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 His access to the classified documents and unpublished autobiography that Montagu, who died in 1985, left to his son Jeremy make this the most complete account to date.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.’

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