RogerBW's Blog

Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre 25 February 2014

This is the story of the well-known deception operation in the Second World War: dropping a dead fake courier into the sea near Spain, in the hope that his deceptive paperwork would be taken seriously by the Germans and misdirect them as to the location of Allied landings in the Mediterranean.

Ewen Montagu, who planned the operation, has already written The Man Who Never Was (and it was made into a film a few years later), but that volume deliberately left out some details and changed others, so Macintyre has gone through Montagu's surviving paperwork to get more details. And more details there certainly are.

This book is written in a very pop-history style with lots of spurious detail, clearly derived from archived correspondence. Thus:

On 24 January 1943, Montagu cycled as usual back to Kensington Court, where Ward the butler opened the massive front door to him. Nancy, "one of the best cooks in London", had rustled up a fine dinner in spite of rationing, although the Dowager Lady Swaythling insisted that standards had slipped. "Mother is too awful for words", Ewen wrote to Iris. "She complains that she can't get her nice chocolates of decent quality whereas everyone else is overjoyed at getting any at all."

It's terribly frustrating to me: I'd rather read the primary sources, and I know I can't readily obtain them; nor can I know where the line is drawn between documented reality and pastiche. When it's a truly fictional narrative, this is less of an annoyance. Similarly, every time someone is introduced, we get a potted biography; useful, but somehow it feels less than real history while being too much for easily-read fiction.

Macintyre sticks with the mainstream theory as to the identity of the corpse, Glyndwr Michael, and does his democratic best to make the man sound like a victim of circumstance rather than of his own tendency to mental illness. I suppose one has to, these days.

More interesting is the analysis of the problems with the plan, something largely missing from Montagu's book. There was essentially no effort to back up the story in England; phone numbers would have been answered wrongly, and hotel stays wouldn't match up if checked by a German agent (or, more plausibly, one of a neutral country – of whom there were plenty in London – sympathetic to Germany). Details of vocabulary were clearly incorrect (a Royal Marine officer wouldn't have a "batman"). Even the chaining of the briefcase to the body was something that the British never actually did with couriers.

In fact the nearest the plan came to failure seems to have been when the briefcase was handed over to the Spanish Navy, who (unlike most of the governmental structure) weren't actively collaborating with the Germans.

In some ways it's the non-Montagu sources that are the most interesting addition to the story, such as the Venona decrypts and other material related to Ivan Montagu, Ewan's brother who was openly sympathetic to Communism and working for the Soviets. They don't have any direct relation to this operation, but it definitely adds feet of clay to the perfect image of Ewan Montagu one gets from his own writing. Macintyre would clearly like the reader to believe that Montague also conducted an affair with Jean Leslie, but his evidence here is less convincing and he is forced at last to admit that it probably did not happen. In fact I got the impression that Macintyre doesn't really like most of the people in this book; he's always ready with a snide comment, particularly along the lines of power and wealth insulating them from real hardship and danger. Maybe that's just a result of the process of trying to make them human, or an attempt to be slightly revisionist in order not make the book simply a longer version of Montagu's work.

More interesting is the account of the other operations surrounding Husky, both the deliberate deceptions and the accidental ones (such as the cable with excruciating details left on the terrace at Shepheard's Hotel; if the Germans did get hold of it they'd probably have regarded it as an obvious trick because it was such a daft thing to do).

There's a description of the invasion of Sicily and immediate enemy reactions to the deception, but the book then jumps forward to the time after the war, giving a few paragraphs about each of the principals' later careers. Oddly, it makes absolutely no mention of the long-term effects of Mincemeat on the German high command: at least two genuine Allied documents that fell into the hands of the Germans (one in a landing-craft washed up after D-Day, one in a glider after Operation Market-Garden) were disbelieved because of the possibility of another deception operation of this type.

The book is a good description of the operation, but I found myself becoming increasingly distrustful of the author's evaluation of people. (Well, he does work for The Times.) Still, cautiously recommended if you're interested, even if most of the photographs seem to be the same ones that are on Wikipedia.

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