Tuesday, May 27, 2014

DOUBLE CROSS by Ben Macintyre (non-fic)

Macintyre has written an entertaining account of Operation Fortitude, a large scale attempt to fool the Germans into mistaking the plans for the D Day invasion of Normandy.  It was formulated to cause the Germans to believe that the actual landing would take place far north of Normandy in the Pas de Calais area. The account of these shenanigans reads like a British comedy, at times Monty Pythonesque.  The cast of characters is priceless. 

In his introduction, the author states that the oddball spies who were recruited to execute this plan were one of the oddest groups of military units ever assembled.  They included a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman (of Russian background), a Serbian seducer, and a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming. 

This is a story of war, but it is also about the nuanced qualities of psychology, character, and personality; the thin line between fidelity and treachery, truth and falsehood; and the strange impulsion of the spy.  The Double Cross spies were, variously, courageous, treacherous, capricious, greedy, and inspired....One was so obsessed with her pet dog that she came close to derailing the entire invasion.  All were, to some extent, fantasists, for that is the very essence of espionage.  Two were of dubious moral character.  One was a triple, and possibly a quadruple, agent.  For another, the game ended in torture, imprisonment, and death.

The absurd notion that this group of turned spies could effect a complete pulling the wool over the German eyes, beggars belief.  But, somehow in a comedy of errors, they did.  Operation Double Cross under the leadership of a MI5 agent named Tommy Argyll Robertson who masterminded the ruse, was part of a larger plan called Operation Fortitude, in which a phony army of American and British, were able to make the Germans believe they were amassing in areas nowhere near their actual bases.  This included hallow models of planes, barracks, armaments and supplies.  It is all quite amazing, but certainly possible in this time before satellite spying and Internet bugging.  One interesting sidelight concerns Anthony Blunt who was later exposed as a Soviet mole.  He was part of the Double Cross deception at the same time he was feeding information to Stalin and the Russians.

One factor that made this operation successful is that the German counterpart to MI5, the Abwehr, was full of incompetent and corrupt officers who were skimming from the budget allotted by the German government for their spy operations.  It turned out that the Germans were paying so much to maintain these double agents who were working for the British that they spent what would be equivalent of more than 4.5 million pounds today, all the time ignorant of the fact that they were supporting both their own and MI5's spies.

At one point in this saga, there was a scheme that went nowhere, but was hilarious, which used pigeons to infiltrate the German pigeon coops in France which were used for sending messages to the battle front. Another crazy plot involved an actor impersonating General Montgomery who was sent to Spain to further confuse the Germans into mistaking the timing of D Day.

All this and more makes for entertaining reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it further convinced me that all spies are double agents and straight out the pages of "Spy vs. Spy"  in Mad Magazine.  I recommend this book for any who would like a different take on behind the scenes planning in WWII.

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