Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre

The story of how the British secret service contrived to hide the date and time of the D-Day landings from Germany by feeding them fake information from a series of double agents.

This is the third Macintyre book I've read in a relatively short period of time. The other two, Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag had a pretty strong narrative structure whereas this one felt a little bit less focused. He's obviously done loads of research, and had access to loads of material, but I don't think he did the best he could to have made it a better story. I.e. he basically did it in chronological order, explaining what each of the agents was doing at each point in time: I think maybe it would have been more interesting to maybe tell the whole story first from the German's point of view, and then go back to show what was actually happening as the British thought up ways to send false information back.

Another problem was the number of double agents that were involved. Certainly, at the start, there were a lot of names to take in, because there was (presumably) a little table listing the names of the spies, their British code-names, and their German code-names. This was simply read out in the audiobook so wasn't much use: in the actual book I'd have marked that page so I could turn back to it.

So compared to the other two books, which were very gripping, I found this a bit more of an effort.

However, it was still a pretty interesting story, and there were some great bits of history in there. I was again struck by how incompetent the Abwehr was: according to this book, every German spy in the UK was known of and being manipulated by MI5. When sending back reports, the Germans didn’t notice stupid errors. The Spanish guy who tried to persuade the Germans to let him be a spy, and would send fake reports from Britain (even though he was in Spain) which were intercepted by MSS, so the British knew what he was saying - these reports were often “hilariously wrong” - e.g. talking about the tendency of Glaswegians to get upset if they didn’t have their wine - was not spotted by Germans. Eventually this guy became part of Operation Double Cross.)

The name of the operation, "Fortitude", was chosen partly because Churchill had an eye on the history books and didn't want a word used that would be trivial or jokey. Fortitude was so successful that even after D-Day the Germans kept believing what "their spies" were telling them about the Normandy attack being only a distraction from forthcoming attacks in Calais.

A couple of things illustrate the head-scratching double-think that was going on in the intelligence agencies:

Anthony Blunt, who worked for British Intelligence, went undetected in his work as a Soviet spy, and was passing on intelligence about Fortitude to the Russians. Had there been a spy in the Russian secret service, then this may have got back to Germany. But in fact the Russians thought that Blunt's information was too good to be true, and suspected that Blunt may have been feeding them fake information. So if there had been a German spy in Russia, it might actually have worked in Britain's favour.

In the time leading up to D-Day, there was concern that one or more Abwehr agent might defect to Britain. If this happened, then presumably the Germans would assume that the defector would tell the British about their "spies". And if those "spies" kept reporting information, the Germans would realise that they must be compromised. So in fact it would have been disastrous if any Abwehr agent had defected, because then the British couldn't have carried on feeding fake information back to the Germans.

Despite the quibbles, another fascinating read.

Completed : 3-July-2015 (audiobook)

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