Key point: The Germans were unable to get as much intelligence out of Britain as they wanted thanks to London's counter-espionage efforts. The Allies managed to turn many agents to their side.
As the 1930s unfolded, Adolf Hitler sought to avoid having Great Britain join the war he intended to launch. He saw the British as fellow Aryans who should be sympathetic to his ethnic policies and supportive of his antipathy toward the Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union. To keep from having the relationship with Britain possibly soured by the unmasking of German secret agents, he hesitated about creating a network of spies on British soil. The result was that when the war started, with Britain as a combatant, Germany had to play catch-up in the spy game.
Early German Spy Recruits
The Abwehr, German military intelligence, was forced to build upon its slim prewar beginnings. It did have one reliable informant, Arthur Owens. Owens was a Welsh nationalist who presented himself to German intelligence during the 1930s as bitterly opposed to the British. An electrical engineer whose firm did work for the British Admiralty, he was recruited by the Abwehr to provide useful information about the Royal Navy.
When the war began and the Germans seized the Channel island of Jersey, they found another willing spy in Eddy Chapman, whom the British had embittered by finding him guilty of crimes and imprisoning him on Jersey.
Still another recruit was a former Polish officer named Roman Garby-Czerniawski, who was so opposed to Communism that he was willing to become an agent for the fascists. The Germans sent him to Britain, where he became an officer in the Polish military in exile, a position that enabled him to report high-level intelligence to his handlers.
It was the same with Juan Pujol, a Spaniard strongly opposed to Bolshevism. Pujol not only filed his own reports from Britain, but established a network of sub-agents willing to work for the Nazis.
Dusko Popov was a wealthy young Yugoslav whose studies in Germany had convinced him of the rightness of the Nazi cause. As a businessman, he gained access into high British social circles, allowing him to ferret out information the Abwehr could otherwise not receive.
In addition, the Abwehr trained English-speaking Germans as spies and, by submarine, boat and plane, landed them in Britain. One of these, Wulf Schmidt, was seen by the Germans as such a useful agent that he was twice awarded the Iron Cross, both First and Second Class.
The Allies’ Double Agents
With such an extensive network of agents in place sending back reams of useful information, the Germans were confident that their needs for special intelligence were being met and that additional spies were not needed. For the Allies, one of the greatest benefits of the intelligence war was that none of these agents were what they purported to be. Every spy reporting to a German controller was a double agent, seeming to serve the Nazis while supplying more misinformation than truthful data.
True, Arthur Owens, codenamed Snow by the British, was Welsh, but any anti-British feelings he may have felt were not strong enough to make him serve the Nazis. It was the same with Eddy Chapman, codenamed Zigzag. His anger toward his captors was more of a pose than a reality. The secret desire of Poland’s Garby-Czerniawski, codenamed Brutus, was to avenge the Germans’ devastation of his homeland. The supposed anger against Communism professed by Pujol, codenamed Garbo, was merely a ruse; his real hatred was for the Nazis. When approached in Belgrade by an Abwehr officer who had been a school chum, Popov, Tricycle to the British Twenty (XX) Committee, slipped away to check with the British consul. He was told, to go along with the Germans, while in actuality he would be working for the British.
Germany’s Home-Grown Agents Do Poorly
The hurried training given Germany’s own assigned agents left them vulnerable to gaffes that quickly gave them away. One made the mistake of trying to use his forged ration book to pay for a meal in a restaurant. Another thought that when he was billed two and six that he should pay two pounds and six shillings, not two shillings and sixpence. Germans landing with radios seemed not to have been informed that if they persisted in transmitting from one location the British could use direction-finding equipment to track them down. None of them could know that their faked identity papers contained easy-to-spot errors that had been deliberately inserted by Snow when the Germans had sought his advice.
From September to November 1940, the Germans landed 21 agents in Britain. All but one was either captured or surrendered. The exception committed suicide. Faced with the choice of cooperating or being hanged, a number opted for life. Wulf Schmidt was one of these. Codenamed Tate, he converted so sincerely to the Allied cause that he grew to be one of the most trusted of the double agents.
Why Didn’t the Germans Catch On?
There are several reasons why this false infrastructure of espionage endured throughout the war without the Germans ever catching on to the fact that they were being deceived.
One reason is that the job security of a German spymaster—and quite possibly his life—depended on having found, launched and guided an agent. If the agent’s reliability was questioned, his spymaster became his chief defendant.
A more important reason is that the double agents were under the control of the very clever group of British, and later, American masters who made up the XX (Double Cross) Committee. The Committee was adept at concocting a steady stream of information that was seemingly of value to the Abwehr spymasters, while also including a subtle edge of misinformation. The committee was headed by J. C. Masterman, a pre-war writer of popular mystery novels who now turned his skills to the task of supervising the scripts to be transmitted to the Germans.
Meeting weekly from January 1941 to the end of the war in Europe, the committee members were careful never to release new material until it had been cleared by the appropriate authority. Many well-crafted scenarios had to be rejected by cautious reviewers. To continue creating convincing messages in the face of such obstacles posed a constant challenge to the committee’s ingenuity.
The Double Cross Committee’s Early Successes
Masterman and his mates were, at the beginning, cautious in their use of the double agents. They found it hard to believe that they had every German agent under control. When this discovery was confirmed, they realized what an invaluable asset they held in their hands. The queries that German controllers sent their agents often revealed the current thinking of German leaders. The misleading bits of information included in the spies’ reports could slowly warp enemy judgments of Allied plans and intentions. It was also clear that major deceptions could not only be initiated; the committee could, by taking note of the spymasters’ responses, determine whether or not the duperies were being believed. The committee recognized that its first need was to build the agents’ credibility with their spymasters. They sought to mislead the Germans only in minor ways.
For example, when invasion of Britain was threatened, the agents exaggerated Britain’s readiness for defense. Shore defenses were described as being stronger and RAF Spitfire fighter planes more numerous than they were in reality. The production of planes being turned out by British factories was inflated.
The Committee took elaborate care to assure that the agents’ reports were verifiable. If a German controller sought details of a particular British factory, the agent was taken there to see the facility for himself. When Zigzag was given orders to bomb the De Havilland aircraft factory, camouflage experts created a fake extension that was blown up without affecting actual production. Similar assignments were carried out against a simulated food storage facility and a mock generating station. When newspaper reporters played up this succession of disasters, their accounts made good reading to be passed on to spymasters.
A somewhat more important task for the double agents came when the Allies were planning their landings in North Africa. The Axis powers were aware that the Allies were plotting a major operation, but they were uncertain what it would be or where it might fall. Decrypts by Allied codebreakers revealed the Germans’ conviction that if the Allies were planning an invasion of the North African coast they lacked the shipping to manage landings inside the Mediterranean.
Messages from the double agents played to these uncertainties. They raised the specters of an attack through Norway or landings in Northern France. They emphasized the shortage of shipping. The deception worked. There was little opposition when the Allies did move into the Mediterranean and make landings at Oran, Algiers along with the city of Casablanca on the Atlantic coast.
Preparing for D-Day
These preliminary deceits were rehearsals for a larger role. As Masterman expressed it in his postwar account: “At some time in the distant future a great day would come when our agents would be used for a grand and final deception of the enemy.”