BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
OPERATION MINCEMEAT: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II, by Ben Macintyre
, November 13, 2010
The corpse that fooled the Nazis
The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II
by Ben Macintyre
(London: Bloomsbury Publishing)
Paperback: 432 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
The proliferation of digital TV channels has seen the re-screening of a large number of classic films from the past.
One of these classics is The Man Who Never Was (1956), a World War II drama that depicts how the British successfully deceived the Germans into believing that the Allies were not going to invade southern Europe through Sicily in 1943, but rather through Greece and Sardinia. They did this by planting false documents onto a corpse dressed as a British officer, which was washed up on the Spanish coastline.
While the film's plot was loosely based on real events, for reasons of security many vital pieces of information had to be changed.
The full true story has been faithfully recounted in a new book, Operation Mincement, by bestselling author Ben Macintyre (also a columnist and associate editor of the London Times).
Macintyre has succeeded in piecing together the facts not only from recently declassified documents, but also, astonishingly enough, from papers relating to Operation Mincemeat which Captain Ewen Montagu CBE, the naval intelligence officer who was chief architect of the plan, was allowed to retain and which were found in a trunk among the effects which his son inherited.
The idea behind the Operation Mincemeat deception, of allowing false documents to fall into enemy hands, was not new. Such a ruse had been used, for example, in World War I, when a British intelligence officer, Richard Meinertzhagen, "accidentally" dropped documents near Turkish lines in Palestine - documents which were designed to mislead the Turks into believing that British-led forces were going to attempt another attack on Gaza when they attacked Beersheba.
Operation Mincemeat was essentially the brainchild of Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley; however, most of the credit for its design deserves to go to Montagu, who worked closely with him.
They and their team had to overcome a number of obstacles, one of the most important being obtaining a suitable body.
One of the details altered in the 1956 film relates to this. In the film, a grieving father patriotically agrees to allow his son's body to be used for reasons that are not revealed to him. In reality, the body of "Major Martin" was in fact that of Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh alcoholic vagrant who was estranged from his family and who had died either accidentally or intentionally by ingesting rat poison.
However, finding a suitable corpse itself was only part of the challenge. The crux of the ruse was contriving opportunities for the Germans to obtain copies of the fabricated documents secretly and to accept them as authentic.
The body was launched from a British submarine and washed up on the Spanish coastline. Spanish and German authorities who examined the corpse concluded that Martin had died from drowning after a plane crash.
Montagu and his team went to considerable lengths to create a credible identity for the body, even to the extent of inventing a fictitious fiancÃ©e to whom Martin had just proposed.
They also made Martin a Roman Catholic, hoping that the Spanish officials would treat the body with more respect and perform a perfunctory autopsy. However, one of Montagu's greatest fears was that a more thorough autopsy would reveal that the body had not died from drowning.
Medical officials believed that the body had been in the water for at least eight days, and failed to detect from the corpse's degree of composition that it must have been dead for some months.
Another glaringly anomalous detail was that the documents planted on the corpse were in a briefcase fastened to the body by a chain; however, British marine officers did not transport documents in this manner.
Macintyre suggests that, had the Germans been more thorough in analysing the evidence before them, they would have detected these inconsistencies and anomalies. He suggests that German intelligence authorities accepted the evidence because they wanted to.
It is noteworthy that some key figures in German intelligence were anti-Nazi and were later implicated in the plot to kill Hitler. The failure of German agents in Spain to detect the British ruse had the intended effect of discrediting them as sources of information in a pro-Axis country upon which Germany depended heavily for much of its intelligence.
Paradoxically, the scheme almost failed because the Spanish authorities were not initially forthcoming in clandestinely passing on copies of the key documents to German agents.
However, the deception was a resounding success. When the Allies invaded Sicily in July 1943, the Germans believed it was only a diversionary landing and sent reinforcements to Greece where they anticipated the real invasion. They deployed key units from Kursk, southern Russia, theatre of a series of huge tank battles, in which Soviet forces subsequently won a decisive victory over the Germans.
Thus the British deception had far-reaching consequences for the course of World War II.
Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat is a fascinating and highly engaging account of one of the more interesting episodes of espionage in military history. Thanks to the recent availability of key source documents, the true version of events can now finally be told.