The Greatest Game

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies is Ben Macintyre’s third expedition into the surreal fourth dimension of the Second World War, the counterfeit reality concocted by Britain’s virtuosos of deceit, the Twenty Committee and MI5’s Section B1A. The declassification of a large body of British wartime intelligence files and Macintyre’s own evident appetite for chancers, oddballs, and high-spirited mischief makers has resulted in three brilliant works of diabolical intrigue, each one a miracle of plot and pacing. Five years ago, Agent Zigzag told the astounding story of Eddie Chapman, safecracker, womanizer, and jailbird who was recruited by the Germans from a Channel Islands lockup, trained as a spy, and dropped into an English celery field, whereupon he became a double agent for the British so effective in deceit that he was awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans. Three years later, in Operation Mincemeat, Macintyre set out the full story of the ghoulish ruse involving the supposed corpse of Major William “Bill” Martin, “the man who never was,” whose briefcase of fraudulent top-secret documents convinced the German high command that Allied forces meant to invade Sardinia and the Balkans in the summer of 1943, masking the real target, Sicily.

Many familiar figures from the earlier works appear again in Double Cross, and Macintyre presents them with undiminished relish. Here again are Thomas Argyll “Tar” Robertson, handsome, amiable spinner and detector of lies — also called “Passion Pants” in appreciation of his tartan trousers; monocled Robin “Tin-eye” Stephens, “xenophobic, rude, manipulative, ruthless, and brilliant”; Ewen Montagu, the mastermind behind Operation Mincemeat; Johnny Bevan, “cricket-playing, workaholic, stockbroker of rare intelligence” said to have “the most highly polished shoes in the British army”; and John Masterman, Oxford don, detective novelist, and fanatical cricketer, who saw intelligence operations as an extension of the sport. Back again too is the Twenty, or XX, Committee, formed to direct the Double Cross system, with Masterman as home captain. That committee, “the first and only government body named with a Roman numeral pun,” wove the tissue of lies, distorted facts, and harmless truths purveyed to the enemy by double agents whose day-to-day operations were handled by MI5’s discreetly labeled Section B1A.

Central to Double Cross is the story of Operation Fortitude, the long, ever-mutating deception that shrouded the Allied invasion of Europe, diverting German attention away from Normandy toward Norway and Pas de Calais. The many-faceted undertaking included the fabrication of phantom expeditionary forces, a British-led one in Scotland and another in southeast England under the supposed command of George Patton — an ideal commission: The unlovely, loudmouthed general was out of favor with Eisenhower but was held in high esteem by Hitler. Dummy tank landing craft and fighter planes were constructed — though the former tended to fly aloft in high winds and the latter to be eaten by cows. Among other theatrical devices, trucks roamed the countryside broadcasting the sound of mighty legions mustering, and a counterfeit Lord Mountbatten popped up in Gibraltar. But the linchpin of the entire scheme was the coordinated group of double agents who fed a stream of artfully tailored misinformation to the German high command and to Hitler himself.

With his characteristic attention to the rigors of British decorum, Macintyre points out that, while the country’s history abounded in spies, double agents were considered not quite the thing: “Such creatures were classed as ‘agents doubles‘ — in French, as if to underline that this was typically duplicitous Continental behavior.” Six adepts in duplicity — none British, as it happens, and three, at least, of the most dubious virtue — are the leading actors in this book.

There is Serbian high liver and playboy Dusan “Dusko” Popov — “Tricycle” to the British, “Ivan” to the Germans. Among his accomplishments was Operation Midas, a dazzling exercise in financial legerdemain that resulted in the Germans paying to be spied upon and, in fact, making Double Cross “self financing” to the tune of £4.5 million. Less successful was Popov’s attempt to set up a network of double agents in the U.S., a venture confounded by a ham-fisted, obstructionist FBI, nearly exposing the whole system.

Popov was aided, tacitly at first, then outright, by his Danish-German university chum and fellow carouser Johnny Jebsen, an Anglophile who “would no more go without an umbrella than without his trousers.” Jebsen was the Abwehr officer who ran Popov for the Germans and was eventually recruited by the British, gaining the code name Artist. The success of the entire enterprise hung finally on his resolve and courage.  

Also at work was the Polish patriot Roman Czerniawski — “Brutus” to the British, “Hubert” to the Germans — “fickle, irritating, and meddlesome” — whose loyalty lay with Poland, and only out of expediency with the Allies. Two women were also key in the grand deception. Elvira de la Fuente Chadoir (known variously as “Bronx” and “Dorette”), daughter of a Peruvian diplomat and guano tycoon, was a prodigious gambler, an extravagant thrower of wild parties, and a woman who, according to the police, favored “the companionship of women who may not be careful of their virginity.” The other, Lily Sergeyev, was the daughter of a tsarist official who had emigrated to Paris with his family after the Revolution.  Alternately dubbed “Treasure” and “Solange”, she  considered herself French and was devoted to her dog, Babs. Chillingly, MI5’s highhandedness where Babs was concerned jeopardized the entire invasion.

Finally, we have the arch bamboozler and most famous double agent of all, the Spaniard Juan Pujol García — the British “Garbo” and German “Arabel.” Preternaturally fecund in imagination and a prodigy of determination, he eventually ran some twenty-six fictitious sub-agents to feed the Germans a welter of misinformation and redirection. Many of Pujol’s activities are covered by Macintyre, but their intricacies, extent, and consequences were so great that they merit an entire book — and here to fill the bill is Stephen Talty’s Agent Garbo: The Brilliant Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day. It gives a much fuller picture of this particular agent than the one presented by Macintyre and is also corrective, especially in the crucial role played by Pujol’s wife, Araceli.  

Though Pujol had fought with the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War and spent the last part of it hiding from the Republicans, he hated fascists and wanted, he said, “to start a personal war with Hitler” with his imagination as his weapon. Aiming to become a double agent for the British, Pujol convinced the Germans to enlist him as a spy through a series of ingenious subterfuges and by adopting the persona of a hot-blooded, easily offended, endlessly verbose worshipper of the Führer. From the very start he met German questions about his veracity with withering outrage, high-strung pique, and bombastic paeans to Hitler, a pose that worked wonders then and later. Ordered to Britain by his German handlers, Pujol found it impossible to get there, instead reporting from Portugal as though he were roaming the British Isles, a hoax aided by his wife. As Agent Arabel, Pujol produced reams of waffle on morale, innovations in weaponry and defense, the movement of troops, and much else — baffling MI6, which was intercepting his messages, with such discoveries as Glaswegians who “will do anything for a liter of wine.”

Meanwhile, in a tortuous tale, Pujol was taken up by the British secret service and moved to London with his family, at which point three years of brilliant deception commenced, the details of which almost defy belief. Connected as he was with his fantastic network of sub-agents, Pujol, as Arabel, became one of the Germans’ and, indeed, Hitler’s, most trusted sources and was awarded the Iron Cross.

Both Talty’s and Macintyre’s works are awash in secret ink and steeped in chicanery; both are electric with suspense, even though we know the general outcome. But how much of D-Day’s success was the result of the Double Cross system? A great deal: Field Marshal Rommel, for one, believed that the Germans’ “decisive mistake” — perhaps in the whole war — was leaving troops in Pas de Calais instead of deploying them to Normandy. Well then, how risky was the Double Cross operation? Macintyre asserts that “if the Double Cross deception had backfired,…if the great defensive net of lies had unraveled and the Germans had been ready and waiting in Normandy, reinforced and alert, then the invasion would have failed, and D-Day would have ended in a massacre of Allied troops.”  

It takes nothing away from the resourcefulness, daring, and courage of the agents who risked their lives and those of family members living in German-controlled territory, to note that the success of the Double Cross system depended on critical advantages held by the British over the enemy. Macintyre covers them all with telling, sometimes amusing detail. German intelligence had been tardy in setting up a spy network in Britain, with the result that all the operatives they did manage to land were immediately captured (and executed or imprisoned) or turned, becoming double agents and conduits for disinformation. In addition, the incentives for an Abwehr officer turning a blind eye to possible duplicity in one of his agents were great: Those who ran the spies were skimming gratifyingly large sums of money from the operation; but more to the point, a deadly rivalry existed between the somewhat dozy Abwehr and the SD, the intelligence agency of the SS, which was not in the least dozy. An Abwehr officer who exposed an agent he had been running as working for the Allies could expect to be sent to the Eastern Front — if not something more immediately fatal.

Furthermore, as the war progressed, which is to say, deteriorated for the Germans, increasing numbers of German officers simply wanted it over, especially if it could be ended in a separate peace with Britain and the United States, with the hope of forming a future united front against the Soviet Union. It is not certain in the case of Operation Fortitude — or indeed in Operation Mincemeat — how much silent acquiescence on the part of some key Germans was in play. In one terrible instance of irony, one of the agents — whose identity I leave you to discover — was seized, imprisoned, tortured, and probably done away with because he presented a threat to the success of the July 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler, a project he would have been happy to further.

But the crucial advantage held by the British was that they had cracked the Enigma Code, with the result that the Germans themselves were briefing the British as to whether or not they were swallowing the lies fed to them, as well as alerting B1A about operatives suspected of treachery. It is doubtful that double agents would have been given such an important role in Allied strategy without what amounted to a cheat sheet. You might say, pace John Masterman, that the game played by the Twenty Committee was not quite cricket. On the other hand, the Double Cross System wasn’t a game; it was war.