ON THIS DAY, 26 May 1944, British Intelligence pulled off one of World War II's most amazing stunts. Using two doubles—double agent Dusko Popov and body double Lieutenant M. E. Clifton James—the British reinforced what Popov had been telling his German supervisor in Lisbon, namely that the Allied invasion of France would come no earlier than July.
It began one morning in May when Clifton James—an office clerk with the Royal Army Pay Corps in Leicester—answered his phone.
"Lieutenant James speaking."
"Oh, James, this is Colonel David Niven speaking from the Army Kinematograph section."
James paused. Surely this was a joke. David Niven, the actor? Granted, word had spread that Niven had left Hollywood to serve his country, but why would he be calling a lowly lieutenant in the Pay Corps?
"We've heard a lot about the shows you've been putting on for the troops," Niven said. "Would you be interested in making some Army films?"
James thought a moment and then recalled entertaining soldiers a few months earlier at London's Comedy Theatre. Somehow Niven must have heard.
"Yes, sir, I most certainly should."
Niven stated that a Colonel Lester would be in Leicester in two days and asked if James could meet him for lunch at the Grand Hotel. James agreed.
"And be sure to bring along some photos," Niven added.
Lester was charming, James recalled, but said nothing about filming. After small talk about war and theater, the colonel took the photos and left. Days later, James received a letter from Niven stating that James had been given the post and should report at once to Lester's office in London. At the second meeting, Lester was blunt.
"James, I'm afraid I've got rather a shock for you," he said. "You are not going to make any films." Lester lit a cigarette and then asked, "Are you patriotic?"
Silly question. Of course he was patriotic, James replied.
The colonel handed him a paper and and asked James to read it carefully and sign it. It was the Official Secrets Act. James read the admonition about secrecy—and the penalties for failing to keep it—and signed.
Lester tucked the paper away and came clean. His name was not Lester, Colonel T. A. "Tar" Robertson said, and their meeting had nothing to do with films. James was needed for an urgent assignment, he explained, acting as a body double for Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. What Robertson didn't tell James was that he ran MI5's B1A section, which controlled Britain's double agents. He also didn't inform James that one of Tar's operatives—double agent Dusko Popov—would be working the other side, surreptitiously leading a German agent to stumble across a "chance" sighting of Monty in Gibraltar.
The following day, MI5 and MI6 assumed, the German would wire Berlin of the sighting. The backhanded news would reinforce Popov's declaration to the Abwehr's Lisbon chief, Major Ludovico von Karsthoff, that an invasion would not be coming any time soon. After all, Monty would surely be leading the attack and wouldn't be hobnobbing in Gibraltar just days prior.
Robertson told James that he'd be flown to Gibraltar to meet the Governor in about ten days, and that—in uniform and with carefully scripted meetings and dialogue—he would be Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. In the meantime, he should memorize everything about Monty—walk, gestures, facial expressions, and habits. The Germans had an informant doing repairs on the Government House, Robinson explained, and the plan was for MI6's Major Frank Foley to arrange for James to be seen by him. The success of D-Day, Robertson said without disclosing a potential date, would be greatly assisted if James could put on a convincing performance.
James memorized Monty's persona and the scripted lines and was off to Gibraltar with Foley. On the 26th, it was showtime. The official cars pulled in to the Government House amid cheering British troops. "Good old Monty," they shouted.
James exited the car, saluted, and saw General Sir Ralph Eastwood, Governor of Gibraltar, waiting for him.
"Hullo, Monty, it's good to see you again."
"How are you, Rusty? You're looking very fit."
They continued the scripted talk until they reached the governor's office. Sir Ralph closed the door and turned James around, admiring him. "I wouldn't have believed it possible," he said. "You're simply splendid. I can't get over it. You are Monty. I've known him for years, but you're so much like him that for a few moments I thought he had changed the plan and decided to come here himself."
An aide escorted James to his suite and he relaxed for half an hour, taking in a view of the grounds. Not long thereafter, Foley stopped by to escort him back to the governor's office.
"Twelve minutes from now," Sir Ralph said, "you and I will take a walk in the gardens at the back of the house."
The governor explained that they would pass some scaffolding where the enemy informant was working. In addition, he said, two Spanish financiers would enter the gardens at roughly the same time—arriving to see the governor and his wife—and he would introduce them to James. They were suspected informants as well.
At the designated time, James and the governor entered the courtyard, passed the scaffolding, and spotted the Spaniards as they entered on the opposite side.
"Don't be nervous, James," Sir Ralph whispered. "It's a tricky moment—just keep your head."
James nodded and began to banter about the War Cabinet and Plan 303. The Spaniards approached and Sir Ralph introduced them to "Monty," saying that he and Mrs. Eastwood would be with them shortly. Above the men, on the second floor exterior corridor—unknown to any of the group below—Dusko Popov was showing the courtyard to an Abwehr agent. Major Foley, quietly orchestrating the symphony, apparently provided them entrance.
Popov feigned shock, announcing to his German guest their incredible good fortune. Here, in the flesh, was none other than Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery! Popov and Eastwood then went about their business and James stayed out of sight until he could be escorted back to the airport.
The bait was set and MI5 and MI6 were ecstatic. Within twenty-four hours, they were sure, Berlin would believe that Monty was in Gibraltar. The misinformation, coupled with the reports of Abwehr agents IVAN (Popov), ARABEL (Juan Pujol), and ARMAND (Roman Czerniawski) (British double agents TRICYCLE, GARBO, and BRUTUS, respectively), would surely convince the Germans that the Allied invasion was at least a month away.
The British were correct, and the Germans were caught off-guard on D-Day. The double doubles, it turned out, was a double-cross for the ages.
Larry Loftis is the international bestselling author of INTO THE LION'S MOUTH: The True Story of Dusko Popov—World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond (Berkley-Caliber/Penguin Random House) and the upcoming nonfiction thriller, CODE NAME LISE: The True Story of the Spy Who Became World War II's Most Highly Decorated Woman (Jan. 15, 2019, Gallery/Simon & Schuster).