Thursday, August 25, 2016
Double Cross, by Ben MacIntyre
A Yugoslavian playboy, a bisexual Venezuelan good-time girl, a Polish military veteran, the French daughter of a White Russian emigre, and a Spanish chicken farmer. It sounds like the lead-in to a fantastic joke, and considering they fooled the entire German intelligence apparatus it kind of was. Of course these weren't the only agents in the Double Cross system but MacIntyre focuses specifically on these five, who are probably the most interesting and in a couple cases they were the most influential in shaping German opinions of Allied strength during the war. But before I go further, some context.
The Double Cross system was an initiative put in place by the British, who have a long history of spying and were probably the best spies during World War II, to capture and control German spies. Thanks to the breaking of the Enigma code by researchers at Bletchley Park, MI-5 had advanced notice of every German agent being sent into the country and they were quickly captured. Many were imprisoned, some were executed, and a select few were chosen to become double agents to feed information back to the Germans and convince them they had a strong enough intelligence network on the ground that they didn't need to send any more spies into Britain. Perhaps most interestingly numerous people were initially recruited by the Germans to spy for them and then, whether out of idealism, greed, self-preservation, or other motivations these spies then immediately turned themselves in to British Intelligence and offered to become double agents in service to Britain. Or in the case of Juan Pujol, the Spanish chicken farmer, he attempted to get recruited by the British numerous times and, having been rebuffed, signed on with the Abwher and began fabricating information wholesale. The British, alarmed by this spy they didn't control, soon recruited Pujol into their ranks which was his goal the entire time and he continued to deceive the Germans.
The most amazing thing about the Double Cross system was that it worked for so long as well as it did. Up until the end of the war there were numerous Germans who were convinced they had functional intelligence networks in Britain. But in a way, we have the Abwehr to thank for that success. The Abwehr was Germany's intelligence arm during World War II and was absolutely filled with people who were gullible, incompetent, corrupt, or just plain lazy. Joining the Abwehr was an easy way to avoid active military duty and pleasant postings such as Madrid or Lisbon were especially desirable. Many Abwehr agents indulged themselves with the finer things in life rather than getting involved with the actual work of spying, which made Double Cross's job that much easier. On top of that there were numerous people within the Abwehr who were actively working to undermine the Nazi regime. This includes perhaps even its chief director, although his motivations were never truly known before his death. The Double Cross plan was audacious and ultimately successful, probably in no small part to the Abwehr's disinclination to do any actual spying work.
The ultimate plan came with Operation Fortitude, a plan of deception to keep the Germans from correctly surmising where the inevitable Allied invasion of Europe would begin. In concert with military counter-intelligence teams, the Double Cross team created the illusion of two entire armies located in the south east and east of England, threatening Norway, Denmark, and the Pas de Calais across the Straits of Dover. If any information about an attack at Normandy was leaked at all, the Germans were made to believe it would be a diversionary attack in prelude to the main thrust at Calais. Amazingly, despite numerous problems right before D-Day in June of 1944, Double Cross was able to convince the Germans that this was merely a diversion for several weeks, tying down numerous German reinforcements that could have smashed the Allied beachhead before they could consolidate. By the time Germans were sending reinforcements to Normandy, the Allies had already secured their position and were advancing into France.
In hindsight this book is kind of short, talking only about five major characters and the people who interact with them, as well as some other examples of deception by the British during World War II which influenced German decision making. But overall I think it's pretty good. You definitely get a sense of just how downright amazing this program was and how surprising it is that it managed to last for as long as it did. It's definitely a very broad overview rather than going into specific details, but I like general overviews as a rule so I ended up liking it. I also was absolutely astounded at how lazy, incompetent, or just stupid the Germans were and was glad we really lucked out when it came to that. It's an interesting part of World War II that doesn't get talked about terribly much and definitely worth reading.