Double Cross

Ben Macyintre

D-Day, 6 June 1944, the turning point of the Second World War, was a victory of arms. But it was also a triumph for a different kind of operation: one of deceit, aimed at convincing the Nazis that Calais and Norway, not Normandy, were the targets of the 150,000-strong invasion force. The deception involved every branch of Allied wartime intelligence: the Bletchley Park code-breakers, MI5, MI6, SOE, Scientific Intelligence, the FBI and the French Resistance. But at its heart was the 'Double Cross System', a team of double agents controlled by the secret Twenty Committee, so named because twenty in Roman numerals forms a double cross. The key D-Day spies were just five in number, and one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a wildly imaginative Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a hysterical Frenchwoman whose obsessive love for her pet dog very nearly wrecked the entire deception. Their enterprise was saved from catastrophe by a shadowy sixth spy whose heroic sacrifice is here revealed for the first time. Under the direction of an eccentric but brilliant intelligence officer in tartan trousers, working from a smoky lair in St James's, these spies would weave a web of deception so intricate that it ensnared Hitler's army and helped to carry thousands of troops across the Channel in safety. These double agents were, variously, brave, treacherous, fickle, greedy and inspired. They were not conventional warriors, but their masterpiece of deceit saved countless lives. Their codenames were Bronx, Brutus, Treasure, Tricycle and Garbo. This is their story.

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Author interview with Richard and Judy

Ben Macintyre tells us how he came to write the book

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RICHARD

If you enjoyed Ben Macintyre’s previous best-seller, Operation Mincemeat, then Double Cross is right up your alley. Like Mincemeat, this book deals with a bizarre, almost fantastical Allied undercover operation to pull the wool over the Nazis’ eyes.

The big difference between the two books is the sheer scale of the deception involved. Mincemeat explained how the British successfully conned the Germans into believing the Allies were about to invade Greece, when in fact the real landing grounds were on Sicily.

But that invasion was a sideshow compared to the big one – D-Day, 6 June 1944; the invasion of France and the largest amphibious operation the world has ever seen.

As Macintyre explains, the stakes couldn’t have been higher - for both sides. If the Allies managed to punch through Hitler’s so-called ‘Atlantic Wall’, Nazi-occupied Europe could be liberated. But if the German defenders managed to throw the invaders back into the sea, the whole war was as good as lost.

By 1944 there wasn’t a single German spy in Britain who had not been ‘turned’ by British intelligence. Every piece of information the now double-agents sent back to Berlin was exactly what the Allies wanted the Nazis to believe. Some was sound intelligence, accurate but relatively unimportant ‘chicken feed’; most was clever nonsense aimed at leading the Germans up the garden path.

By 1944 it was obvious to both sides there were only two possible landing areas for the Allies in France – the Pas de Calais, the closest part of the Continent to England, or the beaches of Normandy, a much trickier and longer sea crossing. The Allies chose Normandy. Now, they had to convince Hitler the hammer blow would fall on Calais.

For British intelligence, it was game on.

JUDY

I was both captivated and taken aback by Double Cross. Captivated by the sheer colourfulness and eccentricities of the small team of foreign double agents so carefully assembled by British spymasters; taken aback by their courage and determination in the face of a dangerous enemy – an enemy who, if the deception was discovered, would deliver a ferocious rebuke. The shadow of torture and execution hovered close.

There were only five D-Day spies and they were a strange bunch – a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian playboy, a Spanish chicken farmer with an out-of-control imagination, and a highly-strung Frenchwoman whose bizarre obsession with her pet dog almost capsized the whole enterprise.

Macintyre is clearly very fond of them and as we are introduced into his undercover freak show, we take them to our hearts as well. They were far from perfect human beings - most were blatantly on the make, happy to pocket wages from both sides; they could be two-faced, sulky, and infuriating – but they were the beating heart of the most crucial intelligence operation of the war.

Under the direct control of their brilliant British spymaster the five managed to create a fake invasion plan so convincing that the Germans swallowed it whole. They kept their key forces round Calais; even after the Allies had stormed ashore in Normandy, Hitler believed it was a feint and the main attack would come from the straits of Dover. The deception was that good.

Another gripping story from Ben Macintyre. If it was a novel, you’d dismiss it as wildly improbable.

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  • Absolutely superb. The pigeon section had me laughing but they really were very brave people. These people were truly heroes. I never had any great interest in reading about the war but Ben MacIntyre has changed that. He writes beautifully and makes you realise just how much of themselves people gave. They all deserved medals.

    Kate

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