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Operation Mincemeat

by Ben Macintyre, Harmony Books, New York, 2010, $25.99

Forget the Battle of Britain, forget Enigma and El Alamein. Read this fascinating book and you’ll probably agree that even if the Germans had stormed the beaches of Kent, there is no way they would ever have beaten the Brits. The Huns simply didn’t have the sense of humor, the imagination, the delight in mind games or the fascination with pure intellect rather than Panzers. The Brits would have laughed them back into the sea, playing practical jokes all the while.

Operation Mincemeat was the biggest and most successful hoax perpetrated until Bernie Madoff came along, and it was put together by a bunch of academics, esthetes and novelists (Ian Fleming among them) in the employ of British intelligence. The mission was to convince the Germans that the Allies’ big 1943 jump from North Africa onto the soft underbelly of Europe would take place not at Sicily—the invasion site obvious to even a sixth-grader with an atlas—but simultaneously at Greece and Sardinia. The Brits successfully did this by chaining a briefcase with documents to that effect to a corpse dressed as a Royal Marine officer and letting the body wash ashore on the southern coast of Spain, a country filled with German agents and spies.

Fortunately, the key German agents were incompetents, poseurs, yes-men and, in one high-ranking case, a committed anti-Nazi activist who hated Adolf Hitler. And best of all from the British viewpoint, they were German. Case in point: One of the characters involved in Mincemeat was a member of the British Q-Branch, suppliers of spy tools to the Secret Service. (Ian Fleming used this man, Charles Fraser-Smith, as the model for Q, James Bond’s Aston Martin– building gadgeteer.) One of the devices Fraser-Smith designed was a tiny compass for behind-the-lines infiltrators that was hidden inside a coat button and revealed by unscrewing the button’s brass cover. But the cover was reverse-threaded, so it needed to be unscrewed clockwise. Fraser-Smith reasoned that an unremittingly logical German would never consider such a possibility.

Much of what took place during Operation Mincemeat falls under the heading “You can’t make this stuff up.” One of the Mincemeat operatives was a coroner named Bentley Purchase. Another was the founder of the World Table Tennis Association, who spent weeks bounce-testing ping-pong balls and was actually a Soviet spy. Yet another was a pro racecar driver so embarrassed by the fact he was myopic that he refused to wear glasses. While speeding the fast-rotting Mincemeat corpse to the submarine that would carry it to Spanish waters, he at one point drove straight across a traffic circle he never saw.

The Mincemeat story has been told before, most notably in the 1953 nonfiction classic The Man Who Never Was, by Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, one of the lead planners of the caper. (The 1956 film adaptation, starring Clifton Webb as Montagu, was true to the basic facts, albeit with some dramatic license.) But no one has ever told the tale as accurately and wittily as British spystory specialist Ben Macintyre.


Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here