Title: Double Cross
Author: Ben Macintyre
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Hi guys, so for this months review I have read Double Cross by Ben Macintyre which is one of the strangest and fascinating spy stories I have ever read, mainly because all of it is true. I found the book in my local library around the time of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings back in June and after a few weeks I decided to borrow it to find out more.
The book focuses on the ‘Double Cross System’ used by MI5 during the war and in particular how the system was used to mislead Nazi Germany that the Allies were going to launch an invasion in two places, at the Pas De Calais and Norway, not the Normandy beaches where the invasion took place.
The book tells the stories of Dusan “Dusko” Popov – a Serbian playboy, Roman Czerniawski, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, Lily Sergeyev, a hysterical Frenchwoman with a massive love for her dog Babs, Juan Pujol Garcia, an imaginative Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming and Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, a Peruvian bisexual playgirl or as they were known by the agent codenames, Tricycle, Brutus, Treasure, Garbo and Bronx respectively. The deception involved every branch of allied wartime intelligence from the Bletchley Park codebreakers – known as “Most Secret Sources” in the book, MI5 and MI6 to the FBI and the French Resistance.
I am a massive fan of spy stories and thrillers, having read and reviewed quite a few of them for this blog but the most amazing thing about this particular story is, other than Bronx and Tricycle, none of the double agents fit the Hollywood James Bond or Jason Bourne stereotype at all, most of them are ordinary people who you would pass on the street. However how they managed to deceive the German military intelligence, known as the Abwehr is nothing short of extraordinary.
There are quite a few moments in the book that were completely incredulous and probably too many to mention. For instance, Garbo’s story started out with him trying to make contact with MI5 who didn’t want him, he then turned to the Germans thinking he could become a double agent and initially he was refused before finally being accepted by them, his role was then to travel to neutral Lisbon in Portugal and try to smuggle himself to Britain. However instead for two years he stayed in Lisbon and used the local library archives to make up his reports to the Abwehr and used his own imagination to fill in the blanks. Being British myself the report he wrote to the Germans that Glaswegian men “would do anything for a litre of wine” made me chuckle. Furthermore when the British eventually did notice him and he became a double agent, with the help of his handler Tomas Harris, they built up an entirely fake network of agents, such as a group of Welsh anti-Semites who were keen for the Nazis to win the war so they could support the new regime.
Further on in the story, Tricycle is asked by his German handlers to set up a spy network in America so he goes over to work with the FBI but because at the time they were mistrustful of double agents they largely stopped him from doing anything, so Tricycle ran up huge debts on their payroll which MI5 were still sorting out 3 years after the war. However, Tricycle did come up with an ingenious scheme where a middleman in London could pretend to pay the German spy network money and be reimbursed by the Germans paying money into one of his bank accounts in another country which MI5 could simply pocket, the result being that the Germans would in effect be paying the Double Cross system, this resulted in it not only being self-financing but also profitable with the Germans paying Britain “£85,000” – the equivalent of £4.5 million today. Furthermore Tricycle’s German handlers were slicing off money owed to him to line their own pockets which meant later on in the war they were more susceptible to the deception as they didn’t want to admit what they had been doing.
The most shocking and bizarre part of the story for me though was Lily Sergeyev and her dog. Basically Lily enlisted herself as a German spy with the intention of working for the British but for a long time she was living in Paris as her German handler was more interested in his mistresses then helping the Nazis win the war. Eventually he did send her to Britain and she immediately contacted the British to work as a double agent but one of he requests was to allow her do, Babs, to come with her but British quarantine laws said any dog must be kept in quarantine for six months before being allowed to come to Britain (in fact this law still existed in Britain until 2011 where it was shortened to three weeks).
The British said they would do their best to bring the dog over which Lily took as a promise they would but unfortunately the dog died in Gibraltar, Lily was furious and seeked revenge and when she was asked by the Germans to collect her wireless transmitter she was given a “control signal” – an imperceptible signal that a German agent could give when transmitting to tell the Germans they were under British control. However she did not divulge this information to her British handlers, instead sitting on the secret for the months leading up to D Day. She did eventually tell her handlers she had a control signal but did not tell them what it was, meaning the British had to take a leap of faith that she hadn’t told the Germans she was a double agent. If she had then all of her traffic would be read “in reverse” i.e. if she said the British would attack the Pas de Calais, then the Germans would realise they weren’t and it was a diversion.
Yet another incredible part of the story was the fact MI5 had a Soviet mole in its midst, Anthony Blunt who was feeding back to the Soviet Union what the British were doing (a fact that was only discovered much later in 1979). This could in turn mean that if a German agent was in the Soviet Union the truth could’ve ended up back in Berlin anyway (it isn’t known if there was an agent in Russia working for the Germans). However the Soviet’s themselves believed their agents reports were too good to be true so they believed their agent had been turned by the British so they read his reports “in reverse” like the example above, which in fact would’ve strengthened any deception in Germany as the Nazi moles would be passing on this information instead of what was originally sent.
Overall this book is extremely enjoyable and fascinating and shows how heroes can turn up in the most unlikely places and also how sheer good fortune and nerve played a key role in one of the pivotal moments of the Second World War, and indeed world history. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of spy stories or has an interest in the war.