‘In June 1943,’ Ben Macintyre writes, the spymaster Tar Robertson ‘reached the startling conclusion that every single German agent in Britain was actually under his control. Not some, not most, but all of them.’ This changed the game of counter-espionage. As well as using their double agents defensively, to monitor German intelligence or to dupe the enemy into a false sense of security, the British were now in a position where they could actively feed lies to the Germans. Operation Fortitude was a complicated ruse performed by a troupe of eccentric spies, some real and some imaginary, to give the impression that the British cross-Channel invasion would happen in the Pas de Calais, rather than Normandy, so that German troops would cluster in the wrong place. The plan extended to undercover pigeons and a fake Montgomery played by a ‘boozy’ Australian actor with dyed sideburns, who made himself visible in Gibraltar to give the impression that Monty was on his way to North Africa. Were it not for this ‘web of deception’, as Macintyre puts it, the Normandy landings might have ended ‘in a massacre’.
The question you keep asking yourself, as you read Macintyre’s enjoyable account, is how the Germans could have been so stupid. Promoting his work at the Oxford Literary Festival earlier this year, Macintyre suggested that conventional histories of the war operated ‘in shades of black and white’ with clear-cut heroes and villains, whereas in his brand of history – which has become a kind of franchise, with this latest volume following his previous bestsellers, Agent Zigzag and Operation Mincemeat – the moral lines are more ‘blurred’ and complex. If Macintyre believes this, he has mistaken the near irresistible appeal of his books. Much recent revisionist history of the Second World War has served to undermine Allied smugness. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (2010), for example, treats the mass murder of civilians by the Nazis as part of a continuum with the mass killings set in motion by our ally Stalin. Macintyre’s war takes place in a far more comforting theatre, a world of nylons-wearing secretaries and cocktails at the Savoy, of playboys who breakfast on steak, and cricketing enthusiasts who think that spying is not very different from a club match. Each of his books recounts an audacious adventure and ends with a neat, usually cheery postwar aftermath. This isn’t the first time we’ve been told that the tartan-trousered Tar Robertson, of whom Macintyre seems very fond, retired to Worcestershire to farm sheep; I look forward to reading it again in the next instalment.
To add to the comfort, the enemy has an endless capacity to blunder, and while the heroes may be unconventional – Macintyre loves all that – they are also cunning and brave and generally impervious, like comic-book characters. He delights in the codenames devised by Robertson: a fat agent is called ‘Balloon’; a womaniser with a fondness for three-in-a-bed romps is ‘Tricycle’; a glamorous woman is ‘Bronx’, after the Bronx martini, a wartime cocktail made from rum, orange juice and two types of Vermouth.
Macintyre gives each of his five protagonists a neat epithet summing up his or her essential traits, which lends the whole affair the atmosphere of a murder mystery. Dusko Popov (‘Tricycle’) is the ‘Serbian seducer’ and his friend Johnny Jebsen ‘the chain-smoking Anglophile who took up spying in order not to fight’. Roman Czerniawski, perhaps the most successful double crosser of them all, a quintuple agent by the end, is introduced as a ‘tiny Polish fighter pilot’. This is not really true. Czerniawski was 166 cm, barely shorter than the average height for a man of his generation, but a ‘slightly below average height Polish fighter pilot’ doesn’t have the same ring. The two female double crossers are Lily Sergeyev, a ‘mercurial Frenchwoman’ whose love for her pet dog Babs nearly threatens the whole enterprise, and Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, ‘a bisexual Peruvian playgirl’. Chaudoir is not mentioned at all in Joshua Levine’s version of the story, Operation Fortitude, published last year, which makes you wonder whether Macintyre has chosen his cast of spies as much for their colourful character as for their role in the operation. The last double crosser was Juan Pujol Garcia, ‘a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming’. So he had, and this was only the start of it.
The extraordinary story of Pujol is the one that best fits Macintyre’s style. Pujol – codename ‘Garbo’, because he was such a good actor – was a failed poultry farmer who had spent the Spanish Civil War ‘in hiding from Francoist forces’. He was an unusual spy, in that he chose the calling for himself (the term for this was a ‘walk-in’), rather than waiting for a quiet tap on the shoulder. When war broke out, he proposed himself first to the British and then to the Germans in Madrid. He wore the Germans down with his persistence and pro-Nazi speechifying, and Major Karl-Erich Kühlenthal eventually agreed that if he could make his way to Britain via Lisbon, the Abwehr would consider using him. Kühlenthal provided him with secret ink, the codename ‘Arabel’ and a warning ‘not to underestimate the British’.
Pujol proceeded to send Kühlenthal long, detailed reports from Britain. Except that he wasn’t in Britain at all, but in Lisbon, where he cobbled together his ‘intelligence’ in the public library using The Blue Guide to England and whatever books he could find on British mores and the military. As a result, much of the information he sent was deliciously off-beam, the result of reading with Spanish eyes and out of context. In Glasgow, he informed the Germans, there were men ‘who would do anything for a litre of wine’. Not having got the hang of British currency, he reported that a train ticket to Scotland cost ‘87 shillings and 10 pence’. He appeared to believe that the heat could be so intense in London that the diplomatic corps decamped en masse to Brighton for the summer. He reported major naval manoeuvres on Lake Windermere (it’s a lake) involving an American-made amphibious tank (no such thing had been invented). He provided details of fictitious army regiments, and even provoked the enemy into attempting to intercept a convoy that did not exist.
In all of this nonsense, the Abwehr apparently saw little amiss. The people who did notice the oddness of Pujol’s reports were the interceptors at Bletchley Park, who decided that ‘this rogue spy was eccentric and innumerate, or a fraud, or mad.’ The British smuggled him into the country, and once they were convinced that he was on the right side, stashed him and his family in a safe house in Hendon. The intelligence with which he bombarded the Germans became if anything still more outlandish. From a small office in Jermyn Street, surrounded by haberdashers, Pujol and his case officer Tommy Harris dreamed up an army of entirely fictitious sub-agents dotted around the British Isles. These included ‘a wealthy Venezuelan student named Carlos living in Glasgow’, a waiter from Gibraltar who ‘found the climate in Kent very disagreeable’, a ‘jocular and fairly talkative’ American sergeant, and a group of fanatical Welsh fascists who were plotting the downfall of the British government, led by an Indian poet called Rags and his girlfriend, a Wren called Theresa Jardine.
In addition to his own reports, Pujol wrote reports from each of his fictitious sub-agents in invisible ink, remembering to stay in character all the time. He even gave himself an imaginary girlfriend, a secretary at the War Office who was a useful source of information, but ‘less than beautiful and rather dowdy’, or so he told the Germans. The work of the network, Macintyre writes, ‘came to resemble a limitless, multi-character, ever expanding novel’. To keep up the illusion, Pujol sometimes had to engineer spectacular plot developments. In 1942, Allied preparations were underway for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa: the Garbo network, feeding the Abwehr nuggets of confusion, suggested that troops were massing in Scotland or near the Channel. Unfortunately, one of the Garbo spies, ‘William Gerbers’, a Swiss-German businessman, was based in Liverpool, where the real ships and troops were gathering. After the invasion, it would seem suspicious that Gerbers hadn’t reported that troops were gathering on the Mersey en route to Casablanca. So Gerbers, the man who knew too much (or would have done had he existed), was swiftly killed off, from a ‘lingering malady’. A death notice appeared in the newspapers. The Germans ‘sent a letter of condolence’ to Pujol.
One of Pujol’s strategies for keeping the trust of the Germans was to complain. ‘Why have I been made to suffer?’ he asked his German handler on one occasion. ‘The more we dictated our terms,’ he noted, ‘the more they co-operated; the more arrogant and temperamental Garbo became, the more considerate they were in return.’ If Pujol’s example is anything to go by, the way to succeed as a double agent is to make so much noise you block out any doubts in the enemy’s mind, forcing them instead to declare how much they love you. Among his other requests, Pujol made insistent demands for money from the Germans.
The economics of double crossing were complex. Some of the spies had very expensive tastes. The Serbian playboy Popov favoured silk shirts, potent drinks and endless mistresses, and at one point, while working for the Americans, sent an MI6 officer in New York demands for nylon stockings and chocolate. Even if the secret services had been capable of financing Popov’s appetites – which they weren’t – it wouldn’t have been prudent to do so. To maintain the illusion that the double agents were working for Germany, it was crucial that they were seen to be paid by Germany: ‘if a spy continues to work without getting paid, then someone else must be paying him.’ And so the double crossers were encouraged to make emotional demands for cash to the Abwehr. ‘I shit on Germany and its whole fucking secret service,’ one double agent wrote to his German handler when a demand for cash was not met.
In the long run, the British needed to make sure the Abwehr had a way to fund its agents in Britain. They tried air-drops and packets of cash left on buses, neither of which was very reliable. Popov came up with Plan Midas, a brilliant piece of trickery. MI5 found a middleman, a Jewish theatre agent in New York called Eric Glass, who offered the Germans use of his bank account as a money laundering device, in exchange for his freedom and security should they win the war. The Germans paid large sums into Glass’s account, then Glass supposedly paid the money out to the German agents in Britain. But since there were no real agents, the money went direct to MI5, after Popov and his German handler had skimmed off a percentage. Between 1940 and 1945, the Germans paid close to £85,000 to finance their own deception.
Once again, you wonder: how could the Abwehr have been so stupid? In 1941, when Robertson was first thinking through the possibility of running double agents, he came up with a scheme to divert German attention. He was worried that the Germans would start to suspect how many of their agents had been turned, and decided to run a double agent in an ‘obviously bogus fashion’ so the Germans would assume that the British were generally incompetent and thus underestimate the real threat. When they captured a German spy called Alphonse ‘Scruffy’ Timmerman, the secret services sent letters to the Germans in his name containing blatant mistakes, which should have made it clear that Timmerman had been compromised. But the Germans failed to pick up on these errors, glaring though they were, and continued to place their trust in ‘Scruffy’. Their faith remained undimmed even after the real Timmerman was executed, with a death notice placed in the Times, a piece of information that also eluded the intelligence-gatherers of the Abwehr.
There are probably several reasons why the Abwehr was so easily duped. In 1943, a young German intelligence officer reported that it was made up of too many ‘elderly men with little or no idea of military organisation’. The Madrid office was run by officers who were hard-working but gullible. The Lisbon office, to which Popov reported, was corrupt and lazy; its head, Ludovico von Karsthoff, spent the operating budget on fast cars, casinos, pet monkeys, women and cocaine. Many of the officers were sleeping with their secretaries – one newly arrived Abwehr officer was shocked by the ‘loose and immoral life’ they led. Finally, in 1943, Karsthoff was sacked for ‘indiscretion and inefficiency’ and sent to the Eastern Front. He was replaced by Dr Aloys Schreiber, who, like several others in the Abwehr, was secretly a zealous anti-Nazi, and part of the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler. Schreiber was a far more efficient operator than Karsthoff – indeed, he would expose one of the double crossers – but he was not a straightforward asset to the Nazi regime.
The Abwehr, you could say, had personnel trouble. But there were other explanations for its officers’ propensity to swallow certain kinds of nonsense more readily than their British counterparts. The main one was that they were part of the giant fantasy-peddling machine of the Nazi regime. On more than one occasion, they were fooled by their own prejudices. At one point, discussing Pujol’s wilder flights of fancy involving the band of Welsh separatist fascists, Macintyre asks: ‘Could the Germans really be expected to believe that a gang of murderous racists planned to destroy the government and seize power, killing Jews, communists and other “undesirables”? They could; because, of course, that is exactly what had happened in Germany.’
Another example involved Johnny Jebsen, a German citizen who switched sides to become the ‘chain-smoking Anglophile’ from Denmark. Jebsen was living it up in Lisbon with the flighty secretaries, but wanting to be smuggled into Britain without blowing his cover, he set up an absurd fiction to the effect that his father had once saved the life of an indeterminate Lord Rothschild who would in return pull strings to allow him into Britain as a refugee. The Abwehr should have known that it was impossible for a German citizen to buy his freedom in Britain. But they didn’t. Jebsen’s story fitted perfectly with Nazi convictions about the powerful machinations of Jewish bankers. One Abwehr officer, when told of Jebsen’s deal, noted: ‘these Jews can get away with anything.’
The Abwehr’s greatest weakness, however, was surely that it commanded so little loyalty that so many of its agents were capable of being turned by MI5 and having been turned, they stuck it out, despite the fact that MI5 gave them little or no money and, particularly in the case of the female agents, scant praise. The question of loyalty is at the heart of what it means to be a double agent. By definition, no spy is solidly trustworthy, and double agents are forced to be duplicitous several times over. ‘I am beginning to feel the nervous strain [of] this double game, this constant change of personality without any let-up,’ Lily Sergeyev wrote in her diary. Deception becomes second nature. For several of them, spying seems to have been a way of passing the time when the gaming tables no longer satisfied. Yet behind the role-playing and the trickery, there had to be a kernel of real motivation, the thing that makes you ultimately choose one side or another. For Roman Czerniawski, it was Poland. A British intelligence officer noted that ‘his loyalty is entirely to his own country’ and that he saw himself as a kind of ‘Joan of Arc of Poland’. When the Germans captured him in Occupied France, he was able to use his love of Poland to gain their trust, pretending that he thought Britain was leading Poland ‘up the garden path’ and offering to work to broker a deal between Poland and Germany. As soon as he got the opportunity, however, he offered his services to Britain ‘as a loyal and patriotic Pole’.
Lily Sergeyev, the daughter of a tsarist official whose family had emigrated to Paris, had very different concerns. She was recruited to spy for Germany by the Abwehr agent Major Emile Kliemann. At one point, he asked her why she wanted to work for Germany, but she refused to answer: ‘I can tell you that it is from conviction, a matter of principle, or because I love Germany, or else I hate the British. But if you were the enemy, if I were here to spy on you, to betray you, do you think my answer would be any different?’ When she arrived in Madrid en route to Britain, she announced to MI6 that she wanted to swap sides, but a condition was attached. She wanted Babs, her terrier-poodle, with ‘a shaggy truffle-like nose’, to be exempted from Britain’s strict quarantine laws. ‘To you, it’s just a dog; but to me, it’s Babs, and worth more than a million pounds.’ The British promised to do what they could, by which they meant they would do nothing; they had no intention of bending the quarantine laws for the sake of some silly woman, even if she was risking her life for the country. Babs’s fate will never be known, because all the MI5 files relating to his case have been removed. The story Lily heard, from her sister in Algiers, was that Babs had been run over. Once she realised that the British had reneged on their promise, she plotted revenge, planning to use a secret code – it involved inserting dashes into wireless messages the Germans had given her – to indicate that she was now in the power of the enemy: ‘the British will suspect nothing.’ Had she done this, the entire enterprise might have been jeopardised, since the plausibility of each agent’s misinformation depended in part on the lies being spun by the others.
Yet for all her love of Babs, her hysteria and fury with MI5, who treated her meanly and scrimped on her expenses, something stopped Sergeyev from carrying out her full revenge. Instead, feeling tearful and unappreciated one night after watching Gone with the Wind, she alerted her case officer to the existence of the code, while refusing to reveal its details. She made the British suffer, but couldn’t quite bring herself to destroy the D-Day plot she had done so much to set up. Sergeyev’s wireless messages to Major Kliemann had ‘absolutely saved the bacon’ of the Bletchley code-breakers in June 1944, and she had tirelessly fed the Germans a ‘hodgepodge’ of faulty information on ‘badges, vehicles, tanks, planes and airfields’ in the months before the Normandy landings. Even the death of Babs would not drive her back to the Nazis now.
The deep deceptions of the D-Day spy network benefited from the British aptitude for hypocrisy; Macintyre notes that the Americans were nothing like as successful at running double agents: the ‘FBI was not equipped, psychologically or practically’, for it. Johnny Jebsen, aka Agent Artist, emerges as the book’s true hero. ‘A rich, rootless orphan’, Jebsen was a Danish shipping heir who became friends with Popov at the University of Freiberg in 1936. He was thin and clever, looked ten years older than he really was, a whiskey drinker who walked with a limp caused by chronic varicose veins. Having visited Britain in his youth, he was a passionate Anglophile, spoke English whenever possible and according to Popov would ‘no more go without an umbrella than without his trousers’. He was married to an actress to whom, Macintyre writes – it’s the sort of paradox he likes – ‘he was serially unfaithful but deeply loyal.’ During the early years of the war, he worked as an Abwehr officer in Germany and recruited Popov to German intelligence: ‘Hitler is the undisputed master of Europe,’ he told his friend in 1940. ‘In a few months’ time, he’ll probably finish off England.’
From Jebsen’s ironic tone, Popov was convinced that his heart was with the Allies, and for a long time the two friends played a complicated game of second-guessing, each suspecting the other of British sympathies without ever coming out and saying so. Jebsen didn’t officially come over to the British side until 1943, when over whiskey and soda in Madrid, he told the British that ‘there is hardly a soul any more in Germany who believes in victory’ and promised to work for them. Before the war, Jebsen appears not to have believed in anything very much. He lacked Czerniawski’s zealous patriotism or Pujol’s sense of destiny. British intelligence noted that his reasons for becoming a double agent were ‘complex’, ranging from a certainty that Germany had lost the war to a desire to see business as usual for his own trading activities to a ‘genuine dislike of Nazism’ and a ‘belief in the British political system’. Unlike Popov, he never asked the British for any financial reward. He seems almost to have been doing it for fun. During his first few weeks in Lisbon getting acquainted with his new British spymasters, he and Popov ‘spent many happy, dissolute hours together: a pair of British spies pretending to be German spies, spending Hitler’s money on themselves’.
This sickly and dissipated man – like Popov, he was a serial womaniser and was involved in various dodgy business deals, with bank accounts dotted across the world from Shanghai to San Francisco – was ‘not a conventional D-Day hero’, as Macintyre notes, ‘but he was a hero nonetheless.’ At the end of April 1944, Jebsen was betrayed by one of his associates, who suspected he was working for the British, knocked out cold and kidnapped by the Gestapo, who took him to Berlin to be questioned and tortured. The British had known that Jebsen was in danger, but chose not to warn him, in case it endangered activities at Bletchley. It isn’t clear what happened next, but one Abwehr officer involved in Jebsen’s interrogation ‘mentioned something about the unpleasantness of having one’s fingernails torn off’. Another witness saw him in a shirt drenched with blood and heard him remark to his guards that he trusted he would be given a clean one. A third, who had known him before, noted how ‘his flesh and muscle had melted away, and his head looked enormous, sitting on top of his wasted neck and shoulders’.
Whatever they did to him, Jebsen gave nothing away. ‘He could have told them enough to scupper the looming invasion, and change the course of the war,’ but from the fact that the D-Day deception of the other spies continued to work, we know that he told nothing. In July 1944, a month after D-Day, he was moved to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he lay on a bunk, his ribs broken. In February 1945, he and another man, Heinz Moldenhauer, were collected by a Gestapo escort from Berlin. Moldenhauer returned to the camp alone.
Macintyre cannot resist saying that perhaps Jebsen never returned to the camp because ‘he made good his escape’, adding with boyish wonder that ‘Johnny Jebsen had the ingenuity, the means and the motive to disappear’. Having spent so long immersed in this world of make-believe, Macintyre, it seems, cannot bear to leave it. He says that Jebsen, ‘former international playboy’, vanished ‘at the age of 27’, but he has already told us that Jebsen was 27 in 1936 when he first met Popov. A slip no doubt that a proof-reader might have caught, but when he tells us one more time that Jebsen was ‘the chain-smoking Anglophile who took up spying in order not to fight’, it can seem as if the epithets have come to count for more than the details.