Righteous Turpitudes

Basil Davidson

  • British Intelligence in the Second World War. Vol. V: Strategic Deception by Michael Howard
    HMSO, 266 pp, £12.95, July 1990, ISBN 0 11 630954 7

Ever since the Trojan Horse, the telling of lies in wartime has been found honourable, along with the bedevilment of enemies and the invocation of gods, and has been practised more or less cheerfully by persons who would otherwise assert in all conscience that they had never told, or ever would tell, anything but the truth. Courage and hardware may win wars, but cunning deception is just as surely a helpful friend. And this erasure of guilt for indulgence in ‘double standards’ has suited all sides and combatants, is quite in line with the manichaean ferocities of war, especially of big-scale war, and has proved altogether desirable in times of ideological strife. The removal of any obligation to refrain from deceit has generally survived, in the wake of any great war, as a widely-tolerated legacy of sanctioned economy with truth. When this or that authority has ‘lied to the House of Commons’ since 1945, he or she has been drawing on this legacy while standing on the family hearth as a model of veracity.

Telling lies in the Second World War crossed new and far horizons of official deceit, officially called deception. Thanks to new technologies, it was developed to a level and liveliness of ingenuity which makes for highly enjoyable and at times hilarious reading. I do not refer, of course, to the countless forgotten occasions when some humble ‘operative’ was reduced to lying for want of anything better to do: deservedly, these have no place in the national record. One such ‘operative’ was marooned in distant Budapest in the midst of 1940, charged among other duties with conducting a British-sponsored news agency in a still narrowly neutral Hungary. When the disasters of that summer in France cut short the flow of news telegrams from London, our agency was suddenly bereft of nourishment for the Hungarian media. Ordered to carry on no matter what, I sat down to a typewriter at six in the morning, every morning for a weary long while, and produced sound and copious British news from a host of highly-qualified correspondents in most parts of the world from Tokyo to Trinidad, handed on the happy facts of military success in any number of legendary battles, and even won the anti-U-Boat war years before time. (Why Trinidad? My undercover correspondent there, as I recall, had access to information indicating that Sargasso eels were fouling up the periscopes of lurking U-Boats. Of course, the relevant files have long been ‘weeded’, though not in the Sargasso Sea.) None of this farrago of falsity can have fooled anyone save anti-Nazi Hungarians eager for the comfort of believing it, but just possibly it annoyed the opposition. I was assailed by twinges of misgiving, but little did I know what the real thing was up to.

The real thing, back at home, was up to a great deal. It was already beginning to build its maze of wonderful deceits on major fronts about major matters, and was going to be among the reasons why the war was won – by no means the least. Thanks to the official history of British Intelligence, which so far runs to four volumes by F.H. Hinsley and three collaborators, and now this volume by Michael Howard, the astonishing record is clear and long but also – strangely for a subject of such encrusted deviousness – entirely believable. With admirable skills of exposition and a truly awesome mastery of deception’s dodgy ambience and material, Howard unfolds a tale of purposeful invention and intelligent misinformation far surpassing what our novelists have felt able to imagine, let alone that obscure and solitary practitioner washed up in Hungary while the heavens fell about him. Tactical deception of enemies was nothing new. But strategic deception to this degree of refinement had never been possible before, and, as Howard so lucidly explains, may never be possible again.

Strategic deception refers to long-range plans and to the largest operations. It prompts the enemy to expect your invasion at one place when you have every intention of invading at another; it involves all manner of actions and intentions that precede, accompany or derive from major ploys to fool the enemy on issues of decisive importance. The relevant British agencies, secrets within secrets, became very good at big-scale deception, and were successful in leading our enemies, principally the German High Command, into more or less complete and therefore fatal misjudgments of the size of the forces they faced, of the battle plans these forces meant to follow, and of the alternative plans that might nonetheless be preferred.

Howard makes it plain that the prerequisite for all this was to cause the Germans to construct a British ‘order of battle’ – meaning the size, composition and location of fighting units within the UK or outside the UK – which at crucial points was gravely, even enormously, mistaken. The creation of this grand illusion took a long time and required the passing of massive quantities of misinformation across channels which the Germans accepted as genuine because they thought they controlled them: ‘the German talent for self-deception’ was gradually enlarged into a genius for perceiving truth in fiction.

This isn’t to say that the British were naturally better at this complex game than the Germans. These volumes, notably this one, show that the scales of success and failure were variously weighted, and that the British agencies were rather slow off the mark. Co-ordination between them was bad till months had passed, and rivalry at times acute. Resources were small and were mostly aimed at the wrong target. Before 1938 their general assumptions had referred to the familiar bear of Bolshevism as the target that ought to be hit. This meant that Britain began the war with the SIS (later MI6 – the ‘Secret Service’) well-deployed to receive whatever anti-Bolsheviks in then accessible ‘listening posts’ such as Riga and Bucharest might cull from Russia, but poorly prepared for hostilities against German targets. When in due course a previously unimagined German invasion of Norway went through like clockwork, the pilots of our Bomber Command, sent there to attack German-held airfields, were obliged to rely on Baedeker’s Scandinavia in its edition for 1912, when Norway had no airfields, while – another painful note from Hinsley – British Naval pilots dispatched in the same year to bomb enemy positions at Narvik, whose defences were almost ringed by peaks and hollows, ‘had to rely on Admiralty charts which showed no contours’.

But the art and craft of strategic deception, the vital weapon for the side that starts out weaker in hardware and logistics – the British case – could be practised by us from the start with ‘two extraordinary, possibly unique, advantages: advantages so extraordinary indeed that one would be rash to assume that we or indeed anyone else could ever possess them in comparable measure again’. The first of these, partially operative as early as January 1940, was a series of breakthroughs into top-grade enemy ciphers which were believed by the enemy to be impossible to break. This allowed progressively wider translation of the enemy’s most secret exchanges of information between commands, and at all levels of command to the highest, into plain language for the benefit of the Prime Minister and those few in the British command who were designated to see it. Harvests of secret information thus poured in, every bit of it guaranteed by its origin against having been faked.

That is the story of the Enigma ciphering machines in their successive forms and uses, and it has been much told. The official history in Hinsley’s volumes gives us the intimate scenario, and we can see why Ultra, as the product of this cryptanalysis was called, proved a winner in many phases of the war. Ultra provided secret information about the enemy by the enemy: information that was so factual and sometimes so encouraging to British field commanders that it might fail to be acted on – it could seem too good to be true. Montgomery’s costly failure to round up Rommel’s Afrika Corps after Alamein and subsequent desert battles, late in 1942, is a famous case in point. Although ‘most secret sources’, alias Boniface, alias Ultra, told Montgomery that Rommel was down to his last tanks, had reserves neither of fuel nor ammunition and, in Rommel’s own words to Berlin, faced imminent annihilation, Montgomery’s extreme prudence allowed a main body of the Afrika Corps to escape to Tunisia. There they gave much pain before they were crushed. This was happily exceptional. A proper use of Ultra, notably in the anti-U-Boat war or, at lesser levels, in opening British support for the Yugoslav Partisan army, was to constitute a large factor in the German defeat.

Howard points us to the second great advantage enjoyed by our liars valiant for truth. This was our almost total success in preventing the Germans, or any of their allies, from obtaining the first advantage. They too, of course, put effort into cryptanalysis and scored some early successes against British ciphers. But the British cryptographers, with the continuing spectacle of totally mistaken German faith in German cipher impenetrability before them, looked with great care at their own, and were, it appears, generally successful in preventing any serious penetration.

This left the Germans to explore far less satisfactory techniques of information-gathering, chiefly by spies and such. They ran almost at once into a disaster from which they never recovered. Every agent they managed to infiltrate into Britain was either captured or killed with little delay, and sometimes with no delay. The handful who might have done important damage were promptly ‘turned’ by MI5 into channels of misinformation such as the Germans might, and usually did, accept as reliable. This was already the case, however surprisingly, early in the summer of 1940. Thereafter, nearly all the high-grade intelligence accepted by the Germans as coming from faithful agents inside Britain was information doctored or invented by hidden British hands, and sent on its way through ‘turned’ enemy agents.

The technical tricks of this remarkable success in security feature in Hinsley’s fourth volume. But the consequences of operating a conjunction between the two advantages thus assured – access to unpolluted intelligence about the enemy by the enemy and denial to the enemy of any such access in reverse – are Howard’s subject in this new volume. In an admirable prose, laced with a wry wit altogether right for his subject, Sir Michael takes us into a marvellous terrain where a simple double-cross was only the launchpad for deceptions of a dazzling ingenuity. An authorised manual of righteous turpitude, this book deserves every accolade. In this realm of mystery and mirrors, there is nothing like it.

This is partly because of the aesthetic splendour of deception’s unified simplicities. As the requirements for success at the Grand Master’s level became clear to the charmed circle of the ‘indoctrinated’, early in 1940, it was apparent that every kind of useful fraud might be foisted on the enemy, provided that a few simple but integrated principles of the possible were observed. All serious misinformation must be as close to the truth as a conscientious duplicity could allow, while, to protect the apparent veracity of the ‘turned’ agents used as channels, misinformation must be woven into a fabric of truth, or of inherent probability. No deception at the Grand Master’s level could be practised without slow preparation; and these falsities must be shielded from exposure by the deployment of a most scrupulous dishonesty.

Having arrived at their principles, our liars valiant for truth still had the harder task ahead. They had to build on the channels to the enemy provided by MI5’s ‘turning’ of the small number of enemy agents in Britain whom the enemy would still trust. This proved less difficult than had been expected. The principal enemy intelligence service – up to 1944, when the SS at last succeeded in absorbing it – was the Abwehr, and the Abwehr suffered from two fatal deficiencies. Its increasingly desperate hunger for information from inside the United Kingdom encouraged a reluctance to question the reliability of whatever it could still get hold of – a human weakness expensive in espionage. The second deficiency, guessed at but fully exposed only after the war was over, was the Abwehr’s dislike – at any rate with Admiral Canaris at the top – of Nazi style, methods and even objectives. The Abwehr would have been thoroughly Kaisertreu, but it was not entirely Hitlertreu. Canaris and his men were suspected of this by their SS rivals, and one of their means of defence was to present their information from inside the UK as beyond suspicion of being faked.

The ‘turning’ of the handful of genuine enemy agents seems to have been rather easily achieved. Some gave themselves up to the police when they arrived in the UK; others put up no resistance. It was much more difficult, especially early on, to feed these agents with enough true information on secret matters to establish their value with Berlin, and to this provision, naturally enough, the authorities in Whitehall were averse. A ‘system’ had to be evolved. This was done by the ‘W Board’ and the ‘Twenty Committee’ (20 being a Latin double-cross). Using an underground structure of decision which is well set forth by Professor Howard, these ‘indoctrinated’ magicians measured out truth with untruth: even so, they could sometimes succeed in their surreptitious ‘leaking’ only with prime ministerial support.

However, the genuine but ‘turned’ enemy agents, even when provided with scads of believable misinformation, were far too few. As the ‘system’ grew ever more dependable and German hunger for information ever harder to assuage, it became necessary to multiply the sources and the channels. Agents for the enemy were thoughtfully invented, and then sub-agents, and soon whole networks of ‘contacts’ of every sort: for all of these there had to be believable credentials, suitable places of employment, lucky breaks in opening on British traitors or foolish talkers, as well as large but justifiable expense accounts (some bringing quite big sums from the Abwehr into MI5’s coffers), and, whenever circumstances advised it, nasty accidents or even sudden death.

The nature of the anti-Nazi war again proved an ally. Consider only – Howard’s narrative is fairly stuffed with comparable examples – the case of ‘Garbo’, on whom the German High Command eventually wished to bestow the Iron Cross for services rendered in peril and distress, and with high commendations of gratitude and admiration. Garbo was not one of the invented agents serving the Third Reich. When he embarked on his brilliant career as a German spy in 1942, he was a 29-year-old Spaniard living in Madrid who, persuaded of the evil of the Nazi cause, decided off his own bat to lend a hand in defeating it. Initially rebuffed by British agencies in Madrid, he managed with much difficulty to get himself accepted by the Abwehr working from the same city. They gave him questionnaires and secret ink and a warm goodbye on his way to England.

But Garbo travelled ‘no further than Lisbon. There he settled down with a map of the United Kingdom, a Blue Guide to England, a Portuguese study of the British fleet and an Anglo-French vocabulary of military terms.’ With these small aids Garbo deployed a talent for interesting fiction, and wrote many long reports which he caused the Abwehr to believe had come from him in England. Duly reading the substance of these reports in decrypted Abwehr radio traffic, our people were greatly puzzled by them, for they were ‘rich in ludicrously inaccurate detail. Convoys sailed made up of non-existent ships. British regiments were referred to by non-existent numbers.’ Alleged eye-witness surveys of places such as Liverpool reported ‘drunken orgies and slack morals’, while ‘in Glasgow dock-workers were prepared to do anything for a litre of wine.’ Garbo, in short, had absorbed the essential lesson for all good deception: tell the enemy what he wants to hear.

In March 1942 Garbo turned again to the British, and was now taken on the strength. MI5 transferred him from Lisbon to England, genuinely this time, and his career blossomed. Provided with a channel of communication to the Abwehr that the latter could convince itself was reliable, his talent for imaginative fiction, coupled with manic energy, was poured into thousands of words in secret ink between the lines of passionate personal letters; meanwhile his sources of sound information on secret British matters expanded into a network of capable informants. The results were marvellous, in the proper sense of that word. By 1944, spewing secrets or indiscretions from no fewer than 27 agents on his payroll, Garbo had gained an almost total superiority of morale over his Abwehr case-officers back in Lisbon, and, in one of Howard’s nicely appreciative comments, was treating them ‘as a temperamental mistress might treat an elderly and besotted lover’.

Garbo was now able to feed a richly spiced diet to the Abwehr. His ‘contacts’ ranged from indiscreet British officers to ‘a man of extreme left-wing views who worked for the Ministry of Information’, from glamorous girls in sensitive employments ‘who could be relied upon for an occasional silly indiscretion’ to well-placed foreign nationals, most of whom had some grudge or reason to hate Britain. Welsh dissidents played a heroic part, as did an Indian poet with a mistress who was the gallant Theresa Jardine of the Wrens. On another network, there was the vivacious Gelatine (her real name is still withheld) who, being ‘well connected and indiscreet’, could usually provide ‘a great deal of confidential political gossip’. The story is so persuasive that Howard clearly begins to fear, in telling it, that he may have carried the reader into the Abwehr’s position. ‘The reader should bear in mind,’ he cautions, ‘that none of these people actually existed.’

Garbo himself was entirely real and known personally to the Abwehr. His devout intensity made him the outstanding artist of the ‘system’. During his first year in England, he sent his German case-officer no fewer than 315 secret-inked letters of an average length of 2000 words, written between visible lines just as long. Later on, he also sent hundreds of wirelessed reports transmitted to the Abwehr as ‘the ciphered messages of a group of left-wing Spanish exiles’ who were communicating from England with their comrades back home. Anyone who may ever have supposed that the British Armed Services fail to produce and use men of the most evasive deviousness, or fiction writers of sustained resource, will here learn better.

All this required the backing of a strategic plan. The object of deception, as Howard insists, is not only to make the enemy think the wrong thing, but above all to make the enemy do the wrong thing. And in this you cannot succeed unless you yourself know what is the right thing. Once you know that – in our case from 1941 – you can tell the enemy what you want him to believe about the strength of your forces and the targets they are preparing to hit, being sure that these are not the targets in your real strategic plan. Howard records that the possibilities were first seen and exploited by Middle East Command under Wavell in 1940. Wavell’s ‘deception officer’, the memorable Dudley Clarke, began to invent bogus British fighting units in the Western Desert, and by adopting suitable channels credible to the enemy – notably ‘Cheese’, wirelessing from a hideout in Cairo – was able to insert these fantasies into the enemy’s picture of Wavell’s ‘order of battle’. They served valiantly, and this ‘small acorn’ of misinformation spread as the war continued into a mighty oak of force-strength exaggeration. By 1944, the enemy’s picture of British fighting strength contained whole armies of non-existent divisions and their guns, tanks, transport and supplies, some of them poised to invade the Balkans and others, later on, to breach the defences of the Pas de Calais.

The ‘system’ by then was well run-in, and was, of course, used for air and naval deceptions as well. As real targets were agreed, bogus targets were allocated to each of them: thus to Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, was added Fortitude North, aimed at convincing the Germans that a massive operation was to be launched against occupied Scandinavia, and, for good measure, Fortitude South, a huge expedition of non-existent armies and fleets of aircraft about to throw themselves against the Pas de Calais. It all worked remarkably well. Months before the Normandy landings, the German High Command reckoned Allied Forces in the UK at a vastly greater total than the truth, forming a non-existent threat that was painfully real to them and, when push came to shove, most helpfully distracting.

Will a prudent scepticism wonder if the author is perhaps inclined to enlarge on the successes at the cost of concealing the failures? The record suggests otherwise, and nothing that we know about this subject casts doubts on Sir Michael’s judgment of the evidence. He remarks in a preface that more archives will be opened, and his writing ‘should not be regarded as the last word on the subject’. Possibly, but meanwhile the only reasonable complaint against him is that he has allowed himself only 270 pages. There were so many trails that one would have liked him to have followed. Among much else, there was Hitler’s fixed belief in a British invasion of the Balkans, probably through Dalmatia. As Howard shows us, this was sustained by the menacing presence of a non-existent British Twelfth Army in the Middle East. But the same belief must have been encouraged by a panoply of means.

A miniature memory may be in place. Some days after the first Normandy landings, far away in little hills above the middle Danube, the last dozen of a badly cornered company of Yugoslav Partisans was trying to find a way through a strong enemy encirclement. The bulk of the company had got through a bit earlier, and now it seemed that the last exit was closed. But on what was evidently going to be the last night before we should be overwhelmed, a possible ditch was found. This went down through enemy concentrations that were reinforced by incessant machine-gun fire, firing up at our fringe of woods. A poor outlook, but as we crept behind each other into and down that ditch while flares blazed above our heads, a whisper snaked along our line: Iskrtseli su se Inglezi, the British have landed, they have landed in Dalmatia and with tanks. For another half-hour, before the crack of those guns was going away from us and we knew that we were through, the comfort of that non-existent British landing in Dalmatia, wave after wave of it, was a real and lovely thing. But how did that rumour reach the woods and plains of the middle Danube? The questions that remain are of a sort that official histories, even by Professor Howard, do not address. Did the ever-to-be-blessed Dudley Clarke, and all who learned from him, eventually receive the praise that was their due? And is it true that Garbo went on to become one of Spain’s Nobel Prize novelists? Perhaps we shall never be told, but never mind: if there was any fun to be got from that war, the story of strategic deception is where you will certainly find it.