Double Agents and Double Crosses

posted 03 Mar 2021 4 mins

(Virtual) Event with Paul Beaver Our virtual talk on 3 March, Double Agents and Double Crosses, ended our WW2 history series on a high note.

In conversation with Bella Hoare, Paul Beaver, author of some 40 military-history titles and a leading authority on espionage, offered a dazzling tour d’horizon of double crosses - from the subterfuge recounted in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, via the Greeks and the Persians, to the crucial work of the XX Committee set up by the British Security Service in 1941.

‘I think we can safely say that the XX Committee was the most successful double-cross agent organisation in the history of espionage and intelligence,’ said Paul. ‘It was run by an Oxford historian, Sir John Masterman, a brilliant leader and delightful man who ensured 100% attendance at meetings by providing free currant buns. The Committee had representatives from every organisation in the secret world in London and it is significant that information on its operations was not released until the 1970s – indeed, some information relating to the double-cross system is still guarded under the 100-year rule.’

One of the XX Committee’s greatest triumphs was Operation Fortitude (South), which fed disinformation about the Normandy landings to Hitler and the German High Command:

‘This was a classic operation, run almost on a shoestring by the Brits,’ explained Paul. ‘The Germans wanted to hear that the D-Day operation would be in the Pas de Calais region and that we were trying to take the ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. Why? Because that’s how the Germans would have done it – they would have captured a port and they would have used that port. The Allied planners had a different view; they wanted to go across a beach to get as many people ashore as quickly and efficiently as they could. Double agents sent back information to the Germans, telling them that an invasion would take place in Normandy on the 6th of June, but that they shouldn’t worry as ‘the big one’ would be in Pas de Calais two weeks later. The result was that two or three Panzer divisions – some of the best German tanks – were kept back near Paris on D-Day. It was a brilliant piece of misdirection which, undoubtedly, shortened the Second World War.’

British methods for ‘turning’ spies relied equally on ruthlessness and charm:

‘This was no-holds-barred warfare. If you were an agent and you were caught by the enemy, you could expect to die, but British interrogation was not like German interrogation: there was no sodium pentothal, no depriving you of sleep or beating you up. Our way of getting information from people was about befriending them: it was a little bit like going to see your headmaster – you were petrified going in and you came out afterwards feeling that you were the best pupil in the school. We wanted German agents to go in scared they were going to be shot or hung and come out feeling like they were working for the good guys.’

Another factor in the XX Committee’s success was Hitler’s suggestible character:

‘Unlike Churchill, Hitler wasn’t really interested in intelligence, because he always knew best: he knew better than his generals, he knew better than his agents, and all he ever wanted to hear was that he was right. The intelligence world didn’t want him to be assassinated, because he was just too good for us; in some ways, Hitler was our best agent.’

Paul’s talk also included deft character sketches of celebrated double agents including Wilhelm Franz Canaris, Joan Pujol Garcia (Agent Garbo), Eddie Chapman (Agent ZigZag) and Dusan Popov (Agent Tricycle, thought to be the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond).

‘These people did extraordinary, amazing things,’ concluded Paul. ‘The reason we can sleep soundly in our beds, even today, is that there was a bunch of men and women out there who were prepared to put their life on the line – their motivations were mixed and they may not have been as glamorous as James Bond, but their story deserves to be told.’

As ever, our virtual audience had much to contribute and the post-talk discussion took many interesting turns. Special thanks are due to Paul for sharing his expertise and to all in the C. Hoare & Co. community who made this such an entertaining event.