Magazine article The Spectator

Not Quite Cricket

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Quite Cricket

Article excerpt

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben MacIntyre Bloomsbury, £16.99, pp. 417, ISBN 78140881990

To the French, Albion's expertise in perfidy will come as no surprise. But centuries of warfare have given them time to learn.

With their experience only dating back to 1914, the Germans clearly found it difficult to grasp during the second world war that nowhere is the truth more expertly and instinctively spun than in the land of the gentleman.

While a schoolchild soon masters the lie simple, and the lie financial merely requires a degree of brazenness easily developed by proximity to other people's money, the lie belligerent demands an instinct for dissimulation that must be bred in the bone of its practitioners to be carried off convincingly.Thus, alongside the exquisite entertainment to be derived from Double Cross, Ben MacIntyre's account of the wartime operation to feed false information to the enemy, there ought also to lurk some unease about the source of our alarming genius for deceit.

One clue may come from the name chosen for the umbrella group made up of different Intelligence services that ran the system. Officially it was the Twenty Committee, but the Latin numerals XX comprised the sort of rebuslike pun enjoyed by minds at a slant to the straightforward view of life.

The committee's raw material consisted of 24 German spies out of a total of 126 who had surrendered or been captured, the remainder having been imprisoned or executed. Initially the goal was simply to replace any valuable information they might have sent back with useless news. But under the impetus of an ingenious officer named Tar Robertson their handlers began to invent an almost entirely imaginary world from fictitious informants. These included indiscreet senior officers, gossipy aristocrats (the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Mountbatten among them), a group of pro-Nazi Welsh fascists, an Indian poet, and a secretary in the War Office - 'less than beautiful and rather dowdy in her dress, but delightfully indiscreet'- who had supposedly been seduced by one of the agents, Juan Pujol Garcia, otherwise known as Garbo to the British, and Arbel to the Germans.

Perhaps another pointer comes from the committee's taste for cricketing metaphors, introduced by the chairman, J. C. Masterman, who liked to describe its operations in terms of sticky wickets, slow balls, and stumpings, and often stressed the need for double agents to have 'a good deal of net practice before they were fit to play'. This widely shared idiosyncrasy introduced a note of ludic illogic wholly suited to a war of bluff and make-believe. …

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