NKVD in WWII

From left to right: military counterintelligence chief (SMERSH) Viktor Abakumov, NKGB Commissar Vsevolod Merkulov, and NKVD Commissar Lavrenty Beria.

During WWII the NKVD continued propaganda and coercion, which as before, went hand in hand. This leopard did not change its spots; terror did not abate during the war. Those who had lived under German occupation, or who had become prisoners of war and escaped, suffered the consequences of NKVD suspicion, and hundreds of thousands of them were arrested. The Soviet regime punished the families of deserters. A new phenomenon during the war was the punishment of entire nations: the Volga Germans were deported immediately at the outbreak of the war. In 1943 and 1944 it was the turn of the Crimean Tatars and Muslim minorities of the Caucasus: deported to Central Asia, they lived in the most inhuman conditions. The new element in this terror was its naked racism. Every member belonging to a certain minority group was punished, regardless of class status, past behavior, or achievements. Communist party secretaries were deported as well as artists, peasants, and workers.

Despite the arrests, the number of prisoners in camps declined during the war. This happened partly because inmates were sent to the front in punishment battalions, where they fought in the most dangerous sections. The morale and heroism of these battalions were impressive: most of the soldiers did not survive. The camps were also depopulated by the extraordinary death rates: approximately a quarter of the inmates died every year. People died because of mistreatment, overwork, and undernourishment.

In wartime nothing is more important than maintaining the morale and loyalty of the armed forces. In addressing this need the Soviet Union learned from decades of experience. At first, the regime reverted to the dual command system it had developed during a previous time of crisis, the civil war. From the regimental level up, political appointees supervised regular officers. They were responsible for the loyalty of the officers and at the same time directed the political education system. The abandonment of united command, however, harmed military efficiency; once the most dangerous first year had passed, the Stalinist leadership reestablished united command. This did not mean that the political officers had no further role to play. The network of commissars, supervised by the chief political administration of the army, survived. The commissars carried out propaganda among the troops: they organized lectures, discussed the daily press with the soldiers, and participated in organizing agitational trains that brought films and theater productions to the front.

Yet another network within the army functioned to assure the loyalty of the troops – the network of security officers. Although these men wore military uniforms, they were entirely independent of the high command and reported directly to the NKVD. According to contemporary reports, these security officers were greatly disliked by regular officers.

The principal Soviet foreign intelligence service, the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennykh Del was headed in Moscow by Lavrenti Beria and operated across the globe through legal and illegal rezidenturas, run by the head of foreign intelligence, Pavel Fitin, which were heavily dependent on local Communist parties for support and sources. Considered the sword and the shield of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the NKVD concentrated on the acquisition of technology and industrial processes before the war, but later concentrated on political intelligence and atomic data.

NKVD rezidenturas were usually concealed in either diplomatic or trade missions headed by a resident, who supervised a team of subordinates that managed networks of agents, either directly or through intermediaries. Their operations were directed in detail from Moscow, as was learned subsequently from the study of the relevant VENONA traffic, which revealed aspects of NKVD wartime agent management in Mexico City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New York, London, and Stockholm. Evidently the NKVD’s ability to function in western Europe following the Nazi repudiation of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact in June 1941 was severely handicapped, leaving the Soviets devoid of legal rezidenturas in Berlin, Copenhagen, Paris, The Hague, Oslo, Rome, Prague, Bern, Belgrade, Bucharest, Budapest, Warsaw, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, and possibly Madrid and Lisbon, too. This placed a heavy burden on the rezidenturas in London, Ottawa, Mexico City, Stockholm, the three in the United States, and eventually Buenos Aires when a rezident was posted there in 1944.

In London, the NKVD declared a rezident, Ivan Chichayev, to his hosts for liaison purposes, but in reality continued to conduct local intelligence-gathering operations through numerous agents, among them Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Leo Long, and Anthony Blunt, who penetrated various branches of British intelligence under the direction of the undeclared rezident, Anatoli Gorsky. In addition, Melita Norwood, Klaus Fuchs, and Allan Nunn May passed information to the NKVD from inside the British atomic weapons development program.

In Ottawa, the NKVD rezident, Vitali Pavlov, ran few independent operations, because the local Communist Party had been embraced by his GRU counterpart, Nikolai Zabotin. In Mexico, Lev Vasilevsky ran the embassy rezidentura under the alias Lev Tarasov and was largely dependent on Spanish Republican refugees. In Stockholm, the rezidentura was headed by a Mrs. Yartseva and then Vasili Razin, and it concentrated on the development of local political figures.

Gorsky (code-named VADIM, alias Anatoli Gromov) was appointed rezident in Washington, D.C., in September 1944, a post he held until December the following year, when he was transferred to Buenos Aires. In March 1945, the New York rezident, Stepan Apresyan, was posted to San Francisco, a rezidentura that had been opened in December 1941 by Grigori M. Kheifets (code-named CHARON), with a subrezidentura in Los Angeles. Kheifets was recalled to Moscow in January 1945 and replaced by Grigori P. Kasparov (code-named GIFT). Apresyan’s replacement in New York was Pavel Fedosimov (code-named STEPAN). Together, these NKVD officers ran more than 200 spies, of whom 115 were later identified as U.S. citizens with a further 100 undetected.

On the Eastern Front, the NKVD gained a ruthless reputation for capturing enemy agents and managing entire networks of double agents, often at the expense of having to sacrifice authentic information to enhance the standing of their deception campaigns. In the 18 months up to September 1943, the NKVD turned 80 captured enemy agents equipped with wireless transmitters, and by the end of hostilities, it had run 185 double agents with radios.

NKVD Security Forces

NKVD Security Forces Aside from combat units of the Red Army, Soviet state security forces fielded a large number of combat units during the war. In 1941 the NKVD was responsible for the Border Troops who patrolled along the frontier, and these look a very active part in the initial fighting of June 1941. The war also saw a major expansion in the NKVD Internal Troops. These units were organised like rifle or cavalry divisions and were intended to maintain internal order in the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the war the NKVD formed 15 rifle divisions. At times of crisis, these units were committed to the front like regular rifle divisions. Indeed, the NKVD formed some of them into Special Purpose (Spetsnaz) Armies, and one of these was used during the breakthroughs in the Crimea. However, this was not their primary role. They were intended to stiffen the resistance of the Red Army, and during major operations were often formed into ‘blocking detachments’ which collected stragglers and prevented retreats. Their other role was to hunt out anti-Soviet partisan groups, and to carry out punitive expeditions against ethnic groups suspected of collaborating with the Germans. The NKVD special troops were expanded in the final years of the war, eventually totalling 53 divisions and 28 brigades, not counting the Border Troops. This was equal to about a tenth of the total number of regular Red Army rifle divisions. These units were used in the prolonged partisan wars in the Ukraine and the Baltic republics which lasted until the early 1950s. They were also involved in the wholesale deportations of suspected ethnic groups in 1943-45. In some respects, the NKVD formations resembled the German Waffen-SS in terms of independence from the normal military structure. However, the NKVD troops were used mainly for internal security and repression, and were not heavily enough armed for front-line combat. Unlike the Waffen-SS, they had no major armoured or mechanised formations.

Intell War in the Wings

Italy entered the war on June 10, 1940, not to hasten, but to benefit from France’s collapse. Mussolini came in with Hitler’s reluctant permission. The Fuehrer was confident that, whatever mischief Il Duce could perpetrate, it would not materially affect the outcome. He recalled an impudent quip of World War I attributed to General von Falkenhayn. When, in 1915, the Kaiser was told that Italy planned to switch sides, von Falkenhayn assured the sovereign that it would not make any difference. “You see, your Majesty,” he said, “if they’re against us, we need ten divisions to beat them. If they’re on our side, we’ll still need ten divisions to help them.”

Sure enough, by the following spring Mussolini came to regard every day, when nothing unpleasant befell his forces, as a day won. May 24, 1941, appeared to be such a day. On the Pincio, the trees abandoned themselves to the balmy caresses of a glorious Roman spring. On the elegant Via Condotti, the smart ladies of Roman society paraded; nothing in their finery betrayed the austerity of a country at war. But on that day a seemingly insignificant event occurred which was destined to have a special impact on the future of Mussolini’s Italy. Admiral Franco Maugeri became director of the S.I.S., the Italian Office of Naval Intelligence.

Not yet 46 years old, Maugeri was a slight, slender figure with prematurely gray hair and keen gray eyes; he had an informal manner and was innately modest. He was an intellectual, well bred, well read, and had a preference for desk jobs, because he was inordinately susceptible to seasickness and sunburn. He had previously served in S.I.S. between 1927 and 1929. At that time, S.I.S. was an extremely small agency; its entire staff consisted of ten officers and twenty enlisted men. It maintained not a single secret agent, either at home or abroad. Its job was to collate the periodic reports of the Italian Naval Attachés and to perform the other routine duties of desk-bound intelligence.

During those years, there was an extremely intimate relationship between the Italian and British navies. When the Italian Navy was originally built up before the First World War, it was designed to fight alongside the British Navy as an auxiliary force. Many Italian naval officers became imbued with this tradition and continued to regard themselves, even when their country had drifted apart from Britain, as honorary officers of the Royal Navy. Admiral Maugeri, a determined anti-Fascist, was a member of this pro-British group. When he became director of S.I.S., it became a clandestine British agency at the very heart of the Italian military establishment, for all practical purposes functioning as the Italian branch of the British Naval Intelligence. This clandestine function was never regarded as improper or treasonable, either by Maugeri or his subordinates. On the contrary, they were firmly convinced that by aiding Britain in their own way they were saving Italy from total extinction.

When Maugeri returned to S.I.S. in 1941, it had changed radically. It consisted of three major regional organizations, with headquarters in Madrid, Istanbul and Shanghai (each under the respective Italian Naval Attachés) ; and four functional sections bearing the letters B, C, D and E. Section B was the efficient “black chamber,” monitoring foreign radio traffic and translating the codes and ciphers of others. Section D was the intelligence service proper. The material that B and D procured was fed to Section C which collated and evaluated it. Section E was exclusively counter-intelligence and counter-espionage.

Heading Section D was Commander Max Ponzo. He was short, squat and sturdy, built like a miniature bull. He had a swarthy complexion and nervous, darting eyes which gave him a shifty, sinister expression. He was brilliant and resourceful, courageous and aggressive. By the strength of his personality, Ponzo dominated the whole S.I.S.

Before Maugeri’s arrival, Ponzo had set up an intelligence and espionage network such as S.I.S. had never before possessed. He established several tight rings in neutral countries like Switzerland, Spain, Turkey and Portugal. He even established a minor ring in the United States. One of the room service waiters in the Wardman-Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., where Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State Cordell Hull lived, was a Ponzo spy.

While considerable information flowed from his networks abroad, the best material was procured right at home. Ponzo concentrated his efforts in Rome on the American Naval Attaché, probably on the assumption that Americans, being very much like Italians, outgoing and trusting, loquacious and boastful, would make easy targets for his snoopers.

Between 1939 and 1941, Captain Thomas C. Kinkaid, USN, was American Naval Attaché in Rome. He was a gallant officer of the line, who was destined to make a great name for himself in later years. There was, however, a serious loophole in his office. The department was badly understaffed and because Washington could not send him United States personnel, Kinkaid was compelled to hire a few Italians.

At least one of those employees worked for Ponzo. He was a fairly highly-placed clerk and had occasional access to the safe. He managed to make a duplicate key to it and from then on, until the United States entered the war, S.I.S. knew the exact contents of that American safe.

Early in 1941, Kinkaid was recalled and Captain Lester N. McNair, USN, replaced him. McNair decided, undoubtedly upon instructions from Washington, to hire a few spies. Freelance espionage was a favorite pastime of certain Italian ladies, and among them McNair found an attractive and charming young woman who appeared to be a splendid candidate.

She was Signorina Elena (her last name is covered by charitable anonymity). She was sufficiently well situated in Roman society to develop some useful sources and was of a romantic disposition, generous with her affections when the occasion required.

Elena found herself in something of a dilemma; she really did not know how and where to pick up the information Captain McNair expected. She solved the problem in the traditional manner by becoming a double agent. She called Ponzo, exposed herself as an American spy and volunteered to keep Ponzo posted about the affairs of the Americans and to pass on to McNair whatever information Ponzo wanted to slip into American files. The arrangement satisfied all concerned, including Captain McNair, who never found out about Elena’s double deal.

On December 11, 1941, Italy declared war on the United States and this made Elena vastly more valuable since she was virtually the only spy the U.S. Navy had left in Rome.

Before his departure, McNair arranged that the young lady was to send her material to Colonel Barwell R. Legge, the American Military Attaché at Berne, Switzerland. With Ponzo continuing to manage this minor but stimulating phase of American espionage, arrangements were made for a courier from Legge to call at Elena’s apartment on Lungotevere to pick up her information. Ponzo made his own arrangements to observe the visitor; he was anxious to find out who else was working for Legge in Rome.

Agents of S.I.S. were posted around the building and Elena was instructed to signal the arrival of her visitor by displaying a quaint assortment of laundry. If the courier was a man, she was to put a bathing suit in her window; if the visitor turned out to be a woman, she was to hang out a towel.

Ponzo’s agents did not have to wait long. In due course, a dainty bathing suit appeared in the window. An hour later a man came out of the building and Ponzo’s agents followed him along the broad, tree-lined avenue on the left bank of the Tiber, until they saw him meet a warrant officer they knew was working for Major Pontini’s Section E in S.I.S., the counter-espionage branch. They saw the two shake hands, enter a waiting car and drive away in apparently the most cordial manner.

The Ponzo agents, sent to trap a single American spy, had encountered two! And—horribile dictu—one of them was a trusted carabinieri of Major Pontini. They reported the discovery to Ponzo and Ponzo in turn tipped off the major. Pontini received the news with a burst of laughter.

“My dear Max,” he said, “that enemy agent whom you’ve been following so cleverly—he’s no more an enemy agent than you are. He’s one of my own officers. The Americans in Switzerland hired him to work for them and at a good, fat price, too ! Ah,” he sighed with mild contempt, “che stupidità americana!”

Such are the vagaries of espionage when it ambles into war from haphazard peacetime beginnings.

It took some time for American Intelligence to get adjusted to the challenge of war. It was different with British Intelligence.

Ponzo was sending a steady flow of excellent intelligence to the Italian Navy about the movements of British ships in the Mediterranean. As soon as a British vessel passed through the Straits of Gibraltar, either entering or leaving the Mediterranean, a signal advised the fleet of it. In Algeciras, the Spanish city bordering on Gibraltar, the Italian Consul was a member of Ponzo’s espionage ring. He lived in the Hotel Reina Cristina, whose owner was in sympathy with Italy and allowed him to build an observatory on the roof. It had powerful telescopes, long-range binoculars on firm tripods, chronometers, and cameras with telescopic lenses. In a room of the hotel, the consul had a clandestine transmitter on which he reported his observations to Rome every few hours. In this manner, Ponzo was told almost immediately when a British ship passed through the Straits.

That dazzling espionage coup at Algeciras was what could be called elaborate eyewash, the way S.I.S. had of giving the impression that it was in the war against the British up to its neck. Nobody seemed to notice that virtually the entire S.I.S. effort vis-à-vis the British was confined to this operation. It escaped attention that Ponzo was as conspicuous for his absence in London, for example, as he was conspicuous for his presence in Algeciras. During a visit to Rome, Admiral Canaris boasted to Count Ciano about his splendid spy net in Britain, claiming that one of his spies was sending to Hamburg up to ten signals a day. (It was actually the British carillon.) Ciano had to concede that Italy had nothing comparable to that. The S.I.S. had nothing at all in Britain. Still more remarkable was the fact that Commander Ponzo had not done to the British what he had so brilliantly done to the Americans. He neither ensnarled them with double agents nor relieved them of their secrets with aggressive espionage.

Admiral Maugeri made a startling statement after the war. “Actually,” he wrote, “I doubt that there were many British spies in Italy. There really was no need for them. The British Admiralty had plenty of friends among our high-ranking admirals and in the Ministry of Marine itself. I suspect the English were able to get authentic information straight from the source.” What he omitted to say was that his own S.I.S. did much of the necessary spadework for British Intelligence.

On a colorful old Roman street named after the dark little stores which lined it, the via delle Botteghe Oscure, dwelt a remarkable individual, and Max Ponzo lived under his spell. He was one of Italy’s most prominent barristers, Giovanni Serao, a man of dizzying brilliance. He was short and heavy set, but an extremely agile man, with a luxuriant beard. His eloquence was unique even for Italy. His clients included some of the country’s noblest houses and greatest corporations and a string of big foreign firms such as Paramount Pictures and the Canadian Pacific Railway as well. For many years, Signor Serao served as the legal adviser of the British Embassy in Rome and performed so effectively in that capacity that he was knighted for his services to the Crown. He was the only Roman entitled to hear himself addressed as Sir Giovanni, and he relished the title.

Serao was Ponzo’s father-in-law, and more than that, the idol of his son-in-law. Serao himself gave the British all sorts of confidential information, which he procured in the course of his practice; thanks to his intimacy with Ponzo, he could also supply military and naval intelligence of the highest order. For all practical purposes, Giovanni Serao was the clandestine chief of the British Secret Service in Rome.

Before Franco Maugeri’s arrival in S.I.S., Ponzo’s contribution had to be limited by sheer necessity. His superiors were no parties to the plot. He had to operate on his own. Serao’s Embassy connections were broken at the outbreak of the war. Serao and Ponzo had to confine their services to limited intelligence which they slipped to the British as best they could, mainly through a surreptitious contact with the British Legation that remained at the Vatican. Even this was of great value.

The British had an accurate appreciation of the Italian fleet and refused to regard it as a mortal threat to Britain’s control of the sea, but its nuisance value was recognized. There was some apprehension, in particular, about the forty-odd submarines owned by the Italians, which could have wrought havoc with British shipping in the Mediterranean if properly employed. Naval Intelligence succeeded in acquiring the special code used by the Italian submariners.

An ingenious officer on Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s staff hit upon a fantastic idea. Devising signals in the Italian code, and impersonating the Italian command, he would dispatch an Italian submarine to a certain spot in the Mediterranean to attack supposed Allied merchantmen. When the hapless submarine arrived at the spot, it was met by British destroyers waiting to send it to its doom.

In this manner, the British decimated Mussolini’s submarine arm. The operation would have continued most probably to its inevitable conclusion had it not been for an accident. The British ordered a certain Italian submarine to one of those spots where the destroyers were waiting, but that particular sub happened at the time to be in drydock at La Spezia.

The blunder alerted the Italians and ended the game, but severe damage had already been done.

Rommel was hammering the British mercilessly in Africa, and he was being supplied by shipping across the Mediterranean. The conspiracy inside the S.I.S. became of essential importance. On March 25, 1941, mysterious information alerted Admiral Cunningham to an ominous stirring of the Italian Fleet. Some of its major elements, led by the battleship Vittorio Veneto, were supposed to move in the direction of the Aegean to draw off elements of the British Fleet from the route of those Italo-German convoys. That obscure message resulted in a great British naval victory on March 28, in the memorable Battle of Cape Matapan. In Churchill’s words, “This timely and welcome victory off Cape Matapan disposed of all challenge to British naval mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean at this critical time.”

By the beginning of April, the steady flow of intelligence enabled the British to intensify attacks on the shipping which had to feed Rommel’s forces in Libya on a substantial scale. So effective was this surreptitious co-operation that Commander Malcolm Wanklyn in the submarine Upholder could win the Victoria Cross for his apparently uncanny ability to track down and sink German supply ships. An outstanding victory was scored in April, when a task force of four destroyers was guided to a large convoy. In this one action, fourteen thousand tons of enemy shipping, fully loaded with war materials for Rommel, was destroyed.

As time passed, Ponzo developed better communications with the British. A sympathetic S.I.S. agent in Berne became a pipeline to British Intelligence there. And still later the British managed to plant a clandestine radio transmitter in Rome. Now Ponzo needed a go-between to take information to the operator. His eye fell on the Countess Montarini, an Englishwoman by birth, married to an Italian nobleman, the mother-in-law of a gallant young lieutenant of the Italian Navy. She worked as the direttrice of Elizabeth Arden’s beauty salon.

Each morning, on her way to the shop, the Countess stopped at the church of the Trinità dei Monti for a brief prayer. Leaving, she would stop in front of the church to look down to the elongated Piazza di Spagna below, at the bottom of a flight of steps, inhaling the beauty of the sight.

At this famous Piazza, Rome is at its best. In the center of the square stands Bernini’s fountain, La Barcaccia. It was made in the shape of a barque of war, spouting water from its marble cannons. Leading down to it is the Scala di Spagna, a flight of one hundred and thirty-eight steps.

When the Countess Montarini descended the grand staircase, she might pass a young man who stood on one of the steps. There would be nothing unusual, apparently, in this chance encounter, but, in fact, it was an ingeniously devised means of communication. The step on which the young man waited for the passing of the signora had a special significance. Each of the one hundred and thirty-eight steps meant a specific, separate message according to an elaborate system of codes. Each step had a different meaning when counted from the top or the bottom. Additional messages were passed on by having members of the ring do something specific on individual steps, such as lighting a cigarette, blowing a nose or cupping a hand over an eye.

The Countess was not only a transmission belt; she also gathered much useful information on her own. The Arden Beauty Salon was patronized by many of the most influential women of Rome, including the wives, daughters, and mistresses of Axis diplomats and officers. They gossiped freely while having their hair done, their faces mudpacked, and their nails manicured.

The Countess hired operators who could be trusted and taught them how to listen to the conversations of their celebrated clients and how to pose loaded questions without making them even slightly suspicious. Frequently the mention of a name would start the ball rolling. An operator once reported to the Countess that one of her clients had told her she wanted to be especially attractive since she was to have a reunion with her husband she had not seen for more than a year. She was the wife of a general assigned to the African front. From this pebble of information it was possible to develop the intelligence that the general’s recall had ushered in a complete reorganization of the Italian command structure in Libya.

Meanwhile, in Africa, Rommel went on to his greatest triumphs. He reached his peak in the summer of 1942 when he defeated the Eighth Army between Gazala and Tobruk, and then chased what was left of it almost to Cairo.

The British managed to halt his advance at El Alamein. In August, however, Rommel returned to the offensive, only to be finally checked this time. He could not go beyond El Alamein and saw his chances of conquering Egypt go up in the sand dust of the Western Desert.

There were several factors that robbed him of ultimate glory: the British utilized the interval he had granted them to shake up their high command, to send General Sir Bernard Montgomery to lead the Eighth Army, and to give him adequate reinforcements. But fully as important as what Monty received was what Rommel did not get: reinforcements and supplies via Italy and especially that confounded “shprit”—his word for gasoline.

Marshal Kesselring was sending all the fuel that Rommel was asking for, but somehow only a fraction of what left Italy ever arrived in Africa. As Liddell Hart put it, the Desert Fox was “vitally crippled by the submarine sinkings of the petrol tankers crossing the Mediterranean.”

The Germans were sure there was a leak. A special detachment of the usually infallible Funkabwehr, the Abwehr’s radio monitoring service, was brought to Italy to search for outgoing messages. They failed to find a single suspicious signal. Another special detachment, this one from Abwehr III (counter-espionage) was sent into Italy, and, in close co-operation with the brave carabinieri of Section E of the S.I.S., they instituted a manhunt for the presumed spies. The source of the leak was never found. The leak itself was never plugged.

What actually happened was simplicity itself. Since wars cannot be conducted in silence, the Italians had to advise their African command about these convoys. Their routing was radioed to Africa in a naval code that nobody expected the enemy to break. But someone at the Italian end had slipped the key of that sacrosanct code to the British and also advised them promptly whenever the code was changed.

Rommel was effectively deprived of his “shprit.” In the words of Captain Liddell Hart: “That decided the issue, and once the enemy began to collapse at their extreme forward point they were not capable of any serious stand until they had reached the western end of Libya, more than a thousand miles back.”

Ponzo’s operation continued until the Italian Armistice in September, 1943. When the Germans occupied Rome, the city became too hot for him; and he was needed in Taranto, to the south, where the Italian Navy was being resurrected to a new life in a new war, this time to do exactly what most of its flag officers wanted, to fight against the Germans.

On October 10th, Max Ponzo sneaked out of Rome. Disguised as a straggler, he succeeded in making his way to Taranto where he was received with open arms. The morning after his arrival, he was named chief of the reconstituted Italian Naval Intelligence, with the wholehearted approval of the Allies.

The situation in Rome remained in excellent hands. Admiral Maugeri disappeared underground and became one of the chiefs of the resistance organization inside the Eternal City.

Countess Montarini’s position became untenable. She could no longer maintain her masquerade. Her son-in-law, the naval lieutenant who was himself on the periphery of the ring, escaped to the Allies at the first opportunity, and that tipped off the Germans to the mother-in-law’s true sentiments. With the help of friends, she vanished from sight, although she never left Rome. She disappeared into the vast palace complex of Prince Colonna, where she remained in hiding until that June day of 1944, when at long last Rome was liberated by the Allies.

Intelligence Post WWII Part I

Argentinian Invasion of the Falklands

Military operations have changed greatly since the end of the Second World War, most of all because the development of nuclear weapons has effectively prevented the major states from fighting the sort of full-scale struggles for decision which are the subject of this book. Big wars are now too dangerous for big countries to fight. That does not mean that the world has become a safer place for the common man. On the contrary. It is estimated that armed conflict since 1945 has killed fifty million people, as many as died in the Second World War. Most of the victims, however, have perished in small-scale, random struggles, many scarcely to be dignified even by the name of civil war. In the last fifty years it is not the methods or weapons of 1939—45 that have harvested the major proportion of violent deaths – aerial bombardment or battles between great tank armies or the relentless grind of infantry attrition – but skirmish and all too often massacre with cheap small arms.

Even in such few major wars as have been fought, there have been few large-scale conventional battles and their number has tended to decline over time. Thus, while the Korean war of 1950–3 was almost exclusively a conflict of infantry and tank armies, and the Arab–Israeli wars of 1956–73 likewise, the biggest war of all, in Vietnam, was a protracted counter-insurgency struggle, marked by the clash of armies scarcely at all. Though the Iran–Iraq war of 1980–8 saw much heavy fighting, Iran’s lack of heavy equipment and use of under age conscripts in suicide attacks made it an unequal contest bearing little resemblance to other wars of the twentieth century. In 1991 Iraq was forced to abandon its illegal occupation of Kuwait as a result of defeat in one major tank battle; but its army, more concerned to surrender than to stand its ground, cannot really be said to have given battle at all. The same can be said of its performance in the 2nd Gulf War of 2003, in which intelligence played an important role in the targeting early on of the Iraq leadership.

That episode apart, the post-war military record yields few examples of outcomes being influenced by operational intelligence of the sort assessed in the previous chapters. Intelligence services have never been busier than they are in the nuclear world and consume more money than has ever before been spent. By far the greater proportion both of effort and funds is devoted, however, to early warning and to listening, continuous processes, intended to sustain security, not to achieve success in specific or short-term circumstances. The elaborate infrastructure of early warning – radar stations, underwater sensors, space satellite systems, radio interception towers – is enormously expensive to build, maintain and operate and so are its mobile auxiliaries, particularly airborne surveillance squadrons. The intelligence material thus collected, categorised by professionals as sigint (signals intelligence), overlapping with comint (communications intelligence) and elint (electronic intelligence), requires processing and interpretation by thousands of analysts and computer technicians. What they do and what they achieve is rarely published. The public anyhow seems indifferent to what is unquestionably the most significant sector of contemporary intelligence activity. Understandably, the complexities of intelligence technique must baffle even highly educated laymen. Only the most specialist of experts can hope to comprehend what intelligence agencies now do. It is possible, with application, for the interested general reader to follow descriptions of how the Enigma machine worked and of how the problems it presented to cryptanalysts were overcome. Modern ciphers, created through the application of enormous prime numbers to language, belong in the realm of the highest mathematics and are alleged to defy attack even by the most powerful computers yet built.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the intelligence world attracts attention only when there is a breach of security, typically in recent years by the ‘defection in place’ of an intelligence operative who yields to greed or lust or exhibits defects of character not identified at the time of recruitment. There has been a steady trickle of such scandals, long post-dating the sensational unmasking of the ‘Cambridge’ spies in Britain and affecting the American and Soviet services which were presumed to have been warned against such occurrences in their own ranks by the ‘Third’ and ‘Fifth’ Man episodes.

Public interest is also engaged by accounts of the effect of human intelligence, humint, on recent or current military operations, where such effect can be shown. Humint has unquestionably played a major part in Israel’s successful efforts to hold at bay its Arab neighbours in four major wars, much minor conflict and its continuous struggle for security, for the ingathering of Jews from neighbouring lands allowed its intelligence services to recruit patriotic operatives who spoke Arabic bilingually and were able to pass as natives in their countries of former residence. It is understandable that the successes of Israeli humint remain almost completely secret. During the Vietnam War the American CIA conducted a large-scale campaign of destabilisation against the Viet Cong, largely by the targeted assassination of Viet Cong leaders in the South Vietnamese villages. Operation Phoenix remains unacknowledged; the Vietnam War was eventually lost; it would nevertheless be illuminating to know what effect Phoenix had on its conduct.

The only conventional military conflict of recent times for which a reasonably complete picture of the influence of intelligence on operations is available in all or most of its complexity – signit, elint, comint, humint and photographic or imaging intelligence – is the Falklands War of 1982, between Britain and Argentina. Rights of sovereignty over the Atlantic islands of the Falklands or Malvinas, which include such Antarctic outliers as South Georgia, Graham Land and the South Shetland, Orkney and Sandwich groups, has been disputed between Britain and Argentina since the nineteenth century. The small Falklands population is exclusively British (the other territories are effectively uninhabited) but it is a universal and deeply held belief in Argentina that the lands are theirs. Argentina has a troubled political history. Once a country of great wealth, which attracted to it over the last century large numbers of immigrants, including poor Italians seeking a better life outside Europe and an English minority who came to supply its commercial and professional class, Argentina suffered serious economic decline in the mid-twentieth century. Discontent brought to power a populist Peronist regime, so called after Colonel Juan Peron, its leader. Peronist mismanagement provoked a military coup in the 1970s. When the military junta itself became unpopular, it decided to restore its fortunes by reviving the claim to the Falklands. Recovering the Malvinas was a cause around which all Argentinians could unite.

Britain was long used to Argentina’s Falklands demands. It did not take their revival in 1981–2 very seriously. Negotiations proceeded at the United Nations in New York: they were not marked by urgency and the British found the Argentinians in reasonable mood. Unknown to Britain, however, the junta, led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, had already decided to mount an invasion at latest by the October of 1982, when it was calculated that the only Royal Naval ship on station, the ice patrol vessel Endurance, long scheduled for retirement, would have been withdrawn. As late as March 1982, no military preparations had been made and no diplomatic crisis appeared to impend. Then what seems a chance factor altered the tempo. An Argentinian scrap reclamation party arrived at Leith in South Georgia, the Falklands dependency, declaring it was there to dismantle an old whaling station. The scrap men raised the Argentinian flag but failed to seek permission for their work from the local station of the British Antarctic Survey, the government authority. When visited, they hauled down the flag but did not regularise their presence. Constantino Davidoff, their leader, denied then and afterwards that he was sponsored by the Argentinian navy but he is believed to have had a meeting with naval officers before landing. Once he was ashore, the British Foreign Office felt it had to act; the Ministry of Defence was more reluctant, since it regarded operations 8,000 miles from home as beyond its capabilities. Under Foreign Office pressure, a case was made to the Prime Minister, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who ordered Endurance, with a party of marines from Port Stanley, the Falklands capital, to sail for South Georgia and to await orders.

The unexpected despatch of Endurance perturbed the junta. If the scrap men were removed, Argentinian prestige would be damaged; but the presence of Endurance challenged it to military action, which it did not plan to take for several months. The Argentinians havered, first sending a naval ship to take off most of the scrap men, then sending another with a party of Argentinian marines to ‘protect’ those left. It was the turn of the British government to dither. It sought guidance from its own and the American intelligence services as to what Argentina intended. The signs were unclear. Budgetary economies had run down the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) station in Buenos Aires; what signal information could be supplied by Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and by its sister signals organisation, the National Security Agency (NSA), did not clarify the picture. The British agencies enjoyed a warm and co-operative relationship with the American, based on much exchange of mutually useful material; but the CIA depended on MI6 for human intelligence, while both GCHQ and the NSA were confused by the volume of radio traffic suddenly generated in the South Atlantic by Argentinian but also Chilean vessels; the two navies were conducting a large-scale but routine exercise.

Britain fell into a week-long bout of indecision; it had decided it could not tolerate any further Argentinian intervention in the affairs of its South Atlantic dependencies; but it shrank from any overt measure that would provoke Argentina to action. Eventually, the decision was taken out of its hands. On 26 March, the junta, under pressure from street demonstrations against its economic austerity programme, but even more fearful of public reaction if it appeared to back down before British diplomatic protest over the South Georgia affair, decided to advance the timetable for its invasion of the Falklands and launch the operation at once.

The Falklands were effectively undefended. Of their population of 1,800, 120 of the men belonged to the Falklands Islands Defence Force, but they were untrained and equipped only with small arms. An official British military presence was provided by Naval Party 8901, a detachment of forty Royal Marines; their number had recently been doubled by the arrival of their reliefs. Apart from Endurance, currently in Antarctica, there were no naval ships in the Southern Hemisphere. The Argentine armada, which began to land at dawn on 2 April, could not therefore be repelled, though it was briefly opposed. Naval Party 8901, depleted by the despatch of twelve men to reinforce South Georgia, was ordered by the governor, Sir Rex Hunt, who had been warned by London that an invasion force was at sea, to guard the airfield and the harbour. When an advance party of 150 Argentinian commandos landed, they were engaged and, in a firefight around Government House, two were killed. It was clear to Sir Rex Hunt, however, that resistance was hopeless and, after two hours, he ordered surrender. Soon afterwards the vanguard of 12,000 Argentinian troops began to land, while the Argentinian air force took control of the airfield.

The news caused an immediate and major political crisis in London. The second of April was a Friday; an emergency session of parliament, which never sits at the weekend, was called for the following day. The consensus at Westminster was that, if the government could not demonstrate its willingness and ability to confront the Argentinians, it would have to resign. Fortunately for Mrs Thatcher, a woman of iron will but untried powers of decision, she had already instituted precautionary measures. Alerted by the enormous volume of radio traffic generated by Argentinian preparations, she had ordered a submarine to sail for the South Atlantic on the previous Monday, 29 March. Much more important, indeed, as was to prove critically for the whole Falklands saga, she had on Wednesday evening ordered that a naval and military task force should be assembled to depart at once for the South Atlantic. Her desire to recapture the Falklands was never in doubt; the impetus to the decision was supplied by the arrival in her room in the House of Commons when she was consulting her ministers of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Henry Leach, who gave it as his professional opinion that Britain had the power to mount such an operation and that the navy could set out by the coming weekend. He also assured the Prime Minister of victory. On return to his office he sent a signal, ‘The task force is to be made ready and sailed.’

Its first elements departed on Monday 5 April, while its military complement was hastily assembled in Britain to follow. Three submarines, two nuclear-powered, one diesel, formed the spearhead; there were to follow, over the course of the weeks to come, 2 aircraft carriers, embarking 20 Harrier aircraft and 23 helicopters, 23 destroyers and frigates, 2 amphibious ships, 6 landing ships, 75 transports, ranging in size from large passenger liners to trawlers, and 21 tankers. The majority of the transports and tankers were ‘taken up from trade’, chartered or requisitioned, that is, from the merchant service.

The troops to be embarked would eventually comprise the whole of 3 Commando Brigade (40, 42, and 45 Commando, Royal Marines, 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and 59 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers), attached to which were 2nd and 3rd Battalions The Parachute Regiment, two troops of light armoured vehicles of the Blues and Royals, thirteen air defence troops, the commando logistic regiment and the brigade’s helicopter squadron. There was also a large complement of Special Forces, including three sections of the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) and two squadrons of the Special Air Service (SAS). To follow later was 5 Infantry Brigade (2nd Scots Guards, 1st Welsh Guards and 1st/7th Gurkha Rifles) with some artillery and helicopters. The Royal Air Force deployed elements of seventeen squadrons, flying fighters, bombers, helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft and air refuelling tankers.

Refuelling, in the air and at sea, was an essential requirement, for the task force was to operate without a land base nearer than Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic. Until the airfield at Port Stanley could be recaptured, air refuelling was less vital, for long flights over the ocean could not be numerous. All fuel, and other supplies to the warships, however, had to be transferred ship-to-ship while under way.

The assembly of the task force was a race against time, not only because of the need to confront the Argentinians with an armed response as rapidly as possible but also because of the season; the onset of the South Atlantic winter at the end of June would bring sub-Arctic weather necessitating withdrawal from the region. Everything, from completing dockyard maintenance to supplying the soldiers with warm clothing, had to be done at the highest speed; at the outset it seemed that many requirements could not be met.

It was not only the pace of material preparation that had to be forced; so too did that of planning and intelligence gathering. The two were intimately connected and interdependent. Britain had no base in the region and no allies. Chile, long on bad terms with its Argentinian neighbour, was disposed to be helpful but could not risk openly siding with Britain; most other South American countries supported Argentina’s claim to the Falklands, if only out of regional solidarity. How was the campaign to be fought? Clearly there must be an amphibious landing but it would have to be launched from the task force’s ships, not from land. That required the navy to close up to the islands, at least while the troops got ashore, but also to remain nearby during daylight so that the carrier aircraft could provide support. Worryingly the islands, though 400 miles from the nearest stretch of Argentinian coast, were just not far enough offshore to lie outside the range of the enemy’s land-based aircraft. The troops, once landed, would be vulnerable to air attack. Far more worryingly, the warships and transports would also be at risk, except when at night they could stand off to the east into the broad expanse of the ocean.

How serious was the risk? That proved, both at the outset of the campaign and during its development, an embarrassingly difficult question to answer. No one in Britain really knew; no one, indeed, knew anything much that was useful about Argentina’s armed forces. For reasons of economy, the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) had closed down all but one of its stations in South America; that remaining was in Buenos Aires but its chief was too overworked to collect anything but political intelligence. The service attachés, navy, army and air, were supposed to report on their Argentinian opposite numbers; but in recent years they were more often required to act as salesmen for the British defence industries, so the excuse went afterwards; in practice, attaché appointments were final postings at the end of a middling officer’s career, a farewell present for an unexceptionable life. This was not particular to Argentina but the general rule; only those officers posted to the Soviet Union had the duty of acquiring intelligence and were fitted by ability and training to do so.

Yet the collection of pertinent information in any reasonably open society, which Argentina was, is not difficult and need not conflict with diplomatic propriety. Readily available service magazines contain valuable snippets of information which, if collated, quickly yield an order of battle; so do local newspapers, from stories about local men in uniform and the social affairs of locally stationed units. Service histories are also fruitful sources; units tend to occupy the same barracks for decades. Armies, and navies, are relatively unchanging organisations and, to anyone who takes the trouble to form a picture of their organisation, rarely conceal secrets about their location, strength or function requiring specialised intelligence scrutiny to uncover.

The archives of the Defence Intelligence Service in London ought, in short, to have contained copious and detailed reports on the Argentinian navy, army and air force in April 1982. They did not. The cupboard was almost bare. The officers of the task force have in consequence left a record of a shaming and hurried search in public libraries for such standard works as Jane’s Fighting Ships and the Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance. Little was to be found. The Military Balance allots no more than two or three pages to a country the size of Argentina; Jane’s Fighting Ships is largely a photographic album. Moreover, as the most important of Argentina’s warships, the carrier Veinticinco de Mayo, was the ex-British HMS Venerable, venerable indeed since launched in 1943, and three of its largest destroyers were British-built or designed, Jane’s could tell little the British did not know already. The marines and soldiers scanning the Military Balance must have been even more disheartened. It lists the barest information of numbers of units and quantities of equipment and those in separate sections; no picture of units’ capabilities is discernible, therefore, while units are not named nor are their peacetime locations specified. That omission may have been seriously misleading in the frenzied days of early April 1982. The Argentinian army’s three best formations were the VI, VIII and XI Mountain Brigades (Peron, incidentally, was a mountain infantry officer), which, by reason of their training and familiarity with cold climate, seemed the obvious choice for Falklands duty. Because of the junta’s fear that Chile might profit from their commitment to the Falklands to strengthen its position in the disputed Cape Horn region, however, it had left the mountain brigades in their peacetime stations and decided to employ lower-grade formations drawn from the warm borders of Uruguay. GCHQ is known to have been intercepting the mountain brigades’ radio traffic, confirming that they were still located in the far south even as the invasion fleet put to sea. The task force officers, apparently dependent wholly on scantily published information about the location and capability of their potential opponents, did not even know that.

The navy was quite as badly informed. Admiral Sandy Woodward, commanding the warships and transports aboard the old carrier Hermes, had a general picture of the risk he faced. It consisted of three elements: attack by land-based Argentinian aircraft, some of which were equipped to launch Exocet, the French-supplied sea-skimming missile (also aboard some of Woodward’s ships), which was difficult to distract by electronic counter-measure and deadly if it struck home; the Argentinian surface fleet, known from radio intercepts to be at sea and organised in two groups formed respectively around the Veinticinco de Mayo and the ex-American heavy cruiser Belgrano, apparently deployed to mount a pincer movement; and Argentinian submarines. The diesel-propelled submarines were known to be difficult to detect but, it was believed, could be held at bay by the British nuclear submarines in the area; the surface fleet had been warned not to enter an ‘exclusion zone’ proclaimed around the islands by Britain and would be attacked if it did (it did not but was attacked anyhow, by HM Submarine Conqueror, and Belgrano sunk); it was hoped to overcome the Exocet threat by positioning destroyers and frigates as radar pickets between the islands and Argentina to provide early warning and to distract any missiles that got through by firing ‘chaff’, which simulated a larger target than the threatened ship.

In practice the two Argentinian diesel submarines did not manage to attack the task force; the surface fleet, partially incapacitated by equipment failure aboard the Veinticinco de Mayo, turned back from the exclusion zone and returned to port after the sinking of the Belgrano. The Exocet aircraft, by contrast, inflicted heavy damage on the task force and, with others delivering more conventional ordnance, came close to achieving a naval victory that would have secured the Falklands and humiliated Britain for decades to come.

The Argentinian air-launched Exocet, a modified version of the maritime model, known as the AM-39, was mounted on a Super Etendard aircraft, supplied by France, like the missile itself. The British believed correctly that Argentina had only five AM-39s, but wrongly that it had only one Super Etendard; the right number was five. As important as the aircraft–missile combination was the maritime reconnaissance aircraft that alerted the Super Etendards at their Rio Grande base to the presence of the task force within attack range. An antiquated American aeroplane, the SP-2H Neptune, it possessed the capability to linger beyond the horizon formed by the earth’s curvature but to keep the British under radar surveillance by bobbing up over it at regular intervals. The Super Etendards, when vectored towards the target, flew at sea level, beneath British radar, until close enough for the Exocet to strike. The pilots needed to gain altitude only once or twice, and then briefly, for their own radars to acquire their targets and automatically programme the missiles to depart in the correct direction. Once launched the Exocet maintained height just above sea level by an on-board altimeter and finally homed on the target ship down the beam of its own radar.

Admiral Woodward and his staff had been wrongly informed that the Super Etendards’ range was only 425 miles, too short to reach the task force east of the islands. In fact, by refuelling from one of Argentina’s two KC-130 tankers, they could achieve launch positions. On 4 May, two days after the sinking of the Belgrano, two Super Etendards, flying from Rio Grande, approached the task force; their directing Neptune had been spotted by British radar but was thought to be searching for Belgrano survivors. Glasgow and Coventry, deployed as radar pickets west of the task force, caught echoes of the attacking aircraft as they rose above the horizon to correct their final approach paths. The British ships fired chaff and both Exocets, travelling only six feet above the sea, were deflected by their own course-corrections. Sheffield, twenty miles distant, was currently transmitting on its radio link to satellite, which prevented its hearing the warnings transmitted by its sister ships or operating its own radar. Its crew were therefore oblivious of impending danger and neither fired chaff nor manoeuvred. She was hit in the forward engine room by one of the Exocets which, though its warhead failed to explode, started a fire that eventually forced her abandonment, after heavy loss of life.

The manifestation of the Exocet threat was to exert a decisive effect both on the management of the campaign and on the intelligence effort that underlay it. Admiral Woodward at once withdrew the task force far to the east of the islands, where it was to remain until the landings began on 21 May. At the same time the Northwood joint services headquarters, from which Operation Corporate, as the campaign was code-named, was directed, began a frenzied search for means to improve intelligence collection and to strike directly at the Argentinian air menace. Of signal intelligence there was no shortage; the Argentinian army, navy and air force generated a large volume of traffic, which was intercepted not only by GCHQ, through its intercept station at Two Boats on Ascension Island, ostensibly a branch of the Cable and Wireless Company, but by the NSA, the American intelligence community having decided to lend its British partners full support at this time of need, and by a New Zealand intercept station at Waiouru. The United States was also generous with satellite intelligence. The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) had three systems in operation that could together provide electronic and imaging data, White Cloud, KH-8 and KH-11; it could also offer data from occasional overflights by the SR-71 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft.

The limitation on the usefulness of overhead surveillance was, first, its intermittence – White Cloud made only two passes a day – but, second, that by the time it became available, the damage had been done. Overhead surveillance could have warned of the Argentinian invasion fleet setting sail, in time for the British government to have issued an ultimatum; once the fleet had arrived, it could supply little further information that was useful.

It was, among other factors, for that reason that the Northwood headquarters decided, after the shock of the first Exocet attack, to move from passive to active counter-intelligence methods. Since traditional means of warning – including satellite intelligence – had failed to avert the threat, the Ministry of Defence would be ordered to mount operations to eliminate the risk at source. Britain’s special forces would be committed to find and destroy the Exocet units in their home bases.

Intelligence Post WWII Part II

Milan – RAID SAS – Darwin Settlement. Painting by Daniel Bechennec.
Visit Daniel’s Website for some fantastic Paintings

Special forces are a distinctively British contribution to contemporary military capability. They have their origin in Winston Churchill’s directive of July 1940 to ‘set Europe ablaze’, the immediate outcome of which was the creation of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Churchill’s belief, ill-conceived though it proved to be, was that covert attacks by irregular forces within the territory of German-occupied Europe could undermine Britain’s enemy from within. He envisaged the work being done by local patriots, armed and advised by British agents. Churchill’s scheme, though it did much to restore the national pride of Europe’s defeated peoples, did little to weaken Nazi power. His conception of forming irregular units had an indirect result, however, that was permanently to alter the way in which states use military force. Fertilised by the idea of SOE, the British army’s thinking in the middle period of the Second World War turned towards the creation of its own irregular forces, trained and equipped to operate inside enemy territory. The first such units, organised at Churchill’s direct order, became the commandos, raiding forces to be landed from the sea; they had their airborne equivalent in the Parachute Regiment, which was trained and equipped to descend from aircraft behind enemy lines.

The SOE, commando and Parachute Regiment ideas coalesced to inspire free-thinking officers of the British forces in the Middle East during 1940–2 with a conception of their own: that instead of seeking to recruit civilians to fight as irregular soldiers, they should turn professionals into irregulars. The outcome was a coterie of unconventional units, the Long Range Desert Group, Popski’s Private Army, the Levant Schooner Squadron, the Special Air Service. When the war came to an end, most were disbanded to survive only as romantic memories. The Special Air Service (SAS) found a different destiny. It had had a very successful war, attacking airfields in apparently quiet sectors of the desert and pinpoint targets in continental Europe; though stood down in 1946, it was revived – as the Malayan Scouts – to conduct covert operations against Communist terrorists in the Malayan jungle in 1948 and thereafter accumulated many other functions. By the 1980s it had become the instrument with which the army, often acting as the agent of the government, conducted covert operations against terrorists and organised criminals inside and outside the United Kingdom; it also acted as the irregular arm of the regular forces in conventional operations. Quite small – its intensely selective recruitment process limited its numbers to about 400 – its effectiveness was out of all proportion to its numerical strength.

One of the functions at which it excelled was undercover observation. SAS troopers learnt how to penetrate a landscape and disappear inside it, ‘lying up’ in ‘hides’ for days at a time, surviving in great discomfort to bring back eye-witness accounts of enemy locations and activities. Northwood headquarters decided at the outset of Operation Corporate that, because of the paucity of intelligence derived from signal interception and overhead surveillance, it would be essential to insert SAS parties to watch and report. Those missions would shortly be enlarged to include direct attack on exposed enemy positions identified as offering critical threats to the success of the expedition.

One was decided upon at the outset. The Argentinian presence on South Georgia, though it lay 800 miles from the Falklands group, was seen as an affront; it was also soon perceived as presenting an opportunity. During the long preparatory period, as the task force moved south in stages during March and April, the government felt increasingly under pressure to allay public anxiety with news of success. The recapture of South Georgia would satisfy the requirement. A mixed party of Royal Marines and SAS was therefore embarked on HMS Antrim and detached to the objective. In extreme weather conditions and with inadequate equipment, the party eventually got ashore, having narrowly avoided disaster in the process, and completed their mission between 21–24 April. The Argentinian servicemen, who had replaced the scrap dealers, gave up easily. The marines and SAS suffered no casualties, though many had been close to death by mishap several times.

Following the South Georgia foray, the SAS, with its Royal Marines equivalent, the Special Boat Squadron (now Service), was committed directly to preliminary operations in the Falklands; at a later stage it also took a full operational part in the fighting and attempted a number of still mysterious penetrations of the Argentinian mainland, intended to give early warning of Argentinian air strikes but also to intercept them by surprise attack.

The first major special forces mission was launched against the Falklands group in early May. Six Special Boat Squadron (SBS) teams and seven four-man SAS patrols were landed by helicopter from the fleet, the SBS tasked particularly to choose landing beaches, the SAS to gather intelligence of Argentinian deployments. One SAS patrol lay up at Bluff Cove, eventually to be chosen as a subsidiary landing place on the west coast of East Falkland, the main island, one at Darwin, near San Carlos, the initial and main landing place, three overlooking Port Stanley, the island capital on East Falkland, three on the barely inhabited West Falkland. It was there that the SAS drew first blood. On 14 May forty-five men of D Squadron, who had been guided to their destination by a patrol inserted three days earlier, landed by helicopter to strike at the airstrip on Pebble Island where the Argentinian air force had based eleven Pucara ground-attack aircraft, guarded by a hundred men. The SAS troopers were accompanied by forward observers from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery to direct the fire of frigates offshore. Under the bombardment the SAS laid demolition charges which destroyed all the enemy aircraft and withdrew without loss, leaving an Argentinian officer dead and two of his men wounded.

Two independent actions by special forces followed, one on 21 May, the day of the main landing in San Carlos Water, to seize Fanning Head, which overlooked the approach, and during 25–27 May to secure look-out positions on Mount Kent, dominating Port Stanley. Both were completely successful. The Argentinians at Fanning Head were driven off by the SBS which, in the period before the main landing, also sent patrols to Campa Menta Bay, Eagle Hill, Johnson’s Harbour, San Carlos and Port San Carlos. On 20 May an SAS patrol had also struck a serious blow at Argentinian ability to position troops against the bridgehead, when it was secured, by finding an enemy helicopter park and destroying the four Chinooks and Pumas waiting there. The two units, 22 SAS and the SBS, continued to be involved in operations on the islands after the landings until the Argentinian surrender on 14 June.

After 4 May, however, when Sheffield was sunk by Exocet, the main thought of those controlling special forces was to use them in some way that would provide early warning of Exocet raids or eliminate the Super Etendards which delivered them. In either case landings on the Argentinian mainland would be required. The insertion of an SAS surveillance team was attempted by helicopter against the base at Rio Grande on the night of 17–18 May; its mission was to assess the state of the defences and then retire undetected into Chilean territory, where preparations had been made to receive it. As the helicopter landed the pilot decided that his aircraft had been detected and that he must make an escape to Chile. After a hurried flight westward, he dropped his SAS passengers to proceed on foot across the border, then landed inside Chilean territory and set fire to his machine. He and his two crew were subsequently repatriated, having unconvincingly explained their presence in Chilean airspace with the excuse that they had got lost. The SAS invaders were discovered by an undercover liaison agent, taken to Santiago and hidden there until the war was over.

The second element of the scheme to eliminate the Super Etendards at Rio Grande failed because those detailed for the mission became convinced that it would end in disaster. The plan required three troops, forty-five men, to be crash-landed onto the runway in Hercules C-130 aircraft, overcome the defenders, destroy the Super Etendards, kill the pilots, whom it was hoped to trap in their quarters, and then march at high speed across country to neutral Chile. The diplomacy of the operation was dubious; so was its practicality. The soldiers’ confidence was not enhanced by the discovery that the only maps of the region available dated from 1939 or had been photocopied from The Times Atlas. At their last briefing before departure from England, two highly experienced sergeants announced that they wished to remain behind, apparently an unprecedented event in SAS history. In the face of their doubts, the senior officer felt obliged to cancel the operation and stand the other soldiers down. Some felt the dissenters should have been dismissed; others accepted that they had reason on their side.

The planners’ reasons for preparing the operation, at the extreme limit of risk though it was known to be, was demonstrated on 25 May when two Super Etendards, refuelled north of the islands, approached the fleet from an unexpected direction and launched Exocets. One was distracted by chaff and fell into the sea, the second, attracted by the huge bulk of the container ship Atlantic Conveyor, struck home. Conveyor caught fire and sank, taking with it much vital heavy equipment, including three large Chinook troop-carrying helicopters, and ten Wessex, which were intended to lift the infantry forward towards Port Stanley. Their loss condemned the infantry to walk, thus seriously setting back the final stage of the ground campaign.

After the attack on Conveyor, however, only one Exocet remained to the Argentinians. Moreover, in fierce battles between the task force and the enemy’s conventionally armed air units between 21 and 23 May, twenty-three enemy aircraft had been destroyed, taking Argentinian losses to one-third of their available strength. The Argentinian pilots had fought throughout the campaign with great courage and unexpected skill but the air battles over San Carlos Water had effectively defeated them. They were to achieve one more spectacular success, at Bluff Cove on 8 June, but by then the British ground forces were positioned on the high ground surrounding Port Stanley, whose Argentinian garrison was already showing its readiness to surrender.

There is some suggestion, unverified and unconfirmed, that the task force’s ability to defend itself against air attack was reinforced during May by the insertion of another, undetected SAS surveillance mission on the Argentinian mainland and by the positioning offshore of nuclear submarines as pickets. Certainly the full picture of the nature of the British early-warning system during the three weeks, 21 May–14 June, of the phase of intense fighting has not been disclosed. It cannot have succeeded by luck alone, for the air cover available was scanty, only 36 Harriers before losses, while the fleet’s missile defences were patchy. The remarkable total of losses inflicted on the Argentinians, including 31 Skyhawks and 26 Mirages, speaks of a more systematic warning achievement than chance would allow.

The task force suffered two grave intelligence defeats, both attributable to failures at the human level. During the subsidiary campaign to recapture South Georgia, a succession of attempts to extract an SAS party from a position made untenable by ferocious Arctic weather was only saved from disaster when a third helicopter succeeded, against every probability, in rescuing both the party and the crews of the two helicopters which had crashed in previous attempts to rescue it. The mission had been undertaken only because an army officer with exploring experience on South Georgia had assured the planners that the original mission was feasible; the episode provided an awful warning that expert information can be as flawed as any other form of intelligence. The second failure was more serious; early in the campaign a Sea Harrier from Invincible was shot down in an attack on the Pucara base in West Falklands (4 May); on the pilot’s body an Argentinian intelligence officer found his briefing notes, which when deciphered revealed the position from which the fleet was operating east of the Falklands. Until then it had been able to hide from the enemy in the wastes of the ocean, while keeping close enough to fight what was hoped would be a successful struggle to achieve air superiority over the islands. After 4 May, also the date when Sheffield was sunk by Exocet, Admiral Woodward was forced to withdraw the fleet beyond Argentinian aircraft range, and to approach the islands only when absolutely necessary.

The British had gone to war in the belief that their show of force would bring about an Argentinian withdrawal by diplomatic negotiation. After the sinking of Sheffield and the loss of the first Sea Harrier they were obliged to recognise that the conflict was real; once the troops landed on 21 May optimism grew that resistance would collapse, as the Argentinian conscripts were overcome by the superior fighting power of the British regulars. It was during the first three weeks of the campaign that the issue hung in the balance. An intelligence coup by the Argentinians, allowing them to strike one of the British carriers or a big troop-carrying ship, Canberra or QEII, with an Exocet might have shifted it their way. As it was, without access to American satellite or signal intelligence, which the British enjoyed, and with inadequate intelligence resources of their own, the Argentinians had to operate by guess and chance. Neither sufficed.

The last large war of the twentieth century, that in the Gulf against Iraq by the American-led coalition, was conducted within an intelligence environment far more favourable to the intervening force than that conditioning the Falklands War nine years earlier. The coalition was served with, besides copious and continuous sigint, frequent overflying missions, yielding high-resolution photography and much electronic and sensory data, as well as satellite surveillance in all its forms. Because the Iraqis had deployed their forces beyond their own borders, in Kuwaiti territory, the coalition also had access to plentiful and exact cartography of the operational area; the combatants made no complaints at all about the quantity or quality of strategic intelligence available to them.

The acquisition of tactical intelligence in real time proved much less satisfactory. Because the Iraqi air force took refuge at an early stage in Iran, there was no need for early warning of air attack. What was required was warning of the launch of Iraqi Scud missiles, aimed at coalition forces, their Saudi bases and the territory of Israel; even more desirable was information about the Scud launchers’ whereabouts. Early warning worked well, allowing the destruction of Scuds in flight on several occasions. Location of the launchers – a variant of the Meillerwagen that had made the V-2s so difficult to attack in 1944–5 – proved effectively impossible. Despite the insertion of numbers of special forces teams into Iraqi territory, no Scud launcher was found and none destroyed. Iraqi ability to hide and protect its weapons of highest value from detection by both external and internal intelligence-gathering means underlay the international crisis that began in 2002 and persists at the time of writing.

Saddam Hussein’s defiance of the authority of the United Nations, by his refusal to co-operate with its weapons inspectors as required under Resolution 1441 of the Security Council, exemplifies the difficulties of obtaining intelligence about modern weapons systems even under conditions amounting to those of authorised espionage. The inspectors, though present in considerable numbers – at least a hundred – on Iraqi territory, and ostensibly enjoying unfettered freedom of movement and access, were consistently frustrated, as late as March 2003, in their efforts to uncover stocks of chemical and biological warfare materials which they had good reason to believe had not been destroyed, as was required by UN resolution, and remained hidden at a number of locations. The search for the components of nuclear warheads, which it was also strongly believed Saddam was attempting to construct, proved equally unavailing. The senior weapons inspector, Dr Hans Blix, complained that he and his team were unable to fulfil their task – to report that Iraq had fully complied with the provisions of Resolution 1441 – because they were refused full co-operation by the Iraqi authorities, particularly the freedom to interrogate in private Iraqi scientists known to be working on the weapons programme. Neither Dr Blix nor Western anti-war protestors, who demanded more time for the inspectors to continue, seem to have made any allowance for the possibility that the objects of their search were so well concealed that whatever the apparent co-operation furnished by the Iraqis and however long investigations were protracted, his mission was bound to fail. The situation was unprecedented. A potential international lawbreaker had been obliged to open his borders to officially sponsored investigators of his suspected wrongdoing and yet they remained unable to dispel the uncertainties surrounding his intentions and capabilities. In absolutely optimum conditions, in short, intelligence had failed.

Intelligence operations in the parallel ‘war against terror’ were equally frustrated, though for different reasons. The ‘war’ was misnamed, for it was so one-sided as to deprive the opponents of terrorism of any of the usual means by which one party to a conflict normally exerts pressure on the other. Al-Qaeda, the movement which had taken control of and given leadership to the diffuse forces of Islamic fundamentalist terror, has, though it means ‘the base’ in Arabic, no identifiable base and, after the defeat of the Taleban in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2002, no territory. It is outlawed in many Muslim states, where autocratic governments fear the threat it offers, through accusations of their less than perfect adherence to the fundamentalists’ conception of Islam, to established authority. The size and composition of its membership is unknown, as is the identity of its leadership, a few self-declared but elusive figureheads apart, and the structure of its command system, if one exists; it is a strength of al-Qaeda that it appears to be a coalition of like-minded but separate groups rather than a monolithic entity. Its finances, though it is known to possess large monetary resources, are mysterious, since it apparently conducts transactions by informal but secure word-of-mouth agreements traditional within Muslim societies. It does not possess large armouries of conspicuous weapons, preferring to improvise – as by its hijacking of civilian airliners on 11 September 2001 – or to make use of readily concealed means of terrorist outrage, such as plastic explosive. Like all post-1945 terrorist organisations, it appears to have learnt a great deal from the operations of the Western states’ special forces during the Second World War, such as SOE and OSS, which developed and diffused most of the modern techniques of secret warfare among the resistance groups of German-occupied Europe during 1940–4; the copious literature of secret warfare against the Nazis provides the textbooks. Among the techniques described is resistance to interrogation by captured operatives, which often failed against the Gestapo, since it was prepared to use torture, but succeeds against today’s Western counter-terrorist organisations, culturally indisposed to employ torture and anyhow inhibited from so doing by domestic and international law. Despite the arrest and detention of hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives, reports suggest that they have successfully overcome American efforts to break down their resistance to questioning.

The only point of penetration into the world of al-Qaeda appears to have been found in its necessity to communicate. Intercommunication, as this book suggests, has almost always proved the weak link in undercover systems, whatever the methods used to make it secure. Al-Qaeda has apparently thus far trusted to the difficulty presented to Western monitoring organisations by the sheer volume of mobile and satellite telephone transmissions, seemingly hoping that its person-to-person messages will be lost among the daily billions of others. It has, fortunately, proved a false hope. Modern methods of scanning and point-targeting of transmissions allow the Western interception agencies to isolate and overhear an increasingly large number of significant messages and so to identify suspects and locate where they operate.

In the last resort, however, attacks on the al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist networks will only be made successful by recourse to the oldest of all intelligence methods, direct and personal counter-espionage. Brave individuals, fluent in difficult languages and able to pass as native members of other cultures, will have to befriend and win acceptance by their own societies’ enemies. It is a technique perfected by the Israelis, whose intelligence agencies enjoy the advantage of being able to recruit agents among refugees from ancient Jewish communities in Arab lands, colloquial in the speech of the countries from which they have fled but completely loyal to the state in which they have found a new home. Western states will find such recruitment more difficult. Islam imposes a powerful bond over fellow believers; even Muslim immigrants of the second or third generation, loyal to their Western countries of adoption in every other way, feel a strong aversion to what seems betrayal of co-religionists by reporting them to the authorities for religious zealotry. The problem of recruitment is acute in the United States, which lacks both Muslim communities of large size or antiquity and non-Muslim citizens with a knowledge of the appropriate languages. It may prove easier in the old imperial countries, such as Britain and France, whose intelligence agencies, particularly the British, actually have their roots in the nineteenth-century need to police their colonial dissidents and which retain a significant residue of language and other ethnographic skills.

A strange task confronts them. It diverges widely from that of Bletchley and OP-20-G, which required the highest intellectual power and rigorous dedication to the routines of radio monitoring, interception and decipherment. The masters of the new counter-intelligence will not resemble the academics and chess champions of the Enigma epic in any way at all. They will not be intellectuals nor will they overcome their opponents by power of reason or gifts of mathematical analysis. On the contrary: it will be qualities of empathy and dissimulation that will equip them to identify, penetrate and win acceptance by the target groups. Their work will resemble that of undercover police agents who attempt to become trusted members of criminal gangs, with all the dangers and moral compromises that such a life requires. Undercover work within the terrorist groups of Northern Ireland, republican and loyalist alike, has equipped British security and specialist police bodies to understand how such undercover operations are best conducted, but the practice is always more difficult than theory and will prove particularly so with religious fanatics. Even ideological terrorists, such as the extreme nationalists of the Irish republican tradition, are sometimes susceptible to temptation or threat; republican fund-raising by blackmail and extortion has drawn the movement into crime, with corrupting effect, while its ‘military’ ethos excludes the taking of risks that threaten the lives of ‘volunteers’. Muslim puritans, by contrast, seem resistant to financial temptation, have demonstrated their readiness to commit suicide in furtherance of their violent aims, are committed to a code of total silence under interrogation and are bound by ties of brotherhood which have religious strength. No organisation, of course, is impervious to penetration or is indestructible. All have their weak spots and weak members. It may, however, take decades for Western intelligence agencies to learn how to break into the mysterious and alien organisations and even longer to marginalise and neutralise them.

The challenge will cast the agencies back on to methods which have come to appear outdated, even primitive, in the age of satellite surveillance and computer decryption. Kipling’s Kim, who has survived into modern times only as the delightful literary creation of a master novelist, may come to provide a model of the antifundamentalist agent, with his ability to shed his European identity and to pass convincingly as Muslim message-carrier, Hindu gallant and Buddhist holy man’s hanger-on, far superior to any holder of a PhD in higher mathematics. Buchan’s Scudder, sniffing from clue to clue along a trail leading from fur shop in Buda to the back streets of Paris, shedding and adopting new disguises on the way, seems better adapted to the future world of espionage than any graduate student in regional studies. It will be ironic if the literature of imagination supplies firmer suggestions as to how the war against terrorism should be fought than academic training courses in intelligence technique provide. Ironic but not unlikely. The secret world has always occupied a halfway house between fact and fiction, and has been peopled as much by dreamers and fantasists as by pragmatists and men of reason.

The Western powers may come to count themselves fortunate that, in their time of troubles during the two world wars, the central targets of intelligence-gathering, enemy communications and secret weapons were susceptible to attack by concrete methods: overhearing, decryption and visual surveillance, together with deception in kind. They have already learnt to regret the emergence of new intelligence targets that lack any concrete form: aggressive belief-systems not subject to central authority, shifting alliances of dangerous malcontents, stateless migrants disloyal to any country of settlement. It is from those backgrounds that the agents of anti-Western terrorism are recruited. Their recruiting grounds, moreover, are confusingly amorphous, disguised as they are within communities of recently arrived immigrants, many of them young men without family or documented identity, often illegal border-crossers, who take on protective colouring within the large groups of ‘paperless’ drifters merely seeking to avoid the attention of the authorities.

The United States, protected as it is by its wide oceanic frontiers and its strict and efficient border services, is certainly not impervious to terrorist penetration, as the awful events of 11 September 2001 demonstrated. The western European states, physically contiguous to countries which hundreds of thousands of young men energetically seek to leave and constrained by their own civil rights legislation from returning illegals to their jurisdictions of origin, even if the facts can be established, are much less well defended. The security problem by which the Western European states are confronted is not only without precedent in scale or intensity but defies containment. The suspect communities grow continuously in size, the nuclei of plotters and would-be evil-doers they conceal thereby acquiring greater anonymity and freedom to prepare outrages. Financial support is not a problem, since the terrorists enjoy access to funds extracted in their countries of origin by blackmail in many forms, including straightforward protection money but also donations represented as contributions to the cause of holy war. The ‘war on terrorism’ may be a misnomer, but it would be foolish to pretend that there is not an historic war between the ‘crusaders’, as Muslim fundamentalists characterise the countries which descend from the kingdoms of Western Christendom, and the Islamic world. It has taken many forms over more than a thousand years and fortunes in the conflict have ebbed and flowed. A century ago it appeared to have been settled for good in favour of the West, when the region’s technological superiority seemed to have reduced Islam to an irreformably backward and feeble condition. Allah, Muslims might say, is not mocked. Their certitude in the truth of their beliefs has driven those Muslims who see themselves as religious warriors to seek ways of waging holy war that outflank mere technology and promise to bring victory by the power of anti-materialist forces alone. Muslim fundamentalism is profoundly unintellectual; it is, by that token, opposed to everything the West understands by the idea of ‘intelligence’. The challenge to the West’s intelligence services is to find a way into the fundamentalist mind and to overcome it from within.

OVERLORD and FORTITUDE I

When an eccentric genius called Geoffrey Pyke proposed constructing unsinkable aircraft carriers or freighters from enormous icebergs, Churchill ordered him to proceed – no idea that could conceivably help the Allies to win the war was too outlandish for this Prime Minister. Pyke’s team of scientists invented a kind of super-ice, made by mixing in 4 per cent cotton wool or wood pulp to a slurry of freezing water, making an incredibly tough substance that melted very slowly which was called in Pyke’s honour ‘pykrete’.

Pykrete became an exhibit at the Quebec conference of August 1943 at which the Allied leadership discussed the plan for the final liberation of Europe, operation OVERLORD. Churchill had crossed the Atlantic on his way to the conference on one of the world’s largest liners, the Queen Mary, which weighed 86,000 tons; but Pyke was proposing something even bigger, a 600-metre long, self-refrigerating aircraft carrier made from Pykrete, to be called Habbakuk, which would weigh more than two million tons and could carry and launch 200 aeroplanes. You could use it to invade Japan! Pyke was already building a prototype on a lake in Ontario.

Admiral Louis Mountbatten, the head of Combined Operations, used showmanship to demonstrate the power of Pykrete to the Americans. Two cold blocks were produced, one of ice, one of Pykrete, and burly General ‘Hap’ Arnold of the US Army Air Corps was invited to demolish each with an axe. Arnold shattered the brittle ice with a mighty blow. Then it was the Pykrete’s turn: but the American general howled with pain as the axe-head jarred off the Pykrete, leaving the block intact. Mountbatten then drew a pistol and finished off the ice, but once again the Pykrete stood firm and a spent bullet ricocheted uselessly off it, narrowly missing a senior RAF officer. Churchill roared with laughter. The demonstration was a propaganda triumph, though in the event Pykrete was never used.

Churchill had come to Quebec to put on a brave show, and he was flanked by two fire-eating British warriors who he hoped would impress the Americans as much as the Pykrete had: the handsome and much-decorated air ace Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, famous for the ‘Dambusters’ raid, and Brigadier Orde Wingate, ferocious leader of Patriot guerrillas in Abyssinia and now of bearded Chindits in the Burmese jungle.

The main item on the agenda was the forthcoming attack on what the Germans called Festung Europa, Fortress Europe. Where was the best place to enter the Continent if you were setting off from the UK? There were several options, but the American and British team led by Lieutenant General Frederick Morgan, called Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander or COSSAC, charged with planning OVERLORD, had actually decided on Normandy. Yet Normandy’s fifty miles of beaches did not seem suitable for a massive invasion. The swirling currents and the daunting difference between low and high tides (up to 21 feet or 6.4 metres) made unloading heavy gear on sandy beaches implausible. Conventional wisdom said you required a proper deep-water harbour with wharves and cranes to disembark the 50-ton tanks, huge guns, and great pallets of stores necessary for an invasion. Hence the raid on Dieppe on 19 August 1942 – a trial run at seizing a port.

But the bold and imaginative answer that so appealed to Churchill was huge floating harbours. He had been thinking about this idea since July 1917, when he imagined a way of seizing two Frisian islands from a moveable atoll of concrete. In May 1942, he had written a note to Mountbatten: ‘Piers for use on beaches. They must float up and down with the tide. The anchor problem must be mastered. Let me have the best solution worked out. Don’t argue the matter. The difficulties will argue for themselves.’ On board the Queen Mary, on6 August 1943, there was a scientific demonstration in a bathroom by Professor J. D. Bernal, one of Mountbatten’s physicist boffins, who put a fleet of twenty paper boats at one end of a half-filled bath. At the other end, a naval lieutenant made waves with a loofah. The paper boats were swamped and sank. Then Bernal put more folded newspaper boats into the bath, but surrounded them with an inflated Mae West lifejacket. The lieutenant made vigorous waves, and this time the boats did not sink. ‘That, gentlemen,’ said Bernal, ‘is what would happen if we had an artificial harbour.’

A fortnight later, the Quebec Conference approved the concept of two artificial harbours – one British and one American, code-named ‘Mulberries’, and said they should be constructed and fully operational two weeks after D-Day. The Quebec Conference also approved the outline OVERLORD plan. The team were told to plan in more detail for an assault by three divisions and three airborne brigades. A section called Ops (B) was set up to prepare ‘an elaborate camouflage and deception scheme’, but there was only one officer working on it.

At the next Allied Conference, held in Teheran from 28 November to 1 December 1943, Joseph Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill concerted their ‘plans for the destruction of the German forces’. The American and British Allies promised to leave the Balkans alone but agreed to help relieve the pressure on Russia by opening ‘the Second Front’ in May 1944, invading northern France in operation OVERLORD and southern France in operation anvil (which in the event got delayed). Stalin agreed to coordinate his big push on the Eastern Front with the Allied attack in the west, and all agreed on the need for a deception plan.

By now, the Wavell/Clarke thesis that major operations should have a cover plan, if practical and useful, was taken for granted. The Soviets believed in military deception, which they called maskirovna. An American deceiver later sent to Moscow to coordinate OVERLORD deception plans with the Russians was talking to a Russian deceiver when the subject of the media came up. When the American said that in a democracy you could not use the press to fool your own people, the Russian shrugged, ‘Oh well, we do it all the time.’ It was at Teheran that Churchill said to Stalin, ‘In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies,’ and Stalin replied, ‘This is what we call military cunning.’

On 6 December John Bevan of LCS was brought in to work up the strategic deception plan for OVERLORD, and gave it a new name, BODYGUARD, in a nod to the Prime Minister’s observation. Strategically, it aimed to make the Germans dispose their forces in the wrong places – in the Balkans, in northern Italy, in Norway and Denmark, anywhere but northern France. Later, the operational challenge would be to deceive the Germans about exactly when, where and in what strength the invasion was coming. This part of the deception plan would evolve down an endless series of forking paths as executive control shifted.

Dwight Eisenhower was given command of OVERLORD (‘Over Lord and Under Ike’ was the joke) and he took up his responsibility in January 1944, when what had been COSSAC became SHAEF, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Eisenhower brought his own chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, with him, so Frederick Morgan became his deputy. The Ops (B) or deception side of COSSAC expanded as bigger fish started to arrive at SHAEF. Dudley Clarke’s deputy in ‘A’ Force, Colonel Noel Wild, arrived from Tunis to take over, and also became the SHAEF member on the Double Cross Committee. Major Roger Hesketh of SHAEF intelligence worked closely with Tar Robertson and the other officers in MI5’s Section B1A which controlled the double agents. Hesketh and Wild were also in close touch with John Bevan and others at LCS. Deception was a small club in an old boys’ network; the official historian Michael Howard described them as ‘a handful of men who knew each other intimately and cut corners’.

The British made sure that they retained executive control over the crucial Channel-crossing and landing part of OVERLORD, the actual D-Day invasion, code-named NEPTUNE. Allied air forces and navies were both under British control. The temporary commander of all the Allied ground forces for NEPTUNE was Montgomery. He and his chief of staff Freddie de Guingand set up their own deception staff, called G (R), modelled on Clarke’s ‘A’ force which had helped Eighth Army so much in the desert. The man in charge of this was David Strangeways, the ‘A’ Force Tactical HQ commander who had led the successful surprise raid into Tunis to seize German intelligence materials, and who was probably Clarke’s best pupil for ingenuity and sharpness.

The first thing Monty did was tear up the NEPTUNE plan that COSSAC had prepared. He thought the Normandy front should be doubled to fifty miles, and preceded by an assault from the sky by three airborne divisions, not three brigades. In the first wave of sea landings, he wanted not three but five divisions on five separate beaches, supported by two more divisions behind. If he did not get this, he said they could find another commander. Eisenhower concurred, but getting what Monty wanted meant a massive increase in ships and equipment, including another thousand landing craft to add to the three thousand-odd already prepared for.

Feldmarschall Erwin Rommel, charged by Hitler with defending the coast of France at the end of 1943, knew that his best chance was to smash the Allied attacks on the beaches, and that the first day would be ‘the longest day’. From desert warfare experience, he was a great believer in anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines. As well as making a ‘Devil’s Garden’ of obstacles at different tidelines along the beaches, he wanted to mine, wire and fortify the entire coastal strip into a ‘zone of death’ five or six miles deep. To defend the Atlantic Wall, he dreamed of sowing 200 million landmines along the entire coast of France, although he never achieved it. ‘Up to the 20th May 1944,’ says the War Diary of German Army Group B, ‘4,193,167 mines were laid on the Channel coast, 2,672,000 of them on Rommel’s initiative, and most of them after the end of March.’ He also planned to fill all potential landing fields with patterns of ten-foot-high wooden stakes that would rip flimsy gliders apart. Many of the stakes were to be wired to artillery shells whose detonation would cause further carnage.

The Allied intelligence reconnaissance for the D-Day landings was high, wide and deep. Thousands of mapping photos were taken from different angles in the air. Low-level missions along the beaches to photograph the arrays of obstacles the Germans were building were known as ‘dicing’ missions, as in ‘dicing with death’. They were taken so close that you can see individual engineers running for cover, and count their footsteps in the sand. Things seen from the air were sometimes investigated by divers from the sea, and commando raids brought back prisoners and samples of barbed wire and metal defences. Geologists and oceanographers were consulted and recruited. Following an appeal on the BBC wireless in 1942, the great British public had sent in over ten million of their pre-war French beach ‘holiday snaps’. These Brownie Box-photos and picture post-cards were sorted, graded, assembled and scrutinised for tiny details of Normandy.

Through General de Gaulle’s Free French Intelligence service, le Deuxième Bureau, run by ‘Colonel Passy’ or André Dewavrin, the French resistance was mobilised to report on every detail of the German construction of their defences. The Centurie network, radiating out of Caen, eventually had 1,500 agents noting every gun emplacement and mine field, every concrete caisson and fifteen-foot-deep anti-tank trench. One house painter in the resistance managed to purloin a blueprint of the defences from the office of the Organisation Todt that were building them.

The Allies agreed to cross the Channel as two armies, one British, one American, fighting side by side, but not mixed together. The British (including the Canadians) would go in on the left, to SWORD, JUNO, and GOLD beaches, preceded by the paratroopers of the 6th British Airborne Division. The US First Army would go in on the right, to OMAHA and UTAH beaches, preceded by the paratroopers of the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions.

‘Mulberry’ floating harbours

Co-ordinating the effort required awesome organisation and logistics. The Allies had to marshal and maintain over 2 million men, 11,000 aircraft, and 7,000 ships in England. The prodigious industrial output to meet their requirements had to be matched by efficient distribution. The engineering work behind the landings was staggering, and thousands of construction workers were recruited to work night and day. The Petroleum Warfare Department pioneered PLUTO (Pipeline Under The Ocean), ready to pump millions of gallons of petrol across to the invaders. To get the astonishing volume of men, equipment and supplies ashore in north-western France, Churchill’s pet project, the technologically ingenious ‘Mulberry’ floating harbours, were essential. Two were to be constructed off Normandy. Over a hundred enormous 6,000-ton reinforced concrete caissons called ‘Phoenixes’ (each 60 feet high, 60 feet wide and 200 feet long) would be towed across the Channel from Selsey Bill and Dungeness by some of the fleet of 132 tugs and then filled with sand from ‘Leviathans’ so they sank to form a breakwater in the Bay of the Seine. Outside this artificial reef was a floating line of ‘Bombardons’ towed from Poole and Southampton to calm the waves, and inside, in shallower water, a line of ‘Gooseberries’, formed from two dozen redundant merchant navy vessels, Liberty ships and one old dreadnought that were scuttled and sunk where needed. In the calmer waters within the two-square-mile Mulberry harbour, strong Lobnitz or ‘Spud’ pier heads were sunk deep into the sand which allowed long bridges or floating roadways to the shore, known as ‘Whales’, to float up and down with the tides. The menagerie of code-names was augmented by power-driven pontoons called ‘Rhinos’ and amphibious vehicles known as ‘Ducks’.

Further amazing engines onshore also sprang from Churchill’s ‘inflammable fancy’: armoured tank bulldozers and ploughs, special fat-cannoned Churchill tanks for blasting blockhouses, other ‘Crocodile’ Churchill tanks that could squirt petrol and latex flames over a hundred yards, great machines for laying fascines across mud or barbed wire, or for thrashing their way with flailing chains clear through exploding mine fields. These devices came from Churchill’s direct encouragement and protection of a brilliant maverick, Major General Sir Percy Hobart of 79th Armoured Brigade, and were collectively known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.

The deception plan for NEPTUNE, the cross-Channel attack, was called Plan FORTITUDE, and its object was ‘to induce the enemy to make faulty dispositions in North-West Europe’. FORTITUDE NORTH aimed to keep Hitler worrying about Scandinavia, and the danger to Germany posed by an Allied attack on Norway and Denmark. Dummy wireless traffic and bogus information from double agents indicated that the (notional) British Fourth Army in Scotland, supported by American Rangers from Iceland, was going to attack Stavanger and Narvik and advance on Oslo. British deceivers also worked hard on the neutral Swedes. The commander-in-chief of the Swedish Air Force was asked for ‘humanitarian’ assistance in the event of an Allied invasion of Norway. As his office was being bugged by the pro-Nazi chief of Swedish police, this information went straight to Berlin. When Hitler read the transcript he ordered two more divisions to reinforce the ten already in Norway. Thus 30,000 more soldiers were diverted away from France.

OVERLORD and FORTITUDE II

Dummy landing craft

Fortitude North and South constituted the main portion of the overall Bodyguard deception.

Operation FORTITUDE SOUTH, developed by David Strangeways, aimed in the first instance to convince the Germans that there was another mighty force in Britain, as well as Montgomery’s (real) 21st Army Group: this was the First United States Army Group, or FUSAG, stationed in the south-east of England, opposite the Pas de Calais, the quick route to Germany via Antwerp and Brussels. FUSAG was, of course, notional, a ghost army created and sustained by the deception plan QUICKSILVER. It had its own insignia, a black Roman numeral I on a blue background inside a red and white pentagon, and it was supposed to comprise the Canadian First and the US Third Armies. Most importantly for the story, it was apparently commanded by the profanely theatrical, ivory-handled-pistol-packing US General George S. Patton Jr, ‘Old Blood-and-Guts’ himself, from a headquarters at Wentworth, near Ascot. (‘One must be an actor,’ Patton once wrote about overcoming ever-present fear.) Hitler thought that Patton – who had got into trouble for slapping a shell-shocked soldier in Sicily – was easily the Americans’ best man, because he was ruthless. Of course he would be leading the Allied fightback.

From 24 April 1944 onwards, the eleven divisions of FUSAG were brought to life by dummy radio traffic to hoodwink the German ‘Y’ or wireless-eavesdropping service. The radio deceivers went on genuine army exercises where they recorded all the radio voice traffic, learned accurate technical terms and questioned people about their activities before writing their own scripts, which they got Allied servicemen in Kent to read out. They tried not to make it sound too polished, because in real life people often did not hear and asked for repeats. For Morse work they got American radio operators of 3103 Signals Service Battalion who had been in Sicily and North Africa, and whose ‘fist’ or way of signalling the German listeners might recognise. There was also physical camouflage work, particularly the planting of scores of dummy landing craft – known as ‘big bobs’ – at Great Yarmouth, Lowestoft, and on the East Anglian rivers Deben and Orwell, for German aerial reconnaissance planes to spot. The dummy landing craft weighed about six tons, were built out of scaffolding pipes and canvas and floated on 55-gallon oil-drums welded together. They were painted and stained to look old, and were ‘serviced’ by crews who hung out washing, flew ensigns, sent up smoke signals and moved around in small boats. The idea was to keep the Germans looking eastwards; the Pas de Calais had to remain the invasion site uppermost in their minds, with the Fifteenth Army there ready to repel an invasion, and Seventh Army in Normandy less on its guard.

Great activity, using lighting at night, was simulated at Dover and Folkestone, where the 2nd Canadian Corps and the US VIII Corps were notionally based. The architect Basil Spence oversaw the building of a fake oil terminal with pipelines, storage tanks and jetties. It was solemnly inspected by King George VI and General Montgomery among other notables, and duly reported in the press – because since early March 1944, Royal visits had been coordinated with the deception planners.

It all worked: a German Oberkommando der Wehrmacht intelligence map, captured later in Italy, of what they believed to be the British Order of Battle on 15 May 1944, reflected their belief that most Allied forces were stationed in the east of the UK. The (mostly imaginary) units the map showed had been carefully built up over the last fifteen months through a mass of detail sent to the Abwehr by their trusted spies in England, who of course were actually MI5-controlled double agents. The three most important were a Pole, Roman Garby-Czerniawski, code-named BRUTUS, reporting to Paris, a German, Wulf Dietrich Schmidt, code-named tate, reporting to Hamburg, and our Spanish spy, Juan Pujol García, code-named GARBO, now sending his reports directly by coded wireless message to the Abwehr Kriegsorganisation in Madrid.

With everything to play for, the battle for morale became all-important. Sefton Delmer’s ‘black’ radio station, Soldatensender Calais, now broadcast loud and clear, and by early 1944 PWE ‘black’ and BBC ‘white’ broadcasting were working well together in their different spheres, the distortions of ‘black’ weaving a smoke of lies around the ‘white’ buttresses of truth. Delmer was working closely with PWE, the BBC, Naval Intelligence and LCS, and had an office in Bush House. Here men and women from the European resistance, Polish, Danish, Norwegian, French and Dutch, came to see him, and he helped them with forged notices, posters, proclamations and identity papers. Soldatensender Calais played its part in operation OVERLORD, helping to soften up the morale of German troops defending the Atlantic Wall, encouraging slacking by saying, ‘Units which show themselves smart and efficient are drafted to the Eastern Front. Promotion in France is a sure way to death in Russia.’ Delmer’s cheery-toned but deeply depressing black radio broadcasts abraded German soldiers’ confidence by saying that Russian successes were due to their being supplied with (imaginary) American ‘miracle weapons’ like the new ‘phosphorus shells’, which could destroy reinforced concrete and pierce any armour.

In May 1944, the month before D-Day, Delmer launched a daily newspaper for the German troops named Nachrichten für die Truppen or ‘News for the Troops’. It was a joint British–American venture. SHAEF gave him a team of editors and news writers to command, and the paper ran for 345 editions, using rewritten radio material. Two million copies a day were dropped by American bombers across France, Belgium and Germany, with pieces about German difficulties fighting an air war without fuel, or detailing ‘impossible’ political interference with the army leaders’ decisions. Delmer, the lifelong newspaperman, later said that this was the wartime enterprise of which he was proudest.

Meanwhile, Juan Pujol’s role as ARABEL, the Abwehr agent, was also moving steadily towards its climax. He was by now the chief spy in an extensive (and entirely fictional) network code-named ALARIC. He had not only invented, for his Abwehr spymasters, four supposedly important contacts providing him with information, he had also recruited seven equally imaginary sub-agents who in turn got military information from some fifteen notional sources. So Agent THREE in Glasgow, the Venezuelan student called Carlos (‘recruited’ or invented while Pujol was still in Lisbon), supposedly knew a drunken NCO in the RAF, a British infantry officer and a Communist Greek seaman who had deserted but who wanted to help the Russians open the Second Front. Agent FOUR, a Gibraltarian NAAFI waiter based in Kent, got much information about the arms depot and underground railway in the imaginary ‘Chislehurst caves’ from a guard stationed there, and many details about FUSAG (including gossip about quarrels between US & UK Commanders) from an American NCO based in London. Agent SEVEN, an ex-seaman in Swansea, was particularly active, with sub-agents in Exeter and Harwich, and also apparently knew a Wren in Ceylon, a soldier in the 9th Armoured Division, an Indian fanatic, and the leader and ‘brothers’ of the Aryan World Order Movement, a group of extreme Welsh Nationalists.

These colourful imaginary agents and sub-agents were spread across the country, and Pujol sent their ‘information’ on by radio. From 1 January to 6 June 1944, he sent 500 wireless messages from London to Madrid, putting over the deceptions that SHAEF wanted. From Madrid, ARABEL’S reports went to Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and to Fremde Heeres West, the German Intelligence department dealing with the Allied armies in the west. The false information made them calculate the number of divisions in the UK as seventy-seven, overestimating them by 50 per cent. The whole fantastic spider’s web of inventions was not just the work of the writing partners Pujol and Tomás Harris. They were advised by David Strangeways and LCS, and behind them, by the presiding genius of ‘A’ Force, Dudley Clarke.

Now Pujol’s role as GARBO went up a notch. Permission was granted to let ARABEL break the news of the Normandy landings, to give him even greater credibility with the Abwehr. So, just before D-Day, Pujol’s imaginary Agent FOUR apparently broke out of a high-security army camp at Hiltingbury together with two American deserters and brought ARABEL the news that the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, having been issued with 24-hour ration packs and vomit bags, had left the camp. This information was transmitted eight minutes after those very Canadians landed on JUNO beach, just before 8 o’clock on the morning of 6 June 1944. It was too late for the Germans to do any more to prepare for the landings, but Pujol retained his status as the Abwehr’s top man in Britain.

With hindsight, the Bailey bridge of history seems solid, with its incidents all bolted together in due order. But before the event, things are very different. On the eve of D-Day, the future was blank, unclear. Nothing was inevitable; everything was at hazard. Eisenhower knew it was a gamble he could lose, and handwrote the gloomy message he would have to give if the landings failed.

Winston Churchill was feeling his responsibilities, and his age. He had been Prime Minister for four long years, actively running a country that was fighting for its life in the greatest conflict the world had ever known. His mind went back to the past, to the ‘hecatombs’ of WW1 which he had survived but thousands and thousands had not. He worried about the D-Day landings too, telling an American visitor, ‘It is not because I can’t take casualties, it is because I am afraid what those casualties will be.’ At the back of his mind was Gallipoli, the amphibious landing that wrecked his political career nearly thirty years before. Things had also gone wrong in the landings at Narvik, at Dieppe, and at Anzio in Italy where it had taken four months for 125,000 men to break out from the trap of the beachhead. What would happen in Normandy? Six months short of his seventieth birthday, Churchill the warhorse now determined to be there, watching the D-Day landings from a bombarding ship. King George VI said he would do the same. This caused consternation. What if Monarch and Prime Minister were to be killed? Both men were finally dissuaded. On the night of Monday, 5 June, Churchill dined with his wife and then spent time in the Map Room, glaring at the dispositions. Before going to bed, he said to Clementine, ‘Do you realise that when you wake up in the morning 20,000 men may have been killed?’

Thirty years before, Philip Gibbs and the other journalists had been barred from the front by Lord Kitchener. But by 1944, media-savvy generals like Montgomery were welcoming news organisations like the BBC. At D-Day, Richard Dimbleby had eighteen reporter colleagues: Guy Byam jumped with the paratroops, Chester Wilmot went in on a glider, Richard North in a landing-craft, Stanley Maxted in a minesweeper, and other BBC correspondents were with different units and at SHAEF HQ with their 40-lb ‘midget’ recorders, getting actuality and eyewitness accounts from the battlefield. War Report, broadcast nightly after the nine o’clock news from 6 June 1944 until 5 May 1945, was a new kind of radio reportage. The war correspondent joined the combatants in the field on behalf of the citizens at home, bringing the front line into the back parlour.

Sefton Delmer’s radio scooped the world with its report of the landings at 4.50 a.m. on D-Day, taken almost verbatim from a teleprinter flash on Goebbels’s DNB news service, but augmented with extra disinformation. Delmer was also proud of that night’s edition of Nachrichten für die Truppen, which reported that the Atlantic Wall was breached in several places, and that attacks were taking place at the mouth of the Seine and at Calais. This claim was carefully coordinated with the deception planners to spread maximum confusion.

In operation TITANIC in the darkness before the dawn of D-Day, handfuls of SAS men from Fairford in Gloucestershire were dropped from the sky at four sites behind the German lines, attended by scores of dummy parachutists, the simple sacking ones known as ‘Paragons’, the more elaborate inflatable rubber ones christened ‘Ruperts’. They parachuted down with assorted pyrotechnics that simulated the sound and the chemical smell of battle. The few real SAS men shot off flares and fireworks, stirring up the ants’ nest with plenty of noise, and then slipped away to join the French resistance or to make their way back to the British lines. Because the best way to deal with parachutists is to tackle them as soon as they land, thousands of German troops were out scouring woods and fields inland, and so were not ready to fight the forces landing on the beaches.

Electronic and electromagnetic deceptions also played their part. Dr R. V. Jones, the head of British Scientific Intelligence, had kept a watchful eye on all German radar developments – the Bruneval Raid by Commandos in February 1942 was a scientific swoop on a radar station in Normandy made at his request – and now organised a massive fraud upon the German system. After RAF and USAAF fighter planes destroyed 85 per cent of the German radar chain, what remained was duped in two operations called TAXABLE and GLIMMER. As the huge invasion fleet pulled out from behind the Isle of Wight, it split. The bulk of the ships turned south towards Normandy, but a decoy flotilla continued eastwards. Above them, Leonard Cheshire’s 617 Squadron of Lancaster bombers flew back and forth in a moving grid, eight miles long by two miles wide, continuously dropping reflective tinfoil to create the radar image of a large fleet moving south-easterly at 8 knots towards Fécamp at the mouth of the Seine. Their sparkling snowfall of ‘Window’ was supported on the sea surface by a few launches using ‘Moonshine’, a device that produced multiple radar images, which gave the same impression of a large assault convoy to any airborne radar reconnaissance. At the same time, the Stirling bombers of 218 Squadron created a similar ghost image on the approaches to Boulogne.

Winston Churchill was not aboard the great armada sailing for France, but Norman Wilkinson was. The painter who had watched the Suvla Bay landings at Gallipoli in 1915 was now on the destroyer HMS Jervis, still wearing his old WW1 jacket but astonished by the thousands of vessels of every imaginable type. Nearly 350 British, Canadian and US minesweepers led the way, clearing ten approach channels, closely followed by the bombarding ships, including Jervis. Wilkinson was the only professional artist there on D-Day and he worked busily as 800 naval guns opened fire at 6.27 a.m. on the Normandy coast over six miles away.

Off OMAHA beach, Allied rocket ships fired 9,000 explosive projectiles. More than 300 B-24 bombers swept through grey cloud to drop 13,000 bombs. All of them missed the German defenders. The amphibious Sherman tanks were launched too early, and 27 out of 29 foundered in heavy seas and sank with their crews, as did 23 of the 32 howitzers in amphibious ‘Ducks’. An ‘inhuman wall of fire’ met the first Americans ashore. The photographer Robert Capa reached the Easy Red sector of OMAHA beach, but got out as quickly as he could. The photo lab accidentally destroyed all but eight of Capa’s ‘slightly out of focus’ pictures of men crawling though bullet-torn surf to shelter behind German beach obstacles. US Rangers who risked life and limb to climb up Point du Hoc found the big guns replaced by wooden dummies.

When the American reporter Ernie Pyle got ashore on the day after D-Day (known as D+1), he found the wreckage of equipment ‘vast and startling’ and the human litter poignant: ‘In the water floated empty life rafts and soldiers’ packs and ration boxes, and mysterious oranges.’ From a high bluff he overlooked the littered beach and ‘the greatest armada man has ever seen. You simply could not believe the gigantic collection of ships that lay out there waiting to unload.’ German prisoners also stood watching, on their faces ‘the final horrified acceptance of their doom’.

The invasion did achieve surprise. By the end of ‘the longest day’, 156,000 men had landed by sea in France as well as 23,000 from the air, although none of them had reached their planned objectives. The airborne and seaborne forces met up on 10 June, the beachheads did not link up till the 11th, and chaotic fighting went on for many days. Montgomery did not take Caen for six weeks, and the Americans did not manage to break out to the south-west for two months. In those first days, the Normandy bridgehead was only a toehold; the German Army’s resistance was fierce and the bocage backcountry of small fields and thick hedges made tank and infantry advance difficult.

The camouflage officer Captain Basil Spence had landed on Sword Beach. On D+2, the day that Montgomery came ashore, he watched British tanks destroy two beautiful Norman churches at Ouistreham and Hermanville by shelling their belfries to kill the German snipers up there. In their dugout that night, a friend asked him what his ambition was. ‘To build a cathedral,’ said the architect who was to remake Coventry.

Steven Sykes was also a camoufleur with No. 5 Beach group, helping to conceal stores from German bombing and shelling. He was putting a belching smokescreen canister into a beached landing-craft when he came across its occupants, a closely packed mass of corpses still pressed together the way they had all died twenty tides before. On D+30 he went to help 6th Airborne Division who had reverted to a static sniper war. He found himself making dummies dressed in Airborne camouflage smocks and demonstrating ghillie hoods, just like Hesketh Prichard in WW1. Mines, booby traps and snipers made progress slow, and cautious.

A huge storm, one of the worst of the century, blew up in the Channel on 19 June and raged for several days, wrecking the American Mulberry harbour and delaying the landing of vital supplies. The storm exposed the vulnerability of the forces ashore: lifelines could be snapped; the cable was fraying. In these early stages, if the Germans had thrown all their forces at it, the D-Day invasion could still have failed. Eisenhower’s ‘Great Crusade’ hung in the balance, and events could have tipped the scale either way. For example, when Churchill visited the Normandy beachhead on 12 June 1944 (see plate 26), he went to Montgomery’s HQ at Creully. As senior officers stood outside with the Prime Minister, South African Field Marshal Smuts sniffed the air and said, ‘There are some Germans near us now … I can always tell!’ Two days later two fully armed German paratroopers emerged from a nearby rhododendron bush, where they had been hiding all along. Had they used their guns and grenades on Churchill, everything would have changed.

Now came the culminating moment of all the lies and the spies, the ruses, dupes and lures that make up British military deception in the twentieth century. This is when deception changed the course of history. In the crucial days after the Normandy invasion, the second phase of the deception plan FORTITUDE SOUTH came into play. The genius of Dudley Clarke’s pupil David Strangeways revealed itself, because the FUSAG bluff did not evaporate, it continued to grow.

The German Army Group B in France comprised two forces: 7th Army in Normandy and 15th Army away to the east in the Pas de Calais. When the Allied Expeditionary Force landed in Normandy they had to deal with the German 7th Army. ‘Just keep the 15th Army out of my hair for the first two days. That’s all I ask,’ Eisenhower had said to the deceivers months before. He was requesting only hours. But every single day that the German divisions stayed away, fewer Allied soldiers died or were injured, and more Allied men and kit managed to get ashore, building up eventually to a force of nearly two million men.

Two days after D-Day Pujol hosted a fictitious conference of his imaginary agents – including three of Agent SEVEN’S sub-agents, DONNY, DICK and DORICK – and, just after midnight, sent his Abwehr masters in Madrid a two-hour-long coded message with a summary of his conclusions, laying out the entire FORTITUDE SOUTH gambit. In essence, he pretended to surmise that the Normandy invasion was part of a two-pronged attack. The landings had just been a feint, a diversionary manoeuvre designed to draw German reinforcements west. If Rommel’s 15th Army moved west from the Pas de Calais to reinforce the 7th in Normandy, Pujol warned that they would fall into the trap. The currently inactive FUSAG – with twenty or twenty-five divisions – would cross from south-east England to land the second blow behind them in the Pas de Calais. The implication was that this entirely fictitious second invasion, code-named MARS, would cut the German Armies off in Normandy, leaving the Allies and General Patton free to plunge towards Germany’s heartland.

The Spanish message from their trusted agent ARABEL went through several hands and translation into German in the eighteen or so hours it took to travel from London via Madrid to Berlin and arrive by teleprinter in Adolf Hitler’s headquarters at Berchtesgaden. Colonel Krummacher, the Ober Kommando Wehrmacht Intelligence chief, read it and handed it to General Jodl, who thought it was important enough to pass to Adolf Hitler himself. ‘Diversionary manoeuvre’ … ‘decisive attack in another place’ … ‘probably take place in the Pasde Calais area’ … ‘proximity of air bases’. It all made sense. Cancel the counter-attack on Normandy. Hold back the troops.

Sefton Delmer thought the FUSAG deception was brilliantly tailored to Hitler’s psychology, ‘his long-displayed lust for self-dramatisation’. Here he was, the hero Führer, confronting many enemies just like the heroic King of Prussia, Frederick the Great, at the end of the Seven Years’ War. And just as Frederick II in the eighteenth century was saved at the critical moment by the accession of the pro-Prussian Tsar Peter who pulled his troops back from Berlin, so now a providential spy, Pujol, had appeared like a deus ex machina with a message to save him. Hitler would never fall into Eisenhower’s trap by moving his forces west to Normandy! The great hero would be ready and waiting to crush the arrogant Patton at Calais. Hitler would still win the war.

And so twenty-one German divisions – two armoured and nineteen infantry and parachute crack troops – were retained in the Pas de Calais area, not for the two days that Eisenhower had asked for, nor for two weeks, but for nearly two months, until the end of July – by which time the Allies had established themselves in north-west France, and the Germans’ chance had gone. When the German forces did finally move west, Eisenhower called it ‘a belated and fruitless attempt to reinforce the crumbling Normandy front’.

In the conclusion of his Report by the Supreme Commander to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the Operations in Europe of the Allied Expeditionary Force, Dwight Eisenhower wrote that the enemy ‘was completely misled by our diversionary operations, holding back until too late the forces in the Pas de Calais which, had they been rushed across the Seine when first we landed, might well have turned the scales against us’. In his history, Winston Churchill wrote, ‘Our deception measures both before and after D day had aimed at creating this confused thinking. Their success was admirable and had far-reaching results on the battle.’ And Bernard Montgomery wrote in 21 Army Group: Normandy to the Baltic, ‘These deception measures continued, as planned, after D-Day and events were to show that they … played a vital part in our successes in Normandy.’

SOE: The Trojan Horse

Henri Déricourt after arrest in 1946.

After the Second World War the interrogation of German officials provided evidence that Déricourt was guilty of providing information to Abwehr and the Gestapo that led to the arrest and execution of several agents including Noor Inayat Khan, Vera Leigh, Yolande Beekman, Eliane Plewman, Diana Rowden, Gilbert Norman, Jack Agazarian and Francis Suttill.

In November 1946, Déricourt was arrested by the French authorities but did not appear in court until June 1948. At the trial Nicholas Bodington testified that he had been in charge of all Déricourt’s work in the field. He admitted that he was aware that Déricourt was in contact with the Germans but that no important information had been revealed.

During the trial the defence council argued that although the prosecution could bring plenty of suspicious indirect evidence against Déricourt, they could not actually pin any definite act of treachery on him. Largely on the evidence provided by Nicholas Bodington, Déricourt was acquitted.

When Jean Overton Fuller interviewed Déricourt for her book, Double Agent, he told her that leaders of the Special Operations Executive knew the organization had been penetrated by the Gestapo and that men and women were deliberately sacrificed in order to distract their attention from the planned landings in Sicily and Normandy.

Henri Déricourt was reported to have been killed in an air crash while flying over Laos on 20th November, 1962. His body was never found and some writers have claimed that his death was faked in order to allow him to begin a new life under another name.

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The autumn and winter months of 1942–3 were unexpectedly lonely for Léon Doulet, the Air France pilot who had travelled to Britain with Déricourt. In September, after a week in a scruffy hotel near Victoria Station, he and Déricourt were separated from each other. Doulet was moved to an even scruffier bed-and-breakfast establishment, where he lived on his own in the strange city for the next four months. He had no idea of Déricourt’s whereabouts. Doulet had presumed they were both under the authority of the Air Ministry, but neither they nor anyone else could or would tell him anything about Déricourt. Doulet found British indifference very depressing. Having come all this way to fly he couldn’t fathom why he was being ignored. On three occasions, twice in October and again in November, Déricourt contacted Doulet by telephone and arranged a rendezvous at Piccadilly Circus. At their first meeting they had a drink at a nearby pub and Doulet railed about his abandoned state. Déricourt listened to him sympathetically but there was nothing he could do. In contrast to Doulet, Déricourt seemed to have found some occupation, though he wouldn’t reveal what that was or where he was staying. Finally, when Doulet pressed him on this, Déricourt hinted that he was staying with an ex-girlfriend. There was, of course, no girlfriend and Doulet knew it, but he left it at that. He mentioned that no one at BOAC seemed to know anything about Déricourt, but Henri made no comment.

It was remarkable that Déricourt was able to walk the streets with impunity, when everything that was known about him at the time should have been sufficient to ensure he was interned for the duration. He was a known black-marketeer with associates in the so-called Corsican mafia (Doulet at least knew that, as did the Americans in Marseilles); MI5 received reports by the end of the year that Déricourt had been seen in the company of Germans in the occupied zone (this too would have come to Dansey’s attention); and, as Dansey knew himself after his own enquiries, Déricourt was not the person he claimed to be, and was in fact a most accomplished liar. To put it simply, he had all the hallmarks of the kind of person the Germans would have slipped onto the Pat Line for espionage purposes. (It has been speculated that this was actually the case. But German archives contradict that view.) Far from being interned, however, Déricourt was already gainfully employed.

The next time Doulet met Déricourt, Henri led him to a luxurious flat that was shared by the two Belgians with whom they had sailed on board the Tarana. They were joined by ‘an English intelligence officer called FRANCIS, who was very brilliant’. FRANCIS asked Doulet if he had ever been up to Paris since the occupation. ‘Of course,’ he replied, ‘many times.’ He was then asked if he was prepared to do some secret work. Doulet declined. He had come to Britain to fly and that was all he wanted to do. The meeting ended amicably and Doulet departed. It was immediately obvious to him that Déricourt was somehow involved with ‘British intelligence’, and was probably going to return to France. They met on one other occasion, at which Déricourt warned him to keep silent about the meeting with FRANCIS and his return to France.

Déricourt had been working with MI6 for nearly a month. Once he had emerged from the Royal Patriotic School and been separated from Doulet, he was taken to MI6 Section IV – the Air Intelligence branch, where he answered questions about the aircraft he’d flown as a test pilot in Marseilles, gave what information he knew concerning the French aircraft industry’s involvement with German manufactures, made detailed lists of the names of French pilots and their current employment (Déricourt had been a minor official of the French airline pilots’ union), and described the intelligence he had passed to the Americans during the summer. Déricourt also repeated the somewhat startling revelation that he was acquainted with a high-ranking officer in German intelligence, based in Paris.

That kind of information was of little interest to Section IV, but it was something that interested Dansey. Once again, this important piece of intelligence was not communicated to MI5. Déricourt had been put up at a secret address in London, known only to Dansey or one of his contacts, and kept there in isolation until the right opportunity arose to use him.

Everything that Dansey did was cloaked in impenetrable secrecy, the whys and the wherefores often unfathomable at the time, but later revealing a cold logic. As the Deputy Head of MI6, he had the freedom to run his own private operations, answering to no one but Stewart Menzies, and then not always with complete frankness. His manner, both charming and terrifyingly vitriolic, ensured there were no prying enquiries into the precise nature of his work. He garnered new agents at an alarming rate and was reputed in the more mundane levels of the service to be running his own private army – at least, judging by his legendary expenses claims. Dansey enjoyed a singularly close relationship with all his agents, which was another thing that set him apart from his colleagues. ‘Uncle Claude’ made his agents feel that they belonged to an extremely exclusive community, which was deeply appreciative of their invaluable work. Dansey had a deep and genuine affection for his agents.

He was not enamoured of the more technical forms of intelligence-gathering like aerial photography. He preferred the man on the spot, the agent, the human operative – with all the attendant virtues and vices. For many younger men in the service this obsession with the ‘agent’ seemed positively archaic, but it took a lot to convince him that there was a better way of doing things.

It must be remembered that Claude Dansey was a man of 66, who had seen service in the last of the colonial wars, had worked in both MI5 and MI6 during the Great War and who had founded the Z Organization. He had seen it all and knew it backwards – and there were few who would contradict him. Certainly not his chief. Dansey had a talent for attracting the very best, the most unsavoury and often the downright criminal into his world of espionage, and also for extracting absolute loyalty from those he employed.

He also possessed a gift for having the right man in the right spot, someone whose unique position could be exploited with the very minimum of manipulation. He had a particular interest in people who were well known to the enemy. Individuals who had worked for the foe or were currently working for them were an extremely valuable commodity, Dansey recognizing that someone who had already established his credentials had far more value back in the system than locked away and at the mercies of the Special Branch. Déricourt had precisely those qualifications, with the added distinction that his contacts were with the ubiquitous Nazi spectre, the Sicherheitsdienst.

At the end of 1941 the British codebreakers at the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS) had broken the Abwehr ENIGMA codes, the German military intelligence secret codes. Since then they had been successfully reading the Abwehr’s signals communications, a far greater prize than anything Dansey’s agents could deliver. The British had also broken the German Army, Air Force and Navy ENIGMA codes. The information that was extracted from ENIGMA codes, known as ULTRA, was the single most important British intelligence advantage of the war. Perhaps the most valuable ULTRA material concerned German intelligence operations in Britain and counter-intelligence operations against British agents in Europe – not just MI6 agents, but any British agent. But this intelligence, invaluable though it was, only concerned operations conducted by the Abwehr. The one and only ENIGMA code used by German intelligence that defied Britain’s de-crypters throughout the war was that used by the Sicherheitsdienst – Key TGD, known, somewhat misleadingly, as the ‘Gestapo Enigma’. This ruthless and extraordinarily successful Nazi intelligence organization had defied all British attempts at penetration – its dark internal workings were a complete mystery. Déricourt, if he was exploited carefully, could be a key to unlock some of the SD’s secrets.

It’s worth digressing for a moment to reflect on the price of ULTRA. British intelligence chiefs quickly appreciated how invaluable ULTRA would be to the British war effort, and for that reason great efforts were made to protect that advantage. No operation was ever undertaken that might have signalled to the enemy that his communications were being monitored. Consequently the manipulation of ULTRA was very critical; access to it was highly restricted and virtually at the discretion of ‘C’. SOE’s access to ULTRA material was, like any other operational organization’s, strictly on its ‘need to know’. The question one might ask is: whose needs were greater – SOE’s or MI6’s?

But in the autumn months of 1942, SOE’s access to ULTRA was the least of their problems. Their major preoccupation was their relationship with the RAF. The transport of agents in and out of occupied Europe was most successfully achieved by aircraft, and for this purpose the RAF had established the ‘Special Duties’ squadrons. In 1940 a single flight (419) had been established for MI6’s purposes. Then in 1941 this was reformed into 161 Squadron and later joined by 138 Squadron. They were equipped with Hudsons, Halifaxes, Oxfords, the occasional Beaufighter and of course the remarkable Lysander. The Hudson and the Lysander were designed to land on short rough strips, usually a meadow in some foreign field, where agents could be put down and others collected and returned safely home. MI6 had always expressed a preference for the Lysander pick-up where SOE preferred drops. However, by 1942, SOE had come round to the idea of the pick-up, even though the operation was far more involved.

It was necessary to have someone with knowledge of the right kind of fields for these aircraft to land, to communicate the correct map co-ordinates to London, to organize and transport the homeward-bound agents to the field, to correctly lay out a flare path safe from trees and bogs, and then to get the incoming agents away.

As SOE were expanding in northern France they pressured the RAF for more flights. But as the number of failed operations mounted, the strain began to show in the RAF’s sarcastic memos.

It is most unfortunate that attempts by the pilots of No. 138 Squadron to carry out this operation have been frustrated by the absence of a reception committee. The operation was asked for in all good faith in the belief that the committee would be waiting to receive personnel and stores….

…it is hoped that [in future] the Air Ministry and the officer commanding RAF Station Tempsford will have sufficient confidence in the organization [SOE] to believe that if we are putting the operation on there is a reasonable chance of the reception committee playing its part.

The RAF threatened, and not for the last time, to cancel all flights for SOE. And then, with miraculously good timing, the solution to SOE’s problems in France came to hand.

During the third week of November, the name Henri Déricourt was brought to their attention. By the end of the week, it had been sent to Maurice Buckmaster, head of SOE’s French Section. Buckmaster liked the look of what he saw on paper and put a trace out to MI5, whose reply was received on 23 November. In the meantime, Déricourt was invited to the Northumberland Hotel to be interviewed by Selwyn Jepson, one of F Section’s recruitment officers. Déricourt had the most fabulous qualifications: he had good first-hand knowledge of aircraft similar to the Lysander and had landed them countless times on very rudimentary country strips; he knew the countryside around the Loire well; and he knew Paris extremely well. But Jepson was there to learn about the individual’s character as well as his qualifications, and there was an arrogance about Déricourt that was somewhat disquieting. When Buckmaster received the MI5 file on Déricourt it was a great disappointment – not what he wanted to see at all. It stated that although the RPS had given him a clean bill of health, they (MI5) would not recommend him.

Although MI5 were still under the false impression that he had been an Air France pilot in Syria – a story he maintained even long after the war – their suspicions were based on the assumption that Déricourt had passed through France before coming to Britain, and that fact alone made him a doubtful risk. For if the Germans knew he was bound for Britain, ‘[Déricourt] would have been a likely subject for German attention … [and therefore] … we do not feel [he] can be cleared from a security point of view’.

There is no doubt that if MI5 had learnt what Dansey already knew, that his entire story was a complete fabrication, then Déricourt’s name would not have got anywhere near SOE. As it was, they already felt he was untrustworthy. Was Dansey simply being derelict in not passing on what he knew about the Frenchman, or was there some other reason for his silence?

Then someone spoke up on Déricourt’s behalf. Nicholas Bodington had learnt that his old Paris friend was being considered for work within his section. He immediately declared that he knew the man personally and wouldn’t hesitate to employ him. ‘Déricourt is first class material!’ Bodington’s extremely timely recommendation went a long way towards suppressing any qualms.

But Déricourt’s qualifications were in fact so irresistible that there hadn’t really been any serious doubt about employing him. Buckmaster and his senior colleagues, Gerry Morel, Bourne Patterson and of course Bodington, were of one mind – Déricourt was the answer to their prayers. However, those feelings were not by any means universal. Vera Atkins, whose opinion was always greatly valued, was asked to go and see Déricourt and then report.

When I saw him, my heart sank because I felt that he wasn’t a man that I could trust. Why I had that impression I don’t know, but I suppose one does sum up people in one’s own way. Possibly it was his slightly mocking attitude, perhaps it was that he didn’t seem to look one very straight in the face; but I came back and said that I didn’t like him, and that I wouldn’t trust him.

Unfortunately on this occasion Atkins’s ‘instincts’ were disregarded. Déricourt joined the SOE on 1 December and began an extremely specific and condensed training programme.

Déricourt’s arrival at SOE was, however, far more involved than appears from the account above – in fact there is a great deal of opacity in the official record concerning his recruitment. It was generally held that the individual who brought Déricourt’s name to SOE’s attention was ‘…probably André Simon’. Simon was a logical guess, since he was responsible for liaison between SOE’s F Section and the branch of Air Intelligence concerned with organizing flights of the Special Duties squadrons. Déricourt encouraged this view by later claiming that he’d been in the RAF, flying with the Special Duties squadron when he was ‘talent spotted’ by Simon. Déricourt even fabricated his flight log to support that story. In France, a pilot who deliberately made false entries in his flight log faced a strong risk of losing his licence. Clearly, Déricourt felt it was a risk worth taking. When he left Marseilles in August, the Vichy authorities had just certified his log, which stood at 3658 hours daylight flying and 94.5 hours night flying. Then, a page or two later, commencing on 6 November 1942, Déricourt filled twenty pages of his log adding no less than 150 day-time flights, a total of 1243 hours, and sixty-eight night flights totalling 192 hours; all apparently with the RAF’s 161 Squadron. Not one of those flights actually took place. It was an invention of staggering proportions.

In fact, Déricourt was officially in the RAF. On 1 December, the day he was enlisted with the SOE, he was given an honorary commission as a Flying Officer in the Admin and Special Duties Branch of the RAF Volunteer Reserves. It was a technical requirement of the SOE that all its officers had to have an official rank in some other British service. But Déricourt never flew a single mission for the RAF, and André Simòn was not the man who brought him to the attention of the SOE. Despite what the SOE archives state, senior SOE officers recall that Déricourt’s name arrived at Baker Street at a much higher level.

In mid-November, Air Commodore Archie Boyle handed a slim file to his immediate superior (by then Major General) Colin Gubbins, with the briefest summary of Déricourt’s details. Once Gubbins had read it, he passed it to his deputy, Harry Sporborg, who let it gravitate down to F Section. Who, one might ask, brought Déricourt’s name to Archie Boyle’s attention in the first place?

Air Commodore Boyle’s background was Air Intelligence. After the outbreak of war, he became associated with MI5’s B Division, the section responsible for all counter-espionage work in the United Kingdom. By the end of 1939, B Division had succeeded in ‘turning’ a number of Abwehr agents and making them work for Britain. To operate double agents successfully, B Division needed a good supply of secret or highly confidential information that the ‘turned’ agent could affordably pass to the enemy, along with bogus or misleading material, so that he was not suspected. This genuine material had to be of a pretty high quality and would have to withstand the probability of being checked. Boyle became fascinated with the work of B Division and volunteered, without any official authority, a selection of genuine intelligence from his domain at the Air Ministry.

By 1940 the work of running double agents had grown more complicated. Not only were there more agents to run, but a number of these were operating abroad and foreign operations were technically the responsibility of MI6. It became necessary to establish a new section that would co-ordinate operations between MI5 and MI6 and provide a proper control over the material that was being passed to the enemy. In July 1940 the Wireless Board was created, a lofty panel of senior intelligence officers which consisted of Guy Liddell from MI5 (who was also the Director of B Division), Stewart Menzies (and sometimes Claude Dansey) from MI6, John Godfrey the Director of Naval Intelligence, the Director of Military Intelligence, and Archie Boyle. During this period, Boyle got on very close terms with Menzies and Dansey and although he never cared for ‘Uncle Claude’, he nonetheless admired his acumen.

In June 1941, Boyle became the SOE’s Director of Intelligence and Security and was a magnificent asset to the organization in that role. He used his good relations within the intelligence community to effect a high level of liaison with MI6 and the Security Service. It was from MI6 that Boyle received the name Déricourt.

Boyle was a shrewd and extremely intelligent man, but there is no evidence that he would have given a potentially unsuitable candidate like Déricourt his recommendation, unless, like MI5, he too had been misled. There were no more than three officers inside MI6 who even knew of Déricourt’s existence; one was in Gibraltar, another was Kenneth Cohen and the other was, of course, Claude Dansey. Dansey not only succeeded in slipping Déricourt into SOE, but in doing so he also managed to disguise his own hand.

Before he came anywhere near SOE, Déricourt was told that he would be sent to a section of MI6 that specialized in sabotage operations, called ‘special operations’. In a sworn statement to the DST in 1946, Déricourt wrote:

I was transferred to SOE, a unit specially concerned with sabotage. This service, like all Allied services at the time, was controlled by SIS (MI6). I entered into an additional commitment, through André Simon, about the secrecy of my work.

In a revised version of this statement, made in 1947, he circumspectly removed the reference to MI6.

It would seem, from other evidence too, that André Simon was aware of Déricourt’s links with MI6. Although his name sounds French, Simon was utterly English and, indeed, spoke French very badly. He was the son of the famous wine merchant and had a fairly comfortable lifestyle, with a place in the country where his wife lived and a flat in town where he tended to be for twelve months of the year. Sharing the flat with him was another woman whom he kept secret from his wife, but apparently not from his colleagues at SOE.

During the weeks before Henri was sent to France, he and Simon became good friends. In fact there was a trio of bon-viveurs who would congregate at Simon’s flat in Harley Street to sample his excellent collection of pre-war vintages, the other member being Nicholas Bodington. Bodington, better than anyone, knew about Déricourt’s connection with German intelligence, since he was the man who had introduced him to Boemelburg in the first place. In conversation, Déricourt and Bodington always referred to Boemelburg not by name but by the sobriquet ‘notre ami’. Bodington was also privy to Déricourt’s secret connection with MI6 – and he was the only one to suffer for it.

There was someone else in SOE who suspected a relationship with MI6. Gubbins’s deputy, Harry Sporborg, had been a solicitor with the city firm of Slaughter and May and had initially been involved with SOE’s operations in Scandinavia. He later became head of SOE’s London Group, the directorate responsible for all operations in northern Europe, and he was also the principal private secretary for SOE’s affairs to the Minister. Sporborg was Gubbins’s deputy while he was Head of Operations and then later when he became Head of SOE. The initial details about Déricourt that Boyle brought into Gubbins’s office were of no immediate concern. However, when Sporborg read a transcript of one of Déricourt’s initial interviews he heard the very first faint ring of alarm bells. Déricourt, under the impression that he was talking to another MI6 officer, once again declared his contacts in German intelligence. According to Sporborg,

It emerged during the initial questioning before he was engaged. I think he’d put it forward as an advantage, as something he could contribute, as a plus-point, you see. That he’d be able to get information for us whereas others couldn’t. That was knocked on the head and he was told that he would not be expected to do anything of that sort.

At first Sporborg simply doubted the suitability of the man for a sensitive role such as F Section had in mind. Later, however, his doubts were replaced with a dark suspicion that Déricourt had other allegiances. Sporborg’s account of Déricourt’s declaration has consistently been denied by those who hold the records.

These declarations of Déricourt’s would seem to indicate that he was not as self-assured as reports have made him appear. At least, not in the company of very senior officers. He repeated this detail about his German contacts on at least three occasions (upon his arrival, to Air Intelligence, and then to SOE), assuming, as so many Frenchmen did, that there was simply one great amorphous conglomerate called ‘British Intelligence’. (It never occurred to either the French or the Germans that SOE and MI6 were separate entities.) When he arrived in Britain, Déricourt knew he faced probable internment (no doubt Dansey even threatened him with it), but he also knew that a personal acquaintanceship with figures in German intelligence was currency he could bargain with. Being passed from one senior British officer to another, Déricourt never knew to whom he was talking at any one time. Eventually, he would learn to be more circumspect.

Claude Dansey had plucked Déricourt out of the stream of unsavoury life that inevitably washed up on Britain’s shores during times of war. He then disguised the truth of the man’s origins from MI5 and proffered his services to an organization that he knew was too naive and trusting to spot a ‘wrong ’un’ when it saw one, but at the same time was not so naive that it wouldn’t have been suspicious of a gift from Dansey. Consequently, and with Déricourt’s connivance, he carefully disguised his own hand in the transaction.

Why was there so much deception between the British secret services? Why had F Section officers like Bodington and Simon not reported to their superiors in SOE what they knew about Déricourt? Did they feel responsible to some higher authority?

Vera Atkins was the only F Section officer who expressed any reservations about Déricourt and, just to add grist to her mill, Déricourt made the irregular request to be given a few diamonds to supplement his planned operations in France. Diamonds, he assured her, were currently at a premium in occupied Paris. Atkins realized this was the bare-faced try-on of a hardened black-marketeer. When she protested to Buckmaster and company her objections were overruled and Déricourt got his diamonds. F Section just couldn’t wait to get him in the field.

On 5 December he was driven down to RAF Tempsford to be introduced to some of the pilots who would be flying operations out to him in France. One of these was the young Hugh Verity. He had just been transferred from Fighter Command HQ to 161 Squadron and was himself learning about the Lysander. In time Verity would become Squadron Leader and, later, Group Captain, but during that very damp December he was still a 24-year-old Flight Lieutenant, Oxford graduate, fluent in Spanish and French, with a few weeks’ training in Lysanders. He and Déricourt immediately hit it off. For Déricourt, RAF Tempsford was like a home away from home. The society of pilots, dozens of strange new aircraft to explore, even the scent of aviation fuel made a welcome change from all the pressures in London. Déricourt began to relax and a little of his old congenial charm resurfaced. For Verity, Déricourt was a figure of some fascination. He was ten years older than himself and clearly an extremely experienced pilot. But as well as his obvious experience, there was also an air of intrigue about him.

Déricourt told Verity some pretty tall stories. For instance, that he used to earn £300 a week as a stunt pilot with an aerobatic team, whereas in fact in the days of the flying circus he barely ever had enough money to pay for fuel. He claimed to have a flat in Paris, which he did not; that he was the mayor of a small town in France; and that he had escaped from France by trekking across the Pyrenees. Well, the lads in 161 Squadron certainly took to him. He wasn’t one of your typical ‘joes’ (the term they used for agents), he was really one of them, someone who had a genuine appreciation of the dangers involved in their work. His taciturn humour belied a sense of careful responsibility and dependability. Tales of the flying circus, or of his ‘adventures’ in the Spanish Civil War, regularly earned him drinks in the officers’ mess – hallowed ground to an outsider.

Déricourt quickly learnt the routine for laying out flare paths for the Lysanders and Hudsons, the rudiments of parachuting at Ringway airbase, and basic security procedures at one of the SOE’s training centres. On the night of 22 December, barely three weeks after joining, he was kitted out in a suit of French clothes, given a set of false papers for a Maurice Fabre (the new persona he was expected to adopt in France), the codename GILBERT, and a parting gift of a pair of gold cufflinks from Buckmaster. He sat and waited to be driven out to the Hudson, but by midnight the weather had closed in and the operation was aborted. Depressingly, the weather settled into a pattern for the rest of the week and the mission was cancelled until the next moon period, in January. Déricourt did not get home for Christmas.

He had about a month to kill before the next moon and spent some of that time back in London. On 11 January, Verity took him up in an Oxford bomber and gave him dual instruction. The same afternoon he was allowed to take a Lysander up and do a couple of circuits of the field; and that was the sum total of the flying he ever did for the RAF. At 10.30 p.m. on 22 January 1943, Operation OCTO took Déricourt and another SOE agent named Jean Worms in a Halifax across the Channel into occupied France. Worms jumped first, to a reception prepared by Andrée Borrel and Francis Suttill in a field near Chartres. Worms was the leader of an all-Jewish ‘reseaux’ (network) called ROBIN that would establish itself in the Marne district and become another sub-circuit of the PROSPER network. Déricourt preferred to be dropped ‘blind’, coming down twenty minutes later in a large field north of the Orléans Canal, near Pithiviers.

SOE: The Rules of the Game

UNSPECIFIED – circa 1944: Headquarters of french Gestapo ensured complete arrest of the group;;1er rang – 1st row : Fritz Bittner (1), Karl Doring (2), Sattler (3), Boemelburg (4), Hans Kieffer (5), Reiser (6), Fritz Mohr (7), Arthur Katzemich (8);;2e rang – 2nd row : Roeding (1), Hans Hoppen (2), Joachim Kleist (3), Hans Damelo (4), Adolf Tippner (5), Hans Hofmann (7), Grenzmeier (9), Richard Becke (11), Hans Knittel (12), Herbert Richter (13), Paul Thummel (14), Vogt (15), Willy Muller (16), Georg Froitzheim (17);;3e rang – 3rd row : Willi Netzer (1), Richard Baldeweg (2), Joseph Daumelang (3), Willi Meissner (4), Ludolf Kroenke (5), Karl Braun (6), Hans Oppelt (7), Konrad Metscher (8), Richard Hamann (9), Heinrich Einfeld 10), Alfred Saalberg (11), Grunewald (15);;4e rang – 4th row : Lackert (1), Noehring (3), Richard Schroeter (4), Otto Schwab (5) (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Karl Bömelburg

During the early morning hours, Déricourt walked across the frozen open fields towards the little spur line that runs out of Orléans to Poitiers. He caught one of the early morning milk trains that rolled slowly into Gare d’Orsay around mid-morning. His first priority was to get warm and get some sleep. He turned up at JuJu’s flat near the Place des Ternes, knocked but got no reply. His old flame, Julienne Aisner, had become quite serious about the young lawyer Charles Besnard. Besnard’s own flat was not far, in the Avenue Malakoff, but Déricourt decided not to disturb them. He took the Metro to the Gare de l’Est and bought a ticket for Reims.

Sometime that afternoon he arrived at the little village of Coulognes-en-Tardenois. He waited in the small bar until his mother returned home from work before knocking on the door. He slept most of the day and woke about ten that night to talk. His mother knew from experience not to believe much of what her son told her; his father said nothing to him at all. Sitting by the fire in the large armchair, the even larger frame of Alfred Déricourt seemed to his son to expand with every breath. Henri, on departing, left his mother a large wad of notes from the cash the SOE had given him.

By midday on the following day he was outside Juju’s flat again in the Place des Ternes. When she opened the door she had to catch her breath. After another of his characteristic disappearances there he was, as large as life. She would never get used to his unpredictability. He explained crudely that he was working for the British, which of course she didn’t believe, and that he was going down to Marseilles to collect his wife and bring her up to Paris. Could she find them somewhere to stay? JuJu said she’d try. He then left her some of his SOE cash and took the train to Marseilles.

Rémy Clément had been stood down from Air France when that company was forced to cancel its few remaining routes. He got employment in the office of the La Bourne company in Marseilles and was sitting at his desk, his mind a long way from his work, when the phone rang. It was Jeannot. She was nearly incoherent with joy, but the gist of her message was that Rémy should come round to her flat on his way home that evening. She said nothing else, but Rémy was in no doubt, Henri was back. Déricourt opened the door and ushered Rémy into the small room at 50 Rue Curiol. There was much embracing and nods and winks as Déricourt began to reveal his purpose. He wanted Rémy to come up to Paris with him, to help in a secret operation for the British. Secret agents were flown in and out of France late at night and they needed someone to organize the flights, discover the right fields, lay out flight paths – gradually Déricourt went into the whole operation for the SOE in great detail. Rémy was extremely tempted but at the same time very wary. Déricourt was such an outrageous adventurer.

I had a good job, but it had no future. I felt up against a wall and with the occupation I felt trapped. He was offering me something I was craving for. To be involved with flying again.

Against this Rémy had to weigh up two things. He didn’t like the idea of having anything to do with secret agents, and he was terrified of being caught by the Germans. He asked for some time to think it over. Déricourt explained that he and Jeannot were taking the first train in the morning. He would have to know Rémy’s answer before they left.

At five-thirty the next morning Clément slowly climbed the steep hill of Boulevard d’Athenes to the Gare St Charles. At the station he told Déricourt he would come but needed some time. He was not restrained by doubt but by bureaucracy. In a few weeks he would be due his holiday pay and didn’t want to forfeit the cash. In three weeks he and his wife should be in Paris. His only condition was that he would never be expected to have anything to do with agents. Déricourt didn’t have much choice; he agreed. Sometime during the journey to Paris, Déricourt decided to dispose of the bogus identity papers SOE had given him. He was too well known, he could never pass himself off as ‘Maurice Fabre’, so he sensibly remained Henri Déricourt.

In Paris he and Jeannot stayed the first few nights with JuJu, sleeping on the bare boards. His wife knew all about Henri’s relationship with the other woman, but seemed to cope with the temporary discomfort with no complaints. However, it was clear the arrangement could not last.

Sometime within the first three days, Déricourt contacted Sturmbannfuhrer Karl Boemelburg. He was collected somewhere in the Bois de Boulogne by a black Citroën and driven around the maze of small roads that weave through the Bois. Naturally, there is no transcript of the conversation that took place, but it has come down through ‘Gestapo folklore’ (absurd but true) that Déricourt managed to convince Boemelburg of his strong political feelings. The conversation went on the following lines.

Déricourt described, in minute detail, the process by which he’d been transported out of France via the Pat Line, to Gibraltar. This satisfied Boemelburg that the black-marketeer probably had been in touch with ‘British intelligence’. Then Déricourt embarked on a vivid description of a Britain on the verge of mass revolt, where the government was riddled with Socialists and Communists, and where the ordinary Briton felt no sympathy for Churchill’s warlike policies. Because of his own special qualifications, Déricourt had been recruited to organize the transport of secret agents in and out of France. However, sickened by the sight of rampant Bolshevism, he had determined to offer his services to the only people who knew who the real enemy was and how to fight it – the Nazis.

Whether or not Boemelburg believed Déricourt doesn’t come down with the rest of the story. The old Nazi was a highly suspicious man and would have required a great deal more than mere tokens of political empathy to convince him. One thing that would have impressed him, indeed always did impress him, was Déricourt’s remarkable calm and self-assurance. There was something about his quiet, careful speech that radiated confidence, and it was Boemelburg’s confidence he wanted. They arranged to meet again before the end of the day. At that second meeting Déricourt emerged with a valuable envelope in his coat pocket. Henri’s and Jeannot’s accommodation problems had been solved.

On their third day in Paris, Jeannot and Henri packed up their belongings and strolled down the Rue du Fauborg St Honoré, to the Hotel Bristol, where he presented the man on the desk with Boemelburg’s letter of authorization. The Hotel Bristol was a German-controlled hotel. It was not occupied by Germans but by their guests, civilians mostly; Vichy officials, bankers and industrialists. It was a discreet and convenient meeting-place where private enterprise could meet and be entertained by the Nazi authorities. It was almost the most expensive and certainly the most exclusive hotel in Paris. Highly polished marble floors reflected jet-black jack-boots and the glittering lights of the crystal chandeliers. For Jeannot it was an experience she never forgot. Having lived in Marseilles and away from the more obvious manifestations of the occupation, the sight of so many German uniforms absolutely terrified her. She couldn’t bear to eat in the restaurant because the sight of so much black and grey made her uncontrollably nervous. She had no idea of the significance of the place and knew nothing of her husband’s arrangements with the Germans. All she knew was that she didn’t like it. Henri, on the other hand, revelled in it.

Of course, living at the Bristol was an extraordinary risk to take, if only because he might have been seen by a future contact from PROSPER’s network. There was a convenient back door to the hotel which opened onto a small lane that led to the Rue de Penthièvre. Henri and Jeannot would slip out to eat at a small black-market rendezvous they called La Conte where they met up with JuJu and others. JuJu hadn’t told Besnard about Henri for fear the respectable lawyer might disapprove of the black-marketeering pilot. He would certainly have disapproved of her having anything to do with the Resistance. Déricourt convinced JuJu that his work in Paris was serious and that he needed someone else to work with him, to be his courier. She was at first incredulous, but was eventually intrigued by the prospect and agreed to help. JuJu never found out where Henri and Jeannot were staying – nor, of course, about his contacts with Boemelburg.

The arrangement at the Bristol couldn’t last. Three weeks later, JuJu mentioned to Déricourt that his black-market contact Bladier had a flat for sale in the 16th Arrondissement, not far from the Avenue Foch. The simple two-room apartment on the third floor of 58 Rue Pergolese suited them perfectly, but there was a great deal of work to be done before it would be habitable. Meanwhile Henri and Jeannot moved into a room at a hotel in the Avenue Colonel Moll until the accommodation in the Rue Pergolese was ready. Déricourt was absolutely tickled at the prospect of owning an apartment in that area. There was a small black-market restaurant 100 metres from his door and less than ten minutes away, around the corner, was Boemelburg’s headquarters at 82–84 Avenue Foch.

Towards the end of February, Rémy Clément and his wife arrived and settled into a wonderful artist’s studio flat in Montmartre, with a view of Sacre Coeur from the window. Déricourt’s little group was now gathered. It was codenamed FARRIER. They were contacted by some PROSPER people; Andrée Borrel, who would share courier duties with JuJu, and Jack Agazarian, who would provide radio communications with London. Déricourt and Clément created a simple telephone bell code. Two rings: meet me at La Conte; three rings: meet at Chez Tutulle; one ring and then two: news from abroad, and so on. Almost immediately Rémy was despatched down to the Vienne to make a survey of possible fields to use as landing strips. But before these arrangements had been made, Déricourt had already entered into his understanding with the SD. There were a great many lives at stake already, and the game hadn’t even started.

During the last week of February he was contacted by Lise de Baissac, who wanted help to get some people back to London. One of these was her brother Claude, the organizer of another extensive network that stretched along the Atlantic coast, called SCIENTIST. The SCIENTIST and PROSPER networks were linked both geographically and strategically, Lise de Baissac being the conduit through which most information flowed between Claude de Baissac in Bordeaux and Francis Suttill in Paris. These two great men had a great deal in common, but the most critical element they shared, along with innumerable other networks in France, was their reliance on the SOE’s Air Movements Officer, Déricourt.

Déricourt’s first operation, which they called TRAINER, was planned for the next full moon in mid-March. It would be a double Lysander; two aircraft landing, one after the other. The Lysander could carry three adults in the rear cockpit – or, at a pinch, two adults and two children. It was a single-crew operation, no navigator or gunner. With his maps spread out across his lap, the pilot would fly out to the given co-ordinates and then, by the light of the moon, be guided by the rivers or railways to the field where the reception committee was waiting.

On 17 March, four men bought tickets for Poitiers at the Gare d’Orsay and, having made visual contact with Déricourt, boarded the train and sat themselves at intervals along its length. At Poitiers they all went separate ways, having arranged to rendezvous after curfew at a spot on the outskirts of the town, where Déricourt waited with half a dozen bicycles. They pedalled in single file, Déricourt – with the only lamp – in the lead. He was taking them to a field SOE had given him in London. Already tried and tested, it had been coded B/19.

Throughout France over eighty such fields had been identified as being suitable for clandestine use. Those used for MI6 operations were classified RED and carefully segregated from SOE fields, which were classified BLUE. Officially pilots were not supposed to know either the identity of the people they carried or the service for which they were working, but by noting whether he was flying out to R/12 or B/31 a pilot could deduce whether it was an MI6 operation or one for SOE. When the coded references were translated into soil and trees, one begins to appreciate the extraordinary courage of the men who brought aircraft down into the French countryside in the dead of night.

Déricourt left his passengers in a small gully shrouded by trees at the top end of the field and ran off to lay out the flare path. It was vital that the pilot had a clear approach to the field, so that he knew he could descend comfortably without fear of clipping the top of a tree or electricity cables. The precise direction of the strip depended on the direction of the wind, which was faintly from the northeast that night. A hard frost had created a firm crust on the soil – in theory, it should go well. The entire field had to be at least half a kilometre long, within which the flare path, some 150 metres long and 50 metres wide, was marked out with torches in the shape of an inverted L. The top end of the inverted L gave the pilot the width of his strip; two, sometimes three lights set into the wind gave him the length.

Back in the gully, sweating and breathing great plumes of steam, Déricourt rejoined his passengers. With an hour or so before the aircraft would be due, they took out some coffee and bread and tried to keep warm. Amongst the four passengers were three important SOE officers. The SCIENTIST organizer Claude de Baissac had been in France since June 1942, and was returning to London for a rest and re-briefing. With him was France Anthelme, the organizer of the parallel but much smaller circuit to Suttill’s, called BRICKLAYER. Come D-Day, BRICKLAYER would be responsible for creating secret supply lines of food and finance for the invading army. He too was closely associated with Suttill. With him was a wireless operator, not identified. The fourth, Raymond Flower, was the organizer of the MONKEYPUZZLE circuit, based around Tours. He had been in France since June the year before, but his little group had never got off the ground and he was returning to London, although he didn’t know it at that stage, to take up a liaison post.

Soon after midnight, the sound of the Bristol Mercury engine could be heard drifting in and out of the wind. Déricourt told them to stay hidden until his signal and then made a dash to the torches, turning each one on and then standing at the command point with his own torch in hand. As he made visual contact he would flash in Morse the identification letter ‘D’. The Lysander would respond with the same letter. Flying Officer ‘Bunny’ Rymills banked his aircraft and descended to about 300 feet, flying over the row of lights, re-orientated, and made another approach. Then, coming down quite low, he made another pass, getting the feel of the wind. His final approach was perfect and he put the aircraft down at 12.30 a.m.

Déricourt flashed the signal to the men in the trees, who scrambled up the slope and across to the Lysander. Out of the rear cockpit, where a gunner used to be positioned, three men gingerly made their way down the ladder. He picked out three of his four passengers to go on the first aircraft and ordered the newcomers to help them on board with their luggage. Seven minutes later, Rymills pulled the throttle back, released the brakes and let the plane roll down the bumpy strip until she gained enough velocity to be lifted, almost vertically, into the air. Meanwhile Déricourt and the three newcomers plus Anthelme walked back to the gully to wait. Normally on a ‘double’, the second aircraft was just a couple of minutes away. On that occasion he was nearly half an hour behind his leader. As the new arrivals waited, the rush of adrenalin had begun to dilute and the first anxieties about being dropped into enemy-occupied territory were diminishing. Déricourt always kept a flask of cognac to loosen up the tenseness.

At about ten to one, the sound of Vaughan-Fowler’s Lysander drifted slowly into earshot, and Déricourt clapped Anthelme on the back, as if to say, you aren’t going to be left behind after all. Vaughan-Fowler’s pick-up didn’t run quite as smoothly as that of Rymills. The ground was particularly bumpy, which shook the Lysander badly and caused the engine to ignite. He taxied to a halt with flames licking the engine cowling. Déricourt climbed up the wing struts until his face was virtually inside the cockpit, where there followed a brief conversation, conducted at the top of their lungs. Out of the rear cockpit clambered Madame Agazarian, the radio operator’s wife. Once she was down, Déricourt leapt up the ladder, grabbed a spare Mae West (an inflatable life-preserver) and stuffed it into the engine exhaust, which had the effect of suffocating the flames. Meanwhile Anthelme, terrified that the whole aircraft would blow up, stood motionless at the foot of the ladder. Déricourt made a swift jerk with his thumb and Anthelme scrambled on board. A signal to Vaughan-Fowler and the engine was throttled up. He was off the ground by 1 a.m.

Back in the gully with his torches, Déricourt began to sort out the new arrivals. The first few hours that incoming agents spent in France were often the most gruelling. Having flown through a freezing black night into a foreign field, they needed that first contact with a friend in hostile territory. They were also hungry for news, for an assessment of their situation, any trivial little thing that they might need to know which London had neglected to pass on. Déricourt abandoned his usual mute efficiency and chatted to the agents, apparently just to put them at their ease. But in the cold light of the morning after, many of these agents reflected on Déricourt’s inquisitiveness. He made it his business to learn as much as he possibly could about everyone who passed through his hands. He had a prodigious memory and soon built up a mental record of who worked with whom. Apart from Madame Agazarian, who had come to work beside her husband, there was John Goldsmith, who had had a brief and unprofitable career with CARTE in the south but was now working with the Paris-based networks; Henri Lejeune, who was with the Gaullist section (RF) but who seemed to have links with F Section networks; and Roland Dowlen, a radio operator for a small network in Paris, separate from but in communication with PROSPER, called CHESTNUT. Hardly key figures at the centre of the northern networks, yet all with one single common factor; all had links with PROSPER. This in itself was of no great significance, but it did impress upon Déricourt that apart from a common link, there may also be a common purpose. At that stage he knew very little about PROSPER’s stategic significance, but he did know that it could not be long before he met the man at the centre of the great network.

The party pedalled in single file down the pitch-black lanes towards Poitiers. Their security procedures had been well rehearsed in London. Each had his own cover story, false identity papers, the return stubs of pre-purchased train tickets and so on. At Poitiers they separated, filling in the hours until dawn, when they converged on the railway station. On the platform, where they waited for the train for Paris, they mingled inconspicuously with the early morning crowds, avoiding the impulse to glance at each other. Though their paths would doubtless cross again, for the moment they were on their own.

Déricourt had to remain to deal with the bicycles and took a later train that got him into Paris after lunch. From his point of view, Operation TRAINER had been a success.b He found the agents were on the whole fairly at ease with him. His professionalism seemed to create a sense of confidence and in that mood many of them were very talkative. In fact the whole operation had been quite exhilarating. It seemed as though the business might have its moments. Back at the ‘Coll Moll’, the hotel in Avenue Colonel Moll, Déricourt collapsed on his bed and slept through until the following morning.

Within days of the March operation, there was another meeting with Boemelburg – a kind of re-appraisal, with a view to formalizing the situation. At that meeting Déricourt provided Boemelburg with a detailed description of everyone who had travelled in on the Lysanders. Boemelburg asked him if he knew anything about PROSPER, to which Déricourt replied that he had heard it had something to do with the invasion.

The relationship that developed between these two men was one of the great partnerships of the secret war. From the beginning it had all the hallmarks of something that would endure, and it was significant not for what it involved but for what it did not involve. It was the experience of most senior officers at the Avenue Foch, and Boemelburg especially, that coercion was not an enduring basis for any intelligence contract. It built up resentment and threatened the security of everyone involved. Coercion was fine for the short term when immediate results were the essence of the contract, but it did not hold any promise for the future. Money had traditionally been essential to these arrangements and it was well known that the SD had almost unlimited resources. But here, too, Boemelburg was remarkably circumspect. He did not trust anyone whose motives were purely profit. Like Dansey in London, he knew not only the value of money but also its worth. If every man had his price, then it was extremely unwise to base an understanding on the vagaries of the free market. On the other hand, the SD were also extraordinarily correct and they would have been equally suspicious of anyone who would not accept any money at all. SD archives reveal that, unlike most of their informers, Déricourt did not receive a regular salary, though of course he did accept the odd bit of largesse that came his way. (There is a massive archive of signed receipts which the SD extracted from all their informers, which now rests in the vaults of the French DST in Rue Saussier. It is guarded as though it were a national secret – which it probably is.)

Déricourt was officially identified as BOE/48 – Boemelburg’s 48th agent. Soon after that meeting, Boemelburg introduced the name GILBERT (synonymous with BOE/48) to a few of his colleagues at Avenue Foch, most notably to his immediate subordinate, Josef Kieffer. Boemelburg had already placed GILBERT within the larger context of the expanding phenomenon known as PROSPER. Déricourt’s confirmation of PROSPER’s strategic position guaranteed the relationship would proceed from first stages. But here lay a fundamental flaw in the way the Germans operated their double agents. The man who made the initial contact always became the controller – it was a matter of some personal pride. But it was also a critical error, for the controller then lacked the objectivity to run his agent wisely and his judgement was often biased when analysing the intelligence he received. In Britain, it had long been appreciated that ‘doubles’ were a volatile species and were passed on by those who had made the first contact to professional controllers who were more dispassionate. In Déricourt’s case there was the prospect, for Boemelburg, of information that would be immediately verifiable. So upon that basis their mutual trust grew.

What, then, was Déricourt’s role? Why was he there and what was he doing? German and French archives confirm that he entered into an arrangement with the Sicherheitsdienst in February 1943. Before examining motives, it is worth making one small point here about the issue of money. British authorities have always claimed that Déricourt did what he did for financial reward. He was paid by SOE to organize Lysander operations and was paid again by the Germans for delivering intelligence on those operations. Of course he was a ‘Déricourist’, as his friend Clément once described him, but if he went into the arrangement with the SD just for money, then he didn’t do particularly well by it. Taken over the course of his entire mission, the money Déricourt earned from the SD didn’t amount to much more than any typical black-marketeer earned during the course of the war. In fact, it was a matter of some resentment with Déricourt that he didn’t do a good deal better.

Whatever Déricourt’s private motives may have been, his approach to the SD was, in fact, carried out on instructions from Claude Dansey. Karl Boemelburg was the highest-ranking SD officer in France. (Above him was the SS officer Standartenfuhrer Dr Helmut Knochen, who reported directly to Himmler.) Boemelburg reported directly to the head of counter-espionage and counter-sabotage at the RSHA in Berlin, Horst Kopkow. Boemelburg was the most important counter-espionage officer in France. If it were possible to win the hearts and minds of the SD in Paris, then it would be a tremendous advantage to Dansey’s own intelligence operations. If Déricourt could get an insight into the SD’s operations, it would be a coup comparable to deciphering their ENIGMA codes.

But how would Déricourt get any information out of Boemelburg? Surely the SD weren’t going to sit down with Déricourt and discuss their operations. Of course not. The basis for Déricourt’s operation rested upon the old maxim that questions are far more revealing than answers. Dansey’s real objective was to discover what Boemelburg wanted to know. It was a classic double-agent operation. First a British agent approaches the Germans and offers to pass them information about British operations, and then gives them material that could be quickly verified and evaluated. Once that had occurred, their expectations would begin to rise. ‘If he can deliver information about X, perhaps he may know something about Y.’ As their confidence grows, coupled with their appetite for information, their questions become more expansive, more greedy – more direct: ‘Have you heard anything about a wireless operator who was travelling down to the Jura?’ ‘Do you know anything about a group up near Compiègne?’ ‘Can you find out something about a certain doctor in Toulouse?’ ‘Do you know of any contacts of the Abbé in Tulle?’

Like the French, the Germans never imagined SOE and MI6 to be two separate organizations. They were simply seen as different departments of something called ‘British Intelligence’. Boemelburg’s pre-eminence in the SD’s counter-espionage operations meant that his enquiries covered a wide range of networks, some of them Dansey’s. Déricourt would make a careful note of all Boemelburg’s questions and send it to one of Dansey’s contacts. In London, a patient process of listing, collating and cross-referencing those questions would gradually reveal what the enemy already knew, what he needed to know, what were his preoccupations and, most importantly, what were his priorities.

A steady stream of this material would enable London to create an extremely clear picture of the SD’s operations in France. Of course there was a price for this information. Just as with ULTRA, Dansey’s freedom to act on this intelligence was restricted by the risk that such action might compromise its source. For example, an enquiry about a group near Rennes would reveal that an operation was being conducted against the SOE’s PARSON reseaux. Whether Dansey alerted SOE to that fact depended upon the result of his weighing up the value of saving PARSON against the risk of compromising his source. For if Boemelburg decided to arrest PARSON and found they were no longer there, he would naturally conclude there had been a leak and eventually Déricourt would no longer be trusted. The same calculation would also have to be made if the intelligence concerned one of Dansey’s own groups. Intelligence about the enemy’s counter-espionage operations always presents the dilemma of how to use it. Do you take evasive action – or somehow exploit the situation? There was of course another price to pay for this operation: Déricourt’s answers. The more Boemelburg’s expectations rose, the more answers BOE/48 would have to deliver. Some of these answers could be deceptions, others would have to be verifiable.

How did Déricourt communicate with Dansey? There were at least two routes. The first was through a particular bank teller at a branch of the Credit Lyonnaise in the Rue Caumartin. He was a ‘mail drop’ left over from the Z Organization. The second was through PAUL, the barman at the Bar Lorraine in the Place des Ternes, who came on the scene in 1942.

But was it really possible that a senior British intelligence officer would feel it was worthwhile jeopardizing the lives of other British officers for the sake of an intelligence advantage? Harry Sporborg, the deputy head of SOE, was in no doubt: ‘Make no mistake about it, MI6 would never have hesitated to use us or our agencies to advance their schemes, even if that meant the sacrifice of some of our people.’ It was common practice in war for a commander to sacrifice some of his men to gain some strategic advantage. At Dunkirk the British Army took over 68,000 casualties in rearguard actions while nearly 340,000 men made it safely off the beaches. However, Dansey’s game actually threatened an entire operation. Would that have been worth the sacrifice?

Trying to make sense of a personality as complex as Dansey’s is all the more difficult because he entrusted so little to paper. At the beginning of 1943 it probably made sense to his vindictive way of thinking that it was worth giving a little SOE information away in return for some insight into the SD’s operations in France. The problem was, and Dansey must have been aware of it, how to restrict that information when Déricourt was operating on his own over 150 miles from London. There is good evidence from the German side that for some time the information Déricourt gave away was pretty insubstantial and that it was the promise of what he might give that made him so attractive. It is the modus operandi of all double agents to provide thin material to begin with, coupled with an undertaking to deliver the earth tomorrow.

But that was the problem with this operation. It was Boemelburg who was asking the questions and it would be he who effectively set the stakes. On the other hand, Dansey had no qualms about exploiting an organization he absolutely despised. If Déricourt was going to be any good to Dansey, then he needed to win Boemelburg’s absolute confidence. That would be bought with first-rate, verifiable information – and the only information Déricourt had that was worth anything was what he knew about SOE operations.

As far as MI6 were concerned, this particular operation was one of Dansey’s private enterprises, probably known to no more than two of his most trusted associates. But despite his obsession with secrecy, a thin trickle of information about his activities would occasionally leak out and inevitably appal the new breed of young intellectuals that hovered about the dingy corridors at Broadway. One of those wartime recruits from the academic world, Hugh Trevor Roper, now Lord Dacre, described Claude Dansey as ‘an utter shit; corrupt, incompetent, but with a certain low cunning’. Malcolm Muggeridge, equally damning of him, added, however: ‘He was the only true professional in MI6. The others at the top were all second-rate minds.’

Unfortunately for SOE, they had few friends at court. Most MI6 officers still considered them a bunch of undisciplined amateurs who were more a danger to themselves than to the enemy. Added to which, everyone was terrified of Dansey and would never have dared blowing one of his operations. Now that the fuse was lit, they would just have to wait and see.