Spending Hitler’s Money

Bee Wilson

  • Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre
    Bloomsbury, 417 pp, £16.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 1 4088 1990 6

‘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’.

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