Untold story of our double-cross spy


This is the remarkable story of Renato Levi, an Italian Jew born in 1902 in Genoa, where his mother, the actress Dolores Domenici, owned the Hotel Select. She also owned the Hotel Miramare in Rapallo. He held a British passport, was educated in Switzerland during the First World War, later travelled to Sydney, and his family owned a boat-building business in Bombay. He was married to an Australian, Lina, and had a son, Luciano.

He was recruited in 1939 by German Intelligence (Abwehr), but reported the approach to the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) which arranged for him to work as a double agent in Paris. Meanwhile, he was in contact with the Italian intelligence service, and was known to his German handlers at V-Mann 7501 and code-named Robert, but to SIS he was always known as Cheese.

The Espionage

In June 1940, Levi reported to SIS that he was to be sent by Abwehr on a mission to Egypt. He visited SIS representatives in Belgrade and Istanbul on his journey. He was briefly imprisoned in Turkey in December 1940 on charges relating to counterfeit currency, but SIS obtained his release so he could continue to travel to Cairo.

In Cairo, where he arrived in February 1941, Levi was managed by the local MI5 organisation, Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME) and developed a rapport with his assigned case officer, Evan Simpson, who arranged for him to recruit a (notional) wireless operator, Paul Nicossof, who supposedly was of Syrian and Russian heritage.

In April 1941, Levi returned to Italy for new instructions, having created an imaginary spy-ring that included Nicossof and his Cretan girlfriend BGM ("Blonde Gun Moll"), known to the Germans as Marie. Levi was scheduled to return to Cairo in August 1941 but was arrested and imprisoned on the island of Tremiti for black-market activities. Meanwhile SIME continued to run the Levi network. He remained in prison until October 1943 when he was liberated by Allied troops, and he finally re-established contact with SIME in February 1944. His organisation kept up radio contact with the Germans until the very end of the war, unsuspected and undetected.

During the conflict, Levi exchanged a record 432 radio messages with the Abwehr, averaging two transmissions a week, and became the principal German master-spy in the Middle East. He operated longer than any other wartime MI6 or SIS double agent.

As the Germans retreated from the Balkans, the Abwehr persuaded Levi to expand his operations to Greece.

Intelligence Transmitted

In November 1941, information from Levi encouraged the Afrika Korps to misjudge the Allied offensive, code-named Crusader, which resulted in the recapture of Tobruk.

Among the inventions was a "1st Special Air Service Brigade", a non-existent airborne formation that later became a real formation, now known as the Special Air Service Regiment. By July 1942, the Axis had come to believe in the existence of 14 imaginary divisions. When challenged afterwards about the inaccuracy of his information, Levi claimed that without further funds he was unable to recruit valuable sources.

The Abwehr accepted his explanation and made elaborate arrangements to pass him additional cash. One such effort resulted in the loss of a submarine, the U-372 in August 1942, and the capture of the courier carrying his money. Levi exaggerated Allied strength in the region by relaying false reports of individual military units, all of which had been invented. The Axis accepted the false Allied order-of-battle as authentic.

In 1942, Levi persuaded Rommel that the entirely bogus 74th Armoured Divison had been deployed to Alam Halfa, thereby persuading him to delay his attack until the end of August, by which time the Allies were ready to defeat the Afrika Korps at El Alamein. Convinced there was an imminent threat to Crete, Rommel reluctantly left vital forces there, wholly unemployed.


Levi misled the Axis about the Allied invasion of North Africa by predicting that the fleet was destined for the eastern Mediterranean.

He also diverted Italian forces away from Malta by claiming an attack on Crete was imminent, thereby allowing a crucial convoy, code-named Pedestal, to relieve the siege of Malta.

Levi claimed to be in touch with numerous Greek officers who supposedly kept him informed of Allied plans for the eastern Mediterranean, and thereby duped the Axis concerning the invasion of Sicily and the D-Day landings. It is estimated that he tied up at least 10 enemy divisions in the region when they were badly needed elsewhere.


Renato Levi died in 1954, his role as Cheese undisclosed. Evan Simpson shot himself in 1953. Without a doubt, they helped to win the war and their legacy is the concept of strategic deception by which controlled intelligence channels are manipulated to pass fake information to an adversary.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive