Book of the week: Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre

If you’re looking for an August beach read, “forget fiction” and read this account of how the British misled the Germans about D-Day.

(Crown, $26)

“It is a story unsurpassed in the long history of intelligence,” said Joseph C. Goulden in The Washington Times. At the height of World War II, scores of poorly trained German spies were sent into Great Britain on a mission to scare up details about Allied strategy. British intelligence quickly captured all of them and offered many a choice: turn double or be executed. Those who agreed to start feeding false information to their German handlers were soon reinforced by “walk-in” double agents, who gave British intelligence a disinformation network stretching across Europe and beyond. Managed by the Twenty Committee, so named because the Roman numeral XX forms a double cross, these daring, often eccentric operatives routinely misled the Germans, notably about the details of D-Day. If you’re looking for an August beach read, “forget fiction.” Ben Macintyre’s factual account of the Double Cross operation is “more gripping than what you will find anywhere else.”

“Macintyre relishes, above all, the oddball cast of characters who make up his roster of D-Day spies,” said Jennifer Siegel in The Wall Street Journal. Dusko Popov, a Serbian Casanova, risked life and limb even as he was billing MI6 for the stockings he bestowed on his many female conquests. Elvira Chaudoir, the bisexual daughter of a Peruvian diplomat, fed the Germans fake gossip supposedly overheard in drawing rooms. Lily Sergeyev, aka Treasure, nearly sabotaged the entire operation to avenge the death of a lap dog she’d left in the care of her British overseers. Hard though it may be to believe, these agents played major roles in helping convince the Germans that the Allies intended to invade continental Europe at Norway and Calais, France, not Normandy.

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Unfortunately, Macintyre “overplays his hand,” said Matthew Price in The Boston Globe. Though the London Times columnist is “a supremely gifted storyteller”—as he proved in two previous true-life tales of spy-world shenanigans—he packs this book with so many outrageous plots and zany anecdotes that it can be hard to follow the through line. D-Day often feels too far off in the distance. “That said, if you have patience enough, Double Cross is a blast.” I may wish that Macintyre had created a more streamlined narrative from the new material he’s added to this story, but “I would kill for his keen wit.”

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