Stranger Than Fiction

April 2022

Spy Versus Spy

By Dean Jobb


Spying is perhaps the most dramatic of crimes, the source of thrilling tales of cloak-and-dagger missions and devious double agents. It certainly ranks as the riskiest and most secretive. From the FBI’s war on Nazi infiltrators on the eve of World War Two and the real-life inspirations for James Bond to an alliance of American and Polish agents in 1990s Iraq, new books expose secrets and lies as they explore the shadowy world of spies and espionage.

Wilhelm Lonkowski seemed an unlikely spy. He was German-born and had been one of the Kaiser’s fighter pilots in the war, but since the late 1920s he had been living on Long Island. Folks who brought him musical instruments to tune or repair called him Willy. His wife sold women’s hats and dresses. His occasional work at local aircraft factories set off no alarm bells.

Then a customs agent caught him trying to smuggle military documents to a contact on board a German liner in New York City in 1935 – materials that included blueprints for airplane gunsights and notes on the new “Flying Fortress” bomber that would soon pummel German cities. Incredibly, he was able to talk his way out of a possible prison term. Lonkowski claimed he was a journalist doing research for a German aviation magazine. U.S. military intelligence officers naively let him go after he promised to return for further questioning. Within days he was in a car speeding toward the Canadian border, on his way back to Germany.

He was later identified as a key agent and recruiter for the Abwehr, the spy agency set up in violation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles to steal military secrets as the Nazis prepared for war. As Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones reveals in The Nazi Spy Ring in America: Hitler’s Agents, the FBI, and the Case That Stirred the Nation (Georgetown University Press), the U.S. was clinging to neutrality and oblivious to the spies in its midst when Lonkowski was set free.

America’s slumber would soon end. Jeffreys-Jones, an academic and an expert on espionage and the history of the FBI and the CIA, shows how the discovery of a Nazi spy ring operating inside the U.S. and the high-profile arrest of suspected agents in 1938 helped to steer a reluctant America onto the road to war with Germany. Hitler’s agents “tried to subvert democracy in the United States,” he notes, “and, in the end, inflamed public opinion to the detriment of the fascist cause.”

The author burrowed deep into German archives and the files of the FBI and Britain’s MI5 to tell this story of audacious plots, spies (some clever, many inept), and the investigative missteps that allowed too many Nazi agents to escape. It is also a chronicle of the birth of the FBI as an intelligence agency and the story of the long-forgotten Leon Turrou, the ambitious, headline-grabbing, and often reckless special agent tasked with hunting down German infiltrators. The action in this book is fast-paced and the detail is stunning, as a motley crew of characters play a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. It all adds up to an illuminating, carefully documented historical study that doubles as a great read.

James Bond’s name, of course, is synonymous with spying. And it’s no secret that author Ian Fleming based the character of Agent 007, as well as some of his missions and the rogues gallery of Bond villains, on his own experiences and exploits as a British naval intelligence officer during World War Two. In Ian Fleming’s War: The Inspiration for James Bond 007 (Rare Bird Books), Mark Simmons has scoured the Bond novels and stories to identify the surprising number of real people and actual events that found their way into the master spy’s fictional world.

The first Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published in 1953, eight years after the war ended. “All his books have their roots in the conflict,” Simmons notes. The spymaster M, for instance, is based on Admiral John Godfrey, the “crusty and bad-tempered” head of naval intelligence who recruited Fleming, while former MI5 chief Maxwell Knight used the single-letter signature, M.

The author wrote himself into his iconic character, who shares his love of fast cars and his eye for beautiful women. Fleming was involved in a number of covert operations during the war and Bond resembles a less-lethal version of his creator. “I don’t see him as a hero,” Fleming noted in a 1958 interview. “I intended him to be a sort of blunt instrument wielded by a government department who would get into bizarre and fantastic situations and more or less shoot his way out of them.”

Simmons, a former British commando who now writes factual and fictional accounts of espionage, traces Fleming’s wartime career with asides where people and events inspired the Bond stories. Golden Eye, the code name for Fleming’s mission to Spain to create a resistance network in the event of an Axis invasion, became the title of one of the novels. Assignments in European capitals and exotic locales introduced him to the backdrops for future Bond adventures. As an intelligence community insider he was privy to details of other missions, such as daring raids by naval commandos that inspired underwater scenes in Live and Let Die and Thunderball.

Fans of the novels and movies will be delighted to discover the parallels between 007’s exploits and World War Two spy craft. While it can be challenging at times to keep track of all the shady characters and clandestine missions Simmons describes in this detailed exploration of Bond’s real-world origins, it’s worth the effort.

James Bond was on the mind of one former Cold War spy when he published his memoirs in 2009 under the title, The Name’s Zacharski, Marian Zacharski. In the late 1970s, while working in California as a salesman for a machine-making company, he fed his handlers reams of information about U.S. military research into radar-dodging stealth technology. As his name suggestes, he was Polish – and this helped him to evade suspicion for years. “Americans just couldn’t conceive of Poland as a foe,” notes John Pomfret, a long-time foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. “Poles were the brunt of jokes but never the enemy.”

As Pomfret reveals in From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance (Henry Holt and Co.), American intelligence agents soon realized the skill and effectiveness of Polish agents – and how they could help the West. After Zacharski was exposed and sent to prison in 1981 (he was later part of a prisoner exchange), U.S. officials praised him as a “master persuader” whose success in convincing an aerospace engineer to leak secrets was “a textbook example of espionage.” And as the Cold War thawed and Poland broke free of Soviet control, old enemies discovered that, sometimes, their interests made them natural allies.

Pomfret traces the roots of this spy version of glasnost as the backdrop to the dramatic rescue of six American operatives – a CIA station chief, three codebreakers, and two army officers – from Iraq in October 1990, on the eve of the First Gulf War. All six knew military secrets that could have helped Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to fight back when Operation Desert Storm was launched to retake occupied Kuwait. To get them out before the shooting started, the CIA – which had helped the Solidarity movement take power in Warsaw – turned to Poland for help.

“Operation Friendly Saddam” was born. When a Polish spy agency official asked why his country was being asked to undertake the risky mission, the answer was simple: “Because you can do it.” The six Americans were issued fake Polish passports, posed as construction workers headed home, and were driven across the Iraqi border and into Turkey. To ensure their accents did not give them away, the Polish agent in charge passed out bottles of scotch; if they had to speak, the group could pretend to be drunk and the booze would explain their difficulty pronouncing their new names.

Pomfret, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize who reported from Warsaw for three years, first learned of the operation in the mid-1990s. He moved on to other foreign postings and wrote two books on China before digging deeper into the story. “I’d always thought the adventure in Iraq could form the backbone of a good yarn,” he notes. He was right – and it’s an excellent jumping-off point for this revealing and fascinating exploration of Polish-American cooperation in the war on terror and how events, changing political realities, and common interests can turn foes into friends.

“Underground work cut deeply into my personal life,” Ursula Kuczynski once noted with considerable understatement as she recalled the launch of her career in espionage. German-born, she was in her early twenties, living in 1930s Shanghai with her architect husband and the mother of an infant son – and risking all of it for a cause. It was the perfect cover as she invited Chinese dissidents and Soviet agents to use her home to hide documents and weapons. “None of our acquaintances would in their wildest dreams have imagined that I, as the mother of a small child, would jeopardize my family … by contact with communists.”

In Agent Sonya: The Spy Next Door (Crown), acclaimed British author Ben Macintyre tackles the double life that made Kuczynski one of the most successful communist spies of the twentieth century. Macintyre specializes in tales of espionage and covert operations – the New York Times has dubbed him “John le Carré’s nonfiction counterpart” – and his latest is a globe-trotting story of a life lived on the knife-edge and one woman’s history-changing acts of duplicity.

The author traces her career and espionage coups from her early opposition to Hitler’s Nazis to her eventual efforts to undermine Britain, the United States and their western allies. From Shanghai (where she was first given the codename Sonya) she headed to Moscow for formal training. She risked her life in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, then moved on to England, where she spent World War Two and the post-war years. Her neighbors in the pastoral Cotswolds never suspected this housewife and mother – “she baked excellent cakes,” Macintyre reports – was assisting communist sympathizers who infiltrated American intelligence operations. And she helped to ignite the Cold War by smuggling atomic secrets to Moscow, providing crucial information that enabled the Soviets to build and test their version of the A-bomb in 1949.

Macintyre has a rich trove of material to work with, including Kuczynski’s own published accounts of her life – her autobiography, first published in Germany in 1977, was a bestseller – and once-secret MI5 and other spy agency files. Her descendants granted interviews and offered access to her childhood diaries, family photographs and other previously unpublished material.

“Spying,” Macintyre writes, “is highly addictive. The drug of secret power, once tasted, is hard to renounce.” While Kuczynski was a devoted communist revolutionary who truly cared about the plight of the working class, she was drawn to the dangerous world of espionage “by the extraordinary combination of ambition, romance, and adventure that bubbled within her.” Agent Sonya is a first-rate nonfiction account with the tension and narrative drive of the best spy thrillers.

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True crime writer Dean Jobb’s latest book, The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), was longlisted for the American Library Association’s 2022 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Find him at www.deanjobb.com

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