A review of Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Americans’ views of the Second World War have been dominated by films, books, and television specials about the role that U.S. troops played in the fighting. Even today, more than half a century after the war ended, we tend to believe that it was our ingenuity and industrial might and the sheer guts and persistence of American soldiers and sailors that defeated Nazi Germany — and, to borrow a phrase from the preceding Great War, “made the world safe for democracy.” This is just one of a great many signs of our insularity and the widespread belief in the so-called exceptionalism of our nation.
However, serious historical studies have long since established the truth that Stalin’s Soviet Union carried a much larger burden than ours. It was the German defeat at the monumental Battle of Stalingrad (July 1942 – February 1943) that was the true turning point in the European war. That victory alone cost the Red Army more than 1.1 million casualties; in the war as a whole, 26.6 million Soviets died. (U.S. deaths totaled 418,500.) And research in more recent years, as hitherto secret archives have been opened to the public, has revealed the seminal role of the British Secret Intelligence Services, both MI5 (counterespionage) and MI6 (foreign intelligence) that made possible the success of the U.S.-led Normandy Invasion on D-Day (June 6, 1944).
If you have even a cursory knowledge of World War II, you’re probably familiar with the names George Patton, Omar Bradley, and Dwight Eisenhower. It’s highly unlikely, however, that you’ve ever come across any mention of Elvira Concepcion Josefina de la Fuentes Chaudoir, Roman Czerniawski, Lily Sergeyev, Dusko Popov, Juan Pujol Garcia, and Johnny Jebsen. In their own way, these six European double agents who were “turned” or recruited by the British played roles as large as those of any American general in the success of the invasion that opened up the Western Front.
Because British intelligence, working through these six extraordinary individuals in the Double Cross System, managed to mislead the Germans about the date and place of the invasion, McIntyre writes, it “was a military sucker punch. Senior German commanders were not only unprepared but positively relaxed.” Everyone in a key position on the Nazi side, including Hitler himself, had bought the elaborate deception that kept powerful German forces locked up elsewhere, expecting Anglo-American invaders in Norway, the French Atlantic coast, and, most of all, in the Pas de Calais peninsula in Northern France, convinced that the Normandy action was simply a diversion. As we all know, of course, the real Normandy invasion was a desperate and bloody battle nonetheless, anything but a certain victory for the Allies. Eisenhower and Montgomery, who led the invasion force, later acknowledged that if the Germans hadn’t been fooled, if they had reinforced their troops on the line in Normandy, the invasion might well have ended in a massacre of Allied troops.
As Ben McIntyre writes in Double Cross, “the D-Day spies were, without question, one of the oddest military units ever assembled. They included a bisexual Peruvian playgirl [who was heir to a guano fortune], a tiny [and fanatically patriotic] Polish fighter pilot, a mercurial Frenchwoman [who loved her little dog Babs more than any person], a Serbian seducer, . . . a deeply eccentric Spaniard with a diploma in chicken farming,” and a Danish-German Anglophile whose sideline business of currency and commodity manipulation would have put Catch 22‘s Milo Minderbender to shame. What is most astonishing about the highly unlikely stories McIntyre tells in this detail-filled account is that they’re all true.
Double Cross is McIntyre’s third book about British intelligence during World War II. His previous books — Operation Mincemeat (reviewed here) and Agent Zigzag — relate equally improbable exploits, which are nonetheless also completely true. The earlier books, both bestsellers, were fascinating to read, filled with all the tension of superior thrillers. In Double Cross, McIntyre attempts to tell a vastly more complex tale, encompassing a veritable army of characters, both British and German, and a bewildering sequence of interconnected events. He comes up short. There’s simply too much going on for any but the most retentive reader to follow all six threads. I was nearly two-thirds of the way through the book before I could even keep all the spies straight, let alone the ever-changing cast of their handlers on both sides.
Although Double Cross is a little difficult to follow at times, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable and often surprising read. You can be the life of any party for months, retelling the story of the British carrier pigeons who played a special role in Operation Double Cross, or the one about the Spanish chicken farmer working for MI5 who fabricated the identities of an army of sub-agents, fed the Abwehr with thousands of pages of entirely fictitious reports — and received a German Iron Cross for his courageous and resourceful efforts to defend the Fatherland.
My top 20 nonfiction picks
For nearly three-and-a-half years now, I’ve been posting book reviews in this blog, typically twice a week. For my own benefit as well as yours, I like to look back every so often at the books I’ve read and think about what I’ve learned from them. What follows below is a list of the 20 nonfiction books (out of more than 100 I read) that have added the most to my understanding of the world. They’re arranged in no particular order: I can’t imagine trying to pick the best of this lot!
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright
The definitive study of the belief system known as Scientology, with an emphasis on its human rights violations and the Hollywood celebrities it has gathered into its “prison of belief.”
Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney
Revelations galore from newly unearthed evidence about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and his last years in the White House.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
The seminal role of a long-forgotten ancient Greek poet and philosopher on the thinking of the geniuses who shaped the Renaissance and on the course of history that followed.
The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan
Recent history and current events through the distorting lens of geopolitics, which views Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, from a very different perspective than is found in most history books.
Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman
The astonishing story of America’s rearmament in World War II, with a focus on the two larger-than-life personalities who made it happen through sheer force of will: William Knudsen and Henry J. Kaiser.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, by Ben McIntyre
The stranger-than-fiction story of the British double agents whose brilliant work in Europe played a pivotal role in the success of the Normandy Invasion.
The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World, by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan
A comprehensive and well-informed view of the world of social enterprise and the extraordinary individuals who stand out in a field that attracts brilliant and inspired people by the carload.
The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham
An in-depth refutation of the myth of rugged individualism, lionized by Ayn Rand’s novels and enshrined in conservative and libertarian ideology for four decades.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
How the War on Drugs, and the institutionalized racism that undergirds it, has weakened American society and fostered a new underclass dominated by young men of color.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo
A first-hand account of three years in a slum neighborhood in one of the biggest cities in the world, focusing on the hopes and challenges of two local families.
Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion, by Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy
A beautifully-written account of the history of a nonprofit South Indian eye hospital that has pioneered a revolutionary approach to eye-care which has brought relief to millions of poor people worldwide.
Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson
An unvarnished biography of the design and marketing genius who built Apple and gained a place in business history alongside Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton.
Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin
The troubling story of the institutionalization of a new military-intelligence complex triggered by 9/11 and accelerated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson
The long-overlooked story of FDR’s ambassador to Nazi Germany and his frustrated efforts to turn U.S. policy against Hitler in the face of horrific violence against Jews in Germany and anti-Semitism in the State Department.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A History of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
An oncologist’s critical study of the diseases lumped together under the label of cancer and of humanity’s halting efforts to arrest and cure them.
Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
A fresh new take on one of history’s most powerful and fascinating women, long caricatured in popular fiction and history books alike.
The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers, by Vicky Ward
An illuminating tale of the people who set off the Great Recession, bringing to light the greed, self-delusion, and miscalculation that came so close to collapsing the world economy in 2008.
Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, by Richard. A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake
A profoundly troubling look at the rapid rise of cyber warfare and the existential threat it poses to American civilization, written by the top counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush Administrations.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Based on ten years of dogged research, a science journalist’s deeply moving account of the African-American woman whose cancerous cells seeded six decades of medical discoveries.
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Tagged as Aravind, Ayn Rand, Ben McIntyre, Bill Knudsen, cancer, CIA, cia conspiracy, Cleopatra, cyber warfare, D-Day, Dana Priest, Erik Larson, eye care, geopolitics, Henrietta Lacks, Henry J. Kaiser, hollywood celebrities, John Elkington, John F. Kennedy, Katherine Boo, Lawrence Wright, Lehman Brothers, libertarian ideology, mary pinchot meyer, mass incarceration, michelle alexander, military-intelligence complex, Mumbai, Nazi Germany, Pamela Hartigan, poverty, racism, Rebecca Skloot, Renaissance, Richard A. Clarke, Robert D. Kaplan, rugged individualism, scientology, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Stacy Schiff, Stephen Greenblatt, Steve Jobs, The Swerve, Vicky Ward, Walter Isaacson, War on Drugs, William S. Knudsen, World War II