Is there any nation on Earth more adept at lying than Great Britain? Reading Ben Macintyre’s superb account of Britain’s masterful counter-intelligence operations during World War II, it’s hard to imagine that they have any peers when it comes to the art of deception.

In “Double Cross,” Macintryre tells a tale that will be broadly familiar to those with an interest in military or intelligence history. But he does so with such lively writing, and with access to so many interesting new documents, that the story comes alive again in all its stupendous, unimaginable duplicity.

The Brits, in brief, managed to control and manipulate every single German agent sent to Britain to spy on the Allies and their preparations for the decisive June 1944 D-Day invasion. Not only did the British flip or neutralize every Nazi operative, they were able to assess the success of their deception every step of the way by monitoring Germany’s encrypted intelligence messages. On these two pillars of Britain’s wartime intelligence success — the “Double Cross” deception and the “Enigma” code break — stands, at least in part, the great Allied victory in Europe. But lest the Brits get too cocky about their espionage genius, it’s worth noting that, at the very time they were deceiving the Germans, they were themselves being deceived by the Soviets, who had planted their own spies at the heart of Britain’s MI6 and MI5 services.

No wonder the post-World War II generation has been spy-crazy. Espionage changed the course of the war and animated the Cold War that followed. As Macintyre writes at the end of his saga, “The main thrust of the deception was an undisputed, unalloyed, world-changing triumph.” So completely did the Germans swallow the central lie — that the decisive D-Day target was the Pas de Calais — that a week after the actual landing in Normandy, the Germans were still holding dozens of divisions in reserve for what they believed would be the real attack by Gen. George Patton. Even in 1946, German Gen. Alfred Jodl was still patting himself on the back for having deterred Patton, who was actually heading a phantom army that existed only in the phony, British-dictated intelligence reports and a few props to reinforce the deception.

This story was first revealed in detail by J.C. Masterman, one of the architects of the deception scheme, in his 1972 book, “The Double-Cross System.” Its publication was said to have outraged Masterman’s former colleagues, but not so much that they stopped him from exhibiting this espionage gem. Indeed, for a post-imperial Britain, the reputation for intelligence prowess has been a special merit badge, not to mention a marketing tool for all those James Bond films.

‘Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies’ by Ben Macintyre (Crown)

Masterman introduced the world 40 years ago to the theatrical roster of British double agents who pretended to be working for the Germans: the Balkan playboy known as “Tricycle,” the brilliant Spanish fabricator code-named “Garbo,” the patriotic Polish back-stabber called “Brutus,” the high-society temptress dubbed “Bronx” and the impetuous Frenchwoman code-named “Treasure,” who nearly blew the operation in a pique over the death of her pet poodle, Babs. A spy novelist couldn’t invent characters as colorful as these, and Macintyre wisely lets newly declassified documents, private letters and personal recollections tell the story.

But really, it’s the spymasters themselves who make this story so riveting. They are deeply, comically British: Masterman was an Oxford history don so obsessed with the quintessential British game of cricket that he was always using metaphors about wickets and stumps and batsmen, and insisted that “running a team of double agents is very like running a club cricket side.” Joining him was a handsome Scotsman named Thomas Argyll Robertson (known as “Tar”), who liked to show up for parties in his tartan army trousers. A third spymaster was Capt. Robin Stephens, known as “Tin-Eye Stephens” because he always wore a monocle.

These absurd Monty Python characters managed to mumble and stumble their way to sheer operational brilliance. Each aspect of the deception was meticulously planned. The false messages were crafted to appeal to German images of life in wartime Britain, replete with society parties, tipsy lords, angry Welshmen who hated the English, feuding British generals and hell-for-leather American commanders, especially the larger-than-life Patton. They dangled bits of intelligence, never making their duplicitous thread too obvious, letting the Germans think they were putting the secrets together for themselves.

The British came upon their spy games with the panache of amateurs. “The British Secret Services traditionally took a fastidious approach to double agents, regarding the practice of ‘turning’ intercepted spies and using them to mislead the enemy as faintly disreputable,” Macintyre writes. This was the sort of thing the French might do, but never a proper Englishman. Not until the war, at least.

What they improvised was a magnificent, false creation: Garbo fed the Germans reports from a network of 24 supposed operatives inside Britain, all of them controlled or imaginary. Macintyre describes the Garbo ploy as “a web of deception that is as close to a thing of beauty as espionage can offer.” Garbo sent the Germans 315 secret-ink letters and more than 1,200 wireless messages over three years, all of them false. The Germans were so trusting and grateful that they awarded him the Iron Cross.

Atop this spy enterprise was Winston Churchill, the prime minister whose theatricality and dipsomania were a match for his intelligence team’s. He was briefed regularly on the machinations of each of the major double agents, and he was convinced that, without their deception, a successful D-Day landing might be impossible. Macintrye quotes Churchill’s unforgettable postwar description of this skein of lies: “Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false agent, double agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dagger and the firing party, were interwoven in many a texture so intricate as to be incredible and yet true.”

This intensely readable book makes you wonder if the whole of British life — the sporting passions, the yen for solving puzzles, the national addiction to self-concealment — wasn’t preparation for the spy game. If you ask what difference secrets make in the world and why they are worth keeping, “Double Cross” will be an education.

David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of eight spy novels, most recently “Bloodmoney.”


The True Story of the D-Day Spies

By Ben Macintyre

Crown. 399 pp. $26