Review by Joseph T Major of COUNTERFEIT SPIES by "Nigel West" [Rupert Allason] (St. Ermin's Press; 1998; ISBN 0-316-64378-5; £18.99)
The sort of activist who is against all governments, but particularly the one he happens to suffer under (and so becomes an easy mark for the propaganda of other, and usually far worse, governments), is quite willing to believe, for example, that his sinister regime's secret service is capable of hiring assassins who are allowed to learn killing with real condemned prisoners, and who then proceed to bump off carriers of an inconvenient secret. It can be understood, then, that some people won't like this book.
Other readers, however, prefer to find out what really happened, even if the events aren't as exciting as a thriller novel. Indeed, not only do most of the "counterfeit spy" stories debunked herein read like thriller novels, but some of the stories so told actually seem to have been plagiarized from thriller novels(!).
At the end of his Unreliable Witness [American title A Thread of Deceit], "West" mentions one of the cases cited herein. It seemed the logical thing to do to then produce an entire book on the topic. [Incidentally, Unreliable Witness/A Thread of Deceit contains the best refutation of the "Coventry Myth" that Churchill sacrificed the town to save ULTRA unlike the other debunkers, Churchill's biographer Sir Martin Gilbert and former SIS scientific advisor Professor R. V. Jones, Allason has nothing to lose if it were to be true.]
And sorting out the false from the true is not only useful in the abstract sense of preferring truth, but in the concrete sense of getting things down right. There is a writer named William B. Breuer who writes on some fields of espionage that aren't much covered, particularly Asian espionage. Yet I don't read him. I had read a book of his on the secret war in World War Two, and he cited as reality a hoax that had been particularly dramatic, not to mention rapid, in its uncovering. Could his research on other matters be trusted?
The case that Breuer didn't get was the first of the "counterfeit spies" that "West" discusses, George DuPre of Canada. In speaking to neighbors and local organizations in and around Calgary and Winnipeg, DuPre would movingly describe his daring undercover work in France, where in spite of horrific Nazi torture, he maintained his cover as a mentally retarded Frenchman. Famed journalist Quentin Reynolds heard of this thrilling tale, and after interviewing DuPre, wrote it up as The Man Who Wouldn't Talk (1953). Which book became so such a celebrated tale that soon enough, wartime buddies of DuPre came forward and quickly deflated his story.
"West" describes several internal inconsistencies and contradictions of established facts that in and of themselves render the book implausible. Such errors proliferate in these books; it is a recurring pattern. (The comparison to Stolen Valor is to be noted, and indeed a meeting between Burkett and Allason would be interesting.)
Another theme that crops up is that of the spy sent over to provide the enemy with deliberately misleading information. (This has a real basis; Sun Tzu suggests it, for example.) It makes a good novel and not surprisingly was also the theme of some early works, such as Count Five and Die (1958), a thrilling tale of agents sent to persuade the Germans that the Second Front would open in the Netherlands. This theory was sustained neither by the secret services' records nor the actual reactions of the Germans.
Errors about guns crop up in fiction all the time. When a character describes dropping the magazine of a revolver, for example, the reader who knows better will very quickly lose suspension of disbelief (see Armed and Dangerous by Michael Newton). However, the editors who passed such a scene in The Spy Wore Red (1985) by Aline, Countess of Romanones, evidently didn't know their firearms. The item that apparently really got to "West" is another passage where Aline, then Aline Griffith of the OSS, reads a telegram announcing the arrest of agent GARBO. Since "West" himself had just co-authored a book with the man himself, GARBO by Nigel West and Juan Pujol Garcia [American title Operation GARBO] (1984), you can understand he might be a little miffed. And indeed, Aline's tale and its sequels (The Spy Went Dancing (1990), The Spy Wore Silk (1991), and The Well Mannered Assassin (1994)) contain a number of inconsistencies and exaggerations. Everyone wants to seem important.
Minister Farrakhan might not like this book either, for its debunking of The Search for Johnny Nicholas (1982) the story of an unusual American spy a black man. Moreover, a martyr, murdered at Nordhausen in the last days of the war. That Johnny Nicholas was a prisoner of war who was murdered is undeniably true. However, he seems to have been merely a bomber crewman who spun a story to look good. "West" assumes that the OSS would not have been so dumb as to send a black man into occupied France, which may be giving them too much credit. Particularly since the Nazis seem to have been rounding up and "deporting to the East" black men in France.
And speaking of looking good, there was the tale told by Dr. George Borodin, No Crown of Laurels (1950), a successful plastic surgeon and writer. Borodin described there how he had changed the faces of several Allied spies to enable them to pose as Gestapo agents, pseudo-collaborators, and so on. This seems like a first draft for Alistair MacLean, and indeed Borodin's stories fail to check out. Particularly since many of the people he mentioned should have been famous. To cap it off, Borodin later brought out almost the same book with different names, Secret Surgeon by "George Sava" (1979)!
The most famous such case that "West" tackles is A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson (1976), the purported biography of Sir William Stephenson. He also discussed it in Unreliable Witness/A Thread of Deceit, but this book contains more detail. Apparently, Stevenson almost completely ignored the history of the SIS station in New York, The BSC Papers, and instead borrowed without attribution (and incorrectly, to boot) incidents from other books.
Another thriller plot is that of the daring Allied agent who disguises himself as a German officer and penetrates German headquarters. For example, A Spy for Churchill by Robert Vacha (1974), the tale of Robert Craig, who passed himself off as Major Karl Hermann von Warnke of the 15th Panzer Division of the Afrika Korps, which however was packaged as history. Again, the story contains so many implausibilities that one wonders how it was accepted as credible to begin with unless the editors had taken too many novels as "realistic". After meeting with the man for only three weeks, somehow this spy was able to fool the man's wife, not to mention pass as a German officer, for example. Oddly enough, later on Vacha published a novel featuring a character named "Robert Craig".
By way of contrast, "West" discusses a similar-sounding work which yet turned out to be basically true, No Passport by Madelaine Duke (1957), the thrilling story of "Jan Felix", an SOE agent in France. In spite of implausibilities and errors, the story of "Jan Felix" is based on the real experiences of Hans Felix Jeschke, a very resourceful SOE agent. But Duke's other book on spying, Slipstream (1955), is less credible.
And speaking of credibility . . . putting the most typical story in the middle of the book seems rather to steer it away from a climax. "Christopher Creighton", the hero of The Paladin by Brian Garfield (1980), The Khrushchev Objective by Christopher Creighton and Noel Hynd (1988), and OpJB by Christopher Creighton [and Milton Schulman and Duff Hart-Davis] (1996), seems to have been the ultimate in everything. As a teenaged boy, he engineered the destruction of the Dutch submarine whose commander had reported the Japanese Carrier Striking Force on its way to Pearl Harbor, afterwards killing off the British officers who had handled the signals all so the U.S. would get into the war. Then, he was sent to France to persuade the Germans that the Allied main landing would be at Calais by having it tortured out of him that it would be at Normandy, which they would dismiss as a cover story. Then, with Ian Fleming and Sir Fitzroy MacLean, under direct orders from Churchill, he engineered the escape of Martin Bormann from Berlin at the end of the war. Finally, in 1956 he prevented the destruction of a Soviet cruiser in Portsmouth, saved Khrushchev from overthrow, blackmailed KGB chairman Ivan Serov into becoming a British agent, and reunited Lord Mountbatten with his lost love Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayeva.
Refuting the various impossiblities in this body of work seems pointless, since they are so prima facie absurd, yet laborious, since there are so many of them. Unfortunately, as the "Coventry Myth" shows, an error has "legs". The Pearl Harbor one, for example, fits in with other conspiracy theories. One wonders why "Christopher Creighton", born John Answorth-Davis and now going by the name of John R. Davies, should feel so blasé about confessing to murders.
If Robert Vacha's story of Robert Craig was implausible, how about Mladin Zarubica's story of how a general who was an intimate friend and private envoy of Hitler was replaced by an allied agent, The Year of the Rat (1965)? Unfortunately, this book is an example of how a work can gain credibility, since it was endorsed by an author of reputation, Ralph Ingersoll, writer of the best-selling Top Secret (1946) which, however, itself turns out to contain errors and bias.
Someday B. G. Burkett may run into Lieutenant-Colonel John Cottell, winner of many high British awards, lecturer on gallant espionage missions against the Germans, co-author of Codename Badger (1990). He may even be fooled by the man. Cottell's story displays certain patterns of behavior which should by now be familiar to the reader; implausibilities of dates, copying (indeed, plagiarism) of other works, gross violations of tradecraft, and so on. Added to this is Cottell's contention that he is being set up.
The prelude to this book in the afterword to Unreliable Witness/A Thread of Deceit is the case of Dr. Josephine Butler, author of Churchill's Secret Agent (1983). This was a dramatic tale of an agent who reported personally to the Prime Minister and made daring mission after daring mission to the occupied continent. By now it should not be surprising to note that the details of these missions are implausible (i.e., there are no records of these missions and the descriptions are not credible). Not to mention history repeating itself; Dr. Butler later brought out the same book under a different title (Cyanide In My Shoe) from a different publisher, which apparently had no idea.
"West" compares Dr. Butler's story to that of "Elizabeth Denham" [Constance Elizabeth Gibbs Langdon, Lady Clarke] as told in I Looked Right (1956). However, "Denham" seems to have been telling of how unfit (she spoke French poorly) and ill-trained she was (the title derives from the circumstances of her arrest; she looked right instead of left when crossing a street) for her spy service in occupied France, and as usual, there is no confirmation.
"Christopher Creighton's" closest competitor would be Edward Edlmann, whose thrilling memoirs With My Little Eye (1961) describe how, as a break from rescuing a British agent from prison in Germany, he went to a speech by Hitler, posing as Nazi Party member Adolf Schultz. Later on, that same agent, who had gone on to spend five years posing as a German staff officer, would help him get out of Germany. In between, he would attempt to kidnap Rommel, discover the secret rocket component that would make the V-2 into a multiple super rocket, and recover the secret Soviet policy proposal that had fallen into the hands of a waiter who lived near Bonn. Somehow, finding out that his army records show that he was a prison camp guard at the time isn't at all surprising.
Another double-dipper is Roxane Pitt, author of The Courage of Fear (1957) and Operation Double Life (1975), about her daring missions into Italy. Given the technical errors (parachuting out of a Lysander aircraft, which was not what they were made to do) and errors of detail (it's impossible that she could be, as she claims, a descendant of William Pitt, and it hardly seems likely that her mother could be both the daughter of a Spanish marquis and a Jew) it seems like this is another one of those books.
Not "another one of those books" is Leonard Mosley's The Druid (1981). This was one of the works analyzed in Unreliable Witness/A Thread of Deceit, and again there is more detail this time. Mosley tells the story of a German agent who worked entirely undetected in Britain. Gwyn Evans, Agent DRUID, a Welsh-German Welsh Nationalist, took up the service of his mother's country and agreed to spy against the English. His greatest success was the revelation of the Dieppe Raid. In addition, Evans seems to have been then recruited by Kim Philby to work with the Soviets!
Again, it may have been a case of "West's" feelings being hurt, as Mosley identifies Agent GARBO as a Spanish journalist named Luis Calvo. (As part of his research for Operation GARBO, Allason spoke to Luis Calvo, who was particularly annoyed by the charge.) Besides this error, Mosley identifies the control officer for DRUID as one Paul Fidrmuc, Agent OSTRO. However, far from being an Abwehr officer, Paul Fidrmuc was a con man who made up secrets and sold them to the gullible Germans. (Not unlike GARBO himself at first.)
Other people were insulted, as Mosley said that at least two of the MI5 (Security Service) officers involved in handling the "turned" German agents were Soviet moles. Annoyed at this, four of the surviving officers wrote Mosley's publishers and demanded a retraction. As with some other of these works, "West" is able to determine the sources from which the story is drawn, as well as show up its impossibilities and other errors.
Finally, The Unknown Warrior by James Leasor (1981) tells the story of Stefan Rosenberg, the man who persuaded Rommel and Hitler that the invasion would come at Calais. Rosenberg was parachuted into France, where he contacted the Germans. He was thereupon interrogated personally by Rommel and then taken to Germany to brief Hitler, after which he escaped and crossed the British lines.
Where this story can be checked the officers of Rommel's staff, the members of the unit Rosenberg supposedly served in, the agents he was working with it is not only unsupported but contradicts what is known. And (not surprisingly) it is implausible.
What can be made of this? "West" discusses how some of these people merely have had a broad fantasy life. (From reading the description of George DuPre, for example, it seems he might have just started bragging to friends and getting caught up in his own story.) One thinks of Dr. Robert Lindener's "Jet-Propelled Couch", the story of "Kirk Allen" (who was not Paul "Cordwainer Smith" Linebarger), the physicist who thought the sci-fi adventure tales of "Kirk Allen" the adventurerer were his own biography, the tales of his life and adventures in another world.
The people who wrote up those stories may have been naïve or gullible the way Lindener found that he was unintentionally encouraging Kirk Allen to get deeper into his fantasy, instead of realizing that it was a story. (Quentin Reynolds, for example, re-sold The Man Who Wouldn't Talk as a novel.)
Indeed, some of these works may be, one way or another, novels. The usual means of introduction of a fantastic adventure story is to present it as a true story heard from someone who wants to maintain his privacy. (Like saying that, "I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.") These books, however, were published as non-fiction, whatever they may have started out as.
Another cause "West" might consider is that of "secret history". Knowing that a secret agent evaded the Double-Cross System, or spilled the secret of Dieppe to the Germans, or faced off with dangerous German spies in Spain, while "established" history says otherwise, can be a source of self-esteem. The possessor of this gnostic, hidden knowledge can pride himself on not only his superior knowledge, but his superior judgment.
Tied in to this is the theme of the wicked secret service. The idea of a corrupt, ruthless, amoral spy agency that directly murders people, or sends its own agents on suicide missions, somehow appeals to those who are alienated from their own society.
Conspiracy theory further broadens the appeal of this kind of writing. Believing that Dieppe was deliberately betrayed appeals to those who imagine some malicious paternalism towards Canada by the British. And describing a vast coverup of an advance warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor will appeal to a vast audience.
And then there is the idea that one ought to be right: "[There] is a further more insiduous consequence to the deception. This is eloquently illustrated by the frequency with which some of these books, now revealed to be untrue, are quoted by the unsuspecting as respectable sources." [Counterfeit Spies, p. 272] When in his The Corps series, "W. E. B. Griffin" had General Vandegrift say that Churchill sacrificed Coventry to save Enigma, it was an example of how far this deception had spread. And where novels go, popular opinion follows.
The unreality of spy novels may stem from this. By taking such unreliable witnesses as preachers of gospel, an author can predicate even more. If Edward Edlmann can be infiltrated into the Netherlands by a submarine, Barbara Hambly can have a character be infiltrated into the Netherlands by submarine. If DRUID can report to the Abwehr's top spy in England, John Dalmas can have a character report to the Abwehr's top spy in England. And the potentials to be imagined in taking the tales of John "Christopher Creighton" Davies at face value can only appall.
Certain patterns recur in these stories. One sees in them time and again the agent with an inadequate preparation, an unsuitable background, a categorical unfitness, sent on a mission of extreme danger. Or a mission which would require an immense support structure is claimed to have been kept absolutely secret. Or an agent utterly violates tradecraft. The authors top their mendacity by their ignorance and again, this goes around and comes around.
It is extremely unfortunate that Counterfeit Spies has not yet been published in the United States. (I got my copy from Jeff Bezos's foreign subsidiary www.amazon.co.uk for £20.14, including postage and handling.) In understanding any situation, no matter what one's context, it is desirable to consider it on the basis of correct information.