A double agent is a spy who works for both sides, albeit for one side more than the other. History’s largest double agent operation occurred during World War II. After Nazi Germany sent a hoard of spies into Great Britain, the British somehow managed to catch them all. Most were persuaded to switch sides, that is, they were “turned.” The rest were executed. Heading this British operation was an organization called the Twenty Committee. Using Roman numerals, the number twenty is XX — the Double Cross.

The Double Cross network was a huge wartime advantage, but its beginnings were surprisingly mundane — it was merely an ordinary counter-intelligence operation. The enemy sends you spies, and you try to catch them. Only as the Double Cross network expanded did the British attempt something far more ambitious: feeding disinformation to Nazi Germany on a massive scale.

It wasn’t easy, for the entire network had to be orchestrated amidst an ever-changing collage of interconnected details. For an analogy, imagine that you are a journalist covering a foreign country for your readers back home. Whatever you see and report probably won’t differ much from what your fellow reporters see and report, because everything is fairly straightforward. Now imagine, however, that your reports are utter lies, and likewise the reports of your colleagues are lies — colleagues you never meet — and yet somehow all of those lies fit together perfectly. Combined, they create a sort of alternate reality, which isn’t the reality at all. This deception continues for days, weeks, months, and ultimately years. Occasionally your readers ask you questions, which you have to answer with something plausible or else they won’t continue to believe you. Lies upon lies, upon lies, upon lies.

“What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

Now imagine that you are not that lying journalist, but instead you’re the guy orchestrating this entire web of deception, spreading scripts of lies throughout an ever expanding network of double agents, most of whom got coerced into the job. Your entire deception can collapse from a single misstep, from a tiny bit of bad luck, but upon its tenuous fate depends the lives of hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people. No pressure?

Yet, the Double Cross deception did last, throughout World War II, right to the end. In late 1944, Nazi Germany launched against Britain thousands of V-1 cruise missiles, which were primitive by today’s standards but still extremely deadly. And through radio technology, the Germans were able to actually map-plot exactly where in England their V-1s were impacting — and most were impacting short of London, not hitting it. Yet, despite this information, the Germans never corrected for these misses because their spies in England kept telling them that the V-1s were hitting London, after all. The Germans believed their spies more than they believed some solid scientific evidence that pointed otherwise.

Indeed, the Germans were so pleased with the reports from England (even more “from England” than they realized) that the Germans awarded their spies German medals. The British were so pleased, they awarded those same spies British medals.

One of the few perks of being a double agent.

— John G. Heidenrich