As Britain entered its second winter of World War II, nightly German blitzes rained fire on its cities and the threat of invasion had not yet passed. Britain stood very much alone. Yet wartime recruit and Oxford University professor, J.C. Masterman, had the confidence and foresight to predict a time when the tables could be turned against the Nazis. Since the outbreak of war, the British Security Service MI5 had been collecting a group of double agents. The Germans appeared to trust these spies and pressed them for more information. This presented an enormous challenge for MI5: how to preserve the credibility of their doubles without giving away vital war secrets? In a secret memorandum of 1940, Masterman presented an amazing solution. Crowdy’s new book reveals the content of the now-declassified memorandum and explores to what extent the Allies were able to realize Masterman’s plan to pull off an elaborate hoax on Hitler.
What is it about this specific subject of World War II deception operations that fascinates you?
Crowdy: I think the importance of espionage and secret agency has been underplayed in the teaching of history for too long. We need to know what cards were being held under the table when historical events were played out. Imagine if we still did not know about the deciphering of Enigma in the Second World War: we would totally misunderstand the Allied decision making process. Also, spies are often classic anti-heroes. I like the complexity of their personal stories.
In the double-cross system, German agents were “turned” against Germany, sending back false information from England. Why were the British so willing allow these spies to remain in England rather than simple arrest and execution?
Crowdy: The theory is quite simple: if you catch one spy and advertise this by a trial, the enemy will send a new spy whose identity you don’t know. Even in the 1930s and 40s, surveillance techniques were advanced with wire taps, secret cameras and so on. By watching a spy you can learn who their contacts are and where they are obtaining their information. You can control them.
In Operation Mincemeat, a corpse was dumped off the coast of Spain with false invasion plans for Greece and intended to fall into the hands of the Germans. Why were they so sure the Spanish would give up the plans?
Crowdy: Through eavesdropping, the British knew the Spanish and German secret services were in cahoots. Although Spain was neutral, it was ruled by a fascist government under Franco. Germany had helped Franco in the Spanish Civil War and Franco did what he could to help the Germans here and there without overtly breaking neutrality.
Who was this “man who never was?’
Crowdy: This was ‘Major Martin.’ Having found a suitable corpse for the Mincemeat operation, the deception planners needed to provide it with a plausible identity. They provided the corpse with a name, ID, photos of a fictional girlfriend, a receipt for an engagement ring, a stern letter from his father warning him against wartime marriages and so on. If the Spanish had found the corpse with nothing but official documents then they would have been highly suspicious: all soldiers carry reminders from home and their sweethearts.
High praise is given to the British throughout the book for their use of deception operations. Did any ever backfire?
Crowdy: The deceivers lived in constant fear the Germans knew what they were doing. The biggest concern was that the Germans had worked out the D-Day deception, realized all mention of Calais was a bluff and therefore would be sitting in wait for the soldiers who landed in Normandy. Fortunately this was not the case.