Double Cross : the True Story of the D-Day Spies – Ben Macintyre

Whether through the written word,  film portrayal, television documentary or personal visits to the Normandy landing beaches, the story of the D-Day landings on June 6th 1944 and the subsequent impact on the course of the Second World War is extremely well known to current generations. Given the code name “Operation Overlord” it is marked as the major turning point which led to the overthrow of the Nazi régime the following year. Running concurrently, an essential support to the overall plan but with little subsequent public recognition was “Operation Fortitude”, an extraordinary scheme of double cross espionage, the central theme of this fascinating, exciting and captivating narrative.

The words of Sir Winston Churchill  could be taken as a summary of the content: “Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party, were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.”  The story is told at pace, with a real sense of tension and excitement even though the outcome of the military action is well known: on occasions it would appear to resemble a story of fiction rather than the carefully researched historical analysis it so clearly is. Whilst it may not be the first work published on the topic – the author himself makes reference to the account of one of the “spymasters”, John Masterman, later Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, published in 1971 in defiance of the Official Secrets Act – it has a freshness to it that lends real life and vigour to the events which unfold. It also has a very English “feel” to it, with parallels to the game of cricket emerging from time to time!

Whilst the essential theme of the book – the scheme to convince Hitler and his Nazi generals that the major thrust of the anticipated Allied invasion in 1944 would not be made on the beaches of Normandy – is uncomplicated, the events and the characters that carry them out are complex in the extreme. To help the reader through a labyrinthine maze, each major protagonist is introduced in turn, and then followed individually in the early stages until their stories intertwine, even though they themselves never met as a group. It would take an extremely fertile imagination to conjure up a more disparate group. One’s credulity is stretched to extremes when one considers their backgrounds and their characteristics:  Dusko Popov, codename Tricycle, a rich Serbian playboy with a taste for high living, fast women and fast cars ; Roman Czerniawski, codename Brutus, a diminutive former pilot and a zealous Polish patriot ; Lily Sergeyev, codename “Treasure”, a Frenchwoman of Russian descent who was prone to hysteria and whose obsessive love for her dog came so close to endangering the entire project; Juan Pujol Garcia, codename “Garbo”, a chicken-hating poultry farmer who had an extraordinarily fertile imagination and a sense of grandeur and Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, codename “Bronx”, a bored bisexual Peruvian playgirl.

As the story develops the involvement and fate of a sixth agent, Johnny Jebsen, a German more English in manner and habit than many a native born Englishman, lends heightened tension as the D-Day Landings approach.  Behind each of the main protagonists are both their English and their German handlers, helpfully listed in an “aide mémoire” at the beginning of the book: “Tar” Robertson, the creator of the Double Cross system and his colleagues, together with members of MI5, MI6 – with the occasional eruption of the jealousies between them- the Abwehr, the Gestapo, the SD and the Wehrmacht. The influence of the War’s major players – Churchill, Eisenhower, Montgomery – even with reference to his “double” Clifton James – Hitler, Himmler, Canaris and the Soviet threat, most frequently touched upon by reference to spies such as Philby and Blunt, is constantly in the background. Almost unseen, but with a constant rôle to play, are the boffins of Bletchley Park with their code breaking genius which was a crucial aspect of the success of the entire scheme.

The mood of the book ranges from optimism and hopefulness to pessimism and despair, the deadly serious – the world of the Gestapo prison and the concentration camp is never far away – to the comic and quaintly ludicrous. Today’s visitors to Bletchley Park might view the pigeon parachuting exhibits as more likely props for an episode of “Dad’s Army” until one reads here of the schemes to land “double-cross pigeons” behind enemy lines in an attempt – apparently unsuccessful – to cause chaos to the German message carrying pigeons. This humour borders on the macabre when the death of Gustav, the pigeon which first brought back to England news of D-Day and which had received a decoration, is simply reported: “.. (Gustav).. died soon after the war when his breeder trod on him while mucking out his loft”.

The conclusion of the story, entitled “Aftermath” is a very satisfying follow up to the parts played by the major protagonists and also their handlers. As each had been introduced in turn at the outset, so now wherever possible, the fate of all of those involved is recounted. There is however a note of mystery remaining, the fate of Jonny Jebsen.

This is however a work of fact , not of fiction – although one is entitled to wonder whether on occasions, such as the interview between ” Tar”  Robertson  and Lily Sergeyev where the former dismisses the latter as a member of the team, poetic licence in the use of alleged actual narrative pushes the reader’s credulity somewhat. The author’s intention is clear – to give as much life to the narrative as possible. Who can blame him from imagining the reaction to a successful deception: “You could almost hear Pujol and Harris (his case officer) sniggering in the background.”

This is an extremely enjoyable account and thoroughly recommended. Well researched and with a very helpful collection of photographs, the speed and clarity of the narrative helps the reader form a clear picture of an extraordinary mix of unlikely characters, a masterly plot carried out with bravery and resourcefulness in “that grey area between ingenuity and insanity.”

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling

Bob Mardling is a Fellow of the Institute of Linguists and a self confessed Germanophile. A retired headmaster and former Senior Quality Assurance Officer for ISCTIP, he now lives in West Yorkshire with his wife Liz.

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