Winston Groom’s legendary Forrest Gump is the iconic bystander who stumbles into the company of historically significant figures—and even, in the case of Elvis, supplies signature bodily gyrations. What follows will claim no such force or influence. But when it comes to unusual brushes with historic figures, it may qualify as a minor footnote.
In 1957, Adlai Stevenson came to Oxford University, a noted home of lost causes, to collect an honorary degree. For reasons now obscure, Willie Morris and I were invited to tea with the former presidential candidate, perhaps because we had collaborated on a piece about him for the student press.
Our host, then provost of Worcester College and university vice chancellor, and Stevenson’s official host, was a donnish figure named John Masterman, who looms large in Ben Macintyre’s three savory books on World War II strategic deception. Masterman had been chairman of the Twenty Committee, known as the Double-X or Double Cross, which succeeded (as he himself revealed several decades later) in “turning” every German spy sent to England during the war. He is described by Macintyre as a dedicated gamesman (cricket) and a figure of monkish austerity, who slept in bombed-out London on the cold floor of a former barbershop. Had I known all this, as a youth barely into my 20s, I would have paid closer attention to our teatime host.
Across Oxford, at Rhodes House, dwelt Bill Williams, former chief of intelligence to Field Marshal Montgomery and the youngest brigadier in the British Army during World War II. Williams was a dry, witty, engaging, sometimes astringent host to visiting scholars, given to teasing Americans with lines like, “I am a very right-wing Tory, much to the left of anything you have in the U.S.” When, a few years later, Montgomery’s memoirs paid high tribute to Williams as the architect of the second Battle of Alamein, I reviewed the book and described Williams as being “at his best with a glass of something and a good cigar.” He wrote to say, with tongue in cheek as usual, that he was glad his mother was no longer living, since she had been active in the temperance movement and I had described him “as an intoxicated reactionary.”
What we young acolytes didn’t know then was that he was also one of the few who were privy to the Enigma decryptions, the greatest intelligence coup of that or any other war. Far from incidentally, these decodings of German signals enabled British counterintelligence tricksters to monitor the results of their deceptions.
Ben Macintyre, of the Times of London, writes gripping narratives that go down like milkshakes. The first, Agent Zigzag, tells the story of a hoodlum and safe-cracker who, pursued by the police, escaped to the Channel Islands (then German-occupied) and was recruited as a German secret agent. He was parachuted back into England, equipped with a wireless transmitter and other spy paraphernalia, and promptly turned himself in and volunteered as a double agent. There was an implicit bargain that, as a reward for his double-agent labors, his crimes would be overlooked.
Agent Zigzag’s masterpiece of faux sabotage was the “blowing up” of the de Havilland aircraft factory, where an all-wood light bomber called the “mosquito” was made: a pest of special dislike and inconvenience to the Germans. The effort demanded not only the sly and meticulous craft of the Double Cross managers, but the trompe l’oeil help of a professional magician. Agent Zigzag, aka Eddie Chapman, was among the half-dozen most colorful of the tribe of double agents who were assisted in their devious work by dozens of wholly invented agents and imaginary incidents.
Macintyre’s second in the series, Operation Mincemeat, tells the macabre story of the most celebrated of disinformation hoaxes: an imposture designed to persuade the Germans that the Allied invasion of Europe following victory in North Africa would occur in Greece and/or Sardinia, rather than Sicily. Winston Churchill (a fan and follower of the Double Cross deceptions) observed that “anybody but a fool” could see that Sicily had to be the target; but a couple of brilliant managers (see below) managed to fool German intelligence.
The centerpiece of the effort has been known since the early 1950s as “the man who never was,” a Welshman named Glyndr Michael who, friendless and obscure, died of rat poison in a probable suicide in wartime London. Michael’s corpse was obtained, with some legal corner-cutting, and was dressed as a Royal Marines major and courier for eminent military correspondents. “Major Martin” was supplied with a believable history and personality and was transported by submarine from western Scotland. He was preserved with dry ice in a custom-made canister, and was launched, with a strapped-on briefcase, off the Spanish coast. He washed shoreward, as hoped, and was found by a fisherman. Eventually, the clues and indications contained in the “secret” letters he carried (including a reference to “sardines”) made their way to the heart of German intelligence—to the attention of Hitler himself. The designers of the hoax supposed, correctly, that the Spaniards, notwithstanding their neutrality, would share the find with the Germans.
It was a fabulous success and saved many days of fighting, and many lives. One effect of Mincemeat was that Erwin Rommel was dispatched to Greece to arrange for the defense of the Peloponnesus.
Finally, there is Double Cross, Macintyre’s narrative of the Twenty Committee’s multiple deceptions calculated to divert or weaken German defenses in Normandy in 1944. The book is rich in evocations of the colorful, sometimes high-living double agents, with names like “Tricycle” (so called, allegedly, because of his fondness for ménage-à-trois trysts), although, as a story, the book lacks the focus and intensity of Zigzag and Mincemeat. One diverting example of the pre-D-Day hoaxes was the enlistment of an Australian actor, serving in a humdrum capacity in the British Army, as a look-alike impersonator of Montgomery. His role was to visit Gibraltar and Algiers, conspicuously and noisily, on the eve of the Normandy invasion. If the ground commander of the Allied invasion force was traipsing about far from the scene, surely the invasion (then days away) could hardly be imminent!
The greedy reader of these deadly but amusing tales will constantly ask himself not only why these deceptions so often worked so well, but what it was (or is) in the English character and culture that made them so good at deceiving. German susceptibility—conditioned by fearfulness and deadly rivalries and also, as one Twenty Committee eminence remarked, by “wishmanism” and “yesmanship”—can hardly be discounted. A willing seller needs a willing buyer. But it is familiar lore that beneath their pose of stiff lips and understatement, the English inhabit a hidden world of drama and gamesmanship. Protected as their small island is by John of Gaunt’s “moat,” they allow themselves uncommon space for eccentricity and imagination.
It is hardly surprising to read that Ewen Montagu, one of the eminent masters of counterintelligence, was the brother of a known Communist and a connoisseur of exotic cheeses. Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumly”), pictured here in full Bedouin kit, was a postwar bug-hunter and devotee of plagues of locusts in the Near East; it was he who came up with the Trojan horse idea that bore the body of “Major Martin” into Nazidom. It didn’t hurt that many of the Double Cross masters had been classically educated.
Perhaps, after all, we have known the inner secret of the Double Cross since at least the time of Shakespeare: All the world’s a stage, and the English are hereditarily accomplished players in the often ironic comedies of human folly and illusion. Certainly, as I read these three marvelous books, I thought back to those Oxford scenes of the 1950s, and my clueless brushes with this cast of characters, and marveled at the steely self-discipline that kept their wartime secrets so well-corked for so long.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure.