British author Ben Macintyre's 2007 book Agent Zigzag is one of my favorite true stories of all time. It's the wildly entertaining tale of Eddie Chapman, a criminal, con man, and philanderer who, arrested by the Germans on the island of Jersey in World War II, was given the choice of becoming a concentration camp inmate or a spy. Chapman chose the latter, was trained in spycraft, and parachuted into England, where he promptly reported for duty to British intelligence. He funneled fake information to his German handlers for the duration of the war.
Macintyre followed Zigzag with 2010's Operation Mincemeat. Another true story populated by a cast of brave and resourceful eccentrics, Mincemeat chronicled an outrageous World War II deception -- British intelligence obtained a dead body, dressed it in military uniform, stuffed a briefcase handcuffed to its arm with fake papers, and floated it onto a Spanish beach. The Germans bit hard on the ruse, swallowing the fiction advanced in the document cache that the Allies would attack somewhere other than Sicily and Italy in the waning days of the war.
Now comes Macintyre's third book in a trilogy: Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. Double Cross is a more somber book than its predecessors because it portrays a deception with supremely high stakes -- had the elaborate game detailed in Double Cross been discovered, it could have led to a catastrophic Allied defeat on the beaches of Normandy.
The Double Cross scheme began with a story familiar to most readers of WWII literature: Relatively early in the war, the British cracked the German secret wireless code and spent the rest of the conflict secretly monitoring German wireless intelligence.
Not so well known is the fact that, also early on, the Brits located every single German agent sent to England to spy and either jailed, executed, or turned them into double agents. Some of these "doubles" became part of a coordinated, elaborate plot to confuse the Germans about Allied strategy, as the wireless monitors followed the German response to the scheme.
One "double" was a Pole who had given up a French Resistance network to the Germans and was working for redemption. But others in this exceedingly motley crew volunteered (some repeatedly) for service.
Dusan "Dusko" Popov was a Hungarian businessman, free spender, and "unstoppable womanizer." Juan Pujol Garcia, graduate of Spain's most prestigious school of chicken farming, was a man with a fantastic and fertile imagination. Pujol and his handler spent all day, every day, "inventing a world of spies, devising stratagems, cooking up new chicken feed, and composing messages."
Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, the playgirl daughter of a Peruvian diplomat, tended her elaborate coiffure, hung out in clubs, and concocted fake conversations with eminent British military officers.
The British handlers of this unruly group had a delicate job: "It was not easy to find people equipped to act as friend, psychologist, and patient nursemaid to a group of individuals who were, almost by definition, erratic, frequently infuriating, and quite possibly disloyal," Macintyre writes.
The group set out to deceive the Germans about Allied plans for a European invasion by feeding them a lie -- that the invasion would focus, not on the Normandy beaches, but across the strait of Dover to the Pas de Calais. Through their reports, the spies created an (entirely fake) U.S. Army group in southeast England, and also perpetrated the fiction that an Allied force massed in Scotland would invade Norway. The goal: to force the Germans to scatter their troops to several invasion locations, rather than throwing the full weight of their defense on the Normandy beachhead.
Double Cross suffers from the usual hazards of group biography -- at times it's hard to track who's doing what, as the deception becomes progressively more complex and dangerous.
But mostly it's a tale of smarts, personal courage, and -- even knowing what happened on June 6, 1944 -- suspense. Where would we be if these troubled, eccentric, and hang-it-all characters hadn't known how to lie, and lie well? On such slender threads does the weight of history hang.