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

Updated on February 2, 2016
Johnny Jebsen, Agent Artist, a WW2 German intelligence officer and British double agent.
Johnny Jebsen, Agent Artist, a WW2 German intelligence officer and British double agent. | Source
How Omaha Beach looked during the afternoon of 6 June 1944
How Omaha Beach looked during the afternoon of 6 June 1944 | Source
USS Arizona's magazine explosion, at Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941
USS Arizona's magazine explosion, at Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941 | Source
Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran shaking hands with Sir Gladwyn Jebb at the United Nations Security Council in New York City, 1951
Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran shaking hands with Sir Gladwyn Jebb at the United Nations Security Council in New York City, 1951 | Source

Skulduggery and business as usual

Ben Macintyre, Double Cross: the True Story of the D-Day Spies, New York: Broadway Books, 2012, p. p. 402, ISBN: 978-0-307-88877-8


Persuading the Nazi Germans that Operation Overlord — the Normandy Landings — would not happen in Normandy and thereby saving possibly tens of thousands of lives: the disinformation campaign waged from Great Britain via a network of double agents was in surface terms a huge success.

Nothing succeeds like success (and nothing fails like failure).

So Ben Macintyre's book about the spies of the Double Cross system is supposed to be a celebration of this success. And of the cynicism that produced it. And of the cleverness of the Establishment, the subtle mindset of which made it possible.

What else does the book reveal, however? It arguably reveals some of the inner thinking of a deeply cynical system, so aloof and devious in its supercilious attitudes that the very cynicism which drove the complex deception also nearly derailed it.

Agent Treasure, Lily Sergueyev, is described as willingly undertaking service for the British, but almost ludicrously one of her handlers appears to have arranged the killing of her dog while lies were told her as to its fate. Stated differently: how to demoralize gratuitously one's own agent. It transpired that Agent Treasure almost blew - but did not - the whole deception operation in disgust.

Agent Artist, Johann ('Johnny') Jebsen, a German intelligence officer, but a double agent, was passing valuable deception material to his German handlers, while his British handlers knew that, if arrested and tortured, Agent Artist would possibly divulge the false nature of the long trickle of disinformation which suggested that the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy would be the destination of Operation Overlord. His British handlers learned that a trusted friend was betraying him to Berlin and had opportunity to warn him, and pointedly failed to do so. Agent Artist was indeed arrested, but heroically under torture appears not to have divulged his vital secrets, and Double Cross triumphed, in a manner of speaking. I go no further than Ben Macintyre's own words to describe the morally dubious situation of the leader of the Double Cross system Tar Robertson: 'His excuses were thin, as he was well aware. ... He knew that he and his team ... had failed to appreciate the mortal danger to Jebsen, and as a consequence he was in prison, probably undergoing torture, and possibly already dead. ... he must have known that Jebsen had trusted the British and they had let him down. This was the worst moment of his war; perhaps the worst moment of his life' (Macintyre, p. 283)

So Double Cross succeeded, German forces in France were caught by surprise in June 1944. But this was despite the best 'efforts' of supercilious, aloof and devious handlers to derail their own efforts by not forcing themselves to act out of character.

These are all similar themes to ones that appear in the fiction of John Le Carré, which depict a post-World War 2 British Intelligence Establishment which is not only chronically out of step with the realities of world affairs but also exhibits - in fiction - the sort of self-defeating superciliousness which Ben Macintyre describes in this historical work.

Tar Robertson, leading the Double Cross system, even claimed afterwards that the British knew in advance that Pearl Harbor would be attacked by Japan. A British agent, Dusan Popov, had been stationed in the US prior to US entry into World War Two; Robertson, citing a supposedly trusting relationship between British Intelligence and Hoover's FBI, proceeded to blame J. Edgar Hoover for not having passed on to appropriate colleagues in the Roosevelt Administration this information which Robertson claimed the British had communicated.

This begs the question: by the standards of his system's cynicism, what interest would Robertson have had in divulging any prior knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor? since Churchill's jubilation at this momentous news is now well known.

Such is the breathtaking superciliousness and deviousness of the characters revealed by this work that at times — almost incredibly — Ben Macintyre's description of the German Abwehr's treatment of its own agents seems at times more honourable, if this is scarcely possible.

The New York Times describes the author of Double Cross as '...the leading practitioner of oddball-powered history. A connoisseur and celebrant of eccentricity...' For its part, the Boston Globe says: 'He spins quite a yarn'.

You could say so.

This book ought to have a sequel (1). Its author should try telling the tale of the 1953 coup plot against Iran's Mossadegh; while carried out by the US, it was a British plot with all the elements of a Macintyre-relished account of British skulduggery, full of characters such as Robin Zaehner, 'Oxford bon vivant transmogrified into a quasi-secret service agent' (2), egged on - again - by a gung-ho Winston Churchill.

February 1, 2016


(1) Ben Macintyre has already written an account of the profoundly ambiguous, senior British intelligence operative, Kim Philby, who was also a player in the Double Cross system. See: Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, New York: Random House, 2014, which I have also reviewed on hubpages.

(2) Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Ltd., 2003, p. 114.


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