D for Deception
Dennis Wheatley’s spy novels thrilled wartime Britain. His real-life espionage lured Hitler to defeat.
At the moment when Dennis Wheatley began to wage World War II from inside Winston Churchill’s bunker, he had already been fighting it for years in the pages of his books. The most popular prewar thriller writer in England, Wheatley wrote a series of novels that featured British secret agent Gregory Sallust. Sallust is daring, handsome, and ruthless. He speaks German like a native. His girlfriend, the anti-Nazi Erika von Epp, is the second most beautiful woman in Germany. He knows his way around a magnum of 1920 Louis Roederer brut. Before there was James Bond, there was Gregory Sallust.
Throughout the books, Sallust is locked in constant battle with SS Gruppenführer Grauber, the chief of the Gestapo’s foreign section. Grauber—diabolical, sadistic, with an eye patch, a makeup-wearing boyfriend, and a Peter Lorre voice—becomes Sallust’s archenemy and an all-purpose villain throughout the series.
Sallust repeatedly poses as a German officer and inserts himself into the key events of the war. It is Sallust who fools Hitler into invading Russia, whose deceit saves Moscow, who steals a key document from the safe of Hermann Goering that keeps Britain from surrender in its darkest days. The spy meets and invariably impresses a variety of historical figures with his dazzling military assessments. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his strategic analysis brilliant. He is a master of deception.
Wheatley put Sallust, von Epp, and Sallust’s confederate, Russian defector Stefan Kuperovitch, through a truly exhausting gauntlet of danger. But their adventures were set against a backdrop of events that were not only real but, because Wheatley wrote so quickly, virtually up-to-the-minute. The Black Baroness, which ends with Winston Churchill’s speech on June 17, 1940, the day of France’s surrender to the Nazis, was written and published by October, four months later. It was not the first time that a fiction writer inserted his characters into real events, of course, but it was possibly the first time those events threatened to crash through the ceiling into a reader’s living room even as he held the book in his lap.
Rather than sending Sallust into battle, however, what Wheatley really wanted was to be fighting himself.
Dennis Wheatley was, like the character he invented, debonair—a man of high tastes. He had a prominent chin and thick dark hair he wore parted in the middle. He sometimes fancied a smoking jacket. But when Britain entered the war he was 42, too old to be called to combat. He was the only member of his family not to join the war effort. His wife, Joan, loved cars and knew how much gasoline different makes used, and she soon became MI5’s petrol queen, allocating scarce gasoline for British intelligence. She also worked as a driver, using her own car.
Wheatley spent his time attacking another kind of enemy: the ration board. It was no contest. Wheatley bought provisions for his household, which included four Wheatleys and three maids, for a month. He bought a stock of cigars from Benson & Hedges: Cigars were the only vice he didn’t have, but he expected guests. He went to Justerini’s in Pall Mall and bought—on credit—the maximum amount of wines and liqueurs they would sell him.
His own entertainment taken care of, he concentrated on the war career of his protagonist Sallust, providing much needed diversion for a tense nation. Keeping Sallust in mortal peril required collecting and synthesizing everything about the war that was available without a security clearance: understanding how the Nazis fought, learning about the neutral countries, assessing the political and military forces on all sides, analyzing strategy, predicting next moves. Wheatley read voraciously, followed the news in minute detail, and lunched frequently with friends whose work put them in a position to know things.
In May 1940, Joan was chauffeuring one Captain Hubert Stringer. He confided in her that the war was going badly and it looked like Hitler might soon invade Britain. He had been asked to come up with countermeasures for resisting a German invasion, but he couldn't think of much. “Why don’t you try my husband?” Joan said. Stringer agreed.
Wheatley was thrilled to be doing something useful. He worked through the night. Fourteen hours later, he had written a 7,000-word paper called “Resistance to Invasion.” His secretary typed it, and Joan gave it to Stringer. Two evenings later, Stringer came to the Wheatleys’ house for a drink. He told Wheatley the paper was very good—in fact, a lot of its suggestions should be carried out immediately. But, he said, it could be weeks before any of his higher-ups paid attention.
Encouraged, Wheatley asked Stringer if he could send the paper to friends high in the military services. Soon after Wheatley sent it around, Colonel Charles Balfour-Davey, a friend in the War Office, called Wheatley and asked him to come in for a meeting, at midnight. “You have certainly produced a number of ideas that have never occurred to us,” Balfour-Davey said, promising to pass the paper up the line.
Another friend to whom Wheatley had sent his paper asked him to lunch with two other men: an arms manufacturer important to the war effort, and Lawrence Darvall, a wing commander in the Royal Air Force. Some of his ideas were completely impractical, the group told him. But many were not. Most of all, the men were impressed that Wheatley hadn’t suggested building a Maginot line around London or using a thousand tanks that didn’t exist.
“The war is 10 months old, and I am still unemployed in it,” Wheatley said. “Can you suggest any way in which I could make myself useful?” Darvall gave him a new assignment: Imagine himself a member of the Nazi High Command and produce a plan for the invasion of England. He was to send it to Darvall at a curious address: “Mr. Rance’s room at the Office of Works.” Wheatley would later find out that this was the cover name for the Joint Planning Staff’s rooms in the Ministry of Defense.
On the way home from the lunch, Wheatley bought two maps of the British Isles, one geographic and one showing population density. He hung them on his library wall and sat down to think like a Nazi. Over the next 48 hours he wrote 15,000 words, taking only two short breaks. To keep himself going, he smoked over 200 cigarettes and drank three magnums of champagne.
“Britain is the Enemy. France, by comparison is an honourable foe,” began Wheatley’s paper “The Invasion and Conquest of Britain.” He laid out the case for showing Britain no mercy. “British hypocrisy, duplicity and greed” had starved German women and children to death. The World War I peace terms inspired by Britain wished to cripple Germany for all time. His first recommendations: poison gas and bacteriological warfare.
He listed 16 ways German troops could land on British soil and the precise preparations required. His charts showed how many men would be needed for each step in the invasion and how many Germany could expect to lose. He provided a day-by-day invasion schedule. A half-million German casualties were a small price to pay, he announced, as “the conquest of Britain means the conquest of the world.” All in all, it was a remarkably detailed and assured manual of how to bomb, torch, machine-gun, poison, infect, and starve Britain.
The paper was based on how the Nazis had treated the Poles and on his Sallust research. “Gregory and I had been looking pretty closely at the Nazis for quite a while,” he told a journalist later.
Darvall and his colleagues were quite shaken by the paper—“particularly by its sheer swinishness,” wrote Phil Baker, author of the Wheatley biography The Devil Is a Gentleman. Whether Navy, Army, or Air Force, they had all been taught at their Staff colleges to regard war as a matter having definite rules, like cricket. Wheatley’s work pointed up a fact that would soon become obvious: Adolf Hitler was no cricketer. Wheatley later found out that the paper had persuaded the War Office to change its predictions about how Hitler would invade.
After that, Wheatley wrote more papers—20 of them between May 1940 and August 1941, most of them completed in a sleepless frenzy of champagne and cigarettes. Their readers were a small group: the Joint Planning Staff, members of the War Cabinet, Churchill, and the King.
Then, in the fall of 1941, Churchill authorized the creation of a unit to formulate strategic deception plans for the European theater. A novelist who could think like the enemy turned out to be just what was needed. Dennis Wheatley was about to step into the pages of his own fiction.
Wheatley had always loved to tell stories. At school he entertained his dorm mates with nightly installments of a serial he invented as he went along, like One Thousand and One Nights’ Scheherazade, only Wheatley was staving off not execution but loneliness.
The rest of what marked him—the expensive taste in food, wine, clothing, art, and women—was acquired as an adult. It was the result of years of studied effort; Dennis Wheatley worked hard to become high-born. The Wheatley he wanted people to see was the version on the back cover of later reprints of his books: a man sitting at a desk in a smoking jacket, pad of paper in front of him, holding a pencil. Next to his right hand is a glass of port and a cigarette.
In reality, Wheatley was raised middle-class. He grew up in the London suburb of Streatham, the son of a wine-store owner. Although he loved to read, Wheatley was not a scholar. After he was expelled from school at age 12, his father sent him first to work on a naval training ship and then, when he was 16, to Germany for a year to apprentice at a winery. In Germany, he developed a taste for large quantities of German wines—the hock and kümmel that Gregory Sallust would later love as well.
Wheatley arrived home in time to enlist for World War I but was kept in England until 1917, his principal contributions to victory being reading and improving the morale of British women. Wheatley was not tall—he was just five foot eight—but he was handsome, with a strong chin.
In Britain, Wheatley fell sick with the bronchitis that would dog him for life. In the hospital, however, he would meet a character who seemed so straight out of fiction that he inspired Wheatley’s own. The model for Gregory Sallust was a tall, thin, well-dressed man whose surname was Tombe. He was only a few years older than Wheatley, had an intelligent, lined face, and walked with a limp. He preached the philosophy of living in the moment, calling himself a “conscious hedonist.” He convinced Wheatley to read widely in history, the classics, world religions, and philosophy. “In mental development I owe more to him than to any other person who has entered my life,” Wheatley wrote later.
Finally, in 1917, Lieutenant Wheatley made it to France. His optimism and sunny conviviality made him popular with his men, but in all it was a boring war for Wheatley; although he was shelled and gassed, he spent a good deal of his time in charge of an ammunition dump. Then, in the spring of 1918, bronchitis brought him home.
When Wheatley returned from the war, he again fell in with Tombe, who was no less charismatic as a civilian. Tombe’s business was white-collar fraud, but he also burned down a building so a friend could collect the insurance money. Wheatley provided alibis and offered a sort of London headquarters for Tombe, taking care of bits of his business while Tombe was away with a girlfriend.
Wheatley rejoined the family business, taking it over upon his father’s death. Wheatley and Son was a very successful Mayfair wine store, and Dennis, a born salesman and marketer, made it even more so. He bought a cellar of old brandies and had special bottles made, with fancy seals and Napoleonic crests. He poured in the brandy and hung medals around the bottlenecks, sprinkling dust on top for verisimilitude. The brandy sold out right away and inspired others to copy it with liquor that had seen much less of life than the bottles that held it.
He began to collect rare books. He took to wearing Savile Row suits during the day and white tie, tails, and a monocle at night. His middle-class birth seemed safely behind him.
But when the Depression hit, it was suddenly a very bad idea to be a wine merchant. Wheatley had always spent beyond his means, and now both he and the business were in debt. Three friends saved him from bankruptcy by buying the shop. Wheatley became a junior director with very little to do.
Throughout the 1920s, he was married to Nancy Robinson, a beautiful blond heiress to a boot-polish fortune. They had a son, Anthony. But Wheatley found fatherhood difficult, and he and his first wife had very different interests—hers were dancing and tennis, his books and wine. They both took up with others. Wheatley resumed his womanizing. In 1929, though, he met the woman he would spend the rest of his life with: Joan Younger, the sister of one of his employees. They married in 1931.
Joan had divorced her first husband, was widowed by her second, and had four children. She was handsome rather than beautiful, with large features. She was of aristocratic lineage and had a modest private income. She enjoyed her comforts and her social station, but she was also practical and competent at most everything. Wheatley was honest with her about his financial problems. Joan’s response was resourceful: She suggested he write a book.
In 1933, Wheatley began his professional writing career by publishing The Forbidden Territory, which featured a group of four friends in the style of The Three Musketeers. The Duke de Richleau, the leader, was Athos, and the Wheatley stand-in was D’Artagnan. The novel sent the group deep into the Soviet Union in January 1933. A small press printed 1,500 copies and, when these sold out, produced more—seven printings in seven weeks.
By December 1934, he published his fifth book, The Devil Rides Out. It is still his best-selling novel and the most famous of the kind of work Wheatley is best known for—novels about black magic. In 1938, Wheatley earned £12,467, more than $1 million today. He became, along with Agatha Christie, the best-selling author in Britain.
By 1940, alongside his pulp fiction for the masses, he would be writing something else, gripping papers meant only for a small group of elite readers: politicians, officers, and royalty—the men in charge of the war.
The first paper Wheatley composed for the British government in May of 1940, “Resistance to Invasion,” displayed the knowledge and confidence of a military planner and far more creativity. Wheatley divides the British coastline into zones: water, shore, and up to five miles inland. A typical passage reads:
Zone 2: The sole but all-important function of all obstacles and Forces in Zone 2 is to delay-delay-delay the enemy in his attempt to get a secure foothold on land, so as to give ample time for G.H.Q. [General Headquarters] to get a clear picture of the situation and to find out which, out of perhaps a hundred simultaneous attempts to land at different points, are feints and which are really dangerous threats.
He describes some 40 methods civilians can use to repel Nazi invaders: Lay a barrier of mined fishing nets two miles offshore. Barbwire the coast. Spread flaming oil on the water. Build thousands of beach bonfires to deny the enemy the cover of darkness. Dig shallow trenches in front of gunner positions, fill them with oil, and, when needed, set them on fire to give cover for retreats. Pour water into the gasoline at gas stations. Remove signboards bearing the names of inns and railway stations, all of which would help the enemy know where he was. Park trains outside railway junctions, which are natural targets for bombing. Dump highly flammable material into forests so they can be set on fire in the face of an advancing enemy.
Wheatley’s war papers overlap considerably with the Sallust novels written at the same time: his obsessions with Turkey’s independence and the strategic value of invading Sardinia, of all subjects, feature in both, among other topics. In the papers, Wheatley micromanages village defense. (“The service should open with a cheerful hymn—perhaps ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful.’”) He goes on to discuss how to boost public morale and how to protect Britain from aerial warfare. Then he moves outward, writing about grand strategy on the continent and how to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s entry into the war.
Many of his ideas were useful. Britain did, in fact, remove signage that could orient an invader; the King did establish a medal for civilian bravery. His strategic thinking was taken seriously by war planners. At one point, the directors of plans wanted to discuss a Wheatley paper but found that they had only one copy. They phoned the palace: would the King send his copy over? He would. He put it in an envelope and wrote “Personal and Urgent” on it.
But some of Wheatley’s ideas were considered utterly daft. He suggested that Britain construct convoys of 100 unsinkable log sailing rafts linked together, to bear grain and other cargo across the Atlantic to Britain on the Gulf Stream. Wheatley thought it a way to ship goods without fear of U-boats: the Admiralty politely told him it was impractical. Wheatley also proposed that a British submarine pose as a U-boat and sink the ship of a neutral country to bring it into the war. He was, of course, referring to America. He did not seem to consider the consequences if the British were caught.
Ingenious or crazy, very few of Wheatley’s ideas would have occurred to the military planners—being an outsider was his great value. He was approached by an air commodore, who had read the Sallust novels, to see if he would work with him to interpret Germany’s military plans. “You can get in the head of the enemy,” he told Wheatley. Wheatley was elated, but the project never got off the ground.
But Wheatley didn’t remain an outsider for much longer. Soon he would be recruited to do his most important work. No longer just a spy novelist, he would now be a real spy.
The unit that Wheatley would join was created largely at the urging of Dudley Clarke, a lieutenant colonel in Britain’s Middle East command in Cairo with a genius for deception. In his own battles, Clarke had established the value of what came to be known as order-of-battle deception: making the Germans believe that the Allied military forces were far larger than they really were. He invented entire divisions and armies. German intelligence agents—who in reality were double agents, controlled by the British—reported the movements of these fictional forces back to Hitler. The British set up fields of dummy tanks—almost perfectly camouflaged—designed to appear real to reconnaissance planes, which flew at 8,000 feet. They simulated the noise and smell of military units and even sprinkled bleach on fields to make them look trampled.
Clarke’s order-of-battle deception was extremely effective. In the spring of 1944, the Germans believed that the Allies had 14 divisions in Egypt and Libya. In fact there were three, none of them worthy of battle.
Order-of-battle deception forced the Germans to tie up troops to defend against these fictional armies; a successful deception plan could be as valuable as hundreds of thousands of real soldiers. But Clarke’s genius lay with the conclusion that order-of-battle deception was also the foundation for every other ruse—an investment that would pay off for years. If your enemy believes your exaggerations about your military might, then nearly every threat becomes plausible.
Deception, of course, is as old as war, but it had always been tactical—dreamt up and carried out as part of an operation. On a visit home in 1941, Clarke convinced London that it needed something brand-new—a centralized staff that would plan and coordinate deceptions for all its operations in Europe.
When Wheatley signed on with the military’s Joint Planning Staff, he had also, in a way, spent years pondering strategic deception. His character Sallust had carried out a classic piece of it in V for Vengeance, written in 1941. In that book, Sallust and Kuperovitch create a trail of documents leading the Germans to “discover” a massive plot by the Soviet Union—at that time in a nonaggression pact with Hitler—to mobilize its sympathizers in Europe to sabotage and revolt against Germany. The false evidence convinces Hitler that Russia is about to stab Germany in the back, and he invades the Soviet Union.
Deception was familiar to Wheatley on a different level as well. Deception involves first choosing a story—story is actually the term of art—that will be your cover plan. Then you break that story into tiny pieces and draw up a schedule for spooning it bit by bit into the maw of the enemy: which morsel fed by what channel on what date. The story can’t be too obvious; the enemy must make the connections himself. A key rule of deception: intelligence easily obtained is intelligence that will not be trusted.
That is how to write a deception plan. It is also how to write a novel. The cliché goes that spies make natural writers: After all, John le Carré, Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, and Ian Fleming were all spies before they started writing spy fiction. But Wheatley was out to prove that writers made natural spies. Deception work, especially, is in its essence the writing of stories. But for the Joint Planning Staff, Wheatley had to write with far more restraint than he did in his novels. The clues had to be so subtle that no one would suspect that they were clues.
Wheatley’s job, then, was to continue to write fiction—this time aimed not at millions of readers but at only one: Adolf Hitler.
The Joint Planning Staff was a military organization, but the newest recruit to its deception team was a civilian. Not for long: Wheatley was stuffed into a two-week officer training course, and on December 31, 1941, Pilot Officer Wheatley reported for duty. The deception staff was headed by Colonel Oliver Stanley, and it had two members: Fritz Lumby, an army lieutenant colonel and former head of the army intelligence school, and Wheatley, who now held the most junior commissioned post in the Royal Air Force, the most junior service.
Wheatley’s awe at his new surroundings was tempered by the fact that he had nothing to do. Strategic deception depended on the cooperation of military services, but they couldn’t cooperate with something they didn’t know about. Part of the problem was that Wheatley and Lumby were not allowed to explain it: Their work was so secret that they were not even permitted to talk about it with the rest of the Joint Planning Staff. Since none of the women in the typing pool were cleared to know about deception—even though they typed the real plans—Wheatley and Lumby had to do their own typing.
Lumby did a lot of crossword puzzles. Wheatley had long liquid lunches, sometimes chased by a nap.
After a few days, Wheatley decided he might as well spend his time writing more papers. He eventually wrote 14 in all, the most important of which was titled “The Basic Principles of Enemy Deception.” There was no military manual for guidance on how to execute strategic deception, so Wheatley decided to make one. His paper outlined some general, relatively unsophisticated lessons. “Deception plans should be within the scope of the resources that the enemy believes us to possess,” he wrote. “No measure, short of definitively hampering our genuine war activities, should be neglected which would be taken were we actually going to carry out the deception plan.” Then he listed 49 specific tactics for fooling the enemy. The paper—later redrafted by his new chief into approved military form—was sent out to Britain’s deception planners around the world and became the bible of deception.
In mid-January 1942, Stanley finally gave his men their first assignment: persuade the Germans that Britain was planning to invade Norway in the beginning of May.
Wheatley knew this terrain. He had set a novel, The Black Baroness, in Norway during the Nazi invasion. Several times in the book, Sallust saves the King of Norway from kidnap and murder by the Nazis. Throughout the story, Sallust clings to the belief that the British will come in to repel the Nazis, repeatedly arguing that it is well within Britain’s capabilities to invade. Sallust grows more and more bitter as the weeks pass; a token trickle of British forces finally arrive and are quickly routed.
Now Wheatley had a second chance to not invade Norway. The first time, in Sallust’s world, the events were real. In Wheatley’s world, they would be fictional.
Wheatley browsed through the list of available cover names and chose Hardboiled. He and Lumby created a plan for an attack on Stavanger, in southern Norway. Scottish forces would be trained and supplied for an invasion, which at the last minute would be postponed.
Wheatley and Lumby couldn’t train or supply anyone, of course. They had to convince the military commanders in Scotland to do that. They had an easy time with most of the officers, who, lacking the clearances to know about deception, were told the plan was real. Senior officers, however, did know it was a feint, and they didn’t like it. They needed all their men and resources for real military operations. Why should they commit them to fake ones?
In the end, the exercise designed to give credibility to Hardboiled never happened. Hardboiled was postponed several times, and then the only plausible unit—the Royal Marine Division, which was trained in mountain warfare—was sent to seize Madagascar instead.
But Hardboiled was carried out through other channels. The British printed maps of the Stavanger region, called for Norwegian translators, printed requisition forms in Norwegian, “lost” an important map of Norway (and sent people to look for it), and asked diplomats in neutral countries if they had any Norwegian contacts. Wheatley himself got in on the fun. He borrowed a more senior RAF officer’s uniform and questioned Norwegian refugees in Britain about places an airplane could land, in the hope that they would be indiscreet.
Rumors of impending invasion circled the globe. Hitler, convinced that invasion was imminent, sent 50,000 troops to reinforce the 100,000 already there.
Was this Hardboiled’s doing? It was hard to tell—and therein lay one of the key lessons of the operation: the importance of putting yourself inside your enemy’s head. Deception worked best, Wheatley and his colleagues realized, if the cover story was one the enemy already worried about. It didn’t have to be plausible—what mattered was that the enemy believed it was. Thinking as the enemy thinks meant appreciating his preconceived notions. The enemy will go out of his way to find evidence supporting these notions and, when presented with it, will be more likely to believe it. In other words, with a little help the enemy will deceive itself.
In the case of Germany, the only beliefs that counted belonged to Hitler. Germany did not have a coordinated system of filtering intelligence up to decision makers, and when information did reach the top it was often ignored. Hitler made decisions about German military strategy largely by instinct. He paid the most attention to intelligence that supported the views he already held.
But knowing Hitler’s fears and strategic eccentricities, Britain’s deceivers could choose cover plans that fed them—and Hitler was obsessed with keeping Norway under Nazi command. “The fate of the war will be decided in Norway,” he said in January 1942.
It is likely that Wheatley and Lumby’s mischief meant that 50,000 Nazi troops who didn’t need to be in Norway were now not available elsewhere. Norway was a feint Wheatley would come back to again and again. By the latter part of the war, Germany had tied up 300,000 troops in Norway—three times what would have sufficed to keep the country under German control—until it was too late to use them elsewhere. Hardboiled was the first of many times the deceivers exploited Hitler’s irrationality.
Despite Hardboiled’s outcome, for Wheatley and Lumby it had been frustrating to depend entirely on commanders who had no interest in what they were doing. And afterward the assignments dried up. Wheatley was sometimes still asked to write papers. When he wasn’t, he wrote them anyway. Things got so bad that Stanley, aware of Wheatley’s black-magic novels, asked him for a paper that assumed he had performed some black-magic rite that gave him a supernatural preview of The Times the day the war ended.
Lumby, demoralized by the idleness of their days, obtained a transfer. Stanley took leave to be with his dying wife, and then he, too, got a transfer. Wheatley stayed; even with no work, it was a far more interesting job than he could get anywhere else. But he was now alone. It looked like the idea of coordinated strategic deception was dead.
Perhaps Lumby transferred too soon. At the end of May, 1942, Lieutenant Colonel John Bevan became head of the newly dubbed London Controlling Section—the deliberately vague cover name for the deception section—and things started to change radically. Bevan was a wealthy stockbroker—deception, like other espionage, was a gentlemen’s game. He was also smooth, forceful, well connected, and wily. He wrote himself a charter giving London Control sweeping powers to formulate strategic deception policy and specific deception plans, and to coordinate the implementation of those plans.
Strategic deception began its transformation from a “position of near impotence,” as Wheatley grumbled, into a keystone of Allied strategy. The journalist and historian of espionage Anthony Cave Brown later wrote that the London Controlling Section was Churchill’s “greatest single contribution to military theory and practice.”
Bevan and Wheatley moved from aboveground offices into cubicles in Churchill’s bunker, the underground warren where the War Cabinet, including Churchill himself, worked—and, when necessary, ate and slept. The bunker resembled the lower deck of a battleship. It had a four-foot-thick layer of concrete over the ceiling, phone lines to military commands around Britain, and a hotline from which Churchill could speak directly to President Franklin Roosevelt. It was stocked with provisions for three months. If Germany ever occupied London, the bunker could be sealed off and Churchill and his officials could continue to wage war.
Within two months of taking over, Bevan was given an enormous task: keep the Germans away from the planned Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. The plan for Torch was to sail convoys from America to land in three places in Morocco, and from Britain through the Straits of Gibraltar to the Algerian cities of Oran and Algiers. Bevan and Wheatley now had the job of writing and coordinating a deception plan to cover the largest amphibious operation since the Spanish Armada.
They designed eight different plans to deceive the Germans. Four covered the convoys to North Africa. First, the story held that the troops were sailing for the Middle East. Then, once they entered the Mediterranean (it was going to be hard to get through the Straits of Gibraltar unobserved), a new story kicked in: They were heading for Sicily and Malta.
Two other plans were intended to convince the Germans that General Dwight Eisenhower, who was commanding the expedition, was actually in Washington. Away from the Mediterranean, another plan aimed to make Germany think the Allies were planning an invasion of Pas de Calais, in northern France, so the Germans would tie up troops there. And finally, there was an old friend: once again, Britain was not going to invade Norway.
This was rather a lot for three people—there was now also a secretary—and Bevan hired three more. Major Ronald Wingate became Bevan’s deputy. Harold Petavel was responsible for intelligence. A naval officer, James Arbuthnott, joined Wheatley to write the deception plans and coordinate their implementation with the services. Wheatley was also chairman of a committee with members of the intelligence services whose job was to think up creative new channels for deceiving the enemy.
Wheatley drew up a large chart for Torch showing every deception move, every day, until the expedition sailed. The amount of detail to be tracked was staggering. Wheatley had gone from micromanaging village defense to micromanaging massive invasions—at one point he was begging the War Office, unsuccessfully, to supply some Scottish units with mules. The fact that these invasions were fictional didn’t make the job much easier.
Wheatley’s celebrity, his conviviality, and his bank account were almost as valuable to the London Controlling Section as his creativity. Now that the military commanders were allowed to know about deception plans, it fell to Wheatley to explain them and to convince the commanders of their value. His weapon was lunch—always an area of strength for Wheatley. “Eating for Victory,” he called it.
He started the practice as a guest of Major Eddie Combe, before the war a wealthy stockbroker, at a restaurant called Rules. Those lunches began with two or three Pimm’s, then an absinthe cocktail. A good bottle of red or white wine accompanied a meal, and port or kümmel followed. They would eat smoked salmon or potted shrimp, then a Dover sole, jugged hare, salmon or game, and a Welsh rarebit to wind up. Wartime rationing was not welcome at their table.
These lunches were invaluable to Wheatley. He could call almost anyone and say, “I met you at lunch with Eddie Combe.”
Combe’s social scene encompassed a large cross-section of the London espionage world. At one party, thrown by an Eddie Combe contact, Wheatley’s wife, Joan, was nearly killed. She had taken a White Lady cocktail off a tray and a few minutes later went green in the face and passed out. They later found out what happened: Joan took the wrong drink. A guest at the party, a Polish officer, was suspected of double-crossing the British. The White Lady had been aimed at the Pole, designed to disorient him before interrogation.
Wheatley put this incident to use: In Come Into My Parlour, Sallust switches brandy-and-soda glasses with Soviet Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, who is commanding Leningrad during the siege. Voroshilov drinks truth serum he meant to give Sallust and ultimately gives Sallust critical information about Soviet military strategy.
After numerous lunches with Combe, Wheatley resumed the role that came naturally to him, that of host. His social strategy was to begin with rigidly correct behavior. On being shown into the room of an admiral, general, or air marshal, he would stand at attention until addressed. This usually resulted in a smile or an invitation to sit down and the offer of a cigarette. After the meeting, as he got up to leave, Wheatley would say: “I wonder, sir, if you have a day free to lunch with me?”
Such an invitation would have been scandalous from any other very junior officer. But many of the generals had read Wheatley’s books. After slight hesitation, they nearly always accepted. And at lunch, Wheatley would then ask them to dinner.
Then he passed his new friends along to Bevan. “I was able to introduce Johnny on the ‘old boy’ level to all these people,” he wrote. “And he took swift advantage of it.”
Wheatley himself held a permanent table at the Hungaria restaurant—an establishment familiar to readers of the Sallust books; Wheatley liked to advertise for his friends. He and Joan gave lavish dinner parties in their flat at Chatsworth Court. On New Year’s Eve 1943, they rented out the restaurant in the basement of their building and treated more than 100 people to champagne, foie gras, and other food and drink that during the war had become a distant memory.
Wheatley kept lists of his important lunch and dinner guests. One of the guests was a Naval Intelligence officer with whom Wheatley occasionally worked named Fleming. Ian Fleming. Fleming was not yet a writer, but he was interested in becoming one. He could well have learned from Wheatley about writing popular spy novels. It is more than possible that Fleming learned from Gregory Sallust.
Wheatley also took advantage of his fame as an author to add to the deception in the Mediterranean. Bevan had sent an intelligence offer to travel to Gibraltar, Malta, and Cairo to brief officials there about the cover plans for Torch. Wheatley had a friend in Cairo, Henry Hopkinson, and he gave Bevan’s envoy an autographed copy of his just published V for Vengeance to take to Hopkinson. He slipped a chatty letter on Cabinet Office stationery into the book, introducing the envoy. In the letter was a casual reference to the possibility of the British coming to the aid of Malta. London Control knew that any British officer staying in a Gibraltar hotel would have his luggage searched and any documents copied by German agents.
It was one of several mini-deceptions perpetrated by Wheatley himself. In the spring of 1943, the Allies were selling the story that they were going to invade France, to draw German troops away from the Mediterranean. Bevan ordered the printing of some banknotes with “British Army of Occupation in France” printed in bold letters. All the deceivers carried a few of them in their wallets. Whenever Wheatley paid a taxi driver or shop clerk, he used one. Then, once the bill had been noticed, he would quickly pull it back and substitute an ordinary pound note.
By the end of 1942, strategic deception had acquired a new prestige. The deception plans to protect Operation Torch were a complete success. The Germans removed no troops from Norway and reinforced their defenses in Northern France, thus wasting troops that might otherwise have gone to North Africa. Most important, the enemy was completely deceived about the convoys’ targets. The British convoys arrived in Oran and Algiers without the loss of a single ship or man. They caught the Germans and Italians napping, literally—the Italian chiefs were seized in their hotel, in pajamas. Algiers fell to the Allies the first day and Oran the third.
Strategic deception was now reliably misleading the Germans. “We see the possible Allied plans being discussed round the [German intelligence] council table,” Wingate wrote in his official history of World War II deception against Germany. “The resemblance of these discussions to a morning meeting of the London Controlling Section almost approaches the ludicrous.”
London Control owed its achievements to several factors. One was the nature of the war at the time. Since there was little direct engagement, both Britain and Germany were heavily dependent on non-operational intelligence to find out what the enemy was planning and what it could do. For Germany, even aerial observation was limited; by 1943, the RAF had near total control of the skies over Britain. German knowledge about enemy plans and capabilities had to be deduced from reports of what was going on in enemy ports, arms and airplane factories, and military bases. This made deception both possible and useful. And with the development of wireless communication, manipulation could respond quickly to events. A crucial message sent by a top agent could land on Hitler’s desk within 30 minutes of transmission.
Britain had the huge advantage of being able to understand enemy communication. The Germans thought their Enigma machine ciphers were unbreakable, but British and Polish codebreakers proved them wrong, famously deciphering the Enigma code. Their furious effort began to pay off in 1941. Among their many decisive contributions, these intercepts provided instant feedback on how well British deception strategy was working and constant updates on how to tailor deception. Did the Germans accept the stories London Control was putting out? What did the enemy believe? What did it fear? London didn’t have to guess.
But sheer luck was also a factor. British deception succeeded in part because the Axis’s intelligence services were shockingly poor. The Abwehr—the German military intelligence service—was both badly run and corrupt. Some officers pocketed the money that was supposed to go to their agents, filling the resulting information gap by making things up. The Abwehr also suffered from the typical disease of intelligence services: agent inflation. Officers competed to run the largest number of agents, which means that they had little incentive to doubt anything an agent told them. Gullibility was rewarded.
Perhaps most important was a new channel for deception at London Control’s disposal, known as “special means”: the double agents. Britain knew that it controlled many of the spies Germany had sent to infiltrate the country. But until the spring of 1942, these double agents had performed limited tasks. MI5 used them to assess what the Germans knew, getting clues from the questions their German handlers posed. The agents’ encrypted messages held secrets about German codes.
What they weren’t being used for was strategic deception. They did pass on isolated pieces of tactical misinformation. But with anything bigger, the British worried that real German agents would contradict the fake agents’ lies and blow the whole network.
In June 1942, it dawned on the British that, incredibly, they controlled every German agent in Britain. The British knew of every agent who transmitted radio reports, sent mail to Abwehr addresses, or received pay through the usual channels. Every single one of them had been doubled. That meant they could use the agents to deceive the German High Command without fear of contradiction. The information the agents reported to their German handlers was chosen by the XX Committee—referred to as the Twenty Committee, but XX also meant double-cross. Now their reports would include the stories invented by London Control.
The single most important channel for conveying the deceptions of London Control to the Germans—indeed, the most important spy of World War II—was a man who never spied on a soul. His code name was Garbo, and he was, in essence, a fiction writer himself. If Wheatley was the first link in the chain of deception, Garbo was the last. He took the plots outlined by Wheatley, Arbuthnott, and Neil Gordon Clark, their new colleague in the deception plans department, and spun their tales in his own language and his own florid style. Tomás Harris, his case officer, was his editor.
Garbo—the Germans called him Arabel—was a short, balding, bespectacled Catalan named Juan Pujol. Pujol had offered his services to the British consulate in Madrid as a spy and had been turned down. Then he volunteered to work for the Germans—in order to go back to the British, now with more interesting wares to peddle. The Germans accepted, supplied him with invisible ink and codes, and thought they were sending him to England. In fact, he moved to Portugal, where he became a one-man freelance deception team.
Garbo had, in fact, never been to Britain. He relied on a Baedeker tourist guide to England, a Bradshaw’s railway timetable, a large map, and a heroic imagination to write a constant stream of lies plausible to the Abwehr. Before long he was making an impact: After he reported that a convoy had sailed from Liverpool to Malta, the Germans sent reconnaissance planes to find the convoy. They failed.
The British discovered Pujol’s existence right after they broke the Abwehr codes. They were mystified. The England this spy was describing was not a country they recognized. The military units he talked about didn’t exist. He even got the weather wrong—embassies did not flee London in the summer because of the heat—and seemed confused by pounds and shillings. Yet he was a writer persuasive enough that he could get the Germans to jump with a single report. In April 1942, the British smuggled him to England, vetted him, and decided he was the real thing. They dubbed him Garbo, the greatest actor in the world. He told his German contact that he had been given political-refugee status and was now freelancing for the BBC and the information ministry. The Abwehr was thrilled.
Wheatley, as a planner, was not cleared to know about secret intelligence activities. He wasn’t supposed to know about this fellow master of fiction, a writer whose baroque style gave life to the bare-bones plots that Wheatley wrote. But he did know—Garbo was too juicy to stay a secret, at least inside the bunker. And he was the bunker’s most prolific conduit to the enemy.
The ideas that Wheatley and the other planners sketched out in a few paragraphs would feed through the XX Committee down through MI5’s case officers to Garbo, who would craft from them long, flowery messages in Spanish to the Abwehr’s Madrid office. By letter—and, later, by Morse code through wireless transmission—Garbo sent thousands of these reports about the goings-on in British ports, factories, and military bases. He claimed to have gathered his information from a network of spies he had assembled of various nationalities, jobs, and locations, including several anti-British Welsh nationalists, a Venezuelan businessman in Glasgow, an Indian poet in Brighton, and the poet’s mistress in the Women’s Royal Navy Service. Some in Garbo’s network, he claimed, were unaware that their information was being used, and at least one thought he was spying for the Soviet Union. Garbo’s sub-agents, he told his German handlers, had sub-agents of their own.
The Germans trusted him enough to take action based on his word alone; when they changed their codes, they sent Garbo the new ones. He was the perfect spy: prolific, each report exhaustive, able to rely on a vast network of agents in strategic locations across Britain. In July 1944, the Germans awarded Garbo the Iron Cross.
In reality, Garbo spent his days with Harris, his Spanish-speaking case officer, in a small office near the headquarters of MI5. His network was entirely imaginary. He was able to endow his characters and their adventures with enough verisimilitude that Germany trusted them completely—remarkable, given that their job was to get every single important thing catastrophically wrong. This required ingenious plotting by London Control and the XX Committee, but it also took Garbo’s literary virtuosity: the telling detail, foreshadowing, and writerly misdirection that every good novel requires.
The fictional Gregory Sallust may have been able to win World War II by himself. Dennis Wheatley could not. By 1943, the year before the Allied invasion of Europe, the London Controlling Section had grown to seven full-time employees. London Control had designed and coordinated the implementation of dozens of deceptions, all leading up to one final job. Their task: to ensure that when Allied forces landed in France, no Germans would be there to meet them.
The deception plan, code-named Bodyguard—so called because Churchill had told Stalin, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”—would be on an order of complexity with the invasion itself. The group’s initial paper, titled “First Thoughts,” was a grim document—hardly surprising, given that the deception task seemed impossible. When it was presented to the chiefs of staff of the Allied command, the reaction, according to Bevan’s deputy Wingate, was “more despairing than unfavorable.”
Hitler, after all, knew the Allies were preparing to invade Northern France. Doing so would require preparation on a massive scale—the Germans could not possibly fail to notice. And landing in France was just the beginning: Even if Hitler was fooled about the exact location, German forces would be sitting close enough to be able to smash the Allied expedition in a few days.
The task for London Control, then, was to hide something huge that the Germans were already looking for—and that the Germans knew the Allies would do everything possible to hide. After the operation began, moreover, it had to stay hidden. The problem stumped London Control through many drafts. At Christmas in 1943, Bevan’s latest was so qualified by counterarguments that Wheatley implored him to hide all the negatives in an appendix that no one would read—or else the chiefs would sack them all and perhaps abandon the idea of deception entirely.
Finally, in February 1944, the answer came in the elegant form of a double bluff. Preparations for the invasion couldn’t be hidden—but they could be used to hide something else. They would make the Germans believe that the landing in Normandy was itself a feint, designed to draw German troops away from the real invasion, which would take place in Pas de Calais some weeks later.
This story exploited several of Britain’s great deception coups. The Germans had a greatly exaggerated notion of the strength of the forces the Allies could turn on France. A week before D-Day, Hitler thought the Allies could command more than 80 divisions in Britain, when in fact there were only 52. That overestimation added credibility to the idea that the Allies could follow up the Normandy landing with a much larger one in Pas de Calais. So instead of hiding the force buildup and the influx of troops from America and Canada, London Control exaggerated it. A bare-bones United States First Army Group already existed in Britain. Now it was stocked with a million imaginary men and a fearsome commander: George Patton. Patton’s ghost army would become the threat that would keep the Germans pinned down in Pas de Calais.
The other great coup was Britain’s information monopoly. The Germans could listen to radio traffic from inside Britain, and through triangulation they could pinpoint where it was coming from. But they could not see inside, thanks to British control of Germany’s agents and the RAF’s domination of the skies.
Carefully prepared scripts simulating all the normal traffic of an army group—hundreds of messages a day—were drawn up and transmitted. The Admiralty did the same to simulate amphibious assault divisions. It also put out 255 inflatable landing craft, just in case the Germans managed to put some planes in the air to see them. And, most important, the double agents supplied countless reports confirming the Pas de Calais landing. Garbo alone would send and receive more than 500 messages between January 1944 and D-Day.
Bodyguard was actually made up of 36 separate plans, all coordinated by London Control. Even Churchill’s own speeches were run through Bevan and his colleagues.
Meanwhile, through the fall of 1943, Wheatley had been writing a paper he gave the working title “Essorbee,” which stood for “shit or bust.” “Essorbee” outlined the many ways Wheatley developed to draw enemy forces around Europe away from Northern France. A lot of his ideas involved threatening neutral countries, which the Foreign Office didn’t like. But a few were included in Bodyguard, including a plan to use Sweden to convince the Germans that yet another invasion of Norway was in the works. Intelligence decrypts showed that the Germans bought it. It already had 17 divisions in Norway but now reinforced them.
As 1944 rolled on, the hour approached that would put Bodyguard, and the Allies themselves, to the final test. If the invasion of Normandy lacked the advantage of the unexpected, it would fail. If it failed, Britain, having spent its forces, would likely have no choice but to offer Hitler its surrender.
The first wave of aircraft flying into France, and into history, began taking off from the Royal Air Force base at Harwell, headquarters of the Sixth British Airborne Division, at 11:03 p.m. Over the next few minutes, 13 more planes left, precise to the second. It was June 5, 1944, one hour before D-Day.
The planes were carrying paratroopers or pulling gliders behind them. Their mission was to drop men and materials into Normandy, to protect the eastern flank of the marine invasion that would come at dawn. Once on the ground, the men would destroy German artillery and capture or blow up bridges to block German reinforcements from joining the battle.
Among the men smoking and pacing through the night in Harwell was Wheatley. He had come to watch the liberation of Europe begin. He had wanted to go with the pilots into France, to watch his deception play out in action, but he was barred. His superiors decided that he knew too much.
So he watched.
At 2:15 a.m, the first pilots out began arriving back at Harwell. One by one they came to the briefing room to give their report to the base commanders. The first pilot said that all had gone smoothly. They had dropped their paratroopers right on the mark. “No flak, nothing to see, no excitement,” the pilot said. “It might have been just one of the practice night droppings.” The pilot seemed disappointed that no one had bothered to shoot at him: He had spearheaded the invasion of Normandy, and it felt like nothing.
Wheatley was jubilant at the pilot’s report. We have achieved the dream of all commanders, Wheatley thought to himself: complete tactical surprise.
Over the course of D-Day, 160,000 Allied troops landed in France. The German Seventh Army, stationed in Normandy, had not gone on alert. General Erwin Rommel, commander of the German forces on the Channel coast, was on leave to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Hitler’s men believed the news of Normandy landings insufficient to wake the Führer until 10 a.m. on June 6, nearly 10 hours after the airborne infiltration and three and a half hours after the marine assault had begun.
Allied soldiers faced deadly opposition, especially on Omaha Beach, which was defended by the Germans’ best division in northwestern France. But no troops had been sent to reinforce them for a sustained assault. The invasion was a complete surprise.
Hitler held steadfast to his belief that Normandy was a feint. By mid-July, the Allies had brought 30 divisions ashore in Normandy, but there were still 22 German divisions sitting in Pas de Calais, waiting for General Patton and the “real” invasion. Hitler did not begin to release them until July 27.
The British use of strategic deception had no precedent in military history; Wingate, the historian, called it “almost a new weapon.” It won the war. June 6, 1944 was Armageddon. London Control had ensured that only one side showed up.
Dennis Wheatley’s World War II ended on December 22, 1944. He had spent three years as a deceiver. The war was largely won by then, and the most important deception was emerging from General Eisenhower’s headquarters in France.
Paper, like everything else, had been rationed during the war, so Wheatley’s books were not being reprinted. And as he had never been good at living within his means, particularly the means of an air force wing commander, Wheatley asked to go home and back to his writing.
A spy story would have been the obvious choice when Wheatley returned to his craft. After all, Gregory Sallust’s activities had stopped in 1941, and he had the rest of the war to win. But there was a problem: By now, Wheatley knew too much fact to safely write spy fiction; the Official Secrets Act loomed. Instead, he turned one of the more eccentric schemes of his war papers—a convoy of log rafts sailing the Gulf Stream—into fiction. It was a book about two people whose raft drifts down to Antarctica. He entitled it The Man Who Missed the War. The Sallust series resumed in 1946; in three more books, Sallust saves the Soviet Union and, later, infiltrates Hitler’s bunker to convince the Führer to commit suicide.
Sallust’s lasting influence can be seen in the career of his true heir, James Bond. In 1953, Ian Fleming, Wheatley’s Naval Intelligence colleague, published Casino Royale, his first novel.
Although Bond lives on, he and Gregory Sallust seem like emissaries from the past. Today, the world of spy fiction—a world defined largely by John le Carré—is one of moral relativism and shades of gray, populated by weary men weighed down by existential doubt. Sallust and Bond, by contrast, are the debonair, ruthless, elegant, steely connoisseurs of luxurious goods and luxurious women. They are called in the most dangerous times; the most pivotal events turn around them. Their world is black and white, good vs. evil.
It is a caricature—but one that also describes the world of Sallust’s creator. Wheatley’s world, too, was black and white, good vs. evil. He was part of a small group of men who had a hand in nearly everything that mattered. Some of the deception coups Wheatley worked on—in a major role for the invasion of North Africa, as part of a larger group for D-Day—were as remarkable as anything he could dream up for Sallust. The espionage of Gregory Sallust did not stand the test of time. Only the espionage of Dennis Wheatley endures.