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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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