Friday, May 7, 2010


By Ben Macintyre

Crown, $25.99, 416 pages


The darkest humor is often to be found in the deadly game of war, and a unique example is that of “Operation Mincemeat,” a hoax spun from ingenuity and imagination that became a stunning military coup in World War II.

As Ben Macintyre succinctly puts it, “Operation Mincemeat was pure make-believe, and it made Hitler believe something that changed the course of history.”

It was a strange story, he notes, conceived in the mind of a writer and put into action by a fisherman. And the most fitting tribute to the operation was contained in a telegram sent to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the spring of 1943 that read, “Mincemeat swallowed, rod, line and sinker.”

Mr. Macintyre, an editor at the Times of London, has acquired a reputation for unveiling the espionage secrets of World War II and is proving himself exceedingly good at it.

He recently wrote “Agent Zigzag” a fascinating account of an irresistible rogue of a double agent who profited from both the British and the Nazis. Now he tells the riveting story of a sophisticated and daring operation that used a dead body dropped into the waters off the coast of Spain in 1943 to fool the German military into believing that the Allies were not planning to land in Sicily to launch the anticipated North American invasion.

A film called “The Man Who Never Was,” starring Clifton Webb, was released after the war. But the intricate planning of the operation is described as a result of a meeting between Mr. Macintyre and Jeremy Montagu, son of Ewen Montagu, the man behind Mincemeat. The author was given access to an attic in which a large and dusty trunk contained bundles of files, many labeled “Top Secret.”

It was within those files that the author found and developed the details of how Mincemeat was invented and developed by a team that included Ian Fleming, the creator of super agent James Bond.

Making Mincemeat into reality was chiefly the work of two British naval officers with a streak of brilliance that bordered on the bizarre. Ewen Montagu, an intelligence officer, lawyer and fisherman, was the chief operative. He was assisted by Charles Cholmondeley, an MI5 operative with what was described as a “corkscrew mind” who first thought of using a dead body to deceive the Germans.

And at the heart of the conspiracy there was the corpse of Glyndwr Michael, the Welsh vagrant whom nobody wanted in life or death, who became Major William Martin, a war hero whose remains still lie in a grave in a Spanish cemetery, with flowers placed on the gravestone annually.

Only recently was a postscript carved onto the stone acknowledging that Glyndwr Michael “served as Major Martin.” It is a delicious irony, typical of Mincemeat that, as the author points out, Michael was a Welsh Baptist “who had never worn a uniform who had killed himself with rat poison, possibly as a result of insanity or by accident , buried in a Spanish Catholic grave with full military pomp.”

There is a dash of macabre humor in the name of the submarine that transported the corpse in its aluminum container hundreds of miles to Spain. The submarine was called “Seraph.”

Mr. Macintyre has done a splendid job of explaining Mincemeat, and the surreal world in which it took on a strange life. He describes how attention was paid to the most minute details as Ewen and his intelligence team chose the body, dressed it in an officer’s uniform, bestowed its identity, put theater stubs and love letters in its pockets to coincide with the time it had lain in the sea and even had to defrost its feet.

Most important was the briefcase chained to the corpse’s waist containing the ostensible letters between military leaders Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Sir Harold Alexander, with the approval of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces. The fake documents asserted that the Allies were seeking to deceive the Germans into believing that an attack on Sicily was planned, when in fact the major assault would be on Greece.

Remarkably, Hitler fell for it.

The letters wound up in Berlin, and their repercussions were felt through the German high command and reportedly contributed to the fall of Italian dictator Mussolini. The enraged Fuhrer blamed everyone but himself for the decision to move troops to Sardinia and Southern Greece, which contributed heavily to the speedy Allied success in Sicily.

Mr. Macintyre emphasizes, “It is impossible to calculate how many lives were saved by Operation Mincemeat, or exactly how much it contributed to hastening the end of the war.”

However, he notes that although it was expected that the Allied invasion of Sicily would take 90 days, the occupation was completed within 38 days. Mr Macintyre also recalls that historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called Mincemeat “the most spectacular single episode in the history of deception.” The official history of World War II, he adds, labeled Mincemeat “the most successful single deception of the entire war.”

“It was also the luckiest,” asserts the author. “The deception depended on skill, timing and judgment but it would never have succeeded without an astonishing run of good fortune.”

Mr. Macintyre acknowledges that wars are won by generals and planners and strategists, yet reminds, “They are also won by feats of imagination. The framers of Operation Mincemeat dreamed up the most unlikely concatenation of events, rendered them believable and sent them off to war.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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