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By Sebastien Roblin,War Is Boring
No one really expects spies to live glamorous James Bond-lifestyles full of tailored suits, tight dresses, sex and gambling. So, one of the pleasures of reading Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies is learning about a half-dozen outrageous secret agents who really did lead decadent and dangerous lives, tricking Hitler’s spies agency while presenting Berlin with bills for whiskey and silk shirts.
True to its title, Double Cross describes numerous betrayals-within-betrayals that occurred in the shadowy world of World War II espionage—none more shocking than the fact that by 1943 every single agent in the United Kingdom reporting to German intelligence was actually a double agent under the control of MI5, the British Security Service. Even more absurdly, under Operation Midas, Germany transferred £85,000 to its “agents” — equivalent to £4.5 million today — which was used to fund MI5’s double agent program!
This was in part due to the incompetence and corruption of the German intelligence agency, the Abwehr—its senior leaders were disloyal, while lower-level officers often skimmed from money intended for informants, and thus had an incentive not to question too sharply the reliability of their agents.
Furthermore, British intelligence had broken the Enigma code—dubbed “Most Secret Sources” for operational security—and used it to intercept every single agent parachuted in, most of whom lacked adequate training. While some of the captured spies were jailed or executed, MI5 turned into double agents through the so-called Double-Cross or “XX” System run by Thomas “Tar” Robertson.
Sometimes these conversions did not go smoothly, as in the case of the Swedish Nazi Gösta Caroli:
One evening, in his safe house in Hinxton, near Cambridge, Caroli crept up behind his minder while he was playing solitaire and tried to throttle him with a piece of rope. When this failed, he apologized, tied the man to a chair, and ran off with a can of sardines, a pineapple, and a large canvas canoe. He then stole a motorcycle and motored, very slowly, toward the coast with the canoe balanced on his head. He intended to paddle to Holland.
Indeed, the most effective double agents actually volunteeredthemselves directly into British service. Double Cross focuses on the disparate threads of six such agents. The most irrepressible was Dusko Popov, a Serbian playboy recruited into the Abwehr by his friend Johann Jebsen. Popov promptly offered his services to a British embassy worker in Yugoslavia. MI5 judged him reliable after a case officer took him on a drunken tour of Scotland.
At top — a dummy tank that was part of the Allies’ deception effort before the D-Day landings. Above —
Duško Popov, Serbian double agent. Photo via Wikipedia
Popov acquired a startling number of glamorous girlfriends, several married, and eventually was dispatched to New York, where he incurred the displeasure of the FBI with his ever-mounting expenses devoted towards alcohol, tailored clothing, and a lavish New York apartment furnished to his specification. He forwarded the bills to his handlers, and was not shy about asking for a little extra cash as he did in this letter to MI6 in 1942:
My heart is in very bad condition. My doctor who is my biggest friend says it is too much alcohol, tobacco and sin. The only remedy which I found efficient until now was milk and chocolates. Please send $100 worth of any kind of chocolate you can think of. I don’t mind what they are. I am taking them as medicine. Please send me at the same time $100 of Nylons in 9, 9 ½ and 10 (Don’t think I’m promiscuous.)
Similarly, profligate financially and in other matters was Elvira Chaudoir, the daughter of a Peruvian diplomat, and a compulsive gambler who enjoyed the company of both men and women. MI5 picked up the bored, broke and bisexual socialite in London and ‘trawled’ her in the neutral city of Lisbon until she was recruited by a young German intelligence officer named Biel who “could saw in her eyes that he could trust her.”
Another important agent was Roman Czerniawski, an exiled Polish officer who partnered with a neurotic Frenchwoman named Mathilde Carré — self-code-named La Chatte, or “She-Cat” — to form the first Allied intelligence network in occupied France. However, in November 1941, Mathilde was captured. She had an affair with her German captor, Hugo Bleicher, and betrayed the Czerniawski and the entire network they had jointly created.
Bleicher also treated Czerniawski humanely. Apparently persuaded he was in a position to negotiate the future of occupied Poland, the Pole agreed to become a double-agent. Six weeks after he “escaped” to England, he revealed his capture to his startled superiors in a 64-page manifesto titled “The Great Game.”
While some of the Poles wanted him shot or court-martialed, the Brits decided to employ him as a triple agent. While he was at it, he alsobetrayed his former comrade and betrayer Mathilde, whom Bleicher had also sent to England as a double-agent.
Perhaps the most prolific and verbose of the Abwehr’s mis-informants was Juan Pujol-Garcia, a Catalan pacifist and failed chicken farmer who detested the Nazis. After the British refused his offers of assistance, Pujol pestered the German embassy in Madrid until they finally told him to go to the U.K. and start sending back reports.
Unable to travel there, and never having visited Britain, he checked out books from the library to inform himself and began dispatching reports invented out of whole cloth. Despite gross inaccuracies, his confabulations were swallowed whole by his German handlers.
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MI5 eventually realized what Pujol was up to after he contacted the U.S. embassy early in 1942, and finally invited him to London to continue telling his whoppers under British supervision as ‘Agent Garbo’. He invented a rogue’s gallery of dozens of Fascist sympathizers he had supposedly recruited, including “a group of fiercely anti-Semitic Welshmen dedicated to bringing National Socialism to the valleys and toppling the British government by a campaign of assassination … led by an Indian poet named Rags and his Hindi-speaking girlfriend.”
The Abwehr sent large sums of money to support these “spies.” The Catalan in turn radioed two messages a day, working at such a feverish pace that his lonely and exhausted wife threatened to return to Spain and was driven to near-suicide.
MI5 finally sought to weaponize its arsenal of double agents on a grand scale for Operation Fortitude, which sought to deceive the Germans as to the location of the upcoming D-Day landings. Macintyre only briefly sketches out the vast and elaborate measures of this deception campaign, which involved deploying hundreds of inflatable dummy tanks, ships and aircraft, creating radio traffic for fake armies of Allied soldiers, dispatching an actor to impersonate Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery in Gibraltar and having double agents report on imaginary invasion fleets amassing off Scotland.
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While the Allies planned to land at Normandy, they wanted the Germans to believe the real target was the fortified port of Calais, as well as Norway and southern France. Popov and Pujol transmitted hundreds of reports of describing vast armada assembling off Dover, ready to spring upon nearby Calais. Czerniawski ‘leaked’ plans for an invasion of Norway to be undertaken by a fictional 4th Army in Scotland, headquartered in Edinburgh Castle!
Roman Czerniawski, a Polish air force captain and Allied double agent during World War II, used the code name ‘Brutus.’
Photo via Wikipedia
Elvira reported that a drunk officer had slipped to her plans to invade the area around Bordeaux in south-western France, a region guarded by the powerful 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division. MI5 was able to confirm through Enigma intercepts that German officials were seriously considering these false stories.
Finally, at 3:00 A.M. on June 6, 1944 Pujol radioed his German handlers in Madrid to inform them that an Allied invasion fleet was bound for Normandy—a message timed to make its way to Berlin only as the first Allied troops hit the beach. However, the German operator was asleep at the board, and Pujol’s frantic reports did not arrive until 8:00 A.M. The German’s faith in Pujol was so reinforced, a few weeks later Hitler awarded him the Knight’s Cross second-class, a physical copy of which he received at the end of the war.
Even after the Normandy landing, Hitler was convinced that the ‘real’ invasion force was still bound for Calais, and kept 15 divisions stationed there and additional Panzer Divisions in reserve rather than committing them to a counterattack against the cramped and still-vulnerable Normandy beachhead. The Abwehr reinforced this delusion by incorrectly estimating there to be twice as many Allied divisions in the United Kingdom as actually existed due to Operation Fortitude.
Nonetheless, some reviewers have taken Macintyre to task for exaggerating the effectiveness of the Double-Crossed program. Admittedly, the author’s zeal for his story leads to occasional overstatements. While Hitler’s decision to hold back his reserves was a decisive mistake, it is disputed how much the double-agent’s reports contributed to that error.
Nonetheless, there is documentation confirming that the German military took the reports seriously, and so it is reasonable to assert that the double agent’s efforts likely contributed to saving thousands of Allied soldiers’ lives.
On the other hand, the Double Cross system also came perilously close to completely betraying Operation Fortitude in two separate incidents. The first near-catastrophe stemmed from the unhappy collision of over-zealous British customs officials and a Franco-Russian spy with a deep affection for her pet dog Babs, leading her to contemplate revenge.
Clifton James posing as Montgomery. Photo via Wikipedia
The second arose from the unexpected apprehension of Johnny Jebsen by the Gestapo due to financial malfeasance; the Anglophile Abwehr agent had been earlier convinced to turn on the Nazis by his friend Popov. Against all odds, Jebsen did not betray Operation Fortitude when he was tortured by the S.S., probably to death.
In the end, though MI5’s duel of deception with the Abwehr was a triumph over Fascism, it also leads to the sobering conclusion that even elite intelligence-gathering institutions can be led astray by group think, corruption, and over-reliance on sources of dubious loyalty. Indeed, it turned out MI5 did have a double-crosser within its own ranks, the art historian Anthony Blunt.
Fortunately, he was a Soviet spy whose reports to Moscow never made their way to Berlin, though his betrayal was a foretaste of the disasters that would promptly befall British intelligence during the Cold War.
Double Cross offers a rousing popular history of real espionage replete with episodes at turns hilarious and moving. Macintyre has mined historical archives and the biographies of spies and handlers with a keen eye for colorful details and flamboyant personalities, and conveys his story with dramatic flair, even if he occasionally resorts to broad strokes to sketch in aspects of World War II’s war in the shadows.
Despite their sometimes-glamorous lifestyles, MI5’s double agents were far from being Ian Fleming-esque super-spies, but rather all-too human men and women motivated variously by idealism, greed, patriotism, lust, courage and boredom to take exceptional risks and tell extraordinary lies.