Some may recall seeing the 1956 film The Man Who Never Was, the World War II espionage thriller closely based on the book of the same name. Written by Lieutenant-Commander Ewan Montagu, it told the story of Operation Mincemeat, the British deception plan designed to convince the Germans that the 1943 Allied invasion of southern Europe would be directed against Sardinia or Greece and not the obvious and actual target of Sicily.
Montagu – a war-time officer in naval intelligence and one of the operation’s planners – described how a recently deceased individual was given the invented identity of a Major William Martin, RM. According to the cover story, he was an amphibious warfare expert carrying secret invasion documents from the British General Staff in London to General Alexander in North Africa. Martin had the misfortune to drown following an aircraft accident en route, his body washed up on a beach in southern Spain.
The corpse was, in fact, launched from a British submarine in shallow waters close to the port of Huelva, known to have a large German community with close links to the country’s fascist government. German intelligence in Spain was swiftly alerted to the presence of the washed-up body; the compromising documents were secretly copied and sent to Berlin before being returned to the British.
Montagu’s book was a best-seller, and yet through security and legal reasons it told only a partial account of the tale. Ben Macintyre – with access to a comprehensive range of official documents and memoirs, including those (unpublished) of Montagu himself – has now been able to tell this story in all its full and intriguing detail.
The fictitious Major Martin turned out to have been a vagrant called Glyndwr Michael who had migrated from South Wales to London. In the capital, he succumbed to rat poisoning (probably self-inflicted), his lungs filling with fluid as a result – sufficient to convince most pathologists that he had died through drowning. As Michael had no known friends or relatives, the illegal removal of his corpse from the auspices of St Pancras coroner’s office was able to go unrecorded and unnoticed.
The idea for the plan had come from Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, a classic English eccentric with an enormous waxed moustache and a penchant for attempting to shoot game birds with a revolver. He, in turn, derived his original inspiration from the work of policeman-turned-thriller-writer Basil Thomson. Indeed, it was surely no co-incidence that the planning and execution of this extravagant deception involved so many novelists; a case, perhaps, of truth being as strange as fiction. Other authors in on the plan included Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming (who called upon Charles Fraser-Smith – the model for James Bond’s Q – for technical help), John Masterman, head of the famous XX Committee, and Captain Alan Hillgarth, British naval attaché in Madrid and the man who did so much to draw all the strands together in the veritable wilderness of mirrors that was covert diplomacy in wartime Spain.
Montagu and Cholmondeley painstakingly created a convincing character for Martin, so that, for example, his uniform would contain letters from an imaginary fiancé and father (along with a stiff note from an unhappy bank manger), as well as theatre stubs from a recent West End show. Over time the two men would come to regard Martin as a friend. Macintyre describes this part of the operation in fine detail, but the best part of the story is his narrative of the less well-known but equally crucial period detailing the intrigues in Spain once the body had been discovered.
The trick for British intelligence was to give the Germans the impression that they had no inkling that the documents had ever been seen by enemy eyes. This was cunningly achieved by sending misleading cables from London to the British embassy in Madrid that they knew would be intercepted and decoded by the Spanish and Germans, and then listening in to Ultra signals to see how the enemy had responded. Although there were a few anxious moments, especially when a rather honourable Spanish naval officer attempted to return all of Martin’s effects unseen, the Germans eventually took the bait – hook, line and sinker.
Unlike many writers on intelligence matters, Macintyre is careful not to overstate his case. But in Operation Mincemeat there can be little doubt that the despatch of high-grade German troops to the Balkans – including a full-strength 1st Panzer Division from France to southern Greece – saved many British and American lives (Montagu over-modestly suggested ‘hundreds’) and contributed to the overall success of the Allied invasion of Sicily. Macintyre is a sure guide through the labyrinthine complexities of the intelligence world, and he has written a well-researched, highly entertaining and almost certainly definitive account of this brilliant operation.
Bloomsbury, 432 pages, £7.99 (p/b); Bloomsbury, 416 pages, £16.99 (h/b)
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