This is Part II of a two-part feature on one of World War II’s most fascinating spies. Part I can be found here.
Exhausted, weary after the long tense night, Betty returned to her apartment and went straight for the telephone. She called John Pepper in New York, her handler for the British spy network; he was younger, less authoritarian than Huntington and she hoped he’d be easier to manipulate. She told him she wanted to go try again tonight. All that had mattered was getting another chance at the ciphers.
He said it had already been decided: no. But before she could argue, Pepper continued. “It’s a go for tomorrow night,” he said. “June twenty-first.”
Betty began to thank Pepper, but again he interrupted her. There was something else, he said. It’s also been decided that the Cracker won’t be coming along this time. One more unauthorized person inside the embassy only increases the risks. You and Brousse get caught—maybe you can talk your way out of it. But the Cracker wouldn’t have a chance. Anyway, now you know the combination. You can open the safe. Correct? he challenged.
Betty agreed. She could handle the safe. This time there would be no problems, she reiterated.
Only now Brousse refused. Impossible! he boomed.
Patiently, Betty let him rant. When he’d finished, she told him that she agreed; they could not risk drugging the watchman again. This time they would wait until Chevalier finished his rounds and retired to his basement office to sleep. It was, she said, the only way.
Brousse considered. It might work: if Chevalier came upstairs, he’d send him off to look in the restroom while Betty scampered out of the attaché’s office. But something else now left him troubled. The longer we need to wait for the watchman to settle in for the night, he challenged, the less time the Cracker would have.
Betty had known all along she would need to tell him, and she decided now was as good a time as any. The Cracker would not be joining us this time, she said dispassionately.
Betty cut him off. She explained that she’d open the safe. She had the combination, it would be simple.
Once again Betty had the wisdom not to attempt to rein him in. And when he was done, she went to work.
Betty played all her cards. She dismissed the dangers. She reminded him that they already had “a dress rehearsal.” She spoke of his “patriotic duty,” how France needed his help in its time of need. And shrewdly, she saved her most persuasive argument for last. “I’m counting on you,” she pleaded to her lover.
In the end, Brousse could not summon the will to do anything other than surrender to Betty. He agreed to return to the embassy the next night.
It had been difficult enough the first time when Betty had not fully anticipated the torrents of fear that would rush through her when she entered the embassy. But this evening she had no doubts about the tense circumstances that lay ahead.
Betty arrived hand-in-hand with Charles after midnight and, trying to lose herself in her role, she did her best to act as his charming, besotted companion. Chevalier greeted them in the front hall and this evening he had his Alsatian with him. “One never knows,” the watchman speculated, when the dog would be called on to attack an intruder. Betty listened with, she’d remember, a smile glued to her face, while all the time trying not to imagine the ferocious animal’s sharp teeth chomping down on her arm.
At last Chevalier, full of a coy familiarity, said the couple had not come to talk to him. He would retire downstairs to his office.
The two spies sat on the hall divan and waited. They did not embrace. They simply stared at the ornate clock on the marble mantle. When a half-hour passed, Betty announced that the watchman must be asleep.
While Brousse kept guard in the hallway, she made her way to the code room.
Once inside the attaché’s office, she took a slip of paper with the combination from her purse and went to work.
She spun the dial attentively, making sure she landed on the settings the Cracker had detected. It took only a few moments to reach the final stop. Eagerly, she pulled the handle.
It would not budge.
She decided she must have misread one of the settings she’d written down two nights ago. Confidently, she spun the dial again and this time took even greater care to land on all the correct numbers. She was certain that when she pulled the handle, the old Mosler would now swing open.
She tried again and again, spinning the dial through the correct combinations time after time. It was tedious, and frustrating, and completely humiliating, but she couldn’t get the safe to open. And then it grew too late.
She returned to the front hall and in a voice breaking with despair told Brousse they had to go.
He looked at her perplexed.
“The damned thing won’t open!” she moaned.
It was shortly after midnight on a warm, starry June twenty-fourth when the two lovers walked from the Wardman Park towards the embassy for their next attempt. The Washington streets were empty and quiet at this hour, and the only sound in the night was the staccato click of Betty’s high-heeled shoes against the concrete sidewalk. But as soon as they turned the corner of Connecticut Avenue, Betty decided that things were not right.
A car was parked down the block from the embassy. Its lights and engine were off, but there were two people in the front seat. In the darkness, it was impossible to distinguish anything other than the vague outlines of their two shapes. Lovers, Betty tried to believe. But if they were, they had chosen and odd spot for their date. She knew as any agent about to go into enemy territory would know: it was a trap.
She whispered to Charles that the passengers in the car must be Vichy agents. As soon as we have the ciphers, they’ll swoop down.
“What do you want to do?” Brousse asked gravely.
Betty took a quick look at the car. And then at the front door of the embassy just yards away. “Let’s proceed,” she decided uneasily.
Brousse used his key to open the embassy door. And once inside, Betty grew even more certain that they had walked into a trap.
There was no sign of the watchman or his dog. That was very unusual. Chevalier must have heard them enter; they had deliberately not lowered their voices, keeping up a pretense of gay chatter. He normally would have come to investigate. And what about the dog? The Alsatian should’ve begun barking as soon as they’d opened the door. The silence was ominous, and very unnerving.
They sat on the divan and waited. Perhaps Chevalier was busy or in some distant part of the building. But Betty grew convinced that he was part of the plot. The plan, she decided, was for Chevalier to bust in after she opened the safe. He’d signal, and then the security thugs would come charging through the door and catch her with the code books in her hands.
Her mind was racing. She knew she had to do something or the mission would end in disaster. And she had to do it now!
Abruptly Betty jumped up from the divan and was pulling her dress over her head. She tossed it on to the floor.
Brousse stared at her with astonishment.
Now she had wriggled out of her silk slip. She hurled it away and it landed next to the discarded dress.
“Have you gone mad?” Charles asked, anxious and confused.
She continued to undress, pulling down her stockings. “I don’t think so,” she said as the nylons were added to the pile on the floor. “But we shall see.”
“Suppose someone should come in!” Brousse pleaded. “What are you thinking?”
“I am thinking just that,” Betty answered, as she unhooked her brassiere. “Suppose someone does come in!”
She pulled down her panties and with one foot gracefully kicked them towards the rest of the clothes.
She stood naked except for the strand of pearls around her neck. She had no modesty, no inhibition. She held herself easily and confidently.
Now that she had undressed, she explained her strategy more fully to Charles. “What are we here for?” she demanded rhetorically. “We are here to make love. Who makes love with clothes on if they can be taken off?”
“If you wish to help me, you will get up and start undressing yourself too!”
Her tone had been sharp and insistent. She needed him to understand that every moment mattered.
Brousse still had not grasped Betty’s plan, but he trusted her. He took off his jacket, undid his tie, and had removed his shirt. He was unfastening his belt when the door opened.
A bright cone of light scanned the room, coming to a sudden halt when it focused on Betty. The light held steady, illuminating her nakedness.
“Oh, la la,” said Betty in a voice more playful than shocked. She tried to cover herself with her hands, but her modesty was half-hearted and deliberately careless. She wanted the watchman to get a good, long look. Regardless of any suspicions that had been previously brewing, it was important that he now understood the couple had entered the embassy with only one thing on their feverish minds.
“I beg your pardon a thousand times, Madame,” muttered the watchman as he finally extinguished the flashlight. Flustered, he hurried off, closing the door firmly behind him.
A peal of triumph in her voice, Betty told Charles, “There was method in my madness.”
As soon as she’d been convinced that the embarrassed watchman had fled to his basement office, Betty had put on her slip—nothing more; she wanted to be able to undress in a hurry if he reappeared—and made her way to the code room. She followed the now familiar path to the attaché’s office. The window opened easily, and she pointed her flashlight out into the darkness. One short burst. Then another. And minutes later the Cracker had climbed up a ladder and was standing next to her.
The safe opened on the Cracker’s first try.
She looked inside and saw the two code books. “Thank you” was all she was able to say. Her words were spoken to the Cracker, but at that deep moment she was also offering her gratitude to all the gods watching over her from their operational Heaven.
The books firmly in one hand, the Cracker scurried down the ladder and Betty watched him disappear into the night. One of the OSS men hurried to remove the ladder, pausing only to flash Betty a thumb’s up, before he too vanished.
And then the waiting began.
According to Huntington’s plan, it would take three hours for the books to be photographed; a lab had been set up in apartment 215B at the Wardman Park. By 4 am—no later, he promised—they’d be delivered to front door of the embassy; with daylight about to dawn that’d be more secure than using the ladder. Then Betty would return the volumes to the safe. But for now all she could do was wait.
Betty smoked one cigarette after another. She stared out the window and when she thought she saw a shape in the bushes, she tried to believe it was an OSS babysitter and not a Vichy operative getting ready to sandbag the code books before they could be returned to the safe. She heard the watchman radio’s playing downstairs, and she tried to lose herself in the music. But when it stopped, she couldn’t make up her mind whether this was a reason to relax, a sign that Chevalier was going to sleep, or if he’d turned it off because the embassy security thugs would be crashing through the door.
Then it was 4 am; the sun would soon rise. She had dressed, and now stood by the front door waiting for the OSS operative to deliver the two volumes. She searched the street.
It grew later, and the light outside was now thin and opaque. Soon the cleaners would arrive and then there would be no chance to replace the ciphers. If the books weren’t back in the safe, if, in fact, there were any reasons for suspicion, the Vichy admirals would immediately order that the codes must be changed. And then the two books would be worthless, as irrelevant as yesterday’s discarded newspapers.
At 4:30 Betty asked Charles if they should leave. If something had gone wrong, then they should flee before they were arrested. Brousse listened to her, but did not respond. He knew she was talking without conviction. He knew she would never leave.
Ten minutes later Betty saw a man hurrying up the embassy steps. He had the books clutched under his arm. He handed them to her without a word, and she softly closed the door. She rushed back to the attaché’s office with the prize held tightly in her hands.
Betty was about to put the books back into the safe when she hesitated. Spontaneously, she held one of the volumes up to her lips and kissed it. She repeated the gesture, pressing her lips quickly against the other book. It was a solemn moment, the gratifying fulfillment of a promise she had made.
It was just after 5 am when Betty and Brousse, hand-in-hand, lovers in love with each other and the world, walked down the embassy steps.
When they arrived at the Wardman Park, they did not think about going to sleep. There was something they had to do first. Betty knocked on the door of apartment 215B.
A US Naval Intelligence agent welcomed them with great ceremony. They had, he exulted, pulled off quite a coup.
The small apartment was packed with equipment—lights, cameras, tripods, and a mess of cables. Technicians and operatives were busily roaming about. And drying on tables, on the cushions of chairs and down the length of the sofa, spread across the carpet in orderly rows, everywhere Betty looked it seemed—were the photographs of the ciphers.
She had done it. They had stolen the codes.
Two days later the ciphers were in the hands of the wranglers at Bletchley Park, in England. They quickly put them to good use: they were the missing pieces of the complicated puzzle that in time helped the Enigma team decipher the entire Vichy code system. And while the cryptologists labored in England, the OSS immediately employed the code books to unlock Vichy naval communications throughout the world. Vichy messages to the German High Command, to their diplomatic missions throughout the Western hemisphere, to their warships at Toulon, Casablanca, and Alexandria—all were read by American intelligence hours after they had been dispatched.
But arguably the stolen ciphers’s greatest operational use was in the days leading up to and then during the invasion of North Africa. Cloak and dagger teams of undercover OSS operatives took up their positions behind enemy lines before the first assaults aided by an awareness of what the Vichy forces knew about Allied operations, and, just as valuable, didn’t know. Thirty-three thousand Allied troops landed on the beaches east and west of Algiers guided by intelligence gleamed from reading Vichy’s top secret messages. Allied bombers and warships pounded the French fleet at Casablanca and the coastal batteries with devastating accuracy in large measure because the planners of the attacks could read enemy communications. American soldiers poured down from the dusty hills of St. Cloud to drive 9, 000 French defenders out of Oran in a brave and bold assault that would have been much more difficult without the codes. The entire Allied force, in fact, charged into North Africa fortified by the reassuring strategic knowledge that the Vichy government and the French intelligence service had no idea of the impending invasion.
A grim year earlier the Axis forces, seemingly unstoppable, had been advancing on all fronts. But after the exhilarating success of the North African invasion, Churchill told the House of Commons, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” In North Africa the course of the war had dramatically changed.
And what role had Betty played in these large historical events? Not quite five months after the night when Betty had stood naked in the parlor of the Vichy Embassy and had opened the naval attaché’s window to the Georgia Cracker, she found herself sitting next to Huntington on a train heading to New York.
The newspapers that week in early November, 1942, had been filled with jubilant dispatches from North Africa. Huntington picked up his copy of The Washington Post and gave it to Betty. He handed it to her solemnly, as if he were bestowing a medal. She glanced at the paper, and then back at him, perplexed. So he explained.
“American and British troops have landed in North Africa, and have met with practically no enemy resistance,” he said. “The reason there has been no resistance is a military secret. But I think that you should know that it is due to your ciphers. They have changed the whole course of the war.”
Excerpted from The Last Goodnight: A World War II Story of Espionage, Adventure, and Betrayal. Copyright © 2016 by Harper. Reprinted with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.