Whose Body?

Charles Glass

  • Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War Two by Ben Macintyre
    Bloomsbury, 400 pp, £16.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 7475 9868 8

Operation Mincemeat was the key component of a British stratagem to persuade Germany in 1943 that the Allies in North Africa were about to invade Greece and Sardinia rather than Sicily. This highly classified and successful undertaking, a wheeze thought up by the part-time thriller writers and trout fishermen who populated the British intelligence services, remained top secret for five years after the war ended. Its first exposure came in fictional form in November 1950, when Duff Cooper published a novel, Operation Heartbreak, that barely concealed the actual facts. The next version, released in 1953, was a non-fiction book by the gambit’s architect, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu of naval intelligence. Three years later, his discreet and highly redacted The Man Who Never Was became a film, in which he played a cameo role as an air-force officer who questions the wisdom of the scheme. In the meantime, Ian Colvin, a journalist whose investigation into the wartime coup had prompted Montagu to come out first with his authorised version, published The Unknown Courier. So the tale has been told before, but Ben Macintyre has done a more thorough and readable job of it than his predecessors. His access to the classified documents and unpublished autobiography that Montagu, who died in 1985, left to his son Jeremy make this the most complete account to date.

Operation Mincemeat took its cue from one of 12 detective novels written by Basil Thomson. Thomson, who had been head of the CID and a First World War spycatcher, was perhaps more convincing as a mystery writer than as a detective. He had cleared Mata Hari of espionage, and he attempted to smear the Irish patriot Roger Casement as a homosexual. But his Milliner’s Hat Mystery provided the inspiration for what might be one of the most effective acts of deception in World War Two. ‘The novel opens on a stormy night with the discovery of a dead man in a barn, carrying papers that identify him as “John Whitaker”,’ Macintyre writes. ‘By dint of some distinctly plodding detective work, Inspector Richardson discovers that every document in the pockets of the dead man has been ingeniously forged: his visiting cards, his bills, and even his passport, on which the real name has been erased using a special ink remover, and a fake one substituted.’ The idea of using a corpse to plant false clues lodged itself in the imagination of a young naval intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming.

In the first month of the war, Fleming and his chief at naval intelligence, Admiral Godfrey, compiled a list of possible deceptions they called the ‘Trout Memo’. Some of its playful ruses were macabre and undoubtedly violated the laws of war, notably that the navy drop explosives-laced food tins in the sea for stranded enemy mariners to find. (Forty years later, the Israeli army used a similar ploy in south Lebanon, dropping bomblets that looked suspiciously like children’s toys.) Fleming and Godfrey’s 28th proposal (one can hear the laughter in the secret service equivalent of the junior common room) acknowledged a debt to Basil Thomson, but moved the body from the barn to the sea: ‘a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed.’

In September 1942, however, the real corpse of Paymaster Lieutenant James Turner, ‘with despatches in his pockets’, turned up in Spanish waters when his RAF seaplane crashed. The Spanish authorities, despite the Falangist government’s debt to the Axis for aiding its victory in the civil war, returned the body to the British with the despatches unopened. A glance at the letters would have given German military intelligence details of the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa planned for that November and would have allowed the Wehrmacht to foil Operation Torch, the first joint Allied offensive of the war, by occupying the area before the Allies did. This own-goal-that-almost-was inspired Charles Cholmondeley, an eccentric RAF flight lieutenant seconded to MI5, to propose sending another corpse to Spain with papers that the Spanish would show to the Germans. Cholmondeley was secretary to the Twenty Committee, which ran double agents and whose chief, John Masterman, was another crime writer. The Twenty Committee duly assigned Cholmondeley to work out the details with Montagu, who would run Operation Mincemeat from his cramped offices under the Admiralty.

The surrender of the Afrikakorps in Tunisia on 13 May 1943 forced the Allies to maintain their offensive momentum by attacking the Germans somewhere in occupied Europe. But where? The tip of the Tunisian peninsula pointed straight at Sicily, only a hundred miles distant, and the island was an obvious base for British and American bombers to launch attacks on mainland Italy. In Churchill’s words, ‘Everyone but a bloody fool would know it was Sicily.’ The Germans were no fools. General Montgomery feared the worst for Operation Husky, the Sicilian invasion: ‘It will be a hard and very bloody fight. We must expect heavy losses.’ Britain’s practitioners of the black arts, a cast of Ealing comedy characters whom Macintyre describes with affection, set out to reduce those losses by convincing Germany that preparations for a Sicilian invasion were a mere distraction from the invasion of Greece. Greece was ostensibly a prelude to an offensive in the Balkans that Hitler already feared.

Montagu, scion of a respected British Jewish banking family with a history of public service and opposition to Zionism, had first to find a body that would appear to have drowned in a Mediterranean air crash. Appropriating a corpse, however, was as difficult in 1943 as it had been in Burke and Hare’s day. He enlisted the support of England’s leading forensic pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, and the St Pancras coroner Bentley Purchase. Spilsbury, who had provided the evidence that sent Dr Crippen and more than a hundred others to the gallows, explained to Montagu which causes of death could pass for drowning or exposure. Purchase went one better and procured the body, according to Macintyre, of a down and out Welshman, Glyndwr Michael, a 34-year-old vagrant found dead in January 1943 in an abandoned warehouse. Michael had either intentionally or mistakenly drunk a concoction called Battle’s Vermin Killer, which contained white phosphorus, a toxic substance which caused death after three days of agony.

Montagu, Cholmondeley et al created an identity, that of Royal Marine Captain William ‘Bill’ Martin, for the corpse. They ‘discussed and refined this imaginary person, his likes and dislikes, his habits and hobbies, his talents and weaknesses’. The characters of Martin and his supposed fiancée, Pam, became so real to their fabricators that Montagu found himself falling in love with Jean Leslie, the young MI5 secretary on whom he based Pam’s persona. (The affair seems to have been unconsummated and was brought to an abrupt end by the return of Montagu’s wife from the United States.) As with the mythical body in Basil Thomson’s novel, Martin’s pockets were filled with papers to give him life: identity card, theatre tickets, love letters, a plea from his bank that he repay his overdraft and bills from his tailor and the jeweller who engraved a ring for Pam. In his briefcase were letters from the vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Archibald Nye, to General Alexander in Tunisia and from Lord Mountbatten, chief of combined operations, to the Mediterranean naval commander Admiral Cunningham. The letters combined personal details with information pointing to invasions of Greece and Sardinia.

Montagu’s next step was to get Martin’s letters into German hands. He and Cholmondeley took the body in a sealed case to the submarine HMS Seraph, commanded by the dashing Lieutenant Bill Jewell, in Scotland. On 19 April, the Seraph set out for Spain and 11 days later, Jewell steered it close enough to the shore to release the body. A Spanish fisherman found it, and it was eventually brought to the local cemetery in the custody of the local naval judge, Lieutenant del Pobil. Pobil offered to hand the contents of Martin’s pockets and briefcase to the British consul on the spot, which was the last thing the British wanted. ‘Well,’ the consul told Pobil, ‘your superior might not like that, so perhaps you should deliver it to him, and then bring it back to me, following the official route.’ Fortunately, the local German spy did not witness the exchange, though he did attend the graveside service in Huelva for Major Martin, who was buried with full military honours, and it didn’t take him long to learn that Martin’s documents were in Spanish possession.

There followed a series of byzantine manoeuvres by rival Spanish officials loyal to Germany, Britain, Spain or their bank balances that saw the documents moved from one ministry to another until they wound up in Madrid. ‘Operation Mincemeat would only work,’ Macintyre writes, ‘if the Germans could be fooled into believing that the British had been fooled.’ The British naval attaché in Madrid, Captain Hillgarth, was, like almost everyone else involved in making this conspiracy work, a thriller writer. It fell to him to make the Germans believe he was desperate to retrieve the documents, but not so desperate that he succeeded before they did. Spanish agents managed to slip the letters out of their envelopes without breaking the seals and photograph them for the Germans. The Abwehr not only took the bait, they believed it; though Macintyre suggests that Baron von Roenne, the officer in charge of authenticating the documents, may have accepted the deception because he wanted Hitler to lose the war. Hitler was at first reluctant to believe the Allies were not going to invade Sicily, until other elements in the British disinformation campaign pointed to Greece. Only Mussolini refused to accept that they would not choose Sicily. Unable to overrule his German allies, he would have the satisfaction of learning he was right while being removed from office by the Italian king.

Montagu worried that, if his deception were discovered by the Germans, they would know the invasion had to be intended for Sicily. ‘I could have ballsed up Husky,’ he wrote. When Husky succeeded, he lamented: ‘I’m never going to be allowed to do anything of the kind again.’ Yet he was pleased with his handiwork: ‘Joy of joys to anyone, and particularly a Jew, the satisfaction of knowing that they had directly and specifically fooled that monster.’ He estimated the cost of Operation Mincemeat, which saved thousands of Allied lives in a conquest that took only 38 rather than the expected 90 days, at £200.

After the war and the disclosure of many details of Mincemeat, the identity of the corpse remained secret. Montagu wrote that the dead man’s family had given permission for the secret services to use the body and that he had promised not to reveal the man’s name. The film of his book, also called The Man Who Never Was, appeared with the on-screen disclaimer: ‘Military security and respect for a solemn promise have made it necessary to disguise the identity of some of the characters in this film: but in all other respects this is the true story of “Major William Martin”.’ The body remains anonymous in the film, but one scene in a small hospital in St John’s Wood has Montagu meeting the unnamed father of a young man whose body lies under a sheet. The father asks: ‘Can you assure me, Commander Montagu, as an officer and a gentleman, that if I agree to your request, my son’s body will be treated decently and with respect?’ Clifton Webb, playing Montagu, answers: ‘I give you my word.’ The exchange continues:

Father: His name will never be revealed?

Montagu: Never …

Father: My son, sir, was a Scotsman. Very proud of it.

Macintyre has relied on Montagu’s private correspondence and on documents in the National Archives at Kew, first reported by the Daily Telegraph in 1996, for his contention that the corpse was that of Glyndwr Michael. The film would seem to be covering that up by claiming, first, that he was a Scotsman and, second, that his father had given permission. Surprisingly, for a book that provides a more or less comprehensive account, Operation Mincemeat ignores the controversy surrounding the body’s real identity. Some students of Mincemeat (and there are many on the internet) believe the body was that of a Scots sailor called John Melville, who drowned along with nearly 400 other crewmen when HMS Dasher sank in an unexplained explosion in the Firth of Clyde in March 1943. Reviews in Scottish newspapers have insisted that Macintyre is wrong in his assumption that Major Bill Martin was a Welsh vagrant. The Melville theory was given further support at a memorial service in 2004, when the congregation was told: ‘In his incarnation as Major Martin, John Melville’s memory lives on in the film The Man Who Never Was.’ Macintyre may well be correct that the body was Glyndwr Michael’s, but the absence of any mention of the possibility it may have been Melville leaves a lacuna in an otherwise meticulous account.

It’s possible that Montagu kept Michael’s body on ice from January to March 1943, until the fortuitous sinking of HMS Dasher provided an alternative corpse. Melville was a real serviceman, whose remains were preferable to the Welshman’s: he had been healthy, while Michael had not; he had drowned, as Major Martin was meant to have, while Michael had died from a poison that a rigorous autopsy might have detected; and Melville’s body was only a few weeks old, whereas Michael’s would have been decomposing for four months by the time it reached Spain.

The scene in the film is pure fabrication: there was no corpse in a St John’s Wood hospital, and no one gave permission for the use of the body. This sensitivity to the potential scandal of taking a corpse without permission from next of kin explains why no one wanted its identity known. Whose body lies buried in the Huelva cemetery? Is it Michael’s or Melville’s or, indeed, someone else’s? Or is the grave empty, as some claim? Montagu’s papers, which may be as obfuscatory as his book and his wartime career, do not necessarily provide the definitive answer.

The identity of the cadaver does not affect what is a great story well told. Macintyre, however, does not question the belief that ‘the logic of Sicily was immutable.’ It was not immutable to General Marshall, the US Army chief of staff, and other American officers who opposed it. Thanks to Operation Mincemeat and to American co-operation with the Mafia (which Macintyre does not mention), Allied casualties in Sicily were remarkably low. Yet Sicily was only the first step in the conquest of Italy. The Italian campaign, by many measures, was a disaster. It began in July 1943 and did not end until the war did in May 1945. The Allies suffered a major mutiny of troops, loss of landing craft and other matériel that might have been saved for Normandy, and 312,000 casualties. No amount of deception could hide that.