Amazing Story Of The Real Life James Bond Who Outwitted The Nazis In Ww2
The identity of Britain’s most successful Second World War spy – a real-life James Bond who outwitted the Nazis – is revealed for the first time today.
The picture on the right is the only one in existence of Renato Levi, a dashing, womanising playboy who proved himself too smart for Germany’s Desert Fox general Erwin Rommel.
Levi, an Italian Jew born in Genoa in 1902, spent the war feeding false information provided by his MI5 spymasters to the Germans.
The Nazis thought he was working for them – but really he was a cunning double-agent.
His brilliant deception helped British forces under General Bernard Montgomery win the great desert victory at El Alamein in 1942.
Levi also paved the way for the successful invasion of North Africa – and prevented crack Panzer divisions from counter-attacking after the D-Day landings in Normandy and driving our forces back into the sea.
After the war, British intelligence chiefs went to extraordinary lengths to keep Levi’s name a secret for all time.
Even MI5 wartime files released in 2011 were carefully redacted to conceal his identity.
But now spy hunter Rupert Allason, the former Tory MP who writes under the pen name Nigel West, has pieced together Levi’s extraordinary career. And he has given the Sunday People exclusive access to his new book, Double Cross in Cairo.
Mr West said: “As a British secret agent, Levi was unrivalled.
“He accomplished more over a longer period than any other.
“For an entirely notional spy to dupe a sophisticated enemy over four years remains a milestone in intelligence history.”
Rare: The only surviving photograph of Renato Levi
Levi’s background – he spoke fluent English, French, Italian and German – made him ideally suited to the murky world of espionage.
Although Italian-born, he held a British passport, was educated in Switzerland and his family owned a boat-building business in Bombay.
He married an Australian and they had a son. After his wartime exploits, he went home and lived quietly with her until his death in 1954.
The extraordinary tale begins at the outbreak of war in 1939, when Levi was recruited by German military intelligence, the Abwehr.
But he reported the approach to the British, who arranged for him to work for them as a double agent in Paris.
The Germans were fooled. To them, Levi was a spy known by the codename ROBERTO. But British intelligence knew him as CHEESE.
In June 1940 Levi told British spy chiefs that the Abwehr were sending him on a mission to Egypt.
He visited British secret service contacts in Belgrade and Istanbul and briefed them on his assignment. He was briefly imprisoned in Turkey on counterfeit currency charges – but MI6 wangled his release so he could get to Cairo.
In the Egyptian capital, the British were hatching an audacious plan.
GettyBattle: British troops with German PoWs
They would use Levi to feed the Germans false information about their intentions. To accomplish this they created an entirely fictional spy network.
It was one of many schemes dreamed up by wartime British spy chiefs, who were masters of deception.
The most famous of their plots involved hiring actor Clifton James because of his resemblance to General Montgomery.
James was sent to Gibraltar and Algiers, where his presence posing as the British general fooled the Germans into thinking Allied landings were imminent in southern France.
The ruse was immortalised in the movie I Was Monty’s Double. When Levi arrived in Cairo in February 1941, he came under the control of the local MI5 organisation, Security Intelligence Middle East.
He developed a good relationship with his MI5 handler, Evan Simpson.
Describing Levi, Simpson wrote: “He is a natural liar, capable of inventing any story on the spur of the moment to get out of a fix. He has a love of adventure, and is very fond of women.
"The work gives him opportunities to travel and of handling large sums of money which he would not otherwise get.”
GettyAllied victory: The Battle of El Alamein
The first stage in duping the Germans involved inventing a make-believe, pipe-smoking Syrian wireless operator called Paul Nicossof.
Nazi spy chiefs would receive a string of misleading secret messages transmitted by “Nicossof”. And they never twigged the MI5 joke – “Knickers-off”.
In April 1941 Levi returned to Italy for new instructions after setting up his imaginary spy ring in Cairo.
He was arrested and imprisoned for working in the black market. But MI5 continued to operate the mythical network he had set up until advancing Allied troops released Levi from jail and he rejoined the operation.
His fake network kept up radio contact with the Germans until the end of the war – unsuspected and undetected.
A record 432 radio messages were exchanged with the Abwehr, an average of two transmissions a week.
The Germans regarded Levi as their master-spy in the Middle East.
He even enlisted his Greek girlfriend, Evangeline Palidou, to pose as the fake wireless operator’s lover. The Germans believed she was befriending Allied officers to pump them for information.
GettyWinner: Lieutenant General B L Montgomery watches the beginning of the German retreat from El Alamein
But MI5 knew all about her. They referred to her as BGM – Blonde Gun Moll – because she was reputed to pack a pistol and according to rumours had shot a lover dead with it.
All Levi’s messages were scrupulously logged on a card index to ensure there were no contradictions in future ones. In November 1941 his false information encouraged Rommel’s Afrika Korps to misjudge the Allied offensive which ended with the recapture of Tobruk.
Among Levi’s inventions was a “1st Special Air Service Brigade”. At the time it was a non-existent unit – but later his fakery came to life as the real SAS.
By July 1942 the Germans had come to believe in the existence of 14 imaginary Allied divisions.
Levi convinced Rommel of a threat to his forces posed by the entirely bogus “74th Armoured Division”.
GettyDefeated: Levi”s misinformation duped Erwin Rommel, Commander-in-Chief of the German Africa Corps
It persuaded the German general to delay his attack until the end of August, by which time the Allies were ready to defeat the Afrika Korps at El Alamein.
When later challenged by the Germans about the inaccuracy of his information, Levi claimed he did not have adequate funds to recruit top class informants.
The Abwehr accepted his explanation – and made elaborate arrangements to pass him additional cash. But that resulted in the sinking of their submarine U-372 by British warships in August 1942 – and the capture of a courier who was carrying the money.
Levi misled the Germans about the Allied invasion of North Africa by predicting that a fleet carrying troops was destined for the eastern Mediterranean. He also diverted Italian forces from Malta by claiming an attack on Crete was imminent – allowing a crucial convoy to relieve the siege of the island.
And his false messages about amphibious landing training being given to Greek troops in Egypt made the Germans think Greece was about to be invaded.
The result of all this subterfuge was that 20 German army divisions were tied down in the Balkans. Crucially, that meant they were unavailable to counter-attack in France after D-Day.
Double Cross in Cairo, the true story of the spy who turned the tide of war in the Middle East, by Nigel West, is published on Thursday by Biteback, price £20.