Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Man who Never Was: Operation Mincemeat

I have yet to find out who first argued that the quality and integrity of democratic government is reflected by the extent of openness about its dealings particularly in relation to international relational relations, national security and commercial activity. They were wrong. There are numerous situations and issues where it is not just legitimate for government to be secretive but essential, including situations to protect identity and to avoid civil unrest. I have just experienced one film which highlights my point, a film based on a true and important event which saved many lives towards the end of World War Two.

The successful purpose of Operation Mincemeat, the story of “The Man who Never Was” was to persuade Hitler and the German High Command that the intention of the allies was to invade Italy from North Africa by first attacking German forces in Greece and in Sardinia in 1943, instead of Sicily, where the invasion was planned. Churchill’s first reaction was that everyone but a bloody fool would know that the attack would be to capture Sicily and in doing so take control of the Mediterranean seaways.

The plan was for someone to be found dead off the Spanish coast with authentic secret documents advising of the false plan and hope that the information would find its way to Germany because of the relationship with Spain despite the alleged neutrality of the fascist government. The planning team were mindful that in the previous year a plane had crashed off the Spanish coast on its way to Gibraltar where the courier whose body was washed ashore and recovered by the Spanish Authorities carried information about Operation Torch, the successful invasion of North Africa. When the body was returned, the communication was included and even if it had been opened and the contents photographed the information had not be believed and no measures were taken.
A suitable body was identified where there were no relatives and which would convince authorities that it had been in the sea for sometime. There has been discussion if this was or if the body of someone else was used.

The identity was created of a Captain and Acting Major William (Bill) Martin of the Royal Marines born 1907 in Cardiff and assigned to the Headquarters of Combined Operations. The name was chosen because here were several Martins of the same or similar rank in Marine at that time. A fiancée was created called Pam, with a photograph of her, love letters and the bill for an engagement ring. The girl was a clerk from MI5 and the letters were created by her head of department. Appropriate uniform was purchased and the problem of good quality underwear was solved by using that of the Master of an Oxford College who had been killed in a lorry accident. He also had letters with him from his father, Lloyds Bank re an overdraft and a bill for a stay and the Naval and Military Club for a new shirt from an established tailor. The material including theatre tickets dated to indicate he had been in London until the 14th of April so that with the body planned to be washed up on April 30th it would indicate that his plane had crashed and it was several days before the body washed up ashore. There were two letters one from Louis Mountbatten to the Commanding Officer Mediterranean and the other to the Commander of British Forces in Algeria and Tunisia and because the document about Operation Torch had been in a pocket this time these were placed in a locked briefcase attached to the body.

The body was placed in a canister filled with ice to enable refrigeration and was taken to Holy Loch to a British Submarine with previous experience of special operations. The body was placed in the sea to wash ashore at a beach side town where it was known in advance the Spanish and German authorities were friendly. The body was handed to the British Vice Consul and was buried with fill military honours a few days later. A local pathologist confirmed that death had been by drowning without doing a detailed post mortem because there was clear information the man had been a Catholic. The death was reported in the Times on June 4th. It was coincidence that the names of other officers were included in the list whose planed had crashed into the sea.

Messages were sent seeking the return of the briefcase without alerting the Spanish authorities to their importance. When the German authorities Admiral Canaris personally tried to get the Spanish authorities to surrender the documents. What happened is that they were carefully opened and photographed and then resealed and handed to the British authorities. Back home scientists confirmed that the letters and been skilfully opened and resealed. Hitler was convinced The documents were authentic and although Mussolini remained convinced that Sicily was the real target, German reinforcements were sent to Greece, Sardinia and Corsica and none to Sicily.

The successful deception continued to have an impact in that when genuine documents were discovered by the Germans 2 days after the D Day landings providing information on further plans in the region they were not believed because of what happened in the Mincemeat Operation, and again in the Market Garden Operation into the Netherlands the full operations order came into German hands and they were convinced this was another plant and made no adjustments as a consequences.

The book was published in 1953 and written by former Lt Cmdr Ewen Montagu of Navel intelligence who was on a committee managing double agents and who practiced law after the war. The book was published because in 1950 Duff Cooper, Viscount Norwich, a Conservative politician, diplomat and writer published a work of fiction, Operation Heartbreak which unwittingly used elements of Operation Mincemeat and which aroused some controversy because the official project had not been made public at that time. The decision was taken to do so and the film followed in 1956 with Clifton Webb playing the part of Ewen Montagu.

The film added to the actual story various elements particularly that although Hitler and his immediate advisers believed the documents were authentic which at one level they were with the signatures of the senders, doubts were felt and a an agent was sent from Dublin to London to check out the tailors, the club and the bank and then the fiancée. Although he has doubts he signals his superiors that Major Martin appears authentic but he has set one last test giving the fiancée his present whereabouts. This is a courageous act because if it is a set up then the likelihood is that the authorities will capture him. The authorities nearly do this but the security service is persuaded to hold off and let the man leave the country thus underlining that the happened was true and that the British did not know that the plan had been intercepted.

Another change is that in the film the body is that of serving officer who is killed and his father is promised that the man will be given a proper burial. Also in the film Montagu having been awarded the OBE leaves the medal at the grave of the fictitious Martin after the war. Another difference is the submarine is detected at one point and survives depth charges.

There was another element of Spy fiction having been reality in that Ian Fleming, the author of James Bond passed the idea to an RAF officer on the double agents committee who with Montagu developed the idea into the Operation Mincemeat plan. Ian Fleming had got the idea from a 1930 detective novel by Basil Thomson!

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