I’ve been doing some non-fiction World War II related reading lately; first up is Double Cross by Ben Macintyre, who has apparently written several other books on WWII deception, but none read by me. I heard him discussing this book on NPR about a year ago and noted that it sounded interesting, so when I came across it I picked it up.
It’s generally known that during the war the UK and US had broken the major Axis encryption systems, and most people also know that Britain captured, turned, or invented all the German agents on British soil. So in that respect, writing a new book on the subject seems a little unnecessary. What Macintyre attempts to do here, however, is to tell the personal stories of some of these double agents as well as to try to connect them to the eventual success of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. In general he succeeds, as this is a well-written, fast paced read with a lot of human interest.
However, while this is a pretty vast subject and I wouldn’t expect a volume of this size to do it justice, I also felt like there was a lot of complexity here that got basically rolled over in the attempt to make the impressive achievements of British intelligence sound even more amazing than they already were.
Through reading several other books on the subject, I’ve come to understand that the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr, could charitably be described as “dysfunctional”. What would be a really interesting book would be the post-war memoirs written by Wilhelm Canaris (the Abwehr chief) about what he knew or suspected, but seeing as how he was executed for complicity in plots to kill Hitler, that book doesn’t exist. Actually, a lot of high-up people in the Abwehr met similar fates, and the organization was actually wiped out entirely by the end of the war. Macintyre does mention a memoir written by a mid-level German intelligence officer and is casually dismissive of his claim to have suspected the loyalty of one of his agents; honestly, I think this may be unfair.
One of the most fascinating stories in Double Cross deals with Johnny Jebsen, an Abwehr officer who came over to the British side and spilled the beans on the German agents operating in England. This was both good and bad from the British perspective; it was good because Jebsen was a potential intelligence gold mine, but if Jebsen was a double agent or if he was subsequently arrested, the fact that he’d told British Intelligence who the agents were and they were still operating (since the British already knew who they were and didn’t actually need Jebsen to tell them), then the Germans would be able to determine that their agents were double agents or simply fictitious. So it could be a trap from the get go.
Jebsen did eventually get into trouble, but almost less for his treasonous activities than because of optics. There’d been a high-level Abwehr defection that made the agency look bad and seriously eroded their influence. When Jebsen’s superiors caught wind that he might be defecting too, they took steps against him because if they Abwehr was dissolved it would derail their own plot to kill Hitler. Of course they couldn’t just invite Jebsen into the conspiracy, although he probably would have gone for it. Talk about your wheels within wheels. Nonetheless, for a sort of unreliable and rakish fellow Jebsen ended up being quite the badass, telling his Gestapo torturers that he expected them to provide him a new shirt.
In addition to political machinations, some of the Abwehr officers were skimming payments intended for their agents and had no intention of giving up their gravy train. And for that matter, some intelligence was simply politically impossible in a totalitarian regime and failure was most certainly not looked upon well – might as well simply tell your boss what he wants to hear anyway.
Meeting that sort of perfect storm of corruption and perverse incentives, the British really rose to the occasion and did all kinds of wild stuff. Like many things that occurred in the war, a lot of stuff here would be considered too outlandish for fiction. For instance, Joan Pujol, a man with training in chicken farming, who decided to become a double agent for very little discernible reason and possibly was the most successful of all the World War II spies. Or the Frenchwoman who nearly spilled the Allied invasion plans because she was upset about something which happened to her lap dog.
On the whole I found this to be a very entertaining tale, which I only wish went a little more in depth in some areas. Still, in dealing with unsung heroes of the war, it’s certainly a unique perspective.