How a British Thriller Writer Helped Win WWII
By Tina Rosenberg
Before there was James Bond, there was Gregory Sallust. Sallust is a British secret agent, the hero of a series of World War II spy books that novelist Dennis Wheatley—then the most popular thriller writer in Britain—began writing in 1939.
Sallust is ruthless and charming, a connoisseur of rare wines and rare women. Most important, he speaks German like a native. In book after book, Sallust dons a German uniform and infiltrates the Nazi machine—in one case, stealing the identity of the head of the Gestapo’s foreign section.
As you might expect in books like these, Sallust pretty much singlehandedly wins the war. During a long drunken night dissecting the map of Europe with Hitler’s foreign minister, Herman Goering, Sallust steals a document that keeps Britain from surrender in her darkest days. He tricks Hitler into invading the Soviet Union. He dazzles Goering, and everyone else he meets, with his military assessments. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his strategic analysis brilliant. He is a master of deception.
Then at the end of 1941, Dennis Wheatley stepped into the pages of his own novels.
As anyone who loves spy fiction knows, spying begets spy novelists—especially British spy novelists. John Le Carré, Somerset Maugham, John Buchan and Graham Greene all drew on their time in Britain’s secret service for literary profit. But Dennis Wheatley went the other way. He took what he had learned writing espionage thrillers and used it to deceive Hitler.
The underground bunker Winston Churchill used during the war is now a museum, called the Churchill War Rooms. (The one in the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, that purports to be Churchill’s bunker is a fake—the real one looks more like a submarine.) Hanging on the wall in one room is a picture of a handsome man in a Royal Air Force uniform.
“A popular thriller writer, Wheatley drew on his imagination to produce cover plans for Allied operations,” the caption reads. “His work included a plan, code named ‘Bodyguard,’ to deceive the Germans about the place and date of the Allied ‘D-Day’ invasion of Europe.”
The strategic advantage that breaking the German Enigma ciphers gave the Allies is widely known. But fewer people realize that the British had another weapon that proved just as important as code breaking—deception. Never in history has any military used strategic deception as effectively as the British during World War II, and never before or since has it made such a decisive contribution to victory. Britain’s ability to fool Hitler was responsible for success after success. At its most crucial, it gave D-Day the element of surprise. British deceivers convinced Hitler that the invasion of Normandy was only a feint—that the real invasion, with a million men, would come later at Pas de Calais. Even after the Allies landed and began fighting their way south, it took Hitler more than seven weeks to start moving his forces from Pas de Calais, because he was still waiting for the “real” invasion.
Wheatley was the longest-serving member of the Britain’s deception team. It was a very small group—during one period in 1942, he worked alone. While other deceivers had backgrounds in military intelligence, Wheatley took a more unusual route.
Born in 1897, he was an indifferent student, but loved to read and to tell and write stories. As an army lieutenant in World War I, he ran an ammunition dump. To stave off boredom, he began to write a novel. After the war, Wheatley joined his family’s wine business in London’s tony Mayfair neighborhood. He was a born marketer, and the wine business thrived. Wheatley liked his luxuries. Many nights he was found in London’s fanciest restaurants, drinking the best wine, wearing white tie and tails and a monocle. He was an epic womanizer.
But when the Depression hit in 1929, his wine business went under. Wheatley needed to pay his bills. His new wife, Joan—with her the womanizing ended—had had an idea. “You like to write stories,” she told her husband. “Why don’t you write a book?”
In January 1933, Wheatley published his first novel, The Forbidden Territory. The story, modeled on The Three Musketeers, took a quartet of friends on a mission deep into the Soviet Union. It was a huge success. He continued writing about two books a year—novels of espionage, black magic, adventure and science fiction. By the late 1930s, Wheatley was earning what would be more than $1 million per year today.
At the start of the war, he began his series starring Gregory Sallust, his confederate, the Russian defector Stefan Kuperovich, and Sallust’s great love, the anti-Nazi Erika von Epp—after Marlene Dietrich, the “second most beautiful woman in Germany,” we are told. The characters were invented, but the world they moved in was very real. Setting their adventures against the backdrop of true events required collecting and synthesizing everything about the war Wheatley could learn without a security clearance—understanding how the Nazis fought, learning about the neutral countries, assessing the political and military forces on all sides, analyzing strategy, predicting next moves. Wheatley read voraciously, followed the news in minute detail, and lunched frequently with friends whose work put them in a position to know things.
When Britain joined the war, Wheatley started writing papers for the Joint Planning Staff. His first, Resistance to Invasion, listed some 40 ways civilians in Britain could turn back a Nazi assault, which was at the time looking imminent. A few of his recommendations:
• Lay a barrier of mined fishing nets two miles offshore.
• Pave pathways inland from the shore with cement set with broken glass.
• Remove all signboards such as the names of inns and railway stations that could help the enemy know where he is.
• Dump highly flammable material into forests so they can be set on fire in the face of an advancing enemy.
The war planners praised Wheatley’s fresh ideas and gave him a new assignment—imagine himself a member of the Nazi High Command and plan the invasion of England. Wheatley bought some maps, went home to his library, hung them on the wall and, over the next 48 hours, he wrote 15,000 words. He wrote straight through with only two short breaks, fueling himself with over 200 cigarettes and three magnums of champagne.
Wheatley’s paper, The Invasion and Conquest of Britain, provides a complete invasion schedule, including lists of likely German losses. He recommends subduing Britain with, among other methods, poison gas and bacteriological warfare. The paper was based on how the Nazis had treated the Poles, and on his Sallust research.
“Gregory and I had been looking pretty closely at the Nazis for quite a while,” he told a journalist later.
After writing 20 papers—champagne and cigarettes at the ready—Wheatley was hired onto the Joint Planning Staff in the fall of 1941. He had written deceptions for Sallust, of course. But deception was familiar to Wheatley on another level, as well. The first step in deception is to draw up a cover story for each operation—what the deceivers wanted Hitler to believe. Then they began to scatter crumbs for the Nazis to find. Wheatley created enormous charts of what lies to tell on what date and through what channel. The main conduit for getting his stories to the Germans was false reports by Germany’s agents in Britain—all of whom were really working for the British. But there were other channels. Diplomats were given a schedule of misleading gossip to drop to the right people. Calls were issued for maps, translators, training and equipment for troops—all directed at the false target. In perhaps the most celebrated plot, Operation Mincemeat, the British even pushed a dead body carrying letters designed to mislead out of a submarine off the coast of Spain. These ruses couldn’t be too direct, or they wouldn’t be believable. The Germans had to gradually construct the story themselves.
That is how you write a deception plan. But it is also how to write a novel. The biggest difference was that instead of writing for millions of readers, Wheatley was now writing for only one—Adolf Hitler.
Wheatley sometimes worked with a young naval intelligence officer on Churchill’s staff named Ian Fleming. Fleming was not yet a writer—the first Bond book, Casino Royale, would not be published until 1953—but he told friends he planned to write spy novels. Wheatley kept lists of the people who came to his dinner parties, and Fleming was one of them. They could not, of course, discuss their work except in the most general terms. But they could talk about their other shared passion—spy fiction. When Fleming invented his own secret agent, the shadow of Gregory Sallust loomed large.
Today, Gregory Sallust is largely forgotten, while James Bond is, well, James Bond. Wheatley was the better novelist. But because of the war, there were no Sallust movies, and it is the Bond movies that have kept the books alive. It matters little that the espionage of Gregory Sallust did not stand the test of time. It is the espionage of Dennis Wheatley that counts, and that endures forever.
–Tina Rosenberg is the author of “D for Deception,” an e-book single on which this story is based. It’s available for iPad, Kindle and other e-readers at atavist.com/d-for-deception. She is also author of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and several other books. She writes the New York Times column “Fixes,” about solutions to social problems. She is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.
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