Ben Macintyre…is a first-rate journalist who seems to have talked to everyone connected with the operation (or their descendants) and worked his way through recently declassified documents in the National Archives. Buttrue to the spirit of the operationhis most important source turned out to be the deceased Montagu himself, or more specifically, a dusty trunk he left behind with bundles of files from MI5, MI6 and Naval Intelligence; letters, memos, photographs; original, uncensored drafts; and so on, an intelligence bonanza more genuine than the one foisted on the Germans. Macintyre has made the most of it. Here, finally, is the complete story with its full cast of characters (not a dull one among them), pure catnip to fans of World War II thrillers and a lot of fun for everyone else.
The Washington Post
Operation Mincemeat is utterly, to employ a dead word, thrilling. But to call it thus is to miss the point slightly, in terms of admiring it properly…What makes Operation Mincemeat so winning, in addition to Mr. Macintyre's meticulous research and the layers of his historical understanding, is his elegant, jaunty and very British high style. The major players in this spy story seem to have emerged from an Evelyn Waugh novel that's been tweaked by P. G. Wodehouse. This isn't to say that Mr. Macintyre has embellished his teeming cast of eccentrics. It's to say that he fully appreciates them, and his fondness for them is contagious.
The New York Times
Macintyre, whose previous book chronicled the incredible exploits of Eddie Chapman, the crook turned spy known as Zigzag, excels at this sort of twisted narrative.
The New York Times Book Review
The exciting story of the ingenious British ruse that distracted the Nazis from the Allied Sicilian invasion. Although the invasion finally took place July 10, 1943, allowing the Allied forces an initial foothold into the German "Fortress Europe," the trick that kept the Nazis from fortifying Sicily took place months before. The dead body of a British major, "William Martin," had been hauled in on April 30 by fishermen off the port of Huelva, Spain, a pro-German outpost, his briefcase full of top-secret letters by British officers detailing the invasions of Greece and Sardinia and sure to land in the eager hands of the Germans. In fact, the body was a plant, a suicide victim actually named Glyndwr Michael. He had been plucked from a morgue in London, kept on ice for a few months, dressed in a well-used British Navy uniform, stocked with identification, fake official letters and correspondence from his father and fiancee "Pam," and slipped into the Spanish waters by a British submarine. London Times writer at large Macintyre (Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal, 2007, etc.) skillfully unravels this crazy, brilliant plan by degrees. The "corkscrew minds" at British Navy Intelligence, headed by John Godfrey and his assistant, Ian Fleming (yes, of James Bond fame), put forth the germ of the idea, which was then developed to its fantastic implementation by RAF flight officer Charles Cholmondeley and Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu, first under the code name "Trojan Horse," then the more prosaic "Operation Mincemeat." The author's chronicle of how the last two intelligence officers lovingly created an entire personality for "Major Martin" makes for priceless reading.Astoundingly, as Winston Churchill noted exultantly, the Nazis swallowed the bait "rod, line and sinker."Macintyre spins a terrific yarn, full of details gleaned from painstaking detective work.
Ben Macintyre's exuberant, impious account of Operation Mincemeat puts on record again the debt British intelligence once owed to an upper-class infatuation with detective fiction. The scheme was nothing less than a glorious red herring: setting a body adrift kitted out as a British officer carrying false war plans to mislead the Germans. It was, as it happens, a ruse almost certainly suggested by Ian Fleming, assistant for a time to Admiral John Godfrey, head of British Naval intelligence. And it was eventually implemented by, among others, John Masterman, the chairman of the disinformation-disseminating Twenty Committee: an Oxford don in civilian life and author of detective novels. Until now the venture has been best known from the 1956 movie, The Man Who Never Was, itself based on the book of the same title by Ewen Montagu, one of the men involved in setting it up. But opened archives and Macintyre's penchant for questioning accepted versions of practically everything, have produced a brilliant revisionist history, one abounding in eccentrics, rum characters, and over-grown boys.
Macintyre begins by providing entertaining sketches of the "high-powered spooks" who combined to create the remarkable fiction of Major William "Bill" Martin, supposedly drowned off the coast of Spain in April 1943, while transporting top-secret documents revealing that the Allies meant to invade Sardinia and the Balkans instead of Sicily, the actual target. In addition to Fleming, Masterman, and Montagu already mentioned, we meet Charles Christopher Cholmondeley (pronounced "Chumly," of course), a gangling 25-year-old with a bravura waxed mustache, huge feet, and "a strange, loping gait"; Johnny Bevan, who had "that rare English ability to achieve impressive feats with a permanent air of embarrassment"; and Dudley Wrangle Clark, "unmarried, nocturnal, and allergic to children," a man who would, on occasion, dress up as a woman. Among the others involved were a laughing coroner, Bentley Purchase, who "loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and his model piggery in Ipswich" and Sir Bernard Spilsbury, senior pathologist of the Home Office, an unlovely, arrogant man who "looked like a lizard in a lab coat, and smelled permanently of formaldehyde."
And then there's the corpse. In his book, Montagu spun a patriotic tale of a grieving father giving consent to the employment of the body of his son, dead of exposure, for a clandestine mission. The truth, in contrast, is a bleakly ironic commentary on British society, for the body, procured quite illegally, was that of a working-class Welshman, Glyndwr Michael, who, indigent and starving, had killed himself in January 1943 by eating rat poison. "They gave him a hometown, a rank, a regiment, and a love of fishing," writes Macintyre. "He would be furnished with a watch, a bank manager, a solicitor, and cuff links. They gave him all the things that Glyndwr Michael had lacked in his luckless life, including a supportive family, money, friends, and love."
The plotters fussed zealously over their creation's attire and personal effects, including love letters, bills, and theatre tickets. They made him an officer in the Royal Marines, for whom battle dress was standard, in order to circumvent the ghoulish problem of furnishing a custom-made dress uniform for a top-secret corpse. Most of the wardrobe and its accouterments were purchased by Cholmondeley who then wore the outfit for three months to give it some wear while Major Martin lay in cold storage. For his part, John Masterman took on the task of supplying underwear, finding personal satisfaction in pressing into service the wooly undergarments of his arch-rival at Oxford, the distinguished historian H. A. L. Fisher, "a figure of ponderous grandeur and gravity" who had been run over and killed by a truck. In addition to such pleasant mischief, the project also gave rise to "one of the oddest love affairs imaginable," as Ewen Montagu became smitten with the young woman who contributed her photo to serve as "Pam," the Major's fiancée, writing letters to her under that name and signing himself "Bill."
But for all this foostering about with props and persona -- of which there was plenty more -- Major Martin's handlers were chillingly aware that many thousands of British, Canadian, and American lives would be lost if the German secret service saw through the ruse. The fraudulent information contained in the planted papers had to be subtly conveyed and absolutely convincing or it would confirm that Sicily, presented as a decoy, would be the actual target. Producing the documents -- a letter from General Nye to General Alexander and another from Lord Mountbatten to General Cunningham -- turned into an imbroglio of debate and review with everyone, from the Twenty Committee to the Chiefs of Staff, getting involved. "It is doubtful," says Macintyre, "whether any documents in the war were subjected to closer scrutiny or more revisions."
Macintyre's account of the plan's refinement, execution, and remarkable success is fast-paced, witty, and quite as filled with plot twists and suspense as any novel. For one thing, the papers had a devil of a time getting themselves into German hands thanks to the unlooked-for integrity and anti-German sentiments of certain Spanish authorities who tried to return the Major's documents to the British before the Germans could examine them. It took further machinations on the part of the British secret service and its fantastical network of bogus German informers to finally outmaneuver Spanish honor. What is more, it is quite certain that Major Martin would not have accomplished his mission had he actually been in a detective novel and subject to the scrutiny of one of the sleuths his creators so admired. Evidence of poisoning, his state of decomposition, and some solecisms in his personal effects would never have escaped the notice of one of those prodigies of observation and deduction. But Martin's handlers had luck on their side -- and something else too.
That Mincemeat was "swallowed rod, line and sinker" -- to quote a telegram sent to Winston Churchill -- owed a great deal to what Admiral Godfrey had identified as the two essential weaknesses of the German secret service: "wishfulness" and "yesmanship," that is, their agents' tendency to skew and even manufacture intelligence that flattered the preconceptions of Hitler and his top advisors. But beyond this, as Macintyre shows, there is compelling evidence that at least one high-ranking German was not duped, that he hated Hitler and his war to such a degree that he connived at the operation's success. That's a real stunner, but only one of several Macintyre lays before us.
This is a terrific book written with intelligence and story-telling brio. Marked by enormous research and a taste for the incongruous, the unlikely, and the just plain funny, it is generously embellished with any number of tributary stories and peopled by bizarre minor players. Ben Macintyre has achieved what one might have thought was impossible, he has written a book that surpasses even his last one, the once peerless Agent Zigzag.
--Katherine A. Powers
London Times writer-at-large Macintyre (Agent Zigzag) offers a solid and entertaining updating of WWII’s best-known “human intelligence” operation. In 1943, British intelligence conceived “a spectacular con trick” to draw German attention away from the Allies’ obvious next objective, Sicily. The bait was a briefcase full of carefully forged documents attached to the wrist of “Major William Martin, Royal Marines”—a fictitious identity given to a body floated ashore in neutral Spain. Making the deception plausible was the task given to two highly unconventional officers: Lt. Comdr. Ewen Montagu and Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondeley. Macintyre recounts their adventures and misadventures with panache. The body was that of a derelict. Its costuming included the underwear of a deceased Oxford don. An attractive secretary provided the photo of an imaginary fiancée. The carefully constructed documents setting up the bogus operation against Greece and Sardinia convinced even Hitler himself. The Sicily landings were achieved as almost a complete surprise. And “the man who never was” entered the history and folklore of WWII. Photos. (May)
Read an Excerpt
The Sardine Spotter
José Antonio Rey María had no intention of making history when he rowed out into the Atlantic from the coast of Andalusia in southwest Spain on April 30, 1943. He was merely looking for sardines.
José was proud of his reputation as the best fish spotter in Punta Umbria. On a clear day, he could pick out the telltale iridescent flash of sardines several fathoms deep. When he saw a shoal, José would mark the place with a buoy and then signal to Pepe Cordero and the other fishermen in the larger boat, La Calina, to row over swiftly with the horseshoe net.
But the weather today was bad for fish spotting. The sky was overcast, and an onshore wind ruffled the water's surface. The fishermen of Punta Umbria had set out before dawn, but so far they had caught only anchovies and a few bream. Rowing Ana, his little skiff, in a wide arc, José scanned the water again, the rising sun warming his back. On the shore, he could see the little cluster of fishing huts beneath the dunes on Playa del Portil, his home. Beyond that, past the estuary where the rivers Odiel and Tinto flowed into the sea, lay the port of Huelva.
The war, now in its fourth year, had hardly touched this part of Spain. Sometimes José would come across strange flotsam in the water- fragments of charred wood, pools of oil, and other debris that told of battles somewhere out at sea. Earlier that morning, he had heard gunfire in the distance, and a loud explosion. Pepe said that the war was ruining the fishing business, as no one had any money, and he might have to sell La Calina and Ana. It was rumoured that the captains of some of the larger fishing boats spied for the Germans or the British. But in most ways the hard lives of the fishermen continued as they had always done.
José had been born on the beach, in a hut made from driftwood, twenty- three years earlier. He had never traveled beyond Huelva. He had never been to school or learned to read and write. But no one in Punta Umbria was better at spotting fish.
It was midmorning when José noticed a "lump" above the surface of the water. At first he thought it must be a dead porpoise, but as he rowed closer the shape grew clearer, and then unmistakable. It was a body, floating, facedown, buoyed by a yellow life jacket, the lower part of the torso invisible. The figure seemed to be dressed in uniform.
As he reached over the gunwale to grab the body, José caught a gust of putrefaction and found himself looking into the face of a man, or, rather, what had been the face of a man. The chin was entirely covered in green mold, while the upper part of the face was dark, as if tanned by the sun. José wondered if the dead man had been burned in some accident at sea. The skin on the nose and chin had begun to rot away.
José waved and shouted to the other fishermen. As La Calina drew alongside, Pepe and the crew clustered to the gunwale. José called for them to throw down a rope and haul the body aboard, but "no-one wanted to touch it." Annoyed, José realized he would have to bring it ashore himself. Seizing a handful of sodden uniform, he hauled the corpse onto the stern, and with the legs still trailing in the water, he rowed back to shore, trying not to breathe in the smell.
On the part of the beach called La Bota-the boot-José and Pepe dragged the body up to the dunes. A black briefcase, attached to the man by a chain, trailed in the sand behind them. They laid out the corpse in the shade of a pine tree. Children streamed out of the huts and gathered around the gruesome spectacle. The man was tall, at least six feet, dressed in a khaki tunic and trench coat, with large army boots. Seventeen-year-old Obdulia Serrano spotted a small silver chain with a cross around his neck. The dead man must have been a Roman Catholic.
Obdulia was sent to summon the officer from the defense unit guarding this part of the coast. A dozen men of Spain's Seventy-second Infantry Regiment had been marching up and down the beach earlier that morning, as they did, rather pointlessly, most mornings, and the soldiers were now taking a siesta under the trees. The officer ordered two of his men to stand guard over the body, in case someone tried to go through the dead man's pockets, and trudged off up the beach to find his commanding officer.
The scent of the wild rosemary and jacaranda growing in the dunes could not mask the stench of decomposition. Flies buzzed around the body. The soldiers moved upwind. Somebody went to fetch a donkey to carry the body to the village of Punta Umbria four miles away. From there, it could be taken by boat across the estuary to Huelva. The children dispersed.
José Antonio Rey María, perfectly unaware of the events he had just set in motion, pushed his little boat back into the sea and resumed his search for sardines.
Two months earlier, in a tiny, tobacco-stained basement room beneath the Admiralty building in Whitehall, two men had sat puzzling over a conundrum of their own devising: how to create a person from nothing, a man who had never been. The younger man was tall and thin, with thick spectacles and an elaborate air-force mustache, which he twiddled in rapt concentration. The other, elegant and languid, was dressed in naval uniform and sucked on a curved pipe that fizzed and crackled evilly. The stuffy underground cavern lacked windows, natural light, and ventilation. The walls were covered in large maps and the ceiling stained a greasy nicotine yellow. It had once been a wine cellar. Now it was home to a section of the British Secret Service made up of four intelligence officers, seven secretaries and typists, six typewriters, a bank of locked filing cabinets, a dozen ashtrays, and two scrambler telephones. Section 17M was so secret that barely twenty people outside the room even knew of its existence.
Room 13 of the Admiralty was a clearinghouse of secrets, lies, and whispers. Every day the most lethal and valuable intelligence-decoded messages, deception plans, enemy troop movements, coded spy reports, and other mysteries-poured into this little basement room, where they were analyzed, assessed, and dispatched to distant parts of the world, the armor and ammunition of a secret war.
The two officers-Pipe and Mustache-were also responsible for running agents and double agents, espionage and counterespionage, intelligence, fakery, and fraud: they passed lies to the enemy that were false and damaging, as well as information that was true but harmless; they ran willing spies, reluctant spies pressed into service, and spies who did not exist at all. Now, with the war at its height, they set about creating a spy who was different from all the others and all that had come before: a secret agent who was not only fictional but dead.
The defining feature of this spy would be his falsity. He was a pure figment of imagination, a weapon in a war far removed from the traditional battle of bombs and bullets. At its most visible, war is fought with leadership, courage, tactics, and brute force; this is the conventional war of attack and counterattack, lines on a map, numbers and luck. This war is usually painted in black, white, and blood red, with winners, losers, and casualties: the good, the bad, and the dead. Alongside that conflict is another, less visible species of war, played out in shades of gray, a battle of deception, seduction, and bad faith, of tricks and mirrors, in which the truth is protected, as Churchill put it, by a "bodyguard of lies." The combatants in this war of the imagination were seldom what they seemed to be, for the covert world, in which fiction and reality are sometimes enemies and sometimes allies, attracts minds that are subtle, supple, and often extremely strange.
The man lying in the dunes at Punta Umbria was a fraud. The lies he carried would fly from London to Madrid to Berlin, traveling from a freezing Scottish loch to the shores of Sicily, from fiction to reality, and from Room 13 of the Admiralty all the way to Hitler's desk.
From the Hardcover edition.