The Dirty Tricks Department / The Nazi Conspiracy: the Secret Plot to Kill Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill (book reviews)

These two books about World War II have a lot in common. Both are centered on espionage and intelligence gathering, a new wrinkle in defense against foreign threats.

At the beginning of the War, the U.S. has only recently developed an organization, as John Lisle outlines in his book. Certainly, spying and figuring out your enemy’s secrets was not a new concept, but in the rapidly evolving 20th Century, the stakes were higher and world conflicts upped the ante. Germany had the resources of friendly organizations in the U.S. and other countries that worked publicly, and was building clandestine assets around the world. World War II changed everything and the need for intelligence gathering along with the capability to conduct secret operations behind enemy lines and in other theaters was now critical.

The name “Wild Bill” Donovan is a legend, a heroic figure they write books about. This book not only covers Donovan, but the fantastic organization he created and some of the interesting and talented characters.

The Dirty Tricks Department: Stanley Lovell, The OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare (St. Martin’s Press, 2023) by John Lisle is quite a read. The book is about more than just Colonel William Donovan, but he started and ran the intelligence operation in World War II, after his Medal of Honor service in the First World War. Donovan was the right man at the right time.

“Wild Bill” Donovan

Incredibly, the OSS was not a secret, even German newspapers wrote about it, in snarky terms of course. Around Washington, the scientists, inventors, criminalists and other cork screws were known by less flattering names, as dodging war action. Actually, these cork screws were teaching others how to break into safes, forge documents, create misinformation campaigns, learn languages, practice explosives, crawling under machine gun fire and escape pursuit. The OSS even commandeered the exclusive Congressional Country Club, turning it into a training ground for spies and saboteurs.

Some of the “corkscrew thinkers” Winston Churchill said an intelligence operation must recruit. Nothing like the Office of Strategic Services had ever been created before, but the world was changing, and the country needed an intelligence and espionage capability as the new word order approached. The OSS would evolve into the Central Intelligence Agency in the post-World War II era of shifted alliances, the rise of communism and new threats.

OSS employees working on spy gadgetry

The OSS got a boost by learning from Churchill’s band of cork screws. Donovan set up a research & development branch of the OSS called Department 19. The Research & Development Section was headed by Stanley Lovell, a chemist who would supply the weapons, devices and formulas that supported the work of the OSS and was the stuff of spy craft. Lovell was hired by Donovan as his “Dr. Moriarty,” who would create the instruments of modern espionage and warfare. The result were bat bombs (bats with incendiary devices), pencils with explosive detonators, the invention of napalm, guns with silencers, pen guns and other pre-007 spy hardware. The Nazis had a similar operation, the Abwehr’s elite commandos for saboteurs and assassins.

The imagination of Department 19 employees was impressive. Some of the cork screw ideas for harassment and sabotage included planting bombs in passive Japanese volcanoes to wake them, replacing German postage stamps with something anti Third Reich to demoralize the public, aerial bombing Hitler’s headquarters with pornography to cause a mental breakdown, putting hormones in vegetables grown for Hitler to cause him to grow breasts, planting explosives inside of dead rats in shipments of coal used for locomotives, supplying poison to Chinese prostitutes to spike the drinks of Japanese officers, itching powder for French underground to sprinkle on the laundry of U-Boat crews, and manufacturing condoms with a special irritant for users.

The OSS saboteurs were called Detachment 101. The book outlines some of the harrowing mission launched against the Japanese, in Burma and China. The missions were against military targets as well as psychological and harassment of Japanese soldiers. The bravery of these men is extraordinary, often in what could be deemed suicide missions, against the harsh terrain and deadly wildlife and diseases, and threat of capture and execution.

The OSS went after many targets that conventional military assets could not. Destroying the production and distribution of “heavy water” was one such target. Heavy water would be used in building atomic bombs by Germany.

Many operations cost the lives of civilians, prisoners of war, resistance fighters and members of the OSS. One of the moral issues was to what extent would the OSS engage in weapons of war and tactics that crossed lines of ethics and morality? Forget that German and Japanese use of chemical weapons, torture, slave labor, medical experimentation and other atrocities were in use.

The Nazi Conspiracy by Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch (Flatiron Books, 2023) reads like a pulp thriller, and I mean that as a compliment. The organization of the book threads several stories together, making leaps forward and backward, which paces and builds the thrill.

Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had an uneasy alliance. The U.S. was sending millions of dollars in war material and other relief supplies while Russia endured the Nazi war machine nearly on its own. Stalin had been promised a western front, a cross-channel deployment since 1941 and was furious that it kept getting delayed. Plans for this operation and other war discussions needed to happen. The location of a meeting had been volleyed back and forth, with Stalin holding out for Tehran, even though it presented many serious security and logistical challenges.

Did the Nazis actually plot to kill the three leaders of the Allies? Not only is it plausible, the authors connect many of the dots through their research and access to records and historical archives. Unfortunately, no one involved in the story is alive to fill in the gaps and say for certainty that it all adds up to a complex plot to assassinate the Big Three. The authors write that Joseph Goebbels recorded in his diary that based on intercepts, the Nazis suspected that Roosevelt was planning to meet Stalin, but the location was unknown, although in the book, they mention that Tehran was increasingly mentioned in messages. In war, there is lots of information, but truth is more difficult to find.

Did this really happen? What a prize that would have been for the Nazis in 1943 as the tide would begin to turn against them. Nazi intelligence had picked up chatter about a possible meeting of the three and they had assets in Iran. The logistics of protecting three world leaders anywhere outside of their own countries during wartime would not be easy, even with a military presence. The Nazis had parachuted a team into Tehran (according to the Russians) to meet up with a German agent, Franz Mayr, who had been in place for two years. Iran was occupied by Allied forces, but the previous regime had been friendly with the Nazis. The authors do a superb job of setting the stage and of tracing the the background of the principles in this story. At times, the reader gets a crash course in World War II geopolitics and the savagery of Nazi warfare and brutality against Jews.

Franz Mayr

This is seventy years ago, wartime, and a much different world. Codes were broken, communication cables were tapped, intricate underground networks of contacts and safe houses were established – heady stuff for its time. The Turkish valet of the British ambassador to Turkey regularly took photos of top secret documents and sold them to the Nazis. An American G.I. was in a love triangle with an Iranian woman who Franz Mayr’s secret girlfriend in Tehran. The Russians were decoding encrypted radio messages from the six Germans who parachuted into Iran as part of an operation.

Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had not met together until November 28, 1943. To that point, meetings involved two of the three and / or representatives, had met at various locales, and information was carried by messenger or other means. Travel by a head of state during WWII was difficult and dangerous. Churchill and Roosevelt would make numerous crossings during the War.

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill in Tehran.

The authors offer up some interesting historical notes. For example, on Roosevelt’s journey to Tehran, his ship convoy provided a demonstration of their firepower, accidentally firing a live torpedo in the direction of the ship he was on. Breaking the ordered radio silence, Roosevelt’s ship was warned and they avoided the torpedo.

Otto Skorzeny

Another piece of history was the rescue by German special operations of Mussolini from his mountaintop imprisonment. Capt. Otto Skorzeny led the operation and many others to gain the monicker of the “Most Dangerous Man in Europe.” Skorzeny was selected to develop a commando training school, similar to the Abwehr program, but several important differences. First, they were headquartered at a concentration camp where they practiced deadly techniques on prisoners. Second, Skorzeny brought a menacing efficiency to his training, unchained from any morality the Abwehr’s distant Prussian military nobility.

Skorzeny was linked to the Tehran operation but always denied any part in it and dismissed it as impractical. Skorzeny was tried at Dachau Military Tribunal for crimes of wearing U.S. uniforms and infiltrating allied lines, but was acquitted. He was also being held for denazification but escaped. Skorzeny moved around in Europe, South America and the Middle East working as a military advisory to various friendly governments.

Side note: I read part of Skorzeny’s autobiography, My Commando Operations (1975), online. The man admits no crimes, no mistakes, no guilt and no apologies. War is not pretty, but it’s war. He followed orders and his actions were no different than other soldiers. Rationalization all the way.

There is another book on the same subject. Night of the Assassins (HarperCollins, 2021), by Howard Blum, covers the same plot, but plows slightly different ground. The two books are different enough to provide additional war stories and other insights. For example, the book opens with the mistaken downing of a British airplane thought to be carrying Winston Churchill. A German spy in Lisbon mistook actor Leslie Howard and a co-star as Churchill and his bodyguard. Fifteen civilians perished in the mission as German fighters were dispatched to shoot down the plan over the water.

Both books present a fascinating look at FDR’s lead secret service agent Mike Reilly. Night of the Assassins digs a bit deeper into some of the other challenges Reilly faced protecting a president in a hostile world. One such story involves transporting FDR in a more protective vehicle. Federal law set the amount that could be spent on a presidential vehicle: $750. Even though purchasing power was greater then, for that amount, Reilly could only get a standard vehicle. The Treasury Department happened to have a vehicle that was seized from a criminal. Reilly delivered the fortified armored vehicle that had belonged to Al Capone.

FDR would meet Churchill in Casablanca, making the first presidential trans Atlantic flight. Casablanca was hardly a safe city, not only teaming with Nazi spies and agents for hire, but within range of German bombers. This trip would give Reilly a taste of what he would face when plans were made for Tehran.

Tehran was an unlikely location for The Big Three to meet during wartime. Mike Reilly made a recon trip and found many problems. The Russians had a strong presence in the city, as did the British and Americans, but the large city also boasted many unfriendlies. The Russians rounded up 15,000 of them, many to never be heard from again. There was an uneasiness in the city, that certainly applied to the Allies who had a common enemy but who were not friends. It was the Russians who tipped off the Americans of a German plot to assassinate The Big Three. Thirty-eight Nazi paratroopers landed near Tehran, days before Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin were scheduled to meet. An entry point to the embassies was identified and the plan was a “go.”

Blum’s book goes deeper into characters that The Nazi Conspiracy only lightly paints. In addition to Reilly, Blum presents a fascinating portrait of Walter Schellenberg, who led the SS intelligence department and would become head of all German intelligence. Schellenberg was over Skorzeny, a competitor, that was more focused on leading operations in the field. In the various Nazi organizations, there seemed constant cutthroat competition, shifting alliances, suspicion and betrayal. Schellenberg’s memoirs were published after his death, they served as a source for this book. They offer a grand insight into not only this mission, and German spycraft, but the paranoia and precautions of working at a high level in the Nazi hierarchy. Fascinating stuff.

Blum includes the development of what became the first presidential aircraft, specifically fitted for FDR’s limited mobility and comfort. The airplane was also designed for long-range travel, essential for summits halfway around the world. These are great nuggets of history that comfortably fit inside this greater story.

Blum does not jump around as much as Meltzer and Mensch do in their book, which makes reading easier, at the expense of excitement. As I’ve said, these books are more companions than competitors. The amount of history and the cast of characters large enough, that two books enhance rather than duplicate.

The Big Three had their meeting and none were assassinated, but the plan was real and it was set in motion. The Secret Service “grew up” during this period – it was forced to.

If you are interested in history, especially the period before and during World War II, these three books have much to offer. The evolution of modern spycraft it particularly fascinating to realize the value of these spies and saboteurs and the role they played in this meeting of The Big Three in Tehran. These books are fascinating reads.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s