During World War II, Jews were overrepresented in combat units in Allied armies and in resistance forces operating all over Europe. Many Jews carried rifles, parachuted behind enemy lines, flew fighter and bomber aircraft, and did a host of other jobs that helped the war effort. But a few managed to make an impact in a much bigger way. This is the story of one such Jew from Italy, who fought the Nazis without ever firing a shot. His name was Renato Levi and he changed the face of the war in the Middle East.
After the war Levi’s story was classified, his files locked away and his accomplishments forgotten. When Levi died in 1954 his story almost died with him. Only recently have historians been uncovering more information about the Jew who fooled the Germans and changed the course of the war.
Levi was recruited as a spy by the Germans in his native Genoa in 1939. After being approached by the Germans he went to the British Consulate and offered to secretly work as a double agent. The British instructed Levi to allow himself to be recruited by the Germans while maintaining contact with them. He followed their orders and the Germans sent him to Paris, where the British connected him with the French secret service, the Deuxieme Bureau. There he was shared by both countries while pretending to spy for Germany. But the German victory over France was so swift that the Germans had no need for a spy in Paris, so he was soon recalled to Genoa and given a new mission.
He was instructed to head to Cairo to be their spy at the center of the British war effort in the Middle East. Levi traveled to Egypt via neutral Turkey, where he reestablished contact with British intelligence. They spirited him to Palestine to debrief him with the aim of making sure that he was still working for the Allied cause. The declassified intelligence report of that debrief lays bare Levi’s motivation:
His motives for working for us are difficult to fathom. He is, of course, a Jew and says he wants to do something to help the Allied cause because it is fighting on behalf of the Jews. In addition, he obviously has considerable love of adventure, and enjoys the work for its own sake. He is very fond of women, and the work gives him ample opportunities of travel, and of handling large sums of money, which he would not otherwise get. He showed no particular dislike of the Germans or the Italians; in fact he often described the good times the Germans had given him.
After being cleared by the intelligence services, Levi was sent on to Cairo and handed to a shadowy intelligence unit named A Force. This was the British intelligence team in charge of disinformation in the Middle East. With the German army bearing down on Cairo, A Force needed to bring Levi, their new double agent, into play. But they faced a dilemma; Levi had been told by the Germans that a wireless radio set would be sent to him once he was in Cairo and he was to use it to transmit information to them. No wireless set ever materialized. Without a way to contact the Nazis to pass them disinformation, A Force commander Dudley Clarke decided to send Levi back into the arms of the enemy.
This was no small task, and it involved Levi agreeing to travel back to Italy via neutral Turkey and then crossing into the Third Reich, while the Holocaust was taking place, to walk into the arms of German intelligence and lie to their faces. The only thing A Force could offer him to help in this endeavor was a cover story. He was to tell them that he had successfully made it to Cairo and bought a wireless transmitter from an Italian hiding in Egypt, an Axis sympathizer called Paul Nicossof, who could send wireless transmissions in Morse code. A Force needed Levi to give German intelligence the correct frequencies and make sure the Germans intercepted “Nicossof’s” transmissions. Of course in reality there was no Nicossof, just an A Force wireless expert transmitting false information. Levi had been instructed by A Force to tell German Intelligence to intercept transmissions from Nicossof twice a week starting on Monday the 25th of May.
The cover worked. The Germans not only intercepted the messages, but they also reacted to them in precisely the way the British needed. The first big success was convincing the Germans not to trust their other intelligence sources regarding an upcoming British offensive. As a result, Operation Crusader caught Rommel by surprise when it was launched on Nov. 18, 1941. Commonwealth forces pushed the Axis army back across the desert into Libya, leading to the liberation of the port of Tobruk.
A year later, the British managed to fool the Axis again in preparation for the El Alamein offensive. In October 1942, A Force transmitted to German intelligence that the British build-up of forces was to be used to invade the Mediterranean island of Crete rather than launch an offensive in North Africa. Hitler ordered the island reinforced with units that otherwise would have been available to fight at El Alamein 10 days later. Rommel and his Afrika Korps were defeated and pushed back across North Africa, never to return.
The disinformation transmissions to the Germans continued throughout the war covering operations around the Mediterranean theater. But the British never directly heard from Levi, the man responsible for making it all happen, after he left Turkey. The spymasters of A Force only knew that the Germans had started responding to their wireless transmissions, so they assumed that Levi had managed to fool them.
In actuality, being back in Axis territory proved incredibly dangerous for Levi. A former French agent known as “Jean” recognized Levi as having worked for the Deuxieme Bureau and warned the SS that he had been a French agent. This led to some tense conversations between Levi and his German handlers but he managed to convince them that he was still their man.
Then he was arrested by the Italians who accused him of “having cooperated with the British Intelligence Service in Belgrad [sic] (Yugoslavia) and in Cairo.” The Italians interrogated him over a period of several months. Levi’s German intelligence handlers refused to intervene. Despite repeated interrogations, Levi proclaimed his innocence. He was held for months without trial but never confessed to having spied for the British, only for the Germans. He suspected that he had been set up but was never sure.
During his eventual trial, Levi was asked if he was “of Jewish faith” and responded that “he was of Jewish origin but Catholic by religion.” The next day he was sentenced to “five years confinement as a political prisoner for being socially dangerous.” He served most of his sentence in a prison on Tremeti, a small island in the Adriatic. He was eventually moved to a facility on the Italian mainland where he was liberated by the British army in October 1943.
Once liberated, Levi made his way back to A Force who’d had no idea what had happened to him. He explained his arrest, interrogation, and eventual imprisonment. They gave him 1,500 pounds for his efforts and another 2,000 pounds compensation and sent him on his way. Levi died in 1954 in Italy. His story died with him, until researchers discovered his files when they were declassified over 50 years later.
The files revealed how the succession of events in Levi’s life coalesced to make him into a natural spy. He was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1902 to an assimilated Italian Jewish family. His parents moved to India in 1910 where he became a British subject and fluent in English. A few years later Levi was sent to Switzerland to complete his education where he learned to speak German and French like a native. He had a thirst for adventure which led him to try his hand at becoming a businessman in Australia. He joined the Australian Italian chamber of commerce, he even served as a witness in a robbery trial. He ended up going bankrupt and trying to flee the country only to be arrested by Australian police. A judge ordered he be held until he coughed up the cash he owed. These experiences would have served him well later as he was interrogated and cross-examined by the Italian security services.
The word “Jew” catches the eye when reading through the declassified intelligence files. It follows Levi through all the reports on his activities. He was even described as being “of Jewish appearance” by the British intelligence officer who debriefed him. There is no evidence of Levi hiding his Jewish identity from the British, Germans, or Italians nor any evidence of it impacting his ability to carry out espionage, though as we have seen it did come up at the end of his trial.
But why did the Germans recruit a Jewish spy? A historian at the Holocaust Educational Trust Martin Winstone told Tablet that he suspects the reason may have been the involvement of the less ideological Abwehr (German military intelligence). “The Abwehr was not led by ideological Nazis and its head Wilhelm Canaris was involved in many of the military plots against Hitler. This does not necessarily mean that these people were free from antisemitism themselves, but there was perhaps a more pragmatic approach than other organizations such as the Gestapo when it came to intelligence operations.” There are references in the British intelligence reports to the Abwehr and the even less ideological Italians playing a role in handling Levi.
Tablet contacted one of Levi’s surviving relatives, his great-nephew Kee Levi, to find out more about him.
“He was always a bit of a black sheep in the family; he was always going to my grandfather because my grandfather was always bailing him out,” Kee confides. “I’m so glad he survived the war because I think that so many people like him didn’t!” he added. “Immensely brave some of the things he did. Foolhardy, really.”
Marc Goldberg is the author of Beyond the Green Line: A British volunteer in the IDF during the al Aqsa Intifada.