Finest Hour 156, Autumn 2012
D for Deception: The Spy Novelist Who Lured Hitler to Defeat, by Tina Rosenberg. E-book, 130 kb, 44 pages, $1.99.
By David Stafford
Professor Stafford, of Victoria, B.C., is the author of Churchill and Secret Service, Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets, and other works on World War II and intelligence.
Many famous spy novelists have drawn on personal experience of intelligence to craft their fiction. Ian Fleming’s career in British naval intelligence during the Second World War furnished him with ample material for his James Bond novels; Graham Greene profited from his wartime spell with MI6 to produce Our Man in Havana; and without John Le Carre’s early stints with MI5 and MI6 the world would have been denied the pleasures of the legendary George Smiley, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, and the London Circus.
But with Dennis Wheatley, the subject of this e-book, it was the other way round—he was recruited for secret work only after, and largely because, he’d already created a bestselling fictional secret agent. Named Gregory Sallust, a prototype James Bond, he was a debonair man about town who knew his wines and consistently outsmarted the diabolical and one-eyed head of the Gestapo’s foreign section, the sadistic SS Gruppenführer Grauber.
The first Sallust spy novel, The Scarlet Imposter, appeared early in 1940 and was rapidly followed by two more that year. By this time author Wheatley had also published numerous crime thrillers, as well as The Devil Rides Out, the famous occult novel for which he is still remembered today. On the eve of the war he was making the equivalent of a million pounds sterling a year.
Already in his forties, Wheatley was too old to serve in combat but desperate to help. Fortunately, his wife was able to assist. A driver for MI5, she introduced him to some well-placed contacts, and shortly after the collapse of France, he was officially asked to turn his novelist’s skills to imagining how the Nazis might invade Britain. The paper he produced was so effective in stimulating thinking about British counter-measures that he was commissioned to write twenty more such thought pieces for the Joint Planning Staff. Then in 1941, when Churchill authorized the creation of a special unit known as the London Controlling Section to plan strategic deception, Wheatley joined its staff housed in the underground war rooms beneath the streets of Whitehall.
The essence of deception is to produce stories, or fictions, that fool the enemy. This came easily to Wheatley, and he was indubitably talented for the task. He told the tale himself in two postwar books, Stranger Than Fiction, and The Deception Planners: My Secret War, as well as in the third volume of his memoirs, The Time Has Come. A biography of Wheatley, who died in 1977, appeared as recently as 2009.
So it’s hardly the case, as claimed for this book, that his story is both untold and forgotten. And the story here is also pretty thin gruel. We get very few specifics of when and how exactly Wheatley’s own work contributed to the success of strategic deception, or how he fitted into the general picture. While we read (yet again) about the Double-Cross system and its star double agent Garbo, it’s not clear at all that Wheatley had anything to do with it. Indeed, we are told rather disarmingly that as a mere planner he was not indoctrinated into the inner secrets of British intelligence at all. The Spy Novelist Who Lured Hitler to Defeat? Sounds more like a piece of Wheatley’s own fiction.
Still, with its interactive and multimedia platform featuring maps outlining D-Day military plans, Wheatley’s wartime documents, video footage and photographs, this will undoubtedly amuse and intrigue many uninitiated readers fascinated by Britain’s wartime secrets and—who knows?—lead them on to read some serious history elsewhere.
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