Pigeon Warfare

Ben Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies

Bloomsbury, 432pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781408819906

reviewed by Alasdair Dick

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the spy has been a source of continual fascination for the British public. From the early works of William Le Queux through to James Bond, there is something about the world of espionage that continues to grip us as a nation. Yet, while Ian Fleming’s protagonist is confined to a fictional world of martinis and tuxedos, Ben Macintyre’s new book is pure non-fiction, delving into one of the most intriguing and compelling stories in the history of British espionage.

Double Cross uncovers the incredible story of the five counter-agents who risked their lives to ensure an Allied victory in the Second World War. By relaying false information to the Germans these brave and extravagant individuals were integral to the success of the D-Day landing. They were a group of double agents who, according to Macintyre, ‘were not conventional warriors but their masterpiece of deceit saved countless lives.’ Double Cross is the untold story of Bronx, Brutus, Treasure, Tricycle and Garbo: the unknown saviours of 6 June 1944.

The book tracks the development of the Double Cross system, coordinated by the intensely secret Twenty (XX) Committee and led by Tar Robertson: ‘a genteel and soft-spoken intelligence agent wearing tartan trousers.’ The role of the clandestine Committee was to recruit potential double-agents who would relay fictional information to the Germans and ultimately convince them that an attack on the French coast would fall on the Pas de Calais rather than the beaches of Normandy. In other words, Robertson and his team of agents endeavoured to protect the truth with a ‘bodyguard of lies.’ Hence the operation’s name: Operation Bodyguard. The Double Cross agents may not have been physically storming those beaches but their web of lies cleared an easier path for the men who did.

This panegyric to unsung heroes is a testament to Macintyre’s skill as a writer: historical fact and descriptive anecdotes combine together beautifully. Although the events of the Second World War provide the context of this work, it is the characters who steal the show. The D-Day spies included ‘a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a tiny Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman, a Serbian seducer and a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming.’

These spies were not suave, gadget-wielding assassins but psychologically troubled amateurs. They all had their problems: alcoholism, greed and marital discord to name a few. In fact, one’s obsession with her dog nearly derailed the whole operation. These were flawed individuals but they also exhibited extraordinary courage, walking a tightrope between life and death in the full knowledge that the slightest slip would result in certain execution. They travelled back and forth from mainland Europe convincing their German handlers of their fidelity whilst spinning a tapestry of lies. The reader feels genuine anxiety when Johnny Jebsen, Popov’s friend and fellow double-agent, is taken by the Gestapo. The whole operation hung on Jebsen’s courage and commitment to the Allied cause and the tension is tangible in Macintyre’s fluid narrative.

The ridiculousness of warfare is beautifully captured in one of the most enjoyable chapters, ‘The Flock’. It is here that the pigeon fanatic Flight Lieutenant Walker makes his first appearance. Convinced that Nazi pigeons were pouring into Britain, Walker began drawing up plans to stop this aerial invasion. One of his hair-brained ideas involved releasing British pigeons into the air at staggered intervals so that enemy pigeons would become confused and join these groups instead of delivering their messages. Amazingly this was given the go-ahead and Walker was given permission ‘to carry out the largest military deployment of pigeons ever attempted.’ Other bizarre moments include the hiring of an actor to impersonate General Montgomery in order to convince the Germans of an imminent attack. Nearly as remarkable was the gullibility of the Germans as Agent Garbo, a master in story-telling, fed his handlers pages and pages of fictional intelligence including the idea that the Welsh Valleys were filled with violent secessionists willing to take up the Nazi cause. These humorous moments fill the pages and help to make this book much more than a treatise on warfare.

Macintyre’s conviction that the double-agents were crucial to the Allied victory will undoubtedly meet resistance from some historians. Indeed, he may have over-estimated their role: the real victors were those storming the beaches and nothing should be taken away from their heroic efforts. Read on its own this book would provide a distorted image of the events of D-Day, but read in tandem with other works it supplements the vast historiography that already exists. Macintyre’s work enables us to reconsider the factors that contribute to military victory - the sound of gunfire has perhaps deafened us to other contributory factors. What goes on behind the scenes is just as important as the number of missiles produced and the valour of men. War cannot be won on deception alone, but a little espionage, it would seem, can go a long way.