Culture / History

Off the shelf: The Spy With 29 Names

The Spy With 29 Names
James Webster
(Chatto & Windus, 2014)

FUSAG is an acronym that stands for First United States Army Group, a mighty force of 11 divisions, 15,000 men, massing in Kent and Essex to pour across the English Channel in 1944 under the command of America’s General George Patton.

Allied forces had landed in Normandy on D-Day, but that was merely a feint. While the Germans were distracted, FUSAG would hit the real target, the area around the port of Calais. Once they realised their mistake, the Nazis’ Fortress Europe would have been decisively breached.

Bad news for the Allies: the Germans were well aware of this deception, thanks to their top agent in Britain, code-named Alaric, also known as Garbo. Urgent reports from Garbo persuaded them to keep the fearsome 1st SS Panzer Division near Calais rather than jaunting round the Normandy countryside.

Bad news for the Germans: their agent had been working for the British. FUSAG may have been better named the Fictional United States Army Group. Not a solider, a rifle or a kitbag actually existed. Normandy had been the real target all along. The FUSAG illusion – which had the happy side-effect of vastly exaggerating in German eyes the size of the forces available for the invasion – bought the Allies valuable time to get a proper foothold in occupied France.

This book is about Garbo, in real life a Spaniard called Juan Pujol García. In a sense, it is a companion volume to Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury; 2007), the story of another wartime British double-agent, Eddie Chapman.

In some ways, the two men were opposites. Garbo had worked against the Germans from the start, by filing false reports to an intelligence official at the German embassy in Madrid, Karl-Eric Kuhlenthal, who believed him to be working for Germany. Initially, Garbo, pretending to be in London and using a crew member of the Dutch airline KLM as courier, simply made up his reports in Lisbon from information about Britain available in the public library.

Later, once the British had taken him up and moved him to the UK, he carried on the good work on a more organised basis, backed up by Britain’s intelligence apparatus.

By contrast, Chapman was a petty criminal in jail in the Channel Islands when the Germans invaded. He offered to work for them, was parachuted into Britain, turned himself in to the police and operated as a double-agent. So enigmatic were his apparent loyalties that at one time he was engaged to two women, one in Britain, one in occupied Europe.

Without doubt, the Calais deception, code-named Operation Fortitude, eclipsed in importance any of Chapman’s activities. Webster suggests that without the Fortitude ruse, the Normandy landings may well have failed, the Soviet Union would have tried to push beyond Berlin into Western Europe and the Allies may have used atomic weapons to stop them.

Chapman and his British handlers staged a bogus sabotage of the de Havilland factory in Hatfield, Hertfordshire. He spied on his German ‘comrades’ in Portugal and Norway and, perhaps most importantly, filed false reports of the landing sites in London of the V1 flying bombs, suggesting wrongly that they were hitting the right targets.

In a sense, our fascination with Garbo, Chapman and others is almost as intriguing as are their exploits. I started primary school in the mid-1960s, thus just caught the very end of the vainglorious narrative that we had won the war pretty much single-handed with some help at the margins from the Yanks and the Russians. By the time I was a teenager in the 1970s, a rather different yarn was being spun.

This held that whereas the future post-war superpowers may have provided the brawn, we had supplied the brains, in two forms. There was the pure intelligence work, such as the code-breakers at Bletchley Park and those behind the deceptions of Garbo and Chapman. And there were the special forces and similar, ranging from the Long-Range Desert Group and Popski’s Private Army to the commandos and the Special Operations Executive.

This played well in 1970s Britain for a number of reasons. One, it offered the comforting notion that, just as three or four decades earlier, we retained during troubled times this quirky yet brilliant national genius, one that expressed itself best in small groups that could make a huge difference.

Two, the idea that our spymasters were in an albeit-eccentric class of their own in contrast with the vulgarly well-funded and well-equipped Central Intelligence Agency was similarly welcome. They may have had spy satellites, but we had the real-life equivalents of gnomic espionage genius George Smiley.

Similarly, three, the superpowers may have had the armoured divisions and the fleets of bombers, but we had recondite outfits such as the Special Air Service Regiment, coming out of the shadows as a result of its work in Oman, Northern Ireland and, famously, the ending of the 1980 siege at the Iranian embassy in London.

In reality, this small-is-beautiful view of Britain’s defence and intelligence efforts is scarcely less of a delusion than the idea that the Axis powers were defeated almost entirely by British military might. The UK war effort was not comprised mainly of professorial oddballs breaking codes and running agents or tough-guy characters slithering through the undergrowth towards their target. At its peak, there were nearly three million troops in the wartime army, more than 200 submarines and 450 destroyers in the navy and countless aircraft.

In some ways, little has changed today. It is Trident, an extraordinarily powerful and destructive weapon system, that is hogging the defence budget, not shadowy commando units with deceptively-boring names (‘101 Movement Squadron’) or back-street offices in Charing Cross Road full of squabbling yet brilliant intelligence masterminds.

Webster is as good on the challenges facing a real-life double agent as was John le Carre on the fictional equivalent.  The occasional piece of spectacularly duff griff, such as FUSAG, is fine, if properly handled.  But on a day-to-day basis, the agent has to give his supposed masters something, some apparently solid and believable intelligence, otherwise they will quickly decide he is either useless or working for the other side. That ‘something’ cannot be complete rubbish but neither can it have real value. The answer to the puzzle is ‘chickenfeed’ – material that looks good, that checks out and can be dressed up as important, but which the enemy could probably have found out for themselves.

Indeed, in some cases, were they to think about it they may realise that they know it already. But, as Webster explains, the ‘handler’ – in this case Kuhlenthal in the Madrid embassy – is predisposed to believe his agent is producing, in le Carre-speak, gold-dust not chickenfeed. Right to the end, Kuhlenthal believed Garbo’s reports.

Or did he?

‘Was he really duped as comprehensively as the records suggest? Did he never suspect that Pujol was acting as a double agent? … They [members of his family] insist that their relative did have his doubts.’

Whatever the real story here, one thing is not in doubt. Regardless of Garbo’s success in wartime, Kuhlenthal won the peace. While Garbo suffered business failures in farming and hotel-keeping, Kuhlenthal ran his wife’s clothing and fashion firm, Dienz, in Koblenz. It flourished while Garbo did not.

Which, when you think about it, mirrors, in microcosm, the respective post-war commercial fates of Kuhlenthal’s homeland and the country Garbo served with such distinction.

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