Article Review - BBC History Magazine - The Secret History of Spies

Cover image - BBC History Magazine The Secret History of Spies
Cover image - BBC History Magazine
The Secret History of Spies
Today, I received three courtesy copies of a BBC History magazine entitled The Secret History of Spies. I had been contacted last year by the magazine's Picture Editor about supplying a copy of Josef's photograph. In return, they sent me copies of the magazine.

It is a nice-looking piece of work and covers a range of topics - everything from spying during the American Civil War to modern day "spies" like Edward Snowden.

One section covers spying during World War II. It is understandably difficult within the space of 6 pages for any publication to cover the complexities of espionage during the Second World War. Volumes of books have been written about that era and more continue to be written. The author of that section had a difficult task.

The entire Double Cross system gets about 250 words, and Josef gets a cameo appearance.

BBC History Magazine - The Secret History of Spies - portion of p. 61
BBC History Magazine - The Secret History of Spies - portion of p. 61

"Much like the military, British intelligence had to fight on all fronts during the war. Back at home, the security service MI5 was responsible for locating and identifying all German agents. Operating out of Wormwood Scrubs, a prewar prison in west London, MI5 officers were able to locate all German spies in the UK. The fact that Ultra could reveal so much about them - and that there were around only 120 of them - meant that the task was considerably easier than first feared. Yet the real genius in this was in its application. The German spies were given a simple choice: work for British intelligence or face execution. Unsurprisingly, the majority opted for the first option, but not all did. Josef Jakobs chose not to become a British spy. Instead he was put on trial for committing an "act of treachery" in Huntingdonshire when he "descended by parachute with [an] intent to help the enemy". Although he pleaded not guilty, the charge was upheld and he was executed by military firing squad, becoming the last person to ever be executed at the Tower of London. Those who did become British spies were used by the mysterious sounding 'XX Committee', known as Double Cross, to deceive the Germans. At a tactical level, this involved feeding back inaccurate reports on a variety of issues; at a strategic level, it was used to great effect to confuse the Germans about the location of the D-Day landings and the performance of the V-weapon campaign against London.

Two things stand out:

(1) Nowhere in the magazine is there any acknowledgement of the photographs used in the publication. Unfortunate.

(2) The article perpetuates the story that Josef declined to work for the British. The truth is that on February 2, 1941, during his first interrogation under Major R.W.G. Stephens at Camp 020, Josef did indeed agree to work as a double agent for the British. This is made quite clear in Stephens' jubilant report that very evening. Unfortutately for Josef, his capture was quite public and within two weeks, it became quite clear to MI5 that news of his arrival had spread far and wide, and he was therefore deemed unsuitable.


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