Before he lived it, spy novelist Dennis Wheatley wrote it.
Few nations have used deception in war- time as effectively as Britain. During World War II, British hoodwinking enjoyed repeated success, even helping to make the invasion of Normandy a surprise for German occupiers.
Less well known is that among Britain’s expert deceivers was a man who apprenticed in fakery— not with the intelligence services, but by writing spy thrillers.
In the 1930s, Dennis Wheatley was one of Britain’s most popular authors. As war broke out, he sharpened a popular character into a British superagent—ruthless, charming, a connoisseur of rare wines and rare women. In book after book Wheatley’s operative foils the Reich, pretty much winning the war single-handedly. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his analysis brilliant. He is a master of deception.
In 1941, Wheatley put off fooling imaginary Nazis to take aim at the real thing.
DENNIS WHEATLEY WAS BORN IN 1897 in a London suburb. As a youth he loved to read and to tell stories, but was only a middling student. When his school kicked him out, his father, a successful Mayfair wine merchant, sent the boy to work first on a Royal Navy training ship, and then at a German winery. Young Wheatley saw World War I service in a British artillery regiment that included being gassed at Passchendaele, but mainly he ran an ammunition dump, which left him time to write.
After the war, Wheatley joined the family business. Upon his father’s death in 1927, he took over Wheatley & Son. Until he married a second time, he was a rake who archived assignations in his diary; a checkmark (there were many) indicated success. Wheatley was short and handsome, with strong features and thick dark hair parted in the middle. He spent evenings hosting lavish parties or at fancy restaurants—until the Depression sank Wheatley & Son, whereupon his second wife, Joan Younger, suggested to her bankrupt husband how he might make money. “You like to write stories,” she said. “Why don’t you write a book?”
“I had little faith in my ability to do so,” Wheatley later said. “And even if I did…, I could not hope to make out of it more than about 50 pounds.” Still, he drafted several novels. Joan edited and typed the manuscripts, correcting his atrocious grammar and spelling.
Wheatley finally got published in 1933. The Forbidden Territory, which was modeled on The Three Musketeers, followed four friends on a mission into the Soviet Union. The novel sold out seven editions in as many weeks, and was translated into 14 languages. Wheatley hired a secretary.
By late 1934, his fifth novel, The Devil Rides Out, was on its way to becoming the best-selling, best-known work of his career. The next year Wheatley began a successful series featuring playboy and secret agent Gregory Sallust. In 1938, the writer earned £12,467—more than $1 million today. Critics hooted, but Wheatley—like Agatha Christie, with whom he exchanged signed copies—had no literary delusions. “I write to make it perfectly clear to the reader what is going on,” he liked to say. “But I can tell a story.”
In September 1939, the patriotic storyteller, too old to enlist, offered to write propaganda. When the Information Ministry ignored his overture, Wheatley decided that if he could not go to war, his alter ego could. Before the year was out, he had recast Sallust as the ultimate British spy—complete with a confederate, Russian defector Stefan Kuperovitch, and a great love, the anti-Nazi Erika von Epp (“the second-most-beautiful woman in Germany,” after Marlene Dietrich). The three duel SS Gruppenführer Grauber, a diabolical sadist who heads the Gestapo’s foreign section. The one-eyed Grauber becomes Sallust’s arch enemy and the series’ all-purpose villain.
Wheatley based his protagonist partly on a murdered friend, giving Sallust the dead man’s mean streak, lean looks, and facial scar. The rest of Sallust was the author’s idealized self: “The dinner jacketed, champagne-drinking ruthless gent; the man he perhaps would have liked to have been,” wrote Wheatley biographer Phil Baker. Wheatley, who spoke only English, also endowed Sallust with native fluency in German and French. To set his fictional hero in a world as real as possible, Wheatley studied how the Germans fought and the political and military forces involved, analyzing strategy and the mechanics of neutrality. Distilling all this and more, he was able to write so quickly that the Sallust novels seemed to unfold in real time. The Black Baroness, which ends with France falling on June 17, 1940, was published in October of that year.
Joan, meanwhile, was volunteering as a driver for the counterespionage agency MI5. She heard a passenger remark that he had been assigned to invent ways for Britons to resist a German invasion. He was drawing a blank.
“Why don’t you ask my husband?” she said. “He specializes in original ideas.”
The MI5 man asked. Wheatley wrote all night. The next day his secretary typed a 7,000-word paper. Resistance to Invasion displayed a military planner’s savvy confidence and a pulp novelist’s dramatic sense. “I shall write it as though I were a General Staff officer, although my military knowledge is limited to four-and-a-half years as an artillery officer in the last war,” Wheatley begins. He deduces where the Germans will land, and how (along the Norfolk coast, in fast boats delivering 20 to 40 men each), and divides the coast into zones. He lays out resistance stratagems, such as anchoring booby-trapped fishing nets and rowboats offshore, having children stick broken glass into concrete laid in seaside paths, and staging incendiaries in forests so enemy troops face walls of fire. To confuse invaders, take place names off signs. Park trains far from easily bombed rail junctions. Foul service station fuel storage tanks with water.
Delivered to the Joint Planning Staff, Wheatley’s suggestions showed a variety and ingenuity that astonished staff members. One, Colonel Charles Balfour-Davey, phoned the writer: could Wheatley come in—at midnight? “You have certainly produced a number of ideas that have never occurred to us,” Balfour-Davey said, according to Wheatley. Over lunch, another planner suggested Wheatley imagine he served on the German High Command and devise an invasion of England. Wheatley bought two maps of Britain, hung them in his library, and in 48 hours—fortified by more than 200 cigarettes and three magnums of champagne—wrote 15,000 words.
“BRITAIN IS THE ENEMY…. Not until British women lick the boots of German soldiers on their order while British men look on can we be certain that we have achieved our final objective and that Britain will never menace us again,” Wheatley thunders at the beginning of The Invasion and Conquest of Britain. His prescription lists tasks for parachute troops, fifth columnists, and refugees in Britain vulnerable to German blackmail. He gives a day-by-day schedule, charts British and Axis troop strength, and predicts German losses (282,000 of 607,978 men during the invasion; another quarter million to subdue Britain). “Half a million casualties…are but a small price to pay for this undertaking,” the author concludes.
The paper was a primer on how to bomb, torch, machinegun, infect, and starve Britain, based on Nazi abuse of the Poles and on Wheatley’s research for creating Agent Sallust. “Gregory and I had been looking pretty closely at the Nazis for quite a while,” he later told a reporter.
Wheatley suddenly had a cause. His ideas were “fresh, iconoclastic and challenging” and he “was able to turn his natural imagination and storytelling genius to the fields of statecraft and strategy,” former Planning Staff member Lawrence Darvall would write in an introduction to a collection of Wheatley’s war papers. Between May 1940 and August 1941, Wheatley wrote 20 papers read by the Joint Planning Staff, the War Cabinet, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and longtime fan King George VI. As they were debating one Wheatley scheme, planners needed a second copy of the document. Someone called Buckingham Palace. The king’s personal copy arrived in an envelope marked “Personal and Urgent” in the monarch’s hand. Wheatley had the envelope framed; it was his most prized war souvenir.
The novelist’s imaginings swayed strategy and tactics. Authorities purged signage of place names. The Home Guard, as Wheatley had suggested, organized civilians to work on coastal defense. He campaigned for taking Sardinia as the cheapest, easiest opening move against Italy, and in 1943 Britain’s Joint Planning Staff, which Wheatley had joined, endorsed the idea. The chief of the Imperial General Staff did not, however, and neither did the Americans; the Allies instead invaded Sicily.
Some ideas were just bad. In his final paper, Total War, Wheatley wrote, “If it were calculated that the sinking of a neutral ship would bring that Neutral into the war, thus shortening the war and bringing Victory nearer, statesmen of a Nation-AtWar would be perfectly justified in ordering one of their submarines to sink it.” The “Neutral,” of course, was the United States. What would have happened to Lend-Lease if the cousins realized Britain deliberately sank an American vessel? Wheatley could think like a Nazi; thinking like a Yank was a bigger challenge.
But years of keeping Agent Sallust in plots had schooled Wheatley in deception, and on a deep level. Strategic deception involves choosing the story (“story” is the actual term of art) you want the enemy to believe, usually to keep him as far as possible from your true aim. You break off bits of the story and spoon them into the foe’s maw by schedule: which morsel fed by what channel on which date. Offer a few telling details. Let the target make the connections. In other words: write a novel.
Experience emboldened Wheatley. In his 1941 paper Atlantic Life-Line, the novelist wrote, “I deserve…a small hard bench in the draftiest room of the Joint Planning Staff.”
He got much more. When Churchill created an interservice unit to coordinate deception in the European Theater, organizers chose as its head Colonel Oliver Stanley, head of future operations on the Joint Planning Staff. Stanley’s first hire was the army’s Lieutenant Colonel A. F. R. Lumby, commander of the military’s intelligence school; his second was Wheatley, hastily commissioned into the RAF reserve. (The navy’s man never reported.) Starting work on December 31, 1941, as nervous “as a boy arriving on his first day at a public school,” Wheatley wrote later, he found on his desk the recent minutes of the War Cabinet, the Defense Committee, and the Chiefs of Staff. “I could hardly believe my eyes,” he recalled.
However, once he was done reading, Wheatley had nothing to occupy him. Deception was so secret he and Lumby could not discuss it with Joint Planning colleagues. The secretarial pool lacked clearance for deception work, so at first the two did their own typing, which, given Wheatley’s war with the technicalities of the English language, was disastrous. Before long, “a pleasant and efficient girl” was hired.
The timid, elderly Lumby was out of his element, but Wheatley was stoked. He assigned himself more papers, among them a manual of 49 ways “to provide the enemy with material and mental evidence which would convince him that a deception plan was a genuine operation.”
Finally an assignment materialized to convince the Germans that Britain was about to invade Norway—for Wheatley, familiar territory. The year before, in The Black Baroness, he had had Agent Sallust pose as a Nazi assassin to save Norway’s King Haakon. The novel tracks actual events, including Germany’s 1940 invasion of Norway and Britain’s flaccid reaction. Through Sallust, Wheatley makes no secret of his rage at Britain for abandoning the Norwegians.
Now he had a second crack at history. In Baroness, the events had been real but futile. This invasion would be imaginary— but could change the war. Wheatley called the phony effort Operation Hardboiled. He and Lumby assumed it should have the training and planning of a genuine action. The likeliest threat to Occupied Norway was the Royal Marine Division, in Scotland. The plotters drew up a plan that would bruit about word of that unit getting alpine training, supplies, and clothing. They met with junior officers eager to put Hardboiled into action—no doubt because they lacked sufficient standing to know the venture was a fake. Higher-ups conveyed that Wheatley and Lumby were wasting time and resources. Then the Royal Marine Division was pulled to invade Madagascar, completely deflating the ruse.
THE DECEIVERS PRESSED ON ANYWAY. Wheatley had forms printed in Norwegian. He had Norwegian sailors brought to the cabinet offices where, in borrowed RAF blue, he grilled them on the best landing sites for warplanes near Stavanger. He asked the government-in-exile to update a plan for an amphibious assault on that city. He composed provocative hints to float in the Press Club and service clubs, on Fleet Street, at the stock exchange. A fictive map was “lost,” triggering a frantically visible search by government officials. British diplomats in Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland were told to begin asking around flagrantly for Norwegian contacts.
The flimflam worked. Unbeknownst to the English, Hitler obsessed about Norway—the Germans kept more troops there than in any other nation they occupied—and Wheatley’s make-believe figured in a 50,000-man increase in the Reich’s Norwegian garrison in April 1942. Two staff officers had become a force equal to several divisions.
But the pair got no help from the British armed services, even the chief of naval intelligence. Rear Admiral John H. Godfrey had an aide, a would-be writer of spy thrillers, who enjoyed Wheatley’s parties and was keen on razzle-dazzle. But the hard-driving Godfrey had no time for the intricate nuances of deception. Lumby and Stanley left. The staff shrank to Wheatley and the secretary—until Lieutenant Colonel John Bevan, who was deeply rooted in Britain’s establishment through family ties and military service in the last war, took command.
In July 1942, the Allies ordered up a string of deceptions to protect an invasion of North Africa. Bevan hired more schemers, and Wheatley’s social and celebrity-fueled connections broadened and deepened his own links in the chain of command. The unit got a name: the London Controlling Section. For Operation Torch, the section forged eight plans: four to fool the Axis about the true destination of convoys sailing to North Africa, two to pretend General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the invasion commander, was in Washington when he was really in England, and two schemes designed to tie up enemy troops by feinting toward northern France and Norway.
Wheatley charted each day’s lies. The detail was staggering. Faking an invasion was not much less work than staging one, and, according to the sheaves of letters now available on file in London at the National Archives, London Control micromanaged every step. Hundreds of letters went out over Bevan’s signature.
To lend credence to the Norway misdirection, London Control directed real preparations with sheaves of correspondence, much of it handwritten: requests for reports, training orders, directives to sail a convoy toward Norway or to run embarkation exercises. Wheatley even tried to have units practice using mountain-style transport, but “the War Office refused to find us any mules.”
Operation Torch blindsided the Axis. Though the assault was not without flaws, landings at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers quickly established beachheads. Allied troops captured Italian Armistice Commission members at their Algiers hotel rooms—in their pajamas. Duplicity’s value proven, Bevan now directed and coordinated strategic deception across Europe, even vetting Churchill’s speeches. “Had [Bevan] asked for a battleship and escort of destroyers to implement one of our deception plans, I believe they would have let him have them,” Wheatley wrote.
Wheatley and cohorts plotted fictions, inventing, manipulating, and transmitting information. A new inter-service entity formed to invent ruses; Wheatley ran it. The plans he and his crew devised had to pass muster with the organization that controlled Britain’s flock of double agents and transformed deception, the Twenty Committee (see “The Art of the Double Cross,” May/June 2009).
In June 1942, the British realized they had turned every single German spy in the UK. Thanks to growing RAF control of the skies, which discouraged Luftwaffe reconnaissance attempts, this clandestine monopoly meant double agents could tell their German handlers anything. This culminated in Operation Bodyguard, a strategic deception that conned Hitler into thinking the D-Day landings were bogus. According to the scam, the actual assault, by Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s million-man First U.S. Army Group, would strike at Pas de Calais.
But First U.S. Army Group was a phantom—a few hundred men in vans transmitting phony radio chatter. To lend the fake force authenticity, Wheatley and his colleagues dripped disinformation through double agents, cocktail party gossips, and British diplomats abroad. London Controlling Section drew spreadsheets—likely devised by Wheatley—with neatly typed columns: what message, said by whom, to whom, at which location, on what date. The last column was “Remarks.”
For example, to lure German troops away from the Channel, Operation Vendetta broadly hinted at an American invasion on France’s Mediterranean coast. The Vendetta spreadsheet includes a typical (and typically Wheatleyan) entry: on May 31, 1944, a British diplomat in Lisbon was to mention that “members of the British Wine and Spirit Trades Association are concerned lest the remaining stocks of Bordeaux wines and Cognacs may all be shipped to America after Germans have been driven out of South Western France.” The “Remarks” entry: “Passed to Mr. and Mrs. Ricardo Espirito Santo June 2.” Espirito Santo was a prominent Portuguese banker and presumed Nazi sympathizer.
By late 1944, with Allied headquarters in France handling most of the deception work being done in Europe, Wheatley went back to writing novels. In two more books, Agent Gregory Sallust kept winning World War II, his exploits now informed by his creator’s adventures. Indeed, Wheatley made himself a character in Sallust’s adventures. In Traitor’s Gate, Sallust befriends a member of Churchill’s deception team. The unnamed insider, a doppelgänger for Wheatley, helps Sallust snooker the Axis about the North Africa landings. Thus Sallust, aided by his inventor, preserves Operation Torch. In the final book set in the war, the über-agent tricks Hitler into doing himself in.
Wheatley wrote until 1977, when cirrhosis, diabetes, and lung disease killed him. He had published scores of books and claimed sales exceeding 50 million copies, but today his writings are largely forgotten. However, he has a legacy: the oeuvre of Admiral Godfrey’s young assistant, Ian Fleming, who in 1953 brought out his first spy thriller. Casino Royale introduced another dashing, cruel, sexy British agent with a facial scar. James Bond far outlived Gregory Sallust, whose espionage did not stand the test of time. But Dennis Wheatley’s contributions endure.
Originally published in the February 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.