Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Double Cross and Deception in WW2
Terry Crowdy, Osprey, 2013
The British Secret Services had of course earned their spurs in WW1. At the outbreak of WW2 they stepped up their counter-espionage efforts, indeed many moves had been initiated before war was declared. Terry Crowdy’s new book focuses mainly on the turning of Abwehr agents and the creation of a double cross network to feed disinformation to the highest echelons of German Command. Physical and electronic deception campaigns are also covered.
Much of the interest is in showing how the Abwehr came to select their putative agents in the first place. Of course there was a limited pool in which to fish, since the British Government lost little time in enacting a widespread internment campaign. But they found a Welsh nationalist who harboured malign thoughts for England. The only problem was that by the time the Abwehr recruited him, Snow was already an agent for MI6.
There is also interesting colour as to how the field commanders assembled their senior teams. When Wavell assumed control in Africa, he selected Dudley Clarke (who becomes a focal figure in this book), and Orde Wingate (who went on to achieve great success with his Chindits in Burma) as the heads of his deception efforts. The objective was, as ever through this war, to mislead the enemy as to the size, disposition and intentions of Allied forces. Clarke was greatly influenced by the very unorthodox tactics of the Boers in the country of his birth.
The deception campaigns were typically created and led by very intelligent and well educated British officers. It is therefore little surprise that the pseudonyms of some agents reflected a rather puerile sense of humour (e.g. Paul Nicosoff, as in Knickersoff!). Nonetheless most readers will be stunned by the episode when Clarke goes AWOL in Madrid, when he should have been returning to Cairo. Moreover he was dressed in rather fashionable women’s clothing! Dragged back to England, via a ship that was torpedoed, he talked his way back into his career. You could not, as they say, make it up…
You would think that, given the topic, this book might be somewhat dry. But the world of espionage and counter-espionage is populated with some larger-than-life characters – of which Clarke was one. Crowdy makes full use of this cast – Major Wintle is another, who springs from the page:
“Before arriving in the Middle East, he had been the subject of a scandal after threatening to shoot the Director of Air Intelligence. Wintle has been asked to rejoin his regiment, but instead had wanted to be seconded to the French Army. Having been an instructor in France he believed he could instil some fighting spirit in the French if he was allowed to go out there. The Director made a quip that Wintle interpreted as an insinuation of cowardice, at which point he drew his pistol. Wintle was put under arrest and faced a court martial. When challenged that he had pulled a gun and said words to the effect that certain ministers and Air Force officers ought to be shot, Wintle admitted it. He then produced a list of ministers he believed ought to be shot for the way they were running the war. Reaching the seventh name on the list, Wintle was stopped and the proceedings brought to a speedy conclusion.”
Such deft vignettes add greatly to the enjoyment of the reader.
By the middle of 1942 these operations had really hit their stride, and they contributed in large measure to the British success at El Alamein – spurious radio traffic, dummy tanks, trucks and divisions, the work of the double agents – all came together to mislead Rommel in spectacular fashion.
Agent Zigzag then makes an appearance, but those who have read his biography will learn nothing new. Similarly, Operation Mincemeat is unsurprisingly a central feature of this book, but has been well covered elsewhere.
Given the nature of this world, it is unsurprising that much of the action takes places on the geographical fringes of the war – countries of varying degrees of ‘neutrality’. So Lisbon features often; in Tangiers another cove springs up, a roué called James Ponsonby, who just happens to be a SOE officer. In Stockholm the British exploit the fact that the police chief is very pro-Nazi to use him as an unwitting conduit for misinformation.
The Allied invasion of Northern France was obviously the one episode where deception and double agents were most needed. Crowdy sets out how the Allies set out, over many months, to sustain Hitler’s view that the Pas de Calais would see the main assault. As is well known, the Germans kept many divisions and tank regiments North of the Seine, and south of Normandy, until it was too late to influence the battle. What I have not seen set out so clearly before is his exposition of the reasons for the British Government creating an exclusion zone around England’s South Coast. According to Crowdy this was as much to prevent the public – and any German agents (although almost all seemed to have been caught and/or turned) – from realising that Patton’s Fifth Army Group, assembling in Kent, was a work of fiction.
The work of Bletchley Park in decrypting the Germans' Enigma traffic enabled the British to judge the success of most of their deception work. From time to time, protecting the source of this information gave many of the departmental heads some difficult decisions to take. Crowdy outlines one or two occasions when ‘C’ made the wrong one.
By 1945, with the front advancing rapidly Eastwards, the need for complicated deception plans diminished. However the book closes with a supreme example of the art. Naval intelligence officers had long been concerned how German U boats could navigate successfully off the South West Coast of Ireland without surfacing. They realised that they were using the unique underwater topography of the area. Keen to remove the Germans from an area that was wanted for the many supply vessels coming from the USA, they spread word in the right ears that they had mined it heavily, and within days High Command removed their U Boats from 3,600 square miles of ocean – simple!
The book’s strength is that it provides a cohesive narrative of the subject through WW2. If I have a reservation it is that Crowdy appears to have come up with little new. There was a time when each year saw the release of more declassified material on covert WW2 operations (making it possible to add textures to operations already well described), but I sense that the flow of new raw material has now shrunk to a trickle. Crowdy has read very widely, but he was too late to interview any of the characters he features. He also appears not to have researched the Abwehr archives to read first hand of the Germans’ true thoughts on many of the deception plans. His raw material is confined to his very wide reading list. With those caveats, this is an entertaining read. For an example of the "other side", the book at left is due out in September, and looks like it might be a useful adjunct to Deceiving Hitler.
There are one or two small bloopers: e.g. Crowdy persists in calling a British intelligence officer, active in the Middle East, Major Richard Meinzerhagen – when the rest of the world knows him as Meinertzhagen.