How to Make Hitler Grow Breasts, and Other Busts

THE DIRTY TRICKS DEPARTMENT: Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare, by John Lisle

Had you taken a midnight stroll in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., one summer night in 1945, you might have seen around 30 foxes, spray-painted with glow-in-the dark radium-based paint, gamboling radioactively in the moonlight. Those who did witness this apparition were understandably petrified. The National Park Police reported, “Horrified citizens, shocked by the sudden sight of the leaping, ghostlike animals, fled from the dark recesses of the park with the ‘screaming jeemies.’”

The luminous vulpines were a test of the latest secret weapon developed by the research and development section of the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the forerunner of the C.I.A. formed in 1942 to run spies and organize resistance against Axis powers. Led by an industrial chemist named Stanley Lovell, this department was responsible for dreaming up covert ways to baffle, terrify, destabilize and destroy the enemy: Poison pills, silent guns, gizmos to derail trains, invisible inks, truth serums, forgeries, exploding dough, disguises and camouflage were all developed for the use of O.S.S. agents operating behind the lines. The unit was also responsible for psychological ploys designed to get inside Axis minds.

The fox ruse was the brainchild of Ed Salinger, an importer-exporter who had lived in Tokyo. Salinger maintained that glowing, fox-shaped spirits — kitsune — could be portents of doom in Shintoism. If fluorescent foxes could be introduced into Japan, he argued, this would give their foes the screaming jeemies, thus helping win the war.

The plan, code-named Operation Fantasia, got quite far: Several unfortunate painted foxes were tossed into the middle of Chesapeake Bay to see if they would swim ashore. Most of the paint had washed off those that reached land.

William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the bullish founder of the O.S.S., described Lovell as his “Professor Moriarty,” the evil mastermind of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Lovell was an eccentric innovator who took pride in the most outlandish and lethal inventions, and his closest fictional counterpart is really “Q” of James Bond fame. (At this time, Ian Fleming was working in British Naval Intelligence, also inventing bizarre schemes, most notably Operation Mincemeat, the successful deployment of a corpse with fake papers to mislead the enemy. Fleming’s experience of wartime espionage became the basis for his novels.)

In 1940, Winston Churchill had founded the Special Operations Executive, to “set Europe ablaze” by conducting sabotage behind enemy lines. This required what he called “corkscrew thinkers,” those prepared to think in highly unconventional ways. The O.S.S. was founded on the British model, and the corkscrews it recruited ranged from ingenious to plain screwy.

Lovell’s team produced exploding briefcases, umbrella guns and the “En-Pen,” a single-shot pistol concealed in a fountain pen. The “Javaman” was an unmanned motorboat, packed with explosives and disguised as a fishing boat, that could be steered remotely into enemy targets by radio signal using a camera mounted on the bow: an early drone.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of Lovell’s silenced, flashless .22 automatic pistol, Donovan entered Franklin Roosevelt’s office while the president was dictating a letter, crept up behind his wheelchair, and fired the gun 10 times into a bag of sand. The president only looked up when he smelled gunpowder. That, at least, is the story Donovan told.

After a report from a Harvard psychologist suggesting that Hitler’s personality included “a large feminine component,” Lovell came up with a plan to inject female sex hormones into Hitler’s food to make his mustache fall out, turn his voice soprano and cause him to grow breasts. A full-breasted Führer, it was predicted, would not have quite the same appeal to the SS. If that sounds far-fetched, it is worth recalling that the C.I.A. once hatched a plan to make Castro’s beard drop out by impregnating his shoes with thallium salts.

All this is related in sprightly if scattershot fashion by John Lisle, a historian of science and the American intelligence community. The author is simultaneously amused by the trickery, and appalled by the dirtiness, of what Lovell’s team came up with. Sinister plans developed alongside the silly ones, including a plot to assassinate the German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg. The unit developed suicide pills for agents, although there is no evidence one was ever used. Lovell became an enthusiast of chemical and biological warfare, believing that there was no moral distinction between death by conventional weapons and bombing civilian populations with nerve agent. He conducted experiments to see if cannabis could be a truth serum, and discovered what we now know: Stoned people talk 40 percent more, but not more interestingly.

Operation Fantasia was not the only plan involving animals, or even the oddest. That distinction goes to the “Bat Bomb,” an idea confected by the dentist Lytle Adams after visiting the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, home to millions of bats. If timed incendiary devices could be strapped to bats, he claimed, these might be dropped into Japan, where they would roost under eaves and then explode, setting fire to timber and paper houses. This plan won the backing of Eleanor Roosevelt, who recommended it to her husband. “This man is not a nut,” F.D.R. wrote to Donovan. “It sounds like a perfectly wild idea but is worth your time looking into.”

Hundreds of bats were captured, weighed, harnessed with small incendiaries, refrigerated to mimic hibernation and render them docile, then dropped from planes. In the first test, the groggy bats failed to wake, and most died horribly in the slipstream. (The scientists were unaware that the Mexican free-tailed bat does not hibernate when it gets cold; it migrates.) But the kamikaze bats were not entirely ineffective: Several escaped and duly burned down the administrative buildings and control tower at a nearby air base. The plan was abandoned.

That is a repeated refrain, for most of the unit’s ideas stayed firmly on the drawing board. The Javaman was never launched, the foxes got no farther than the Chesapeake and Hitler’s breasts remained the same size. Chemical and biological weapons were not unleashed. Heisenberg was not assassinated. The effectiveness of the secret weapons is also moot, for the author offers few specific examples of their use.

After the war, Lovell wrote a partly fictional book about his experiences, became obsessed by the theory that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare, tried to invent a transparent fish hook and sold a patent for water filtration stolen from the Germans that was eventually used in Apollo spacecraft — making a fortune.

A grim legacy of the wartime research into truth serums was the C.I.A.’s 1950s mind-control program, MK-Ultra, in which dangerous and sometimes deadly experiments were conducted on prisoners, mental patients and non-consenting citizens.

This enjoyable, picaresque and sometimes alarming book offers another good reason for maintaining careful oversight over the intelligence services: Spy-scientists tend to go rogue when left to invent their own devices.

Ben Macintyre is the author, most recently, of “Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape From Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison.”

THE DIRTY TRICKS DEPARTMENT: Stanley Lovell, the OSS, and the Masterminds of World War II Secret Warfare | By John Lisle | Illustrated | 338 pp. | St. Martin’s Press | $29.99

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