British author Ben Macintyre’s 2007 book Agent Zigzag is the wildly entertaining tale of Eddie Chapman, a criminal, con man and philanderer who, arrested by the Germans on the island of Jersey in World War II, was given the choice of becoming a concentration camp inmate or a spy. Chapman chose the latter, was trained in spycraft and parachuted into England, where he promptly reported for duty to British intelligence. He funneled fake information to his German handlers for the duration of the war.
Macintyre followed Zigzag with 2010’s Operation Mincemeat. Another true story populated by a cast of brave and resourceful eccentrics, the book chronicled an outrageous World War II deception — British intelligence obtained a dead body, dressed it in military uniform, stuffed a briefcase handcuffed to its arm with fake papers and floated it onto a Spanish beach. The Germans bit hard on the ruse, swallowing the fiction advanced in the document cache that the Allies would attack somewhere other than Sicily and Italy in the waning days of the war.
Now comes Macintyre’s third book in the trilogy. Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies is a more somber book than its predecessors because it portrays a deception with supremely high stakes — had the elaborate game detailed in Double Cross been discovered, it could have led to a catastrophic Allied defeat on the beaches of Normandy.
The scheme began with a story familiar to most readers of WWII literature: Relatively early in the war, the British cracked the German secret wireless code and spent the rest of the conflict secretly monitoring German wireless intelligence. Not so well known is the fact that, also early on, the Brits located every single German agent sent to England to spy and either jailed, executed or turned them into double agents. Some of these doubles became part of a coordinated, elaborate plot to confuse the Germans about Allied strategy, as the wireless monitors followed the German response to the scheme.
One double was a Pole who had given up a French Resistance network to the Germans and was working for redemption. But others in this exceedingly motley crew volunteered (some repeatedly) for service.
Dusan “Dusko” Popov was a Hungarian businessman, free spender and “unstoppable womanizer.” Juan Pujol Garcia, graduate of Spain’s most prestigious school of chicken farming, was a man with a fantastic and fertile imagination. Pujol and his handler spent all day, every day, “inventing a world of spies, devising stratagems, cooking up new chicken feed, and composing messages.”
Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, the playgirl daughter of a Peruvian diplomat, tended her elaborate coiffure, hung out in clubs and concocted fake conversations with eminent British military officers.
The group set out to deceive the Germans about Allied plans for a European invasion by feeding them a lie — that the invasion would focus not on the Normandy beaches but across the strait of Dover to the Pas de Calais. Through their reports, the spies created an (entirely fake) U.S. Army group in southeast England and also perpetrated the fiction that an Allied force massed in Scotland would invade Norway. The goal: to force the Germans to scatter their troops to several invasion locations, rather than throwing the full weight of their defense on the Normandy beachhead.
Like Zigzag, this story has moments of high humor. American Gen. George Patton, cast as the leader of the phantom army, threw himself into the part: “He called himself ‘a goddamn natural born ham,’ which he almost certainly was, loudly hailing other officers with such remarks as ‘See you in the Pas de Calais!’ ”
And there’s intrigue on the Nazi side. Col. Alexis von Roenne, head of the intelligence branch of the High Command of the German army, hated Hitler. He “overestimated the strength of the Allied forces in Britain consistently, massively, and quite deliberately,” Macintyre writes, in hopes of an end to the war and to the Nazis. Von Roenne would pay a high price for his independence of thought, as would others playing this dangerous game.
Double Cross suffers from the usual hazards of group biography — at times it’s hard to track who’s doing what, as the deception becomes progressively more complex and dangerous. But mostly it’s a tale of smarts, personal courage and — even knowing what happened on June 6, 1944 — suspense. Where would we be if these troubled, eccentric and hang-it-all characters hadn’t known how to lie, and lie well? On such slender threads does the weight of history hang.
Mary Ann Gwinn reviewed this book for The Seattle Times.