Codename TREASURE: The Life of D-Day Spy, Lily Sergueiew

Image of Codename TREASURE: The Life of D-Day Spy, Lily Sergueiew
Release Date: 
August 30, 2023
Pen and Sword Military
Reviewed by: 

"Winnington has done an impressive amount of research and uses Lily's own writing to vivid effect."

Lily Sergueiew crammed three lives into one lifetime. She traveled all over the world, including an attempt to ride her bike from Paris to Saigon, ending the trip in Aleppo with the start of WWII. This wasn't her first long trek. As a young woman, she wanted to be an artist and for her that meant visiting the great museums of the world. In 1933, when her parents wouldn't buy her a train ticket, she decided to walk to Berlin from her home in St. Petersburg, visiting galleries along the way. Winnington, an English literature professor, skillfully weaves Lily's own words into the story he tells of her dramatic experiences. Lily wrote two books, one about the bike ride, one about her spy work, and many journalism pieces, which are cited throughout these pages.

Lily is most famous for her work as a double agent. The Nazis thought she was faithful to them, but really she was using their trust in her to feed them false information, specifically about where D-Day would happen. While best known for her success with MI5, her pre-war adventures roaming the world are just as interesting. Her world travels are colorful enough, but before spy work, Lily was a journalist, always angling for stories about current events. And in the 1930s there was a lot to tell.

In Berlin she met Felix Dassel, a Russian who had served in the Russian Imperial Army during the first world war but who was then working at a major newspaper. Lily hoped he would help her get interviews with important German politicians, including Goebbels and Hitler. Dassel became an important colleague and an entry into the highest levels of the Third Reich. Lily didn't realize at first that he himself was a dedicated Nazi. She just knew he introduced her to the right people to get the stories she wanted.

"She started visiting the Nazi party's information office, asking for a pass—as a journalist—to attend various events, and was successful once or twice, hearing both von Papen and Goebbels address large crowds. She sought permission to visit a concentration camp, but that was consistently denied her, so she asked if she might visit a work camp for the unemployed. When that was turned down, she offered to work in one, much to the surprise of the Press Office. She was accepted—and was later told that no one ever offered to do so before."

Lily wanted to write about and illustrate the experience, providing a unique behind-the-scenes story. But as soon as she left the work camp, she was thrust into an even more dramatic experience, arrested by the Nazis for being a Bolshevik. Once again she used her sketchbook to document the experience. Under questioning, the Nazis realized her connection to Dassel, and they quickly let her go.

Lily bantered her way through the entire event, seeing everything as grist for her journalistic mill. When the Nazis offered to drive her home after the arrest, she asked instead to be taken to the Ministry of Propaganda where she saw the man who had first suspected her of communist sympathies.

"She treated him to her best smile, and thanked him for her stay in the Alexanderplatz [the prison]. 'It was the most amusing place I've seen in Germany.'

'I am delighted,' he responded. 'And why have you been released so quickly?'

'The housing crises,' she replied. 'There was no room for me. Aren't you pleased to see me? It's true that I am a suspicious character, for I don't trust you an inch.'"

By the time Lily starts working for MI5, she has already lived enough adventures for three books. This book may be titled Codename Treasure, with the focus squarely on the D-Day work, but Lily's life is much bigger than this one extremely important mission. She is a much larger-than-life character, witty, assertive, and extremely daring. She lived in exactly the right time for her brash personality and relished the chances she got to do her best.

Winnington has done an impressive amount of research and uses Lily's own writing to vivid effect. The book includes many of her paintings and drawings, as well as photographs of her. Though military historians are probably the primary audience for this book, anyone interested in women's history and tales of derring-do will also find much to savor in these pages. Readers may come to this book for the war history, but they'll come away feeling they've met a truly incredible woman, one whose work as a spy wasn't even her most daring.