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"Turn me on, Dead Man" - Mincemeat Goes to War

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 10, 2010 
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Whilst I have been contemplating spooks and spies, a good new book came across my desk, Deathly Deception by Denis Smyth.  It deals with Operation Mincemeat–an attempt by British intelligence to deceive the Germans in the spring of 1943 as to the site of the next great Allied amphibious landing.  With Operation Husky aiming for the Italian island of Sicily in July, Mincemeat sought to deliver fake documents to the German high command indicating that southern France or Greece were the real targets.

What sets Mincemeat apart from other, similar deception ops in World War II was the intended means of delivering that fake information:  a corpse.  The mastermind of the plot, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, and his small band of planners procured a dead body–not as easy as it sounds, oddly enough, even in the midst of the bloodiest war in human history–dressed it in a Royal Marine uniform, lashed a valise to it filled with fake documents, including letters to Generals Sir Harold Alexander and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and dumped it off the coast of Franco's Spain near the port of Huelva.  The Spanish authorities retrieved it, and did just about what you would expect an Axis-leaning neutral to do.  They informed the British of the tragedy and handed the apparently important documents over to the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr.  Sure, it sounds like a movie, and in fact it is a movie, The Man Who Never Was (d. Ronald Neame, 1956), starring Clifton Webb as Montagu.

What comes through most clearly in Smyth's book is the incredible complexity of the undertaking.  The planners had to find a suitable corpse, and he had to look like a "staff officer type."  They actually had a lot of discussion over this point.  He had to have a convincing back-story.  What was he doing on this flight?  Why was he carrying these important papers?  He had to have a convincing life back in Britain, and it is here that we enter the theater of the absurd.  The planners gave "Major Martin" letters from his "father," warning notes from his bank manager complaining about his tendency to overdraft, expired leave passes, all suitably weathered. They even gave him a sex life, an attractive young fiancée named "Pam," replete with photograph and love letters.  They began talking about him as if he were real.  Indeed, it is probably no exaggeration to say that they began to believe he was real.  It is fascinating stuff, much like a police procedural on television, and more than a little ghoulish.  Ever try to put heavy military boots on a frozen corpse?  Our heroes had to do just that.  They solved the problem by holding the ankles over a flame to thaw them.

Some unbelievable stuff here, but also some debatable claims.  The author refers on a couple of occasions to the "lives of the tens of thousands of Allied soldiers" depending on Mincemeat, as well as "the fate of millions of people whom the invasion might help liberate from Nazi tyranny."  But is this really true?  Hitler had long been concerned about his Balkan flank.  Indeed, he had fought a campaign there, prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union, in the spring of 1941.  Victorious in Tunisia in May 1943, the Allies were clearly going to land somewhere in the Mediterranean, either one of the islands or somewhere on the northern shore.  The German deployment, therefore, was a prudent one under the circumstances, covering southern France, Sicily, and Greece.   The exact same scenario would have played out with or without Mincemeat.  Even the author has to recognize this, admitting at one point that Hitler's own inclination to defend the Balkans "makes it impossible to quantify the effect of Operation Mincemeat."

Still, Deathly Deception has been hard to get out of my mind.  I can't help thinking about it:  a great war is raging, and some very smart people on the Allied side are sitting around a corpse, contemplating the possibilities.

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6 Responses to “"Turn me on, Dead Man" - Mincemeat Goes to War”


  1. 1
    Denis Smyth says:

    I appreciate Professor Citino's insightful comments on my book, "Deathly Deception: The Real Story of Operation Mincemeat" (Oxford University Press, August 2010) and his generous overall assessment of the work.

    However, I would also like to reiterate the rationale behind what he describes as my "debatable claims" concerning this deception plan's general historical significance. In fact, as I make clear in my book, British "deceptioneers:" fully understood Hitler's pre-existing fears about the vulnerability of the Axis in the Balkans. It was precisely to prey upon those apprehensions (which had been revealed to the deception planners by their codebreaking colleagues) that Greece was selected as the notional target for the forthcoming Allied summer offensive in the Mediterranean theater of war in 1943. Indeed, the British learned by trial and error in the Second World War that strategic deception could only work by exploiting an enemy's spontaneous misjudgments of likely Allied moves. That is to say, British "deceptioneers" came to realize that only when the Nazi High Command was already on the way to deceiving itself could they hope to complete the process.

    Of course, in exaggerating Hitler's fears about his Balkan Achilles' Heel, the Allies not only planted "Operation Mincemeat's" misleading message on him, they also launched a carefully timed campaign of sabotage attacks across Northern Greece, during the weeks immediately prior to their descent on Sicily. Again, as I point out in my book, this systematic attack, codenamed "Operation Animals", on German lines of communications within Greece resuscitated all the Führer's anxieties about the fragility of his position there. Certainly, British intelligence appraisers were in no doubt that the apparent Allied threat to Greece dominated the German High Command's strategic calculations and troop deployments before, during and after the landings in Sicily. The sheer numbers of German divisions in Greece and the Balkans, over against Sicily, in mid-1943, bears out this assessment.

    As I say in my book, "this sizeable troop transfer arose from an inextricable mix of German miscalculation, British misinformation, and Greek mayhem". "Operation Mincemeat" was an indispensable ingredient in this deceptive compound and, that was exactly what it was planned to be.

    I would like to conclude by thanking Professor Citino, once more, for the generous spirit of his comments on my work and assuring him that my response is informed by a similar sentiment.

  2. 2
    Rob Citino says:

    Denis–

    Thanks so much for your response. Like all the best books, Deathly Deception made me think a great deal–about deception operations in particular and about Operation Mincemeat in particular. I can't recommend it highly enough, both for the history and for the elegance of the writing!

    I also agree with you that what we have here–and perhaps what we always have to have for a successful op of this sort–is a mix of "German miscalculation, British misinformation, and Greek mayhem." I really do believe that deceptions can only work when you are reinforcing an idea that your opponent already has.

    Thanks again for your post!

    –Rob C

    .

  3. 3
    Denis Smyth says:

    Dear Rob,

    Thank you for your most courteous and congenial response to my post. As you rightly say, we are certainly in agreement on the fundamentals.

    By the way, I have always treasured your book, "The Path to Blitzkrieg", and am looking forward to your study on German combat operations in 1943.

    I have greatly enjoyed our exchange of views.

    Regards,

    Denis

  4. 4
    Ann McDonald says:

    "The Man Who Never Was" has been one of my all-time favorite WWII movies as well as a movie about spies and deception. I will look forward to buying and reading Deathly Deception. Thanks for the inclusion of the review in the RSS.

  5. 5
    Eric Weider says:

    The Man Who Never Was, was one of the first books I recall reading as a youngster. I'll certainily read this up to date account of this operation. I'm currently reading a novel called Body of Lies in which the CIA is inspried by Operation Mincemeat and bases a deception operation on the same tactic. Great stuff. Thanks to author Denis Smyth for this new book and to Roger for calling attention to it!

  6. 6
    Rob Citino says:

    Denis, thanks for your kind note. Perhaps we have been able to show the readership that historians argue about these things all the time! Perhaps someday you and I will sit over a glass or two of Scotch and hash all this out!

    I congratulate you again on a very interesting book.

    –Rob



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