Scribbler’s Saga #118 – The Man Who Never Was

Posted: August 2, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

I first learned of the gruesome intelligence operation known as Operation Mincemeat in a great old book on World War Two I can no longer find thusly – “They took a body. Put him in a uniform with a briefcase and dropped him in the water near Spain.” Young me filed that away until I then saw the first filmed adaptation of Ewen Montagu’s wartime memoir The Man Who Never Was. I’ll get to that part later; this is me reading the actual book.

Knowing that with the advent on Netflix of the second adaptation Operation Mincemeat, it was time to go looking in the library. Two modestly unpalatable choices exist for grabbing this 70-year-old title suddenly made hot by the new movie. Wait out the hold process for getting the one copy circulating from a branch that is practically on the opposite end of our fair Southern California city (San Diego). Or take the trolley downtown to the main library where an earlier edition of the book waited on the 940.54 shelf on the Fifth Floor. I went downtown and forgot to turn around until prompted by the librarian coming to help…added about twenty minutes of where is it?

For those of you that might be a little like me, where being an ADHD poster child guarantees difficulty reading versus just watching the movie, this book is a godsend. A first-person narrative (the guy writing it borrowed a subordinate’s similar idea for another intelligence problem against the Nazis and made it happen) with an easy breezy writing style that pretty much can’t hide…yeah, he’s an upper middle class British guy whose daddy has a peerage of fairly recent vintage relative to the 1943 timeframe of most of these events. Easy to read blocking out four hours is always a plus.

Anyway, the book shows us how you have to think when the intent of grabbing a freshly dead body out of the morgues of London is to drop him in the water with a briefcase filled with two completely fake letters from high-ranking generals in order to convince the Germans that “ignore that completely obvious invasion of Sicily, it’s just a diversion from a two-pronged effort one going at Sardinia and the other for Greece.” Basically, it comes down to answering the Capitol One Question – “What’s in your wallet?” I don’t think anyone associated with the more recent movie thought to have Jennifer Garner do a cameo…pity (not really).

The narrative becomes about the nuts and bolts. How do you get a body? How do you get the body’s family to agree to give up their loved one with no questions asked for the war effort? What deaths on land most mimic a drowning? What service should he be in? What is his purpose for going to the Mediterranean that two real generals would write letters giving away the fake invasions? And lastly (truth in advertising) what knickknacks need to be in this guy’s wallet that would make a Spanish pathologist, a specifically targeted German spy and the entire Nazi high command believe both the fake man and his letters?

The team settles on Captain (Temporary Major) William Martin, Royal Marines. One of the letters from Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (Prince Phillip’s cousin and at the time commander of all commando operations) specifically says Martin is an expert on amphibious operations with a rising star because of predicting that the Dieppe Raid (an infamous failure valued as a learning experience) would go bad months before anyone else did. The same letter makes a snide joke about sardines giving the game away about Sardinia. The second letter more prosaically gives the game away saying Sicily will divert from the Sardinia operation and the Dodecanese islands will divert from an attack in Greece more or less near Corinth.

Major Martin is a person, one likely to lightly break certain strict security protocols because he’s human, sees certain rules as total BS and because even a James Bond movie once asserted that fake biographies (legends) can be seen through because the person depicted is too perfect. So suddenly there’s a girlfriend/fiancé, actually it was two women, one to give the photo the other to write the steamy gushy (more of the latter, British People, natch) love letters. They decide Martin isn’t that great with money having the receipts for temporary debts from a tailor/haberdasher that has outfitted British officers since forever for a new shirt. Another receipt for a wedding ring gifted to the lady writing the letters. Major Martin’s dad also wrote a letter commenting on the impending wartime wedding. A lot of detail…

The moment comes to drop the body into the water from a submarine that had already engaged in certain clandestine activities related to the recent invasion of North Africa. A few people, including the Author, keep certain knickknacks as souvenirs. The sub captain clues in his officers who help him set a body that drowned after a plane wreck adrift. The BBC drops in a mention about the crashed aircraft. And then everybody has to wait months and for some questions two years until the end of the war to find out did the plan work?

Early on, the clues came in the form of diplomatic messages with the British consul for the city of Huelva where the trick is to look concerned that British officers are falling into the ocean carrying sensitive letters but not too concerned. The idea was that local Spanish authorities would want to help out their German friends and hold onto the documents long enough for them to be unfolded, photographed and resealed before obeying the niceties of diplomacy between countries that aren’t at war. The targeted German spy saw the documents and sent them to Berlin. The invasion of Sicily goes better than expected (we’ve all seen the movies).

What takes two years to learn is just what happened to the documents after being sent to Germany. Memos captured in the last gasp of Nazi Germany reveal that copies of Major Martin’s documents took about two weeks to go from the morgue in Spain to Hitler’s office in Berlin. Mustache Man, believed his generals, and ordered reinforcements to move towards Sardinia, Greece and away from the southeast beaches near Syracuse. Complete success for the kind of plot that might not surface in warfare for another 200 years (cat’s out of the bag for anyone with a library card).

One note, the book doesn’t tell the whole story, only an overview narrative that glossed over the ugly details of the plot later revealed by the release of supporting documents from the notoriously clammed up British Security Services. Part of it, as LCDR Montagu put it himself, some of the people he dealt with on a daily basis during those war years still worked for Britain in clandestine duties at the time of writing. Both the fundamental gruesomeness of the task and/or just making writing decisions geared towards “just the summarized facts, Ma’am,” lead us to a book that hints at some interesting interactions with various personalities we’ll have to wait to see the most recent movie, Operation Mincemeatto actually see.

For instance, the declassified documents suggest that Glyndwyr Michael, the dead Welsh homeless man picked to serve as Major William Martin, had died of rat poisoning rather than the pneumonia asserted in both the book and the first movie. Additionally, having died completely indigent Michael had no family to give consent to the use of the body, certainly not even the proud Scot depicted in the first movie. I would be willing to bet that making up having a family to give permission helped the author sleep at night in the many decades after the war.

Anyway, there you have it an immensely readable and only modestly fictional account of the hard lengths people will go to win a war when the “alternative is too horrifying to contemplate.” The reviews for the movies will join this one when the library and making nice with friends and relatives still willing to pay for Netflix makes them available. Can’t wait…           

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