‘The real home of successful deception was the Middle East,’ conceded J. C. Masterman in his book, The Double-cross System of WW2. However, The Official History of the Security Service 1908–1945, completed by John Curry in 1946, points out that Security Intelligence Middle East was pretty much on its own, cut off from MI5. As Curry puts it: ‘While the Security organisations in the Middle East had expanded enormously they had to a great extent lost touch with developments in London and during 1940 and 1941 . . . received little benefit from London’s experience and knowledge of the Abwehr and its ramifications.’ Raymond Maunsell of SIME used a ‘turned’ German agent called Durrent in spring 1940, very soon after MI5 in London began the practice, but the effective use of double agents thereafter seems to have evolved independently in the Middle East.
The first proper ‘play back’ or double agent that Dudley Clarke used in Cairo was Renato Levi, a handsome Italian Jew in his mid-thirties. He had been a reliable source of information for the SIS in France before being recruited by Mussolini’s military intelligence service, Servizio di Informazione Militare (SIM). Levi stayed in touch with British SIS while persuading the Italians that he could set up an espionage network for them in Cairo, where he arrived early in 1941. His first British contact in Cairo was Kenyon Jones, a burly ex-Rugby Blue from SIME hired by Maunsell because he spoke German.
Levi had picked up reasonable English in Australia. He was an easygoing man who lived on his wits and had an eye for the girls and the good life. Levi cheerily assured Kenyon Jones that he was going to be sent a wireless transmitter set via the diplomatic bag of a neutral embassy in the Balkans. Meanwhile he asked for a place to stay and an innocuous job. While they waited for the radio, which never came, Renato chased women. Kenyon Jones suggested using a civilian wireless transmitter (W/T) set instead.
An amateur radio enthusiast built them the right kind of set in a fortnight. Jones used a simple but effective code based on an alphabetic grid-square with a changing keyword on the top line, and Levi took it back to Italian Military Intelligence in Rome, telling them that he had recruited an (imaginary) agent called Paul Nicossof who would be sending messages in Morse from Cairo. After muddles over frequencies, the first successful transmission from ‘Nicossof’ was made one afternoon in July 1941 from a British radio station at Abbassia near Cairo. Jones had encoded a short message from ‘Nicossof’ claiming to have made some useful contacts. The signaller tapped out the jumbled letters in Morse code, was rewarded with grazie in clear, and then a coded message sent back from Rome.
Jones said later it was ‘undoubtedly the biggest thrill I had in the war’. When he told Maunsell about it the next morning, his boss said, ‘We must get hold of Dudley at once and you had also better bring in SIS.’ In his autobiography, The Road Uphill, Jones described Clarke as ‘small in stature, humorous, highly intelligent and quick on the uptake’, and said he came to like and admire him. What most impressed Jones was Clarke’s amazing talent for getting things done. He had access at any time to the Chief of Staff, Arthur Smith, and to Wavell, the Commander-in-Chief, and ‘the whole apparatus of GHQ seemed to be at his disposal!’
Clarke provided Kenyon Jones with the messages that the channel – now code-named cheese – would send to the Italians. As he became more trusted as a source, his messages went straight to the Abwehr and to Rommel’s HQ. Creating the rich cheese board of ‘notional’ contacts in Cairo and across the Middle East was a task handed on to Evan John, an eccentric older writer and artist who had been in the Commandos, then joined the Intelligence Corps, and was posted to SIME in 1941 because, he drily said, he happened to mention ‘in some portly presence’ that he once talked with T. E. Lawrence in Oxford.
In his autobiographical memoir Time in the East, Evan John described Clarke (whom he only called ‘The Colonel’) as ‘a professional soldier with a great love of good English . . . He had read widely in literature, especially spiteful literature. His combined love for malice and good style naturally led him to the eighteenth century, and he knew his Junius better than – as a thorough-going atheist – he knew his Bible.’ John’s view of Clarke’s character is interesting. You need a sharp edge to be good at deception. Clarke’s awareness of human folly helped him to take advantage of it; a degree of malice may have spurred him on in his attempts to mislead and deceive, but he also knew his stratagems had a useful purpose. When a trick worked, he must have felt delight at many levels, intellectual, creative and patriotic, something more complex than mere spite.