real invasion was going to be near Calais. There is clear evidence that this kept large German army formations away from Normandy for a long time, at a very critical junction. It was a gamble though: had the Germans cracked the secret, they could have figured out that the invasion was not going to be near Calais - and by default (as there were only two practical locations) had to be in Normandy. The most interesting parts of Double Cross are the ones about times that erratic behaviour on the part of double agents (and a lot of them were pretty bizarre) almost blew up the whole system.
Concluding, definitely recommended if you are even remotely interested in spying, the second World War or both.
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.
Before you begin reading this book, take a look at the map at the very front. It's a map of northern France and southern England. Notice how close the cities of Dover and Calais are; the sea distance is about 21 miles. Meanwhile, continue west to the widest gap between France and England which is about 100 miles. That's the distance between Portsmouth, England and the five Normandy beaches. Those 100 miles were crossed by the Americans, British, and Canadian forces on June 6, 1944 - D-Day. Why the Allied forces chose to set the invasion on this particular plot of land in France, reachable after an all-night trip from England, is the topic of many other books about WW2. This book, "Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies" by Ben MacIntyre, is the story of how British intelligence worked to make the Germans think the imminent invasion would occur at Calais, rather than Normandy.
By 1942 the smart money in Germany was on an attack on the European continent in France or Scandinavia by Allied forces. It was thought to be both inevitable and somewhat imminent. The time factor was based on many things, including build-up of invasion forces, the war effort in other European theater sites, and, of course, the geography of France. Just looking at a map shows the shortest distance was from Dover in Kent to Calais - as I wrote before, about 21 miles. Hitler and the German High Command were expecting the invasion in that area, and had mined the beaches and inner area in preparation for repelling an invasion. There were many troops stationed in the area, too. But, the Germans also mined and prepared the Normandy beaches with the same mines and hill top fortifications, though not as many as in Calais and they also had fewer troops stationed in Normandy.
British intelligence - MI5 (national) and MI6 (international) were cooperating in controlling German spies inside the UK. The "idea" of spies - both homegrown and dropped in - was much worse than the truth of the matter. Britain actually had captured and either turned or executed all the spies who had been dropped in by air or had landed by sea. These German "spies" tended to be a dismal lot of dullards who ineptly gave themselves away by various means to the Brits who would literally stumble upon them. But a few of the spies could be used to broadcast back to Germany what their British controls ordered them to say.
Another group of spies were individuals - in this case, French, Polish, Spanish, and Peruvian(!) - who had come to British embassies and offered their services to the Allied war effort. Their reasons ranged from mercenary (nearly everyone's) to patriotic (the Polish man who had set up a spy network in France that had been broken up by the Germans before he volunteered to help the Brits). Most were double crossing the Germans who also handled them. With this patched together network, based in London, Madrid, and Lisbon, British intelligence was able to hone the message their new agents were sending back to Germany. Honing the message to throw the Germans off the true site of the inevitable invasion, from Normandy to Calais and to the timing of the invasion. Using fake letters, some "real" but not important bits of intel, and even the "sighting" of British General Montgomery in Gibraltar, by using an actor to play Montgomery. If "Monty" was in Gibraltar in late May, then how could he possibly be working on the upcoming invasion?
Ben MacIntyre - who also wrote an excellent book a couple of years ago called "Operation Mincemeat" about the attempt to throw German intelligence off the prospected Allied invasion of Sicily - returns here with a sometimes humorous, but always serous, story of the spies, the spy masters, the actors, the military staffs, who together pulled off the successful trick of getting the Germans to consider the Pas de Calais as the ONLY invasion area, even after the main invasion had begun on June 6th! Still expecting the invasion to take place to the east, many German troops were kept back from that area, joining too late their fellow soldiers repelling the Allied forces at Normandy to the west. MacIntyre's book on D-Day and the spies and agents who kept the secret and helped focus German intelligence on other places and other times, is filled with characters usually found only in fiction. I suppose it takes a certain individual with the flair and guts to pull of a double crossing spying job, and the five or so foreign spies who were on Sir John Masterman's "Double Cross" system payroll were an intriguing lot. This book is a must-read for the WW2 buff. (By the way, his writing on pigeons - both German and Allied - being used in spying, is a hoot.)
on 30 January 2013
I could not believe that so many oddballs were employed as agents (spies). It was the insight, it seems, of the Double Cross team (the XX) that judged - successfully it seems - who would make good agents.
We think of spying as being in a risky business, but the losses to the spy team were much less than, say, an equivalent number in the army.
The backroom boys of the XX team were a bright bunch; but they had what I would call `a good war'. Meetings were often held in top class hotels, and the working atmosphere was rather like that of a good club committee (cricket club terminology was often used).
The XX work was assisted by the gullibility of the German spy team. I was surprised by the corruption here - for example cash that was intended for their agents was often funnelled-off to support the comfortable lifestyle of the German managers.
The Normandy DD landings were assisted by XX work insofar as German army divisions were held in reserve around Calais for too long.
I enjoyed Ben Macintyre's writing - everything is clearly expressed - with more than a touch of ironic humour where appropriate. That said, descriptions of agents, false agents, double and even triple agents, underline the almost surreal world in which they existed.
I was pleased to note that the work of the code-breakers at Bletchley Park was sited as invaluable.
I recommend this book as a different perspective of the 2nd World War.