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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Operation Mincemeat

World War II offers us far more interesting, amusing and subtle examples of intelligence work than any writer of spy stories can devise.

–Admiral John Godfrey

In Petty Magic, I refer to a couple of the most spectacular World War II hoaxes, both of which were part of a larger deception plan, Operation Barclay–constructing sham army camps to fool Nazi reconnaissance, and planting phony intelligence documents on a corpse in uniform. It took several incredibly imaginative, ‘corkscrew-minded’ intelligence officers to hatch each of these plots, and in my novel I give all the credit to my magician-spy, Neverino. These hoaxes were first devised not by a magician, but a novelist!

The hoax involving a corpse in uniform was codenamed Operation Mincemeat (Churchill had forbidden the use of obvious or jokesy code names, but apparently no one listened to him), and it’s the subject of a riveting new book by British journalist Ben Macintyre.

To begin regaining control of Europe in the summer of 1943, the Allies first needed to take back Sicily–and the Germans were just as aware of its strategic importance. Taking advantage of Hitler’s ‘Balkan fixation’ (because the Third Reich got most of its raw materials from Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia), the Allies would convince him that they were planning to invade Sardinia and Greece instead, and that Sicily was the phony target.

Human agents or double agents can be tortured or turned, forced to reveal the falsity of the information they carried. A dead body would never talk.

So here’s the gist: the corpse-with-phony-identification idea originated in Basil Thomson’s novel, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, published in 1937. Ian Fleming, the naval intelligence officer who would later pen the James Bond novels, was a fan of Thomson’s, and he included it in the “Trout Memo,” a list of possible hoaxes that was distributed among the intelligence chiefs at the very beginning of the war. Two other officers in MI5–the eccentric, unassuming Charles Cholmondeley (“Chumly”) and the supremely confident lawyer Ewen Montagu–developed the idea and saw it to fruition.

Once the higher-ups at MI5 consented to the ruse, these two officers embarked on an elaborate planning process. St. Pancras coroner Bentley Purchase informed them that the body of a homeless Welshman, Glyndwr Michael, had just been brought in, and Cholmondeley and Montagu spent the next couple of months (with Michael in deep refrigeration) inventing his alter-ego, Major William Martin, complete with love letters and photographs, hotel bills, and snippy missives from his father and bank manager. Cholmondeley and Montagu spent so much time inventing him that they began to feel as if Martin had actually been a friend of theirs.

Cholmondeley, Montagu, and the other planners knew how the Nazis thought–their two biggest flaws (with regard to military intelligence and espionage, anyway) being ‘wishfulness and yesmanship’–and if they could allow those phony documents to fall into the right hands, thousands of lives would be saved on both sides.

The operation got off as planned, and by the time ‘Major Martin’ arrived in Huelva, Spain, he stunk so bad the local forensic pathologist dismissed the inevitable anomalies (the corpse’s face and the face on his ID card didn’t quite match up; the body was too decomposed to have been in the water only a few days, as his documents attested) in favor of getting the heck out of the room. The body was laid to rest in a Catholic cemetery, and the suitcase and its contents got lost in a maze of Spanish bureaucracy and intrigue before the Nazis finally got their hands on it. The rumor of a Greek invasion spread, and thus began to substantiate itself; Hitler was convinced, and the ruse was complete.

The material is fascinating regardless, but Macintyre does a great job of bringing to life each character involved in the plot of Operation Mincemeat–from the aforementioned jolly coroner of St. Pancras (‘He loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and his model piggery in Ipswich. He never wore a hat and laughed loudly and often’) to the brave submarine commander assigned to the dispatch of ‘Major William Martin’, Bill Jewell, who only begins to fear for his life after falling in love with a Wren in Algiers. We get a keen sense of each player’s desires and ambitions, their private histories and their miserable working conditions.

So why are so many details of the planning of Operation Mincemeat only now coming to light? After the war was over, there was still the possibility of a political backlash were the full story of the hoax to come out. British diplomats had conspired to deceive Spanish officials, so the revelation would have no doubt damaged Anglo-Spanish relations; furthermore, back at home, those who had orchestrated Operation Mincemeat had obtained the corpse by not-strictly-legal means, and exposure would have caused quite a bit of trouble for the coroner and other government offices involved in that particular aspect of the deception.

So, in The Man Who Never Was and on the international lecture circuit, Ewen Montagu spent forty years telling a story that was hopelessly incomplete–for the above reasons, and because Cholmondeley and several others abided by their MI5 oaths of secrecy for the rest of their lives. Macintyre had access to Montagu’s personal archives, and along with information that has become available only in the last twenty years or so, he was able to write the most complete account of Operation Mincemeat we’ll probably ever have. Its unputdownability is a testament to Macintyre’s prowess as a storyteller. Highly, highly recommended.

[Edit: Since I wrote this I found there’s another book on the subject that’s also come out this year called Deathly Deception: The Real Story of Operation Mincemeat by Denis Smyth. It’d be interesting to compare them.]

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.