Scribbler’s Saga #119 – Operation Mincemeat

Posted: August 2, 2022 in Uncategorized

© 2022 G.N. Jacobs

In continuing my exploration of the strange wartime exploits of Major William Martin, R.M. (oh, sorry Glyndwr Michael), the next stop on the journey is, of course, Ben McIntyre’s book Operation Mincemeat. This second book published long after Britain feels any need to preserve secrecy concerning either operations (e.g. “we may want to do this again”) or the delicacy involved with whose body got grabbed and how the grabbing took place is the book that The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu never got to be. It helps to have Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy open up their files.

To recap, Operation Mincemeat was a deception operation in World War Two where in the lead up to the Sicily Invasion the body of a freshly dead homeless man went sideways into war service as a Royal Marine major in order to convince the Nazis that letters found on the body indicated false attacks elsewhere than Sicily. History records the gruesome ploy worked. McIntyre endeavors to explain why and expresses, in 20-20 hindsight how slightly different decisions and thought processes at all levels of the Nazi Government mean that the plan should’ve failed…miserably.

The book begins with the Spaniard that found the body and ends with a wealth of detail taking place after the war about Montagu’s attempts to convince British authorities to let him publish the story. In between, there are vivid character portraits and connections to whole other facets of Britain’s history between the 1930s up through the 1960s, in some cases I’ve read those books too. Then again, Montagu did work for what was alternately called Twenty Committee, Double Cross Committee or XX Committee (I hope you see the similarities in the names so I don’t have to spell it out). Pretty much this group had access to everything British Intelligence generated with an eye towards using it to fool the Nazis into doing stupid things to lose the war…of course the connections go everywhere.

What struck me about the narrative is how many novelists featured in the story beyond just Ian Fleming, acting as personal assistant to committee member and head of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey. At least, four other names mentioned wrote, mostly unpublished and probably unpublishable, crime, thriller and maybe an adventure novel or two about treasure hunting. You’d think with so many of these mostly men being properly or nominally in the Royal Navy that at least one of them would’ve busted out something about pirates, but I digress. 

More importantly, these novelists had read other contemporary writers and when they were tasked after the successful African Campaign to deflect Nazi attention away from Sicily, they grabbed the idea of a dead body with a briefcase full of documents from some other novels that clearly the Nazis hadn’t read. Gee, it gives hope that maybe one day I can grow up to beat the crap of my nation’s enemies with the same skills involved in inventing new RPG monsters, devious crimes and fictional bare-knuckle politics…imagination. Though, of course, there is also a record scratch moment – “What? Wait! A gruesome and ingenious plan originally came from a couple of pre-war novels and it worked?”

McIntyre gives a full picture of some very odd people across Europe and Africa all pulling on the same oars, whether the aforementioned novelists, journalists, lawyers and military professionals on the team. We learn about cross dressing British diplomats, nearsighted F1 drivers, extremely arrogant professors of forensic medicine, a humorous other forensic pathologist tasked with actually finding the body. And I’ll split the infinitive, so to speak, before discussing some of the equally interesting Nazi personalities that experienced these events from the other side.

These eccentric personalities were needed to do one thing; convince Nazis with the same ability to read a map that “ignore those war preparations going on in Tunisia and Egypt, we’re really invading Sardinia and Greece at the same time.” To bolster the belief structure likely to accept the lie the Allies had A) the resources for two invasions at the same time and B) could see military wisdom in avoiding the obvious geographical requirement of Sicily (look at the map, it’s practically in the exact center of the Mediterranean, a soccer ball getting its ass kicked by Italy), many hundreds of people went to work inflating, installing and moving rubber and balsa wood armies in the Sahara Desert. Real commandos went to Greece to blow things up ahead of the lie. The dead body with the suitcase full of “revealing letters” was only intended as the icing on the cake.

There was a problem. The British didn’t quite get the part about exactly keeping the body fresh over the three months between Mr. Michael’s death and Major Martin’s unfortunate crash near southwestern Spain between Gibraltar and Portugal. The Spanish medical examiner that did the initial examination listed a range for probable times of death and floating in the ocean that conflicted with the timeline created by the pocket litter (various personal letters, theater stubs, overdraft notices, etc.) by up to four days.

Luckily, a British Vice Consul, Frances Haselden, was in the room to help the pathologist make only a cursory examination trading on assumptions that Spanish Catholics would want to slack off on full post-mortems for British Catholic soldiers. This *ahem* diplomat also had the task of getting Major Martin’s grave covered with a marble slab as soon as possible to prevent the Nazis or Spaniards from digging up the body for a full reexamination. He also was one of at least four British diplomats tasked with the delicate acting job of pressing neutral Spanish authorities for the return of the body and effects as soon as possible, but not too soon to prevent the letters from being photographed by the fascist Spanish and provided to the Nazis whom they owed for the help in the Spanish Civil War. 

Which brings us back around to the Nazi personalities in this story. At the local level near the small city of Huelva we have Adolfo Clauss, son of the local German consul. He was terrifyingly efficient at spying in his region. Being good at making friends with Spanish officials had been noted by the British…why they picked his territory.

One step above Clauss in the Madrid embassy, we have Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, whom history records wasn’t nearly as good at spying as Clauss, but given that espionage is a “wilderness of mirrors” didn’t know it until long after the war and never publicly admitted to his failures. Kühlenthal was primarily involved in running the infamous double agent, Juan Pujol Garcia (codenamed Garbo by the British for his sheer acting ability) who simply made up a whole network of completely imaginary subagents in Britain intent on selling the con to the Nazis. Kühlenthal did get his boss, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to weigh in personally to get the letters from the Spanish.

Still, with a possible four-day discrepancy that is at the very least something that should be vigorously investigated, we come around to the last link in the chain on the Nazi side of things, Colonel Baron Alexis von Roenne. This interesting man was thought of as “Hitler’s favorite intelligence analyst.” The man who was staunchly Christian in the best way to mean that word possibly did everything he could to undermine the Nazis by recommending bad information up the chain of command. Whether for Operation Barclay (the larger project that included Mincemeat) or the later similar deceptions concerning the Normandy invasion a year later, it is supposed that despite doubts about the quality of various data he told the High Command and Hitler that the information was good. The good baron was friends with the public face of Operation Valkyrie (July 20 bombing plot against Hitler), Claus von Stauffenberg. Being friends with the man that placed the bomb wasn’t good for life expectancy, the baron died gruesomely on a meat hook in October 1944.

In the end, Mincemeat and the larger deception worked because Hitler, who saw the documents within days of recovery from Spain, needed them to be genuine. If the Allies actually had the resources depicted in the deception, attacking Greece presents an interesting problem for the Axis. Greece leads through admittedly rugged mountainous terrain to Romania from where the Nazis obtained most of their petroleum. 

Additionally, attacking Europe through the Balkans meant linking up with the Soviets as if the western allies were taking Stalin seriously about a Second Front and could lead to a better postwar result concerning Eastern Europe. Similarly, Sardinia was a necessary first stop on the way to southern France, a possibility if more American generals had won more early arguments with British generals that the war would be won in France going straight at the Nazis. All it took to reinforce these possibilities was a huge amount of fake troop movements, radio traffic and a dead body with fake letters.

Believing the lie, the Nazis reinforced everywhere but southern Sicily and pulled up short in the massive tank battle near Kursk. Sicily crumbled. Italy’s other fascists convinced the Italian King to pull support from Mussolini and promptly change sides in the war to get the unpopular Germans from Italian soil (a two-year campaign until the end of the war). Near total success.

Mostly because of how McIntyre presents the information highlighting the many strange personalities involved in this story where the body of a homeless Welshman died in London and went to war as a fictitious Royal Marine major, I found this to be one of the more enlightening reads in the subject of History. I’m also glad to have read the book first because the recent Netflix movie (see review) is going to cut the narrative down to size. A great read!  

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