SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Early in 1944, Southern England bristled with 150,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers gathering for the invasion the Allies hoped would end World War II. Now, the soldiers, pilots, and sailors knew they were there to be launched into Nazi-occupied Europe. Hard to hide the largest invasion force in history. After all, LIFE magazine even ran photos of GIs in Piccadilly and the Germans surely knew they were coming. But where?
The British effort to feign, trick and fool the Germans into believing the D-Day invasion would be anywhere but Normandy was one of the great military victories in history. And it was largely the work of people plotting at desks: untrustworthy double-agents, West End set designers and at least one pigeon handler.
Ben MacIntyre tells their story in his new book, "Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies." Ben MacIntyre, author of the previous best-sellers, including "Operation Mincemeat" and "Agent Zigzag," joins us from Tarbert, Scotland.
Thanks so much for being with us.
BEN MACINTYRE: Great pleasure, Scott.
SIMON: We're talking about several operations here with code names, Operation Fortitude, Operation Bodyguard and the Double Cross System. They hid the army in plain sight, and I want to draw you out about how they did that, because the Germans obviously were keenly interested in seeing this stuff from the air.
MACINTYRE: Absolutely. There was the real army which was assembling in Southern England around Southhampton to invade Normandy. And then they created a completely fake army by the use of sort of inflatable tanks and dummy airfields and dummy landing crafts to look like a real army.
The essence of it was this sort of fabric of lies put together by five spies, who just sent volumes of information apparently indicating the buildup of this enormous army that never existed. And the idea being very simply that if Hitler could be convinced that the attack on Normandy was simply a feint, a sort of diversionary attack before the main attack, then that would make a huge difference. It would mean that the Normandy beachhead could be established. So it was a sort of a poker game they were playing, which was really a game of massive bluff.
SIMON: In these days when people tweet about what they had for breakfast, how do you keep an operation of this magnitude secret when it's so close by?
MACINTYRE: Well, I mean, that was in a way - the great triumph here, was that with unbelievable security they just managed to tie it up. One of the great advantages they had was that they - because they had access to all the decrypted German intelligence signals, they could tell whether the deception was working. They could, in real time, follow what the Germans were thinking about what the Allied intentions were. And so they had a way of backing it up, which absolutely reinforced the deception. And I think without that, they probably wouldn't have attempted it.
SIMON: And important parenthetical. They got George S. Patton to play himself. The role of a lifetime.
MACINTYRE: Brilliantly. I mean, Patton had been sort of disgraced and removed. But it was known through intelligence that actually Hitler regarded Patton as the Allies' best general. And so therefore when they were trying to think of some way of sort of reinforcing the deception for this fake army, they appointed a fake general to run it, and that was Patton.
So Patton was in nominal command of an army that didn't exist. And so therefore went around boasting, hey guys, we're going to hit Calais very soon. And he himself said, I'm a natural goddamn ham, in the hope that he would be overheard and this information would be relayed back to Germany.
SIMON: And they also had a fake Field Marshal Montgomery, didn't they?
MACINTYRE: It's one of the most bizarre aspects of this whole story, was the decision to make a fake Monty. They found a half-out-of-work Australian actor who looked a bit like Monty. The problem with him is that he'd lost a finger during the First World War, so they gave him a sort of fake finger and trained him up to speak like Monty and to look like Monty.
And then they ensured that he was spotted somewhere other than the disembarkation grounds in Britain just before the D-Day invasion, the theory being that therefore the Germans would think that the invasion wasn't imminent, and therefore they could relax. It was the most bizarre thing.
He went on actually, this actor, to write his memoir, which was actually made into a Hollywood film in the end in which he played not only Monty, but also himself. It's a very confusing film.
SIMON: You have a wonderful section I want to get you to read where you muse about why the British are often so gifted at espionage.
MACINTYRE: Well, I'd love to do that. I mean, it goes like this.
(Reading) The relationship between cricket, that most English of sports, and spying, at which the British have always excelled, is rooted and unique. Something about the game attracts the sort of mind also drawn to the secret worlds of intelligence and counterintelligence. A complex test of brawn and brain, a game of honor interwoven with trickery, played with ruthless good manners and dependent on minute gradations of physics and psychology with tea breaks.
I mean, one of the odd things about this story is that almost all the British officers involved were actually cricket fanatics. I mean, they adored cricket and they spoke in sort of strange, convoluted cricket metaphors.
SIMON: I want to get you to tell us about these double agents. They worked under the direction of a man named Tar Robertson.
MACINTYRE: They did. I mean, everybody in this story sounded as if they were made up from a novel. And that's, in a way, not surprising. I think the people who ran this deception approached it as if they were creating some vast work of fiction.
BE MACINTYRE: It was run by a man called Tar Robertson, as you say, who was better known as Passion Pants on account of the fact that he wore tartan trousers at all times. I mean everybody in this story is extraordinarily eccentric. But he was a very brilliant man, Tar Robertson, and he began to use the double agents that Britain had been building up in the first part of the war.
Now, double agents are, of course, enemy agents who have either offered to spy for the other side or have been persuaded to spy for the other side. And the five key spies in this regard were code named Treasure, Tricycle, Brutus, Bronx and Garbo, which gives you an idea of quite what extraordinary figures they were.
One was this sort of out-of-work failed Spanish chicken farmer. One was a sort of international playboy called Dusko Popov. My own favorite was a woman with the unimprovable name I think of Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, who was a bisexual Peruvian playgirl and gambler, the daughter of a kind of guano magnate from Lima, who had sort of washed up in Britain at the beginning of the war and offered to spy for Britain by heading off to occupied France and getting herself recruited, which she did.
So these were all spies who were thoroughly believed in by the Germans. That's the point. Is that the Germans had absolute faith in them. And they believed that this was a part of a large network of spies operating in Britain, feeding information back to Germany, whereas in fact the entire network was controlled by British intelligence. Not one of these spies, not some of them, but every single spy that had been sent to Britain by Germany had been picked up. So in fact the network that Germany believed it had operating in Britain was run by Britain.
SIMON: Ben, after reading your book, I have been going up to pigeons in the street and scattering popcorn and saying, please thank your grandfather for what he did to win WWII. I had never before realized the importance of pigeons.
MACINTYRE: Well, nor had I. There is believe it or not a wonderful file in the British national archives of secret pigeon maneuvers that went on during the Second World War. And actually pigeons were still a very important, a very useful form of communication. Top secret communications could be sent by homing pigeon.
And they came up with a wonderfully elaborate double cross pigeon scheme, where they decided if they could drop British pigeons disguised as German pigeons in occupied France, there was a high probability these pigeons would eventually end up in German pigeon coops. Eventually, the Germans would realize that their pigeon coops had been infiltrated by enemy pigeons and would at that point, the theory goes, kill all their pigeons.
I have to say: This wonderfully complicated double-cross scheme, there's no evidence it worked at all, although they did drop 350 slightly exhausted pigeons from airplanes on the eve of D-Day, all of which went AWOL.
SIMON: When June 6th came, 1944, allied soldiers hit the beaches at Normandy. What prevented the Germans from admitting to themselves that they'd been fooled?
MACINTYRE: Well, you know, the extraordinary thing is that they never realized until long after the war that they had been fooled. Eisenhower himself said to the double-cross team, Look, if you can keep the 15th army - the army around Calais - if you can keep them out of my hair for 24 hours, you will have done your task.
They managed to keep the 15th army, by drip-feeding this continual sort of network of lies to them, they managed to keep the 15th army bottled up until the end of July. So it was actually, you know, more than six weeks after the initial landing. And when, of course, the attack never materialized in Calais, the Germans simply decided, oh, the Allies have changed their plans. They never rumbled that they had been sold a dummy.
SIMON: Ben MacIntyre, his new book, "Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies." Thank so much.
MACINTYRE: Thank you very much, Scott.