Saturday, December 5, 2015

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

Somehow Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre got on my list. I’m glad it did. 

It tells of a fascinating part of the counter espionage activities undertaken by the British against the Nazis in World War 2.

I never actually considered the role of misinformation in helping to defeat an enemy, but this book makes a powerful case for its importance. 

Basically the British unit is tasked with leaking to the Germans false information. The trick is to make it look authentic. Mostly this is done through double agents. It’s harder than it would seem. The Germans are not stupid and they know the British are trying to feed them falsehoods. So the British must concoct very elaborate tales and connections to keep the Nazis engaged. 

One such misinformation campaign centered around an allied invasion on the island of Sicily. This was such an obvious target that the need to introduce subterfuge became readily apparent. The question was, how can the allies convince the Germans that Sicily was not the principle target. An elaborate story was devised that the allies were going after other targets, and that an invasion of Sicily was simply a diversion from the real battlegrounds. In order to maintain the facade, battalions were diverted and whole military operations were done to convince the Germans that these other targets were the focus. 

But that was not enough. Somehow they had to get word to the Nazis of the fake plan, without any hint whatsoever that it was fake. If the enemy felt in any way that the British were trying to fool them, they would redouble their efforts to protect Sicily, convinced it was the real target. 

So Even Montagu and Charles Cholmondely conceived of a plot to create yet another fictitious character. Yet this one was different. He wouldn’t just exist on paper, but in physical form. They needed a body.

The basic plan was to plant the “top secret plan” to fake an invasion of Sicily while actually going after other Mediterranean ports on the body of a victim of an air disaster. When the victim washed up on the shores, with the papers on his person, the Nazis might be convinced they had lucked into something worthwhile. But how to convince them? The logistics were incredibly complex.

Where would the body wash up? Who was he? Why would he have the plans on him? How could they be sure the plans would be discovered? Would they be passed on to the right sources? Would his “accident” be believable? Would his death look like it was caused by drowning? Would the “too good to be true” nature alert the Germans to the implausibility of it?

They worked for months to nail down all these details. That intricate work is wonderfully fleshed out in the book. Every thing from theater tickets in the victim’s jacket, to publishing his obituary in a military newspaper was done to further the illusion. They even had the “family” of the man send money for a headstone and the regular delivery of flowers to his grave. In short, they worked tirelessly to make “William Martin” come alive, using the body of profligate Glyndwr Michael. 

In short, the body “washed up” (rather dropped off by submarine in another harrowing part of the story) in Spain, which was ostensibly neutral, and came to the attention of an intricate double agent ring. The Nazi agent was in fact a Jew, desperate to hide his identity and provide solid intelligence to his superiors. His desire to embellish and impress led him to accept implicitly the story William Martin presented. So desperate to to be credited with a major intelligence coup, he raised no flags. The plans in a brief case handcuffed to Martin were quickly dispatched and reached the highest levels within the third reich. At that point, a normally suspicious officer passed them onto Hitler himself with a glowing endorsement of their authenticity. Why no questions? It’s possible he did this to help lure Hitler into the trap the allies were setting for him. We’ll never know. He was killed shortly after for taking part in a death plot against the führer.  

The Sicily invasion was a stunning success, and was the beginning of the end for the Nazis. All due to a man who didn’t exist.

All the details made for a fascinating read. 

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