The opening of Operation Long Jump takes readers inside a meeting between Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill, held at the British Embassy in Tehran in 1943. The purpose of the summit: how to rid the world of Adolf Hitler. But before the trio of leaders and their senior military advisors can come up with an agreeable plan to win the war, Nazi assassins enter the room, draw submachine guns, and at the orders of Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, murder the leaders of the three most powerful armies in the world.

The assassinations didn’t happen, of course, but after learning when and where the meeting would take place, Hitler set a plan in motion to kill everyone there in one fell swoop. As author Bill Yenne writes in his astonishing work of nonfiction, the decapitation of the Allied Forces was narrowly averted when a Swiss double agent stumbled onto the plot.

SPY GAMES 

During World War II, heads of state were on high alert for assassination attempts. Churchill believed (correctly) that Hitler wanted him dead. Hitler, of course, was in everyone’s crosshairs. (Even the pope wanted to kill him.) Stalin had mortal enemies at home and abroad. With those threats in mind, Tehran was agreed upon as a relatively neutral meeting place. Stalin didn’t want to travel far from the Soviet Union, and, what's more, was scared of flying. Though Churchill and Roosevelt weren’t keen on the location, after long negotiations it became obvious that it was Tehran or nowhere.

And yet, Tehran’s complicated history left it riddled with spies from every corner of the world. American intelligence was still in its infancy in 1943, the Office of Strategic Services having only been established the year before. The British Secret Intelligence Service, however, was robust and complemented by the Special Operations Executive (the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” as rival services called them), whose mission was not only to spy but also to sabotage and assassinate. The Soviet Union, writes Yenne, “maintained an entirely different sort of intelligence apparatus, whose role was intimidation more than intelligence gathering; beating up suspects rather than opening their mail.” Germany’s intelligence network rivaled Russia’s “for brutality and the British services for complexity.”

One local spy in demand was Ernst Merser, a Swiss socialite and businessman who specialized in international trade. Here was a spymaster’s dream: a citizen of a neutral power who spoke several languages and could travel without arousing suspicion. The British recruited him straightaway. The Germans didn’t realize this, and soon attempted to recruit him as well. Merser accepted both offers, and became a double agent working for the British.

THE PLOT

Operation Long Jump was conceived by the Germans after a 1943 meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt in Casablanca. If only the leaders met again, German spies felt, they could be eradicated. Also on their agenda was killing Stalin, whose army was engaged in brutal combat on the Eastern Front. When the “Big Three” leaders met, Germany resolved, assassins would be waiting. 

The chance finally came when German intelligence learned that Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin would meet somewhere in the Middle East. They eventually pinpointed Tehran, and the wheels for the plot were set in motion. They placed one Otto Skorzeny in charge of the operation, who had previously (and spectacularly) led a team of paratroopers to rescue Benito Mussolini from imprisonment after the Italian dictator’s arrest. The plan went like this: “hit teams” under Skorzeny’s command would parachute into Iran and slip surreptitiously into Tehran, where they would stay at German safe houses. Among the spies airdropped would be Soviet defectors wearing Red Army uniforms. They would slip into the security detail on the ground, providing intelligence and an opening for German commandos to do the messy deed. 

A valet at the British embassy in Ankara, Turkey, even provided Germany with copies of the initial correspondence between London, Washington, and Moscow. German intelligence thus knew the provisions of the summit in Tehran as clearly as if they had been included in the preparations all along. The stolen correspondence was, according to Yenne, “the master key with which to plan the precise methods and timing for the assassination conspiracy of the century.” 

WHAT IF?

As the summit date approached, the plan began to unravel. First: German supplies airdropped into Iran would need to be transported into Tehran. Hitler’s spies turned to their man on the ground, double agent Ernst Merser, to make the delivery. Clued into the assassination plot, Merser passed word to his handler. As the mission supply man, he was also able to open the crates and see exactly what weapons were to be used. Second, a member of Otto Skorzeny’s assault team—thrilled to be part of the mission and perhaps hoping to impress—told a certain woman that when he returned from his secret assignment he would “bring her a Persian rug.” The woman, Lydiya Lissovskaya, was the girlfriend of Nikolai Kuznetsov—who just so happened to be a double agent working for the Russians.

Lastly, Russian agents had infiltrated the team of Soviet defectors who were themselves charged with infiltrating security. The agents reported back to their spymasters. With the plot thus uncovered in advance, it never had a chance to proceed past that first group of German operatives and Russian defectors. (As for that group: Soviet spies, in their customary manner of brutality, killed the parachutists and left them in a ditch.) 

But what if it had happened? The meeting was, in Churchill’s words, the “greatest concentration of power that the world had ever seen” with the leaders of the majority of the world’s military force in one room. Had the plan been a success, Yenne writes that neither the British nor the Soviets had a mechanism of succession in place. The result would have been chaos, and more so for the USSR, which had been under the heel of Stalin for 20 years, and whose efforts in the war against Germany were so critical. Meanwhile, the deaths of both Churchill and Roosevelt would have meant the possible end of the doctrine requiring Germany’s “unconditional surrender.” Had Germany negotiated their way to peace, “the war might have ended much earlier than May 1945, though, of course, with Germany undefeated and still in control of much of Europe.” As Operation Long Jump makes clear, but for loose lips and a little bit of luck, that terrible parallel history might have become reality.

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