England outsmarts Germany through false information

Christopher Banner

By A Contributor

If you are a leader or decision-maker, you are only as good as the information you have to work with.  In times of war, information about the enemy’s troops, disposition, supplies, and other considerations—“military intelligence”— is essential to your planning strategy. Hence your need for reliable sources of secret information, traditionally provided by spies. But what happens if your spies are actually working for your enemy and tell you things that are not true or of little importance? How can you, the leader or decision-maker decide and plan the right thing?

Ben Macintyre’s “Double Cross” tells the story how the British, during World War II, recruited German spies to work for them by sending false and worthless information to their German handlers in Lisbon and other places, who analyzed it and then forwarded it to the Abwehr, the German military intelligence in Berlin, for further analysis and use.

“Recruit” might be too kind a word. “Of the 25 German spies sent to Britain between Sept. 3 and Nov. 12, 1940, all but one was [sic] caught (the lone evader shot himself); five were executed; 15 were imprisoned; and four became double agents, the first recruits of what would grow into a substantial army of deceivers.”  Spying for Britain did not seem to be a difficult choice, when they looked at the alternatives.  Those four were chosen after careful examination to be certain that they would perform reliably as needed. 

Tar Robertson was put in charge of the spies under the MI5 BIA office. The operation was called “20,” but was written “XX,” for double cross.

Spies came and went or were captured, but “[in] June, 1943, Robertson reached the startling conclusion that every single German agent in Britain was actually under his control.  Not some, not most, but all [author’s emphasis] of them—which meant that Robertson’s team of double agents could now begin feeding the Germans not just snippets of falsehood, but a gigantic, war-changing lie.”

The five chosen from this group of agents had already been given code names by their German handlers, and the British now gave them their own as well.  The reader, therefore has at least three names for each spy to keep track of as well as the names of their handlers. Macintyre includes a table at the beginning of t he book with all of this information so that the reader can keep them all straight.

Macintyre shows us not only the work that the spies did, but their private lives as well: How much money they had to spend and where it came from;  what sorts of places they lived in; what they wore; whom they had sexual relations with and what kind; what was happening with their families; and much, much more.

Their job was to feed the Germans information that was useless, useless but true, not timely, or plausible but false.  They called it “chicken feed.” In the year or so before D-Day,  June 6, 1944, they created non-existent agents, generals, armies, and ships. They put real and false armies in places that were not in England, Scotland, and Ireland.  They set indefinite or incorrect dates and places for the planned invasion. In doing this, first, they had to convince their handlers that their reports were correct; then the handlers had to convince the higher-ups in Berlin, including Hitler, himself. They were so good at it that when the invasion came, the Germans were unprepared, did not think it was the real invasion, and did not send their troops to oppose them which saved many Allied lives.

Where he can, Macintyre follows up on the various persons involved in XX and tells us what became of them after the war. 

“Double Cross” includes a section of photos of the spies and other people involved in their activities. Ben Macintyre’s “Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies” is a well told and fascinating tale of a part of World War II about which we know so little. Give it a read.

Christopher Banner is a Manhattan resident.

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