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True lies for Hitler

Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 

On July 10, 1943, approximately 160,000 Commonwealth and US troops made a series of amphibious landings on Sicily, the island just off the coast of Italy, the first time in three years that the Allied armies found themselves back on the European continent after Hitler’s blitzkrieg had chased them off at Dunkirk on the French coast.

The Sicily landings were noteworthy for more than just the scale of operations — they were, in fact, larger than the better-known Normandy landings in France a year later. There were astonishingly few casualties — roughly 153,000 soldiers were alive at the end of the campaign, far more than the planners had estimated.

There was good reason for this high survivor rate. When the first Allied landing craft hit Sicilian shores, the cream of the German army was waiting for them elsewhere, in Greece and Sardinia which Hitler was convinced were the real targets of the Allied invasion. He — and, indeed, most of the Wehrmacht leadership — was the victim of a brilliant and minutely planned deception operation that could easily form the plot of a splendid spy thriller.

The cause of their comprehensive deception went all the way back to the efforts of, among many others, a keen angler, a Jewish lawyer, an observer of the mating habits of insects, a talented double agent, a racing driver, the creator of James Bond, a Oxford and a cross-dressing counter-espionage agent.

Operation Mincemeat, as the exercise was randomly codenamed, has received only passing attention in World War II histories and, that too, is often inaccurately described. This book fills that gap and clears up many misconceptions with elan.

With German and Italian forces thrown out of north Africa, the big question for Allied and Axis alike was where the American and British forces would launch their assault on the European mainland. To anyone with access to an atlas, Sicily on the toe of Italy was the obvious target and, indeed, it was.

Amphibious landings, however, are a tricky business. As the Allies’ bloody and costly failure at Dieppe on the French coast in 1942 showed, chances of success diminished if the enemy was expecting the invaders. The question, then, was to convince Hitler that instead of opting for the obvious, the Allies were planning an assault either on Sardinia or Greece.

The task of this deception operation — codenamed Barclay — was to sell the lie that Sicily would be bypassed. Mincemeat was that part of the operation that would have Allied invasion plans “accidentally” fall into the hands of the German high command.

How would this be done? The answer was supplied by a 25-year-old naval intelligence officer seconded to MI5, Charles Christopher Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley), “one of nature’s more notable eccentrics, but a most effective warrior in this strange and complicated war”.

Working from a memo on spycraft co-authored by Ian Fleming, Cholmondeley drew up a “Trojan horse” plan that involved having the body of a British officer washing up on Spanish shores (nominally neutral, secretly pro-Nazi) carrying “letters” (including one from Mountbatten) to senior Allied commanders in the Mediterranean hinting at Greek and Sardinian operations.

Once the plan was approved, enter Ewan Montagu, lawyer, scion of a Jewish banking family and serving in naval intelligence, to execute it (Indian readers would be interested to know that he was the nephew of Edwin Montagu of the Montagu-Chelmsford Act fame). It was Montagu who eventually authored The Man Who Never Was in 1953, an M15-authorised version of the operation.

Among Montagu and Cholmondeley’s many duties was to build up the personality of “Major William Martin”. This involved finding a body that could be passed off as an air crash victim and last long enough for the two to build up a credible legend for Martin. The body they found was of Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh vagrant who had committed suicide in London, supplied by the amiably cooperative but Dickensianly-named coroner Bentley Purchase (till then most war historians assumed Martin was a real life major and his body had been used with his family’s permission).

Michael was measured for a uniform and shoes, which Cholmondeley then “wore in” — the underwear was supplied by Oxford and spy novelist John Masterman. Meanwhile, Montagu played the role of the slightly goofy Bill, sampling the delights of wartime London’s night-life with his “fiance” Pam (in reality an MI5 secretary), building up debts in hotels and so on, before taking his final fatal flight to north Africa.

Ben Mcintyre, author of the highly recommended Agent Zigzag, combines a novelist’s instincts with a historian’s research rigour to build up an incredibly racy but true story of wartime deception. He manages to recreate the personalities — most of them delightfully British and eccentric — the atmospherics, and, most of all, the minute details of the spy’s tradecraft. The book’s slightly lurid cover carries the unnecessary legend “The story that changed the course of World War II”, a judgment that is open to debate. In any case, Operation Mincemeat doesn’t need any hard-selling. It’s a gripper from page one.

The true story that changed the course of World War II
Ben McIntyre
337 pages; £12.99

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First Published: Wed, April 21 2010. 00:59 IST