Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review. Double Cross: The True Story of The D-Day Spies.

A spy tells you things about someone else that they don't want you to know.   A double-crossing spy tells you things about someone else that they do want you to know. 

When you're dealing with spies, it's important to know what you've got.  As troops amassed on the southern coast of England in May 1944 for the invasion on the Normandy beaches that would become famous under the name D-Day, this distinction became crucial. 

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.  Ben Macintyre.
At that very moment, a small group of spies was busy spreading all sorts of lies in an effort to deceive the Germans as to the time and the place of the main Allied assault onto continental Europe.  What was special about these spies, and what gave them a particular credibility among their German audience was that each of them began their espionage career as an employee of the Third Reich, recruited to find out everything they could about their evil British enemy.  But in each case, this rag-tag group of people determined that the defeat of Nazi Germany was truly the goal worth fighting for, and decided that their work in the war would be to trip up their German spymasters.

On St. James's Street in London, it fell to a very small group of British eccentrics, public school boys besotted with cricket analogies and misogynists to a man, to determine the reliability of this potentially powerful weapon against Adolph Hitler.  They were part of B Section, a group within MI5 whose job was counterespionage.  Their initial tools were a group of German spies landed on English soil in 1940 in preparation for the invasion of England to take place that year.  Not one of these spies evaded detection.  Four of them agreed to serve as double agents.  A very new front was opened in the war, this time, it would be a war of guile and nerves. 

The agents would have fit in any James Bond novel.  Dusan "Dusko" Popov, elegant, daring, with a voracious appetite for women, was friends with Johann ("Johnny") Jebsen, a 22-year old heir of a German shipping company, and an Anglophile with a love of P.G. Wodehouse.  Popov offered himself as a spy.  Jebsen was recruited later on.  Both hated the Nazis.  Both were brave and fearless.  Popov fed disinformation to the Germans in the run-up to D-Day, Jebsen shared a mass of real information about the Germans with the British.  Popov survived the war.  Jebsen's fate was less kind. In the slippery world of espionage, he trusted someone he should not have, and it did not turn out well.

These characters, and many others, populate the new book Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre.  Double Cross is compelling, a true page-turner.  The quirky Brits, broad-hearted and small-minded at the same time, cook up these crazy schemes that just might work.  Against them are pitted the Germans whose army intelligence service is slow-footed, dim-witted, pleasure-seeking and always one step behind their English adversaries.  However, lurking in the background of German army incompetence is the menacing specter of the party faithful -- the Nazi efficiency, mania and brutality.  

Double Cross has all the markings of a spy thriller, but it is more than that.  It is real.  These characters were not the construct of someone's fertile mind (though many of the spies and spymasters possessed very fertile minds themselves).  They were people who were not there to read scripts but to write them, in real time.  Their lives, and their response to their circumstances, created a drama that is both full and with the benefit of hindsight, deeply consequential -- the human drama lifted to the level of history.

Double Cross is also the story of small people in the eyes of history who rise to their part when the light of luck and fate shines upon them.  For all their failings, these people did not fail.  Macintyre lifts Jebsen most among them. 

Ultimately, Double Cross is a summer-time read of the highest order.  Fun, gripping, eventful, romantic in the way of old-time film noir, it does not disappoint.  You won't put it down till you find out what happened on D-Day.  That's the truth, if you believe it.