You know, one can not live on YA, chick-lit, and stories about people with magical powers alone. Sometimes you have to mix it up a bit and cleanse your literary palate. Sometimes you have to read … a grown-up book. About history. I know, I know, it’s a radical concept, but stay with me for a moment. This book has adventure! Intrigue! And SPIES! I can’t venture too far out of my comfort zone after all. There have been many, many books about World War II and D-Day, but Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Crown 2012) by Ben Macintyre tells the story of the British intelligence division that specialized in turning German spies into double agents. Employing some of the last people that you’d want the fate of the free world to depend on — a shady Serbian playboy, a bisexual Peruvian party girl, a fanatical Polish patriot, an eccentric Spaniard with a degree in chicken farming, and a petty Frenchwoman who almost ruined the whole thing because of her stupid dog — the Double Cross spies and their handlers were at the heart of the massive deception that sought to keep as many German troops from the Normandy coast for as long as possible, thus saving thousands of Allied soldiers lives.
Macintyre writes in an appealing style that is perfect for the average layperson (someone who is not the biggest history buff, but who does have an interest and a certain amount of knowledge about a particular subject, in this case, World War II), but backs up his story with exhaustive research through MI5’s recently declassified wartime intelligence files and other sources. It helps that the subject is so inherently intriguing and that the characters, both the spies themselves and their handlers, are so colorful, but I think it takes skill to marry all that raw data into a cohesive and engaging narrative. The thing I was most impressed with though is that Macintyre manages to weave actual tension and suspense into the story considering WE KNOW HOW D-DAY TURNS OUT. Spoiler alert: it worked. And yet I found myself really anxious if so-an-so was going to get caught or if the Germans were suspecting anything. Well played, sir.
A few more observations and/or favorite bits:
- Though I think Macintyre hits this point too hard occasionally, the most amazing thing about this whole double agent enterprise was how fragile it was. If just one spy was caught in a lie or discovered then the Germans would suspect that ALL spies could be compromised. And if they knew that the intel they were being fed was faulty, then the Germans would be able to guess the real plans more easily. Plus, with one exception, it’s not like these double agents were of sterling moral character. Their unpredictability gave their handlers a lot of sleepless nights.
- On a related note, we’re really lucky that the Germans were so gullible and in some cases corrupt! They believed some ridiculous whoppers. And several of the German handlers were taking cuts of the money that the Nazis were paying the spies, so even if they suspected anything, they had a financial incentive not to turn the spies in.
- My favorite spy featured in the story is Juan Pujol Garcia, the Spanish chicken farmer, because he decided that he wanted to spy for the British but at first they were all, “hmm, we’re good,” so he just started pretending to spy for the Germans and made stuff up. Only he didn’t really know much about England and some of the stuff he came up with made no sense but the Germans still bought it (see the above bullet point), so MI-5 ended up recruiting him anyway so at the very least he didn’t accidentally reveal real military plans. And the entire rest of the war Pujol sat in a room in England and made shit up. He invented an entire fake spy ring with a cast of hundreds of pretend spies who each had their own fake occupations and fake motivations. I mean, he was essentially writing his own spy soap opera. At one point they worried that the Germans would realize that it was physically impossible for one person to be gathering all that info, but no, the Nazis LOVED him. They awarded him the Iron Cross for extraordinary merits!
- On a critical note, I feel like the two female double agents get the short shrift in this book. I’m not sure if it’s because their stories were less showy than their male counterparts or if, due to the sexism of the time, there were just less records about them, but I would have liked to have delved into their stories more.
I’m not a big history buff or a big non-fiction reader, but I really enjoyed Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies. It takes a subject that’s been discussed to death and tells it in a new and interesting way. It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of spy stories, but to read details about how real people accomplished amazing things not using crazy disguise or fancy martial arts, but through sheer balls is inspiring. If you are into World War II or spies at all, I’d recommend checking it out.