Rob Hardy: "Operation Mincemeat"

May 21, 2010 12:47:00 PM

Rob Hardy -


You may well be aware that in World War II the British played a fine trick on the Germans by letting them find a floating a body bearing bogus secret invasion plans. This is a well known and factual story, which was the basis of a 1956 film The Man Who Never Was. It might seem an easy enough trick, but the Nazis and their military intelligence branch Abwehr were no fools. The deception was one of astonishing intricacy, and has not been told in full until now. Ben Macintyre, who has given us fine presentations of slices of WWII history in Agent Zigzag and of WWI in The Englishman''s Daughter, turns his re-searcher''s doggedness and storytelling skill to the tale of probably the greatest of military deceptions. Op-ration Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Ensured an Allied Victory (Harmony Books) is a grand story, full of colorful and odd characters on both sides of the battle, and it traces the plot from its conception through the victory it brought. The plotters were careful to work their scheme down to the smallest of details, and it was because of this that the trick succeeded (and also because of a good deal of luck and because of taking advantage of the wishful thinking of individuals within Ger-man intelligence). All the details are here, and it is an exciting tale. 


The point of the deception was to fool Germany about where Allied forces would land coming from the southern Mediterranean. Look on a map, and it is obvious that troops that had successfully taken northern Africa would head across the Mediterranean to Sicily. The Nazis could also see how obvious this was. The goal of Operation Mincemeat (the plotters enjoyed the application of a code name reflecting the macabre use of a corpse) was to make it not so obvious. Hitler had to be convinced that the push from Africa would not be to the obvious Sicily, but that the canny Allies were going to head toward Sardinia to the west and Greece to the east. As part of the deception, he had to be convinced that any plans he heard about a Sicilian campaign were a mere Allied ruse to deflect his attention from Sardinia and Greece. 


The idea man whose "corkscrew mind" was most responsible for the corpse trick was Charles Cholmon-deley (pronounced "Chumly"), a gangling giant with a six inch waxed mustache, who worked for MI5. His boss was Ewan Montagu, a wealthy barrister who had become an intelligence officer for the war. The two of them were the ones that hatched the plan, made the details convincing, and monitored how the Nazis took the bait. There were plenty of other contributors, including the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming, who worked in intelligence during the war and had found the corpse plot - "A Suggestion (not a very nice one)" -- in a detective novel. "I understand," Fleming wrote, "there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one." That''s not where the body came from, as it turns out. The plotters turned to the grandly-named Sir Bentley Purchase, the cheerful coroner of St. Pancras Hospital, who quite illegally colluded in the plot to find a suitable body. This was not so easy: "The plan called for a fresh male body of military age, with no obvious injuries or infirmities, and cooperative next of kin who would not object when the corpse of their loved one was whisked away for unspecified purposes, in an unstipulated place, by complete strangers." Macintyre has revealed that the body was that of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welshman who was found dead in London after eating rat poison, deliberately or by accident. Poor Michael had been a nobody when alive; when dead he was to change the course of history. 


It would not do just to put phony secret plans upon the body and float it away. Anything that might raise a Nazi eyebrow had to be anticipated. A new uniform would look suspect, so Cholmondeley put on Marine battle dress and wore it every day for three months while the body was on ice. He was not willing to give up his underwear, which was hard to come by in wartime Britain, so underwear came from the wardrobe of a late college warden from Oxford. The Sardinia-Greece invasion plans were fussed over mightily, including a labored joke about sardines in a letter signed by Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of Combined Operations. Montagu thought the leaden joke would appeal to the Germans (it did). The body was assigned a name (William Martin), a life story, and a romantic interest complete with her photograph that he would carry with him. He also bore letters from his bank manager, bills, and the stubs of theater tickets. By the time of the sending off of the corpse, Montagu wrote, "We had come to feel that we had known Bill Martin from his early childhood and were taking a genuine and personal interest in the progress of his courtship and financial troubles." The secret plans were sealed carefully, including a deliberately-placed eyelash that would stay in their folds if they were undisturbed, but would fall out if they were opened. 


"William Martin" and his many accoutrements were put in a canister, loaded onto a submarine, and floated into an area of Spain that had been deliberately chosen as likely to reveal such a find to the Nazis. The Spanish authorities called in the local British vice-consul, and opened up Martin''s attaché case in his pres-ence. They offered him the contents, which would have been a disaster; instead, because he knew about the plot, he insisted that the transfer go through formal channels. The resultant dance between the pro-Nazi officers of neutral Spain, the German spies, and the British contacts resulted in the documents being carefully extracted from their envelopes without disturbing the seals, photographed, and replaced (without that eyelash) so that the Germans could think they had fooled the British undetected. Their head of intelligence in Madrid, eager to please and to make a name for himself, personally took the documents to Berlin, embel-lishing the story of how they came into his hands to make them seem even more plausible. There were questions the Nazis should have asked, holes in the story they should have seen, but the eagerness to be-lieve this spectacular intelligence coup extended all the way to Hitler. (Goebbels alone seems to have had his doubts, but kept his skepticism to his diary.) The Fuhrer gave commands to fortify preparations in Greece and Sardinia, and Sicily dropped from precedence.  


The exact degree of success of Operation Mincemeat cannot be calculated, and taking Sicily was no milk run, but British casualties were a seventh of what had been expected. By the time the Nazis realized that their forces were in the wrong places, Sicily was an Allied territory. The operation was deadly serious, but a reader gets the sense throughout that the plotters were having fun despite all the detailed steps and bu-reaucratic shufflings it took to make the plan go through. Macintyre, in a sparkling and gripping book, reminds us that in war, having plenty of guns is important, as is having well-trained soldiers. But imagination, and even whimsy, have their place in battle, too. 


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is