D-day: 75th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Conservative 4:43 pm, 4th June 2019

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister briefly mentioned Operation Bodyguard and the deception carried out surrounding the D-day landings. I want to say something of the small number of courageous and imaginative MI5 case officers whose work underpinned the success of D-day. My late uncle, Hugh Astor, was one of the British MI5 operators who ran a group of double agents feeding false information to the German military intelligence and who the Germans believed were spying for them. An elaborate game of deception was implemented in which the aim was to trick Hitler’s generals into thinking that Normandy was not the main target, and also to try to understand the enemy’ plans and intentions. One of my uncle’s double agents was codenamed Brutus, who, together with Garbo, focused on this deception.

For all the Germans’ preoccupation with the approaching invasion, even though the allies were furiously preparing for it, they did not actually know where or when it was coming. German forces in occupied France would greatly outnumber the invading allies but if they could be kept in the wrong place, the numbers appeared less daunting. To dupe the Germans into thinking that the attack was going to take place at the Pas de Calais—the shortest route across the Channel—the operators set out to convince them that any landings in Normandy were a large-scale diversion. As the real army mustered in the south-west to attack Normandy, the allies created a mythical American army under General Patton, which boasted 11 divisions in Kent and was visited very publicly by King George VI. To support the deception, two fake corps headquarters maintained the constant radio traffic that would be generated by a real army. Dummy aircraft and inflatable tanks, together with 250 fake landing ships, all contributed to the illusion.

Crucially, the threat to the Pas de Calais would be maintained for as long as possible after the Normandy landings to ensure that the Germans did not send troops south to repel the real invasion, and half a million German troops remained in the Calais area until early July. Under my uncle’s direction, Brutus also sought to lure the Germans into preparing for an attack on Norway. A fake army was created in Scotland for a likely raid there, successfully keeping Hitler on high alert on a second front. At no point did the Germans redeploy their 250,000 troops from there.

My uncle was also the handler for a double agent, Bronx, who focused on the south-west of France. The Germans had substantial forces deployed in the Bordeaux area, notably two Panzer divisions. Once the Normandy invasion was under way, their tanks would certainly be deployed north to try to repel the allies. Every hour that the Panzers could be detained in the south-west would save allied lives. Amazingly, two weeks after the invasion, Bronx was still hinting at a looming second invasion in the south-west. As a result one Panzer division remained in position, defending it from an attack that never came.

The deception was built from myriad tiny fragments of carefully sown misinformation for the enemy to piece together. A great lie would be built up of snippets, gleanings and hints, some of them true. The work of these spies and their operators held a fascination for Winston Churchill, who described it thus:

“Tangle within tangle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treachery, cross and double-cross, true agent, false 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”.

The codebreakers at Bletchley Park deciphered Nazi high command messages and revealed the confusion and disarray of the German troops before the invasion. By 1942 almost all the traffic of German intelligence services was being read, with more than 200 messages being decrypted every day.

From this trove of information, MI5 constructed a detailed picture of German intelligence; its personnel, methods, strengths and frailties. It knew who its enemies were, and what they were thinking. Amazingly, the allies controlled the German espionage network in Britain—every one of Hitler’s spies. Consequently, we could reinforce the misinformation being fed to the Führer and his generals. The invasion of Normandy came as a stunning surprise to the senior German commanders, who were not only unprepared but positively relaxed. On 6 June 1944, Rommel was at home, 500 miles away, lighting the candles on his wife’s birthday cake. Since this attack was assumed to be a diversion, it was not thought necessary to wake Hitler early that morning. As the Battle of Normandy raged, the Germans held fast, not to the reality, but to the illusion, so carefully planted and meticulously sustained. The failure to counterattack hastened the end of Nazi Germany. Once the allies were properly established ashore, the Germans were bound to lose in the end.

What do we know about these MI5 operators? They had an instinct for how other people thought and reacted to situations—they possessed empathy and imagination, in addition to a superior intellect. They had to tread a fine line between passing on accurate information and not giving away too much, which would imperil British interests. Lives were at risk. Every case officer was acutely aware that a single slip could bring the entire project crashing down, with catastrophic consequences. The Germans were constantly assessing and reassessing their agents, trusting and doubting them at the same time. Just as the double agents lived double lives, so each MI5 officer had to try to inhabit the life of his agent. With the stakes so high, handling them was an emotionally demanding and highly stressful business.

These MI5 handlers were real heroes. Their ingenuity, spirit and heroism were truly remarkable, contributing in no small measure to the success of D-day. The most ambitious deception campaign ever attempted saved thousands of allied lives and helped shorten the war. Their work remained secret for many years after the war and, under the 100-year secrecy rule, many of the files will remain secret until 2044. My uncle received no public recognition for the work he did, and he never mentioned his involvement until the very end of his life.