Like fellow scribes Raymond Chandler and P.G. Wodehouse, British writer of popular fiction Dennis Wheatley attended Dulwich College, though he didn’t do very well there. He was expelled, in fact. He published his first novel, The Forbidden Territory, in 1933, aged 36. He had by then served in the merchant marine, been gassed in a chlorine attack at Passchendaele in the Great War, and been invalided home to manage his family’s wine business in London. He took up writing when the Great Depression put a dent in the wine trade, and he was an immediate success.
The Forbidden Territory went through seven printings in seven weeks and launched a writing career that would last until Wheatley’s death at 80 in 1977. By the early 1960s, when I first encountered his paperbacks as a teenager, his publisher, Hutchinson, was selling more than one million copies of Wheatley’s books every year. Along with Agatha Christie, he became one of the two most successful novelists in the UK. By rough count, he produced something like fifty-five novels in 44 years, a few short story collections, and a non-fiction biography of Charles II.
This short literary biography of Dennis Wheatley is to introduce a new Kindle Single about him, Tina Rosenberg’s D for Deception, which focuses on Wheatley’s important and real-life role helping Winston Churchill and his generals organize a host of disinformation campaigns to confuse and flummox the German High Command during the Second World War. By the time Germany declared war against Britain in 1939, for the second time in Wheatley’s lifetime, he was already 42 and too old to enlist, though he longed to play an important role in the war.
A friend of Wheatley’s wife enlisted him to write a short paper about tactics and strategies that would more easily occur to a writer of spy fiction than to trained military officers. Delighted to be doing something useful for the war effort, Wheatley worked through the night, producing in 14 hours a 7,000-word document he titled Resistance to Invasion.
By putting himself in the shoes of the Germans to imagine their tactics, he was able to develop a series of counter-measures Britain could rapidly take to foil Germany’s plan for overruning the British Isles. He sent this off in the morning to a strange address, the “Office of Works,” which Wheatley later learned was the cover name for the Joint Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defense in Whitehall.
When his first paper was greeted with accolades, Wheatley authored some two dozen additional papers between May, 1940, and August, 1941, most of them completed in a sleepless frenzy of champagne and cigarettes. Unlike Wheatley’s popular novels, read by millions of Englishmen, the audience for these war documents was tiny. It included the Joint Planning Staff, members of the War Cabinet, Churchill, and the king.
He came up with a variety of schemes and plots to fool the Germans that are startling in their originality. Author Tina Rosenberg estimates that by the end of the war, Germany had kept 300,000 German troops in Norway as a result of Wheatley bluffs and feints when a mere 50,000 would have been more than sufficient for maintaining control of that country, thus sidelining 250,000 German troops that could have been more effectively used elsewhere.
Wheatley developed scores of ideas civilians could implement to repel Nazi invaders: Lay a barrier of mined fishing nets two miles offshore. Spread flaming oil on the water. Build thousands of beach bonfires to deny the enemy the cover of darkness. Dig shallow trenches in front of gunner positions, fill them with oil, and, when needed, set them on fire to give cover for retreats. Pour water into the gasoline at gas stations. Remove signboards bearing the names of inns and railway stations, all of which would help the enemy know where he was. Park trains outside railway junctions, which are natural targets for bombing. Dump highly flammable material into forests so they can be set on fire in the face of an advancing enemy.
Just as he tricked the Germans into believing that Norway was a real British target when it was not, he succeeded also in convincing them to withhold reinforcements at Normandy before the successful landing there on June 6, 1944. Much of Rosenberg’s short eBook details just how Wheatley pulled off this ingenious deception, which some admirers have equated in its impact on the progress of the war with the work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, a better known tale of the Second World War. In fact, the code-breakers greatly assisted Wheatley’s efforts, because by being able to read German traffic, the effect of his deceptions could be measured almost instantly.
Deceiving the Germans was an art that worked best, it soon became apparent in Whitehall, if the cover story was one the enemy already believed. It didn’t necessarily have to be plausible in England, it was simply necessary that it be plausible in Berlin. That was a key insight for the whole disinformation campaign. Hitler already believed the British would invade Norway, so Wheatley simply gave them even better reasons to believe that false assessment. Similar, Hitler was sure that Calais would be where Eisenhower’s troops would land, not Omaha Beach, so Wheatley gave him ample justification to reinforce that misperception as well.
He was so successful at keeping troops mired in Norway that the Germans had none to spare from France to send to North Africa, thus helping to insure Allied victories there. British conveys arrived in Oran and Algiers without the loss of a single ship or a single sailor. And Hitler was sure the Normandy invasion was a ruse until long after it was too late to react to it effectively.
Wheatley’s efforts to pull the wool over German eyes worked in part because the Axis intelligence services were the weak link in their military. The Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence, was badly run and notoriously corrupt, with German officers keeping funds destined to pay for agents. Some “reports” from German agents were in fact complete fabrications, which simply helped Wheatley.
After the war, Dennis Wheatley resumed his fabulously successful career as a writer of spy fiction, a predecessor of Ian Fleming and James Bond, and though his role in the war was not exactly hidden, it was not much advertised until now. D for Deception is a brilliant short work of non-fiction anyone with an interest in the Second World War will likely enjoy.
Author Tina Rosenberg has written Children Of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America, and The Haunted Land: Facing Ghosts After Communism, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. She is a former editorial writer for The New York Times.