British author, historian and The Times columnist Ben Macintyre reveals the true (declassified) story of Allied double agents crucial to winning World War II
How did you discover this fantastic story?
These stories would be impossible to tell without the release of the archives by MI5 [British domestic intelligence]. There’s been an incredible sea change in British secrecy in the past 10 years and they have now released pretty much all the wartime material. It’s the most wonderfully rich stuff because it’s written by people who never expected it to be released. So it’s honest in a way that most government files are not.
With such a wealth of available declassified information, how many fascinating stories did you have to leave out of your book?
Quite a lot, to be honest. This stuff is so rich that any single one of these double agents could have made a book on their own, and perhaps that’s a way of approaching it in the future, but I loved the way they combined together. But there’s a stunning amount of detail and these files keep on being released. They haven’t released all the wartime stuff yet, so there’s more to come.
Was the Abwehr [German intelligence] amateurish compared with MI5?
In some ways, they were amateurish. In some ways, you could argue they were almost too professional. I mean, the amateurs were really on the British side; kind of strange, oddball agents who had never been trained and were just using their instincts. On the German side, it was much more rigid and much more unimaginative.
When presented with the misinformation, they just swallowed it. That was partly to do with the way that the German system was structured: it was a very rigid, very straightforward system that couldn’t deal with deception on this massive scale. That said, the Germans were quite capable of attempting their own deception operations, and did so fairly often.
The various double agents in MI5 seemed one beer shy of a six pack… That’s putting it mildly. Some of them were borderline nuts, to be absolutely honest. Many of these people would not have found employment in any other role in any other circumstance. They were gamblers, misfits and crooks, in some cases, and that’s the kind of characters that are attracted to this strange, complicated world.
They are not normal people, but this is not a normal aspect of war we’re talking about. In a way, it was the inspiration of Churchill’s spies and spymasters to employ people who were not of conventional stamp, because that’s how you get into the mind of the enemy. In a way, his genius was to choose these extraordinary oddballs and misfits: bisexual Peruvian playgirls and gamblers, and so on.
How was MI5 able to trust these oddball double agents during the war?
MI5 had one huge advantage, which the agents themselves were completely unaware of: they could track whether the agents were still trusted in Berlin via the Bletchley Park Enigma files. Without that, it would have been virtually impossible to do and I strongly doubt they would have taken such a huge gamble if they hadn’t been able to check because the stakes were impossibly high. If they got it wrong and they were rumbled, the Germans would have realised that instead of Calais being a decoy D-Day target, the real attack was coming at Normandy, and the effect of that could have been absolutely disastrous.
There are a lot of quotes about agent attractiveness in the book. Why was attractiveness so important to these people?
These are stories about psychology and personality, much more than they are about guns, wars, battles and military manoeuvres, so the interpersonal relationships between people are what define this particular world. It’s all about trust and loyalty and whether you get on or like someone, or whether you don’t. So that element of attractiveness is absolutely critical, because you’ve got to be able to seduce the other side, whether it’s by wireless or letter or in person. It is a game of sorts, of seduction and flirtation, and, therefore, attractiveness is vital.
CONGRATULATIONS TO OUR WINNERS
R. Wilson, Middle Camberwell, Vic
T. Liu, Cannington, WA
W. Lam, Parkwood, WA
C. Gunnulson, Riverstone NSW
C. O’Reilly, Melbourne, Vic
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Director: Serge Ou
RECIPIENTS of the Victoria Cross leave behind a legacy worthy of the highest honour. For Valour details the remarkable true stories of these men.
The most coveted and honoured decoration available to members of the Australian Defence Force—the Victoria Cross ratifies the achievements of our most highly decorated soldiers. The iconic cross is made from remnants of a 19th century canon.
“More than one million have taken up arms but less than 100 have won the Victoria Cross”
For Valour was the highest rating program on The History Channel in 2009. The documentary, hosted by Neil Pigot, is presented as a road trip, taking in the Remembrance Highway from Sydney to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, stopping at the 22 rest areas situated along the route, each featuring a plaque or cenotaph constructed in memory of the few, the fair and the brave—winners of the Victoria Cross.
The rest areas and cenotaphs were erected by the government in lieu of grave sites to represent the thousands of soldiers killed in the Great War who were buried overseas, offering families a site to honour the fallen, whose graves could not be visited.
Featuring dramatic re-enactments and interviews with recipients and war historians, For Valour explores the mateship, camaraderie and personal courage of our nation’s defenders—from World War I to the Vietnam conflict.
“Courage in support of others is the high ideal”
Victoria Cross stories told include: Neville (later Major General) Howse, who faced enemy fire during the second Boer War to rescue a fallen trumpeter. Despite being shot in the neck and chest John Edmondson risked his life at the siege of Tobruk to aid an officer in distress, and during the Vietnam War Keith Payne entered enemy territory to aid the rescue of “about 40″ injured and lost soldiers.
“One man amidst the madness who hasn’t lost it”
Additional interviews with Keith Payne VC and Ted Kenna VC are especially enlightening. Other war heroes remembered via re-enactment and profile include:
Pilot Officer Rawdon Hume Middleton, VC – died: 1942, in the English Channel
Cpl J.H. Edmondson, VC – died: 1941, Tobruk, Egypt
Arthur Stanley Gurney, VC – died: 1942, Tel el Eisa, Egypt
Percy Gatwick, VC, age 40 – died: 1942, North Africa
James Gordon, VC, age 77 – died: 1986, Western Australia (fought the Vichy French in the Syrian-Lebanon campaign)
Arthur Roden Cutler, VC, age 86 – died: 2002 (artillery’s only VC winner and Governor of NSW for 15 years)
Charles Groves Wright Anderson, VC, age 91 – died: 1988 (served in Malaya, age 44, Japanese P.O.W. for 3 years, Member for Hume)
Pilot William Ellis (Bill) Newton, VC, age 24 – died: 1943, Salamaua (one of 23 soldiers executed by decapitation on orders of Admiral Fajita, and the only Australian airman to earn the decoration in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II, and the only one while flying with an RAAF squadron)
Bruce Steel Kingsbury, VC, age 24 – died: 1942 (one of only two Australian VCs of the Kokoda campaign, for the Battle of Isurava, New Guinea)
Lieutenant Albert Chowne, VC, age 25 – died: 1945 (also awarded the Military Medal, buried at Lae War Cemetery in New Guinea)
Thomas Currie “Diver” Derrick, VC, age 31 – died: 1945 (Australia’s most decorated soldier of WWII)
Albert Jacka, VC, age 39 – died: 1932 (awarded Australia’s first Victoria Cross of the First World War. Won the Military Cross and a bar to that award in 1917. Mayor of St Kilda)
Frank John Partridge, VC, age 40 – died: 1964 (the youngest VC in WWII also one of just three people to win all 40 boxes on 1960s game show Pick-a-box. Hero of Bougainville and the last VC of WW2)
Mark Donaldson, VC, born: 1979 – the first Australian serviceman in almost 40 years to be awarded the VC under its new title of ‘The Victoria Cross for Australia’ for his actions in Afghanistan. Trooper Donaldson is the first VC ever awarded to a member of the Australian Army’s elite Special Air Service Regiment.
Australia awarded four more VCs in Vietnam: two posthumously.
Rayene Simpson, VC, age 52, – died: 1978 (Did three tours, and was renowned for his “conspicuous gallantry”. For his actions during fighting on 6 and 11 May in Kontum Province, near the Vietnam/Laos border, Simpson was awarded the Victoria Cross. For actions during fighting near Ta Ko on 16 September, 1978, Simpson was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.)
Keith Payne, VC, born: 1933 – for rescuing wounded soldiers in Vietnam, moving more than 40 men to safety, Payne was awarded the Victoria Cross. He received the Distinguished Service Cross and the Silver Star from the United States. The Republic of Vietnam awarded Payne the Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star.
Major Peter John Badcoe, VC, age 33 – died: 1967 (led his company in an attack that turned what seemed certain defeat into victory, at Huong Tra, Vietnam)
Kevin Wheatley, VC, age 28 – died 1965 (joined the armed forces at 19 and died protecting his wounded mate. His Victoria Cross was personally approved by HRH Queen Elizabeth.
FOR VALOUR, Umbrella Entertainment, $24.99: http://umbrellaent.com.au/