June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
The safest, fastest, most convivial operation in the annals of espionage
A little autobiography is needed. I was born a U.S. citizen, in Lenox, Massachusetts, to be precise, and educated in France and England. I therefore speak French with a French accent and English with an English one. Now this is not allowed of Americans. An American can quite legitimately speak with a Latvian, Korean, Irish, German, Italian, or Greek accent and no one cares, you are an okay American. But if you speak with an English one, people ask if you are “really” American. I used to find this irritating, particularly when I was an officer in the Army of the United States.
In 1939 I volunteered for the British forces. On December 8,1941, I applied for a transfer to those of the United States. By late ’42 I was working, as a lieutenant, in military intelligence (German Order of Battle) at the War Office, after having been through the general British I. school and the more specialized interrogation school at Cambridge.
I kept the same rank and was immediately employed, still on German Order of Battle, at Headquarters ETOUSA, which meant European Theater of Operations United States Army, in Grosvenor Square. Quite soon I was sworn in to handle “ultra” material, which was the very highest-grade secret intelligence derived from broken German ciphers. And from late summer of 1943 I was also made privy to the secrets of Operations Neptune and Overlord, which were the Normandy landings and the French campaign, and was responsible for keeping up to date the maps of enemy dispositions.
From ETOUSA and AFHQ (Allied Forces Headquarters, Algiers) was formed the nucleus of the American Army Group, which was to be commanded by General Omar Bradley.
I served on General Bradley’s tactical staff throughout the French campaign of 1944, and my immediate superior, who soon became and remained a close friend, was Colonel William Jackson. In real life Bill had been a lawyer, along with John and Allen Dulles, in the New York firm of Sullivan and Cromwell. When we bogged down for the winter, along the German frontier, I was transferred back to London, to something called the Military Intelligence Research Section, a joint Anglo-American affair. American military intelligence in Europe was vastly inferior to that of the British, and so I also had a secondary role, providing a direct and unofficial link between War Office and G-2 U.S. 12th Army Group, which enabled the American Army Group G-2 to bypass the War Department, Washington, in order to get to what was our prime source of intelligence, London. I had virtually nothing to do with the Office of Strategic Services or with the Secret Intelligence Service, the British espionage organization, though meager reports of both had passed over my desk at Army Group. While in London I had access, on occasion, to the maps of the British D.M.I., the Director of Military Intelligence, who of course used all sources. From American sources he, and we, derived almost nothing of value. I know nothing about the Pacific War, but in Europe at least American intelligence was, to put it bluntly, almost useless in those distant days.
It must have been in early 1945 that Bill Jackson, on a visit to London, invited me to lunch with him. We ate at Claridge’s, in the Causerie, a delicious meal. I was a captain by then, and Bill asked me to call my office at two o’clock and say I would be back late.
“Why?” I asked.
“General Donovan wants to see you at two-thirty.”
“Why?” I asked again. I had of course heard about the fabulous “Wild Bill” Donovan, then head of O.S.S., close to Roosevelt, and I looked forward to meeting him.
“He’ll tell you,” said Bill.
After lunch we walked the few yards to O.S.S. headquarters and were frisked, and had papers scrutinized, with what seemed exaggerated thoroughness. Neither Bill nor I believed the O.S.S. had much to hide.
The general was seated at a round table in an office that resembled more a drawing room than a military installation. With him were two or three other officers, and on the table a bottle of bourbon. One of the officers I knew. He had, like myself and the general, an Irish name and in real life was a professor of French at a famous American university. (Since he may be so again now, or he may be wanted for Mr. Philip Agee’s assassination list, I shall not name him here.)
After the introductions General Donovan said, “Have a bourbon.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Keeping well, Bill?” the general asked.
“Fine, Bill,” said Bill.
After some more of this chitchat the general turned to me: “I have a request to make of you, FitzGibbon.”
“Sir?” I asked, in some surprise. In my experience generals did not make requests of captains, but maybe in the O.S.S. it was different.
“You may not want to do it. If so, say so, and forget this conversation.”
“Yes, Sir,” I replied.
“Now, FitzGibbon, the position is this. We are not happy about American intelligence.”
He paused, as if expecting a comment, but I decided to make none.
“In fact,” he went on, “we are very unhappy about it. The apparatus lacks structure.”
Again he hesitated. I felt I must say something: “Yes, Sir.”
“Our liaison with Navy and with Army G-2 is good, but not good enough. I am referring to the O.S.S., you understand.”
“With State it’s even worse. Have you noticed this?”
“No, Sir. Not at my level. But I do know.…” I hesitated.
“Yes?” he asked.
“That almost everything we get at Army Group from Washington is useless to us. ”
I did not choose to include the O.S.S. in this blanket condemnation.
“Exactly,” he said. “You rely on London. ”
“For what comes down to us, yes. Of course, we get intelligence from the armies under us.”
“Now,” and he leaned forward, “we are not happy about this. The President is not happy about it. It won’t do.”
I did not feel this called for any comment from me.
He went on: “We therefore propose, at the very highest level, to set up a centralized intelligence organization which will coordinate all our sources under a single roof. After all, we may not be able to rely on the British next time.”
He paused for such a long time that I felt I must say something: “I see your point, Sir.”
“Good. Now this is where you come in. You were in British intelligence?”
“At a low level, Sir.”
“But still you may not want to abuse your, er, past position. And you could easily pass as a British intelligence officer again if need be. I mean your accent and so on. ”
“Yes, Sir,” I said.
There must have been something in my tone which made him say, quite quickly, “If you don’t want to do it, just say so, and forget this conversation. ”
“But I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“I want you to find out, as quickly as possible, how the British coordinate all their sources of information at the top level, War Office, Admiralty, S.I.S., Foreign Office, anything else you can think of.”
I hesitated. I knew nothing about all this, though I could have told him, more or less accurately, how the Germans coordinated theirs.
“Have another bourbon.”
“Thank you,” I said, really in order to give myself time to think.
He went on: “Needless to say, if you are caught, we shall completely disown you.”
“I know the rules,” I replied, in rather a dry voice, I now assume. I thought I saw the answer.
“Well?” he asked.
“And I imagine,” I said, “that I am allowed to choose whatever means I see fit to get you this, er, information.”
“With any help you may need from my technicians.”
“That will be unnecessary,” I said, and remembered to add “Sir!”
“Good,” he said, “and remember the very highest levels want this urgently.”
I got to my feet.
“Another bourbon, before you go?” “No thank you, Sir. I think I can get you what you need.”
Then I saluted and left the room, was checked by the guards, hailed a taxi. It was a five-minute ride to the War Office. The D.M.I.’s secretary told me his boss was not busy.
“He’ll see you now.”
The D.M.I. asked, “Well, Fitz, what can I do for you?”
“The Yanks want me to spy on you, Sir.”
“Splendid!” he said. “What do they wish to know?”
So I told him. He glanced at his wristwatch: “Three twenty-five. Come back in one hour and I’ll have the charts ready.”
An hour later I looked at the administrative chart upon his desk.
“I hope it’s enough,” said the D.M.I.
“It looks so to me, Sir.”
“Good. You’ll need a rubber band when you roll it up. Here’s one.”
It took me a little time to hail a cab. Rush hour. But at five to five General Donovan was slipping the elastic band off the chart. He examined it.
“Excellent,” he said, “excellent. But how on earth … ?”
“Do I have to tell you, Sir?”
“No, FitzGibbon. Of course not.”
“But I feel I could do with a bourbon, Sir. Now my day’s work is done.”
“Of course,” he said, “of course. ” And he poured it out himself.
Wild Bill Donovan is dead and gone. I never saw him again. I was therefore never able to ask him whether he had expected me to do precisely what I had done. On the whole I guess that maybe he did. And such was the beginning, and also the end, of my career as a spy. I never worked for the Central Intelligence Agency but I doubt if any member of the Company, which I had helped in this very minor way to create, can claim a 100 per cent success record.