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The Greatest of Military Hoaxes



Rob Hardy


During the Teheran Conference in November 1943, Churchill turned to Stalin and famously said, "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." And it came literally to be so. In a quiet tribute to Churchill's remark, the intricate and comprehensive deception campaign that preceded the D-Day invasion was code-named Operation Bodyguard. It was a superbly successful effort, and now in Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Crown), historian Ben Macintyre has brilliantly told its story by concentrating on the personalities involved in the big deception. It's just the right task for the author, who told the story of the extraordinary double agent Eddie Chapman in Agent Zigzag and of planting fake war plans on a corpse dumped at sea to dupe the Nazis before the invasion of Sicily in Operation Mincemeat. The big D-Day deception in Macintyre's account is funny, exciting, weird, and inspiring. 




Within Bodyguard was a team of five spies, double (or triple? Quadruple?) agents with the job of making sure their German masters got lots of useless information laced with complete lies. The Twenty Committee (so called because 20 is XX, and XX is a double cross) was under the chairmanship of an Oxford academic and sportsman (cricket comes up often in these pages) John Masterman. He rightly thought of himself as the very model of an upright British gentleman; he thought the double agents under his charge were invaluable, but also, in his words, "inclined to be vain, moody, and introspective." The five double agents had codenames that were supposed to have no link to their identities but it amused Masterman to violate this rule. They were Tricycle, Bronx, Garbo, Brutus, and Treasure, and they were, respectively, a Serb with a gargantuan sexual appetite, a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a Spaniard whose diploma was in chicken farming, a little Polish fighter pilot, and a Frenchwoman whose love for her dog almost ruined the entire operation.  




The codename Brutus was given to the Polish spy because before he was brought into Double Cross, he had changed sides twice before, and his handlers were concerned he might stab them in the back. It didn't happen, but it was typical of the worry about double agents. The worry turned out to be misplaced in most cases; whether motivated by patriotism, anti-Nazi commitment, money, or high-living, the agents performed exceptionally well in general. The worries were enough on the American side that J. Edgar Hoover, who hated spies of any type, would not initially participate in the deception, and could see no value in turning Nazi spies to gain information. By the time D-Day came, though, the Double Cross deception was an international effort. 




The five spies took part in a larger deceptive effort, much of which is better known. There were fake airplanes and tanks massed at Dover, for instance, to show that the amphibious invasion would be coming from there to Calais, instead of from the south of Britain to Normandy. There was a fictitious 1st US Army Group (FUSAG, indeed) supposedly in Dover, and headed by General Patton; Eisenhower was glad to get his loud and troublesome general out of the way, and the Germans, knowing how valuable Patton was, were liable to the impression that he was heading the main attack. The job of the five double agents was to reinforce this impression, sending radio traffic and invisible ink messages about the fake Dover deployment in the months leading up to the invasion. The organizers of Double Cross ensured that the spies relayed a good deal of "chicken feed," verifiably true but useless information that would make the rest seem true. Some of the rest was literally incredible. Agent Garbo, for instance, proved to be the most imaginative of the spies, and succeeded in passing information about a group of Welsh fascists who would be eager to take part against Britain when the German invasion came. Garbo studied books and newsreels, and over three years sent secret messages about his Welshmen, and his agents who included Venezuelan brothers in Glasgow and a waiter from Gibraltar who hated the British because of the weather. He relayed all the information he got from these completely imaginary contacts, and the Germans were so appreciative that they awarded him an Iron Cross. He wrote back a fulsome acceptance letter rightly acknowledging that the award ought to go to all the comrades who had helped him. 




These supposedly German agents could not get by on just awards; they had to be paid by Germany, for if they declined pay or didn't complain about how little they were getting, the Germans would know that they were making income in the pay of someone else. There was a labyrinthine system of getting cash from one country to another, before it came to the "German" spies in England. It was early in the Double Cross game that the money poured into MI5, making the Double Cross effort not only self-financing but profitable, courtesy of the German coffers. Agent Bronx supplemented her MI5 income by writing vehemently anti-Nazi articles for the British press. She apologized to her German handlers for the articles, but maintained that the columns deflected any attention she might have drawn for her secret Nazi efforts, thus increasing her ability to send on nuggets she had heard from the friends she associated with, like Lord Mountbatten and Churchill's son-in-law. Naturally, she never really had such contacts, but she reported to Germany the "splendid indiscretions" that they had spilled to her; the real people to whom she attributed these stories never knew they were being used in this way, and would have been furious. 




Double Cross got magnificent confirmation that its deceptions were working when it monitored the report written by Baron Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador to Berlin, after he had tea with Hitler two weeks before D-Day. The Americans had broken the Japanese code, so that they could read how Hitler had told Oshima that Calais would be the point of invasion, that there were huge numbers of troops and equipment posed at Dover, and so on. Confirmation afterward came from a German map of British forces, all in accord with the misinformation the Nazis had been given. This sort of success was never a sure thing; Macintyre recounts that resentment by an agent or an agent broken under torture might have brought down the entire scaffolding of the chimera. There were indeed times when the whole scheme might have come undone. 




It didn't happen. Double Cross ensured that the Germans were surprised at Normandy on 6 June 1944, but its job did not end there. The agents continued to maintain that the biggest invasion force was yet to come to Calais, and that the Normandy invasion was a mere ruse. Normandy was a hard enough battle to fight, as it turned out, but might have been lost if German forces did not remain tied up in Calais ready to fight an army that did not actually exist. Double Cross was a brilliant victory, and Macintyre not only tells an exciting story, but brings in many strange or obscure details. You may not be surprised, for instance, that there was an effort to recruit double agent homing pigeons, but did you know that someone had dreamed up a plan of putting incendiaries on bats which would fly down the chimneys of Tokyo? (Roosevelt said the idea was wild but still "worth looking into.") Overall, though, this is an entertaining and inspiring story. "The Double Cross agents," sums up Macintyre, "spied for adventure and gain, out of patriotism, greed, and personal conviction. They made an eccentric, infuriating, courageous, and astonishingly successful team."



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