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

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DoubleCrossDouble Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2012)

Blurb: D-Day, 6 June 1944, was a victory of arms. But it was also a triumph for a different kind of operation: one of deceit, aimed at convincing the Nazis that Calais and Norway, not Normandy, were the targets of the 150,000-strong invasion force.
The deception involved every branch of Allied wartime intelligence, but at its heart was a team of five double agents, one of the oddest military units ever assembled: a bisexual Peruvian playgirl, a Polish fighter pilot, a Serbian seducer, a Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming, and a Frenchwoman whose love for her pet dog nearly wrecked the entire operation.

These were not conventional warriors, but their masterpiece of deceit saved countless lives, and Double Cross is their story.

I’ve always been interested in history, but at university my focus was on Central and Eastern Europe, so while I studied World War II, it was usually in the context of what came after—the Cold War—and I never really studied the Allied side of things. I’ll be honest, much of what I know about D-Day comes from Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. While I find the politics and the machinations and the analysis of war fascinating, I have a hard time reading about the battles themselves. This book, which focused on the machinations and the analysis, was riveting.

This is the first book I’ve read by Ben Macintyre, and I was impressed with the sheer volume of information he includes without being bogged down in academic-sounding prose. He tells the overall story by focusing on the individuals involved, which both draws the reader in and heightens the drama. The Double Cross System came into being in June 1943, when the British realized they actually controlled every single German spy on British soil, and came up with the idea of using this network not just to learn what the Germans were up to but to actively engage in the dissemination of false intelligence. The spies themselves are an unlikely group—philanderers, gamblers, good-time girls, bit-part actors, “substandard” homing pigeons (I am not making this up)—who confounded their handlers and yet managed to fool the entire German intelligence network (who surely must have been more competent than the book makes them appear).

Over the course of a year, the Double Cross agents built up a network of nonexistent spies and fed their German handlers carefully crafted misinformation about the upcoming invasion. Having broken the Enigma code early on, British intelligence were able to keep tabs on how German intelligence were using the information being fed to them. It was a masterful operation, and one that played a large role in the success of the Normandy invasion:

“D-Day was the reason for the Double Cross system, the grand finale to every preceding deception was a foretaste. The men who fought that day have become lasting symbols of courage and skill. But while they battled their way up the bloody dunes, an unseen force fought alongside them, from many miles away, not with guns, bullets and bombs, but with subterfuge and stealth, to whittle away German strength and confidence, to confuse, surprise and mislead, and shield the invaders with lies.” (p. 320)

I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in World War II or wartime espionage.

My rating: 4 stars

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