Sunday, October 20, 2013

"How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory"

“For the task of the spy is not so very different from that of the novelist: to create an imaginary, credible world and then lure others into it by words and artifice.”—Ben Macintyre, author of a trilogy of notable books on Allied espionage in World War II: Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies; Agent Zigzag; and Operation Mincemeat.
In one of the most ingenious bait-and-switch moves of military strategy in World War II, a corpse that washed up on the shores of Spain convinced Hitler that the Allies intended to deploy troops in Greece and Sardinia instead of in Sicily, as the Nazis had originally (and correctly) suspected. Dressed as a military officer and given all sorts of personal touches in addition to a briefcase of documents, this corpse was used to convey misleading "top secret" information to the Nazis.
Ewan Montagu
The story of the men and women who created the bogus character posthumously embodied in the corpse is worthy of the most fevered imagination of any fiction writer—and it's all true! In Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre recounts the tale of how this body facilitated “the largest amphibious landing ever attempted” with appropriate gusto, as well as scads of documentation and photos. (Macintyre had access to a trunk of once-classified documents found  under a bed in the house of ringleader Ewan Montagu’s son.)
The idea for this history-altering, deadly serious caper—originally code named “Trojan Horse”— came from none other than intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who remembered it from a detective novel by Basil Thomson, an ex-policeman and redoubtable spy catcher in World War I. There were multiple ifs ands and buts in the scheme, but, miraculously, it worked. The proof of the pudding? In mid-May of 1943, Winston Churchill received this telegram from his code breakers, who had been monitoring German military transmissions: “mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”
At the hub of the Mincemeat plot was wealthy Jewish criminal lawyer Ewen Montagu, founder (along with his Soviet-loving brother Ivor) of the Cheese Eaters League. (A 1956 movie starring Clifton Webb, The Man Who Never Was, was based on Ewen's memoir.) Next to him in the above photo is M15  counterespionage agent Charles Cholmondeley, who “gazed at the world through thick round spectacles, from behind a remarkable mustache fully six inches long and waxed into magnificent points…. [He was] a distinctive figure around Whitehall, his arms flapping when animated, hopping along the pavement like a huge, flightless, myopic bird.” The photo was taken April 1943, just before their plan was set into motion. (Above right, the body of the fake British officer, being readied for the mission.) Another participant in the hoax was Charles Fraser-Smith, whom Ian Fleming probably used as the model for the character Q in the James Bond novels.
Ian Fleming, the future author of the James Bond novels. (About him, Montagu said, “Fleming is charming to be with, but would sell his own grandmother.”)


  1. I love this story. The planners for Operation Mincemeat were as meticulous as good novelists, even creating for "Martin" a fiancee-- with love letter and photo-- gruff father, minor debt, religion, and an expired HQ pass (since to err is human, and human he must seem!)

    1. Interestingly, they did make some obvious errors (something wrong about the hotel receipt in his wallet if I recall)

  2. The receipt was for a shirt bought at a fancy Savile Row shop; it showed he had paid cash even though British officers shopping at that store always charged their purchases. Fortunately, the Nazis were not that enlightened about the ins and outs of custom tailoring in the U.K.

    p.s. The man maybe never was, but he now has his own website.

  3. As a long time fan on the James Bond movies, I never knew that the author of the novels was actively involved in war and spy efforts. I find this fascinating and it makes the stories, for me anyway, that much more enjoyable.

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