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Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory Paperback – April 5, 2011
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Amazon Exclusive Essay: When Spycraft Is Not Crafty Enough by Ben Macintyre
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Soon after Operation Mincemeat was launched, Britain’s spymasters realized they had made a glaring mistake. They tried to correct it and, in the process, made it much worse.
In Chapter Seven of Operation Mincemeat, I identified various "hostages to fortune" left by the planners of the deception--most importantly, the fake, dated letter from Bill Martin’s "father," handwritten on the writing paper of a Welsh Hotel.
"The plot would never have stood up to scrutiny if German spies in Britain had made even the most cursory checks on it," I wrote. "A glance at the hotel register for the Black Lion Hotel would have showed that no J. C. Martin had stayed there on the night of April 13."
Two weeks after Operation Mincemeat was published, I received a telephone call at The Times, of the sort that non-fiction writers both welcome--and dread.
"I happen to have the hotel register for the Black Lion," said the Welsh voice on the other end. "And if you look at the page for April, 1943, you will clearly see the name J. C. Martin."
I was flabbergasted, and my respect for the planners of Operation Mincemeat rose another notch. They had thought of everything: they had even dispatched someone to Mold, in North Wales, to stay at the hotel and pose as the fictional father of a fictional officer, simply to ensure that the hotel register looked correct if anyone came snooping afterwards. That was true spycraft.
When the caller sent me a photograph of the page from the register, I studied it carefully. The handwriting was that of Charles Cholmondeley, the originator and co-creator of Operation Mincemeat. The false address given for "J. C. Martin" was Scotts House, Eynsham, in Oxfordshire (now a daycare center).
The faked letter in Major Martin’s pocket clearly indicated that "Father" had been staying at the hotel for some time ("the only alternative to imposing myself once more on your aunt"). The register indicated that he had arrived at the hotel on April 9th, and checked out on the 20th, in time for the fake meeting with his son in London.
So far, so convincing.
But closer examination revealed something very odd. The name and signature of J. C. Martin did not appear in the correct date sequence, but was added in the space at the bottom of the page. It was clearly an afterthought, written in sometime afterwards. To even the most casual investigator this would have set off loud alarm bells: so far from covering up the mistake, Cholmondeley had compounded it, by drawing attention to the fact that there was something distinctly out of the ordinary about John Martin and his sojourn at the Black Lion.
One can speculate about what must have happened. As Mincemeat got underway, the planners began to realize that it was working far more effectively that they had dared to hope. They began to wonder and worry about possible loose ends. The coroner, Bentley Purchase, was contacted again and quizzed over whether, if the Germans exhumed the body and carried out another post mortem, they would be able tell that Martin had died of poisoning, rather than drowning. (He was confident they would not.)
They also, I suspect, took another look at the letters, and sent Cholmondeley to Mold. The result was not a cover-up, but a giveaway. A register without the name J.C.Martin would merely have presented a mystery; a register with the name so obviously added in was patently a botched attempt to deceive.
In the end, it did not matter. There is no evidence that the Germans ever carried out any checking of the Bill Martin backstory. Had they attempted to do so, this would almost certainly have been picked up by British intelligence since the entire German espionage system in the U.K. was effectively controlled by MI5. Once the lie was embedded in German strategic thinking, no effort was made to disprove it.
Still, it is sobering thought, that if a single German agent had traveled to Mold and examined the register of the Black Lion, he would surely have spotted the obvious addition of “J.C.Martin”, recognized there was something fishy going on, and warned the Germans before the invasion of Sicily. The island might then have been reinforced, and countless lives might have been lost with incalculable consequences. That single register entry could have changed the course of World War II.
One of the great pleasures of writing about this period, is the way that history never stands still. The register of the Black Lion is only one of many fragments that have appeared, since the book was published, to enlarge and complete the story of Operation Mincemeat.
The moral for spy-craftsmen? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it cannot be fixed without giving the game away, don’t touch it.
Questions for Ben Macintyre on Operation Mincemeat
Q: What inspired you to write about this little-known story from World War II?
A: I first came across the story while researching my last book, Agent Zigzag, about the British criminal and double agent Eddie Chapman. One of his case officers, Ewen Montagu, was the mastermind behind Operation Mincemeat. The more I dug, the more information emerged about this true story, for so long shrouded in myth and mystery.
Q: Was it difficult to make contact with Ewen Montagu’s family, and were they helpful in your research?
A: The members of the Montagu family were easy to find and hugely helpful; indeed, this book could not have been written without them. After the war, Ewen Montagu retained most of the official papers relating to Operation Mincemeat. After he died, they were put in a wooden trunk, and almost forgotten. In 2007, the family gave me full access to the papers, including the official records, but also memos, letters, photographs, and a 200-page memoir written by Montagu himself.
Q: What was the most interesting/surprising detail that you uncovered as you were gathering information for Operation Mincemeat?
A: The most extraordinary aspect of Operation Mincemeat, to my mind, is the way that the organizers approached this elaborate, many-layered deception operation as if they were writing a novel, imagining a version of reality and then luring the truth towards it. Indeed, the talents required for espionage and fiction-writing are not so very different. At the center of the plot was the fictional figure of William Martin: he was equipped with not only false papers but an entirely false personality and past, including a fiancée, complete with love letters.
Q: There are a number of fascinating figures in Operation Mincemeat. Which person were you most intrigued by, and why?
A: I was particularly fascinated by Charles Cholmondeley, the RAF officer seconded to MI5 who first dreamed up the plan to use a dead body to plant false information on the Germans. Cholmondeley had a long, waxed, air-force mustache, a shy personality, and a very strange mind, but he was a genius at deception work, and the unsung hero of Operation Mincemeat. Unlike other participants, he was modest about the achievement, never told anyone what he had done during the war, and ended up selling lawn mowers in a small town in rural England.
Q: Where did you conduct most of your research, and did you encounter any difficulties or roadblocks along the way?
A: This book took me to Spain, France, and the U.S., but most of the research was conducted in British archives and interviewing survivors from that time. Despite Britain’s draconian Official Secrecy Act, rather than hindering or obstructing my research, MI5 and MI6 (the security service and secret intelligence service) were extraordinarily helpful. Perhaps the main impediment was time: the events described in the book are now on the furthest tip of living memory, most of the participants are now dead, and in some ways the research was a race to capture the memories of the living before they, too, are gone.
Q: In the book, you hint that Ewen Montagu (playing Bill) and Jean Leslie (playing Pam) may have taken their roles as "lovers" too seriously. What is your belief about their relationship?
A: Whether the imagined courtship between "Bill" and "Pam" was ever more than merely flirtatious banter is unknown, and likely to remain that way. Certainly Ewen was “smitten” with Jean (her word), and they both played along with their allotted roles. Wartime Britain was filled with fear and danger, but for those in the spying game, it was also a time of great excitement and romance. If the imagined love affair overlapped with reality, that would fit with the story, in which the framers invented a deception so real they began to believe it themselves.
Q: Did you have the opportunity to visit the gravestone of Glyndwr Michael/Major William Martin in Huelva? How do you think his family would have felt if they had known the unexpected and important role their son played in the outcome of World War II?
A: I did visit the grave in Huelva: it is a most atmospheric and tranquil place, looking down over the port and the shoreline where the body of "William Martin" was found in 1943. Glyndwr Michael’s family was a troubled one, crushed by poverty and with a history of mental illness. I think they would have been astonished and delighted in equal measure that Glyndwr played such a crucial role in history, albeit posthumously, and through no choice of his own.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
The tale begins inauspiciously enough with the combination of a poor Welsh laborer and aristocratic MI5 officers, it proceeds through a poor Spanish fisherman and the halls of power in Germany to Hitler's desk! The results of all of this chicanery are astonishing, resulting in a triumph for the Allied forces that leads to a successful invasion of Italy.
This tale encompasses stolen bodies, massive cover-ups by the British government, a veritable warren of European spies, and a submarine. The book is well written and consuming, the type of book that one reads in 1 day, because one can not bear to put it down until all plot twists are revealed. The review copy did not have many illustrations, but I would imagine that the final book itself will be well-provided with images of the protagonists, doesn't matter- the book grips you with vivid descriptions and thumbnail sketches of it's own.
For all WWII buffs, lovers of European history, spy thriller fans and many others, this is the book for you. Hugely recommended !
The author assumes at the start that most readers have heard of "Operation Mincemeat" and know the basics. However, not being an World War II enthusiast of any sort, I knew nothing of this story prior to picking up this book. Setting aside any apprehension, I dove straight in, and I don't regret a moment of the time spent soaking up all of the vivid details. I can safely say that even war history novices with no prior knowledge of this bold World War II intelligence operation will never be lost or confused. This is remarkable non-fiction storytelling at its finest, and I would not hesitate to recommend this title to everyone.
In 1943 the Allies were victorious in Africa, driving Rommel's Afrika Corps back to Italy. The next step was to invade some part of Europe, and "Operation Husky" was to take the fight to Italy. The Allies deluded the Nazis into thinking that the main attack on Sicily was just a diversion, and that the attack would fall on Greece and Corsica. Troops and weapons would be stationed in other places than Sicily, so the invasion would meet less resistance.
The plan was outrageous, and the central figure was a dead man. The British made the Germans believe that this was a courier whose plane had crashed off the Southern Atlantic coast of Spain. Spain was ostensibly neutral, but there was a strong Nazi diplomatic presence and many Nazi sympathizers in Spain's bureaucracy. The Spanish officials, it was hoped, would let the Germans copy letters in the dead man's briefcase, and forward their finding to Berlin.
The story moves from London to Wales (where the dead man came from), to Scotland where he was placed on a submarine which released the body off the Spanish coast. As the story unfolds, Ben Macintyre describes the scene and is particularly good at portraying the major characters. It would be very easy to slip into stereotypical Allied and Nazi personalities, but Macintyre shows that the cast comprises a part-Jewish German officer and an English racing car driver, and you soon get the feeling that you know these people.Read more ›
It is the true story of a spy caper that is credited with diverting Hitler's attention away from the Allies invading Sicily in 1943. It is the same incident that was dramatized in an earlier book called "The Man Who Never Was," which was also turned into a movie back in the 50's. The author presents some new details these 50 years on that were suppressed in the original due to security considerations at the time.
There are certainly some interesting characters involved, including some of the leading lights of the British MI5 & MI6 operation. Ian Fleming makes a brief, but pivotal appearance, as do the real life inspirations for his "M" and "Q" characters in the James Bond novels. Kim Philby and Winston Churchill also make cameo appearances.
The gist of the spy story is the British secret service dropped a dead body off the coast of Spain rigged with phony letters designed to put the German army off the scent of the upcoming invasion of Sicily. The fact that this crackpot scheme worked certainly makes a good story. As in all books of this type, the British triumph, so there's not much in the way of suspense. There was a great deal of spycraft necessary to make this work that is elaborated in great detail, and there is certainly a lot of spying going on.
One of the more interesting ideas mentioned in the book was that the gambit's success may have hinged on the willingness on the head of the German intelligence effort, someone named von Renne, to swallow this "fish" story, not because he believed the story, but because he figured it for a plant.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This had me reading late, a great true story well told. It is rare that so few have done so much that saved so many, to paraphrase. Quite enjoyable!!Published 3 days ago by Beau
This has to be definitive telling of this true, though quite bizarre, wartime story! Detailed, informative and interesting throughout. Thank you Mr. Macintyre.Published 3 days ago by Amazon Customer
Great historical document. In deep research, to a point that you feel you are reading a thriller.Published 16 days ago by Gonzalo Munoz
This is an excellent work, written by an expert for experts. I say that not to discourage, but to warn casual readers. Read morePublished 20 days ago by Colin J. Edwards
I found this book listed under "fiction" in my e-library. Readers should know that it is a very detailed narrative of true events during World War II. Read morePublished 1 month ago by Clae Maxwell
I've found this book very interesting. I learned a lot more about the world war 2.
Although it may be biased a bit towards the british and allies, it is totally worth reading.
Very well researched book. Tells a balanced story about what may have been the greatest deception operation in espionage history.Published 2 months ago by Debashish Dutta Gupta
I very much enjoyed this novel by Ben MacIntyre. I've been reading quite a bit of mystery and this one was one of my favorites!Published 2 months ago by David K.