“History,” a writer named Kevin Briggs once sincerely declared to me, “is better than fiction.”
Kevin’s maxim may be overbroad, but a strong proof for it can be found in the pages of Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre (Harmony; $25.99), the royally entertaining and true saga of one of the most ingenious and successful intelligence operations in the ambivalent history of espionage. It’s also the weirdly inspiring story of how even a dead man can rise again to become a hero.
It’s World War II, 1943. The tide has yet to truly turn in the war against the Axis, though hopeful light glimmers from the far horizon. The Allies have driven the Wehrmacht out of North Africa. Everyone and Hitler’s Germany thinks the next invasion target will be southern Europe, by way of the much-trodden-upon island of Sicily, an easy cricket toss across the Mediterranean from where Allied forces are gathering.
No one is wrong on this assumption. The question is, is it possible to fool Hitler into thinking otherwise? And if so, how?
That task fell to a remarkable collection of imaginative British eccentrics jammed in a windowless basement room in the bomb-blasted city of London. Their leaders were a naval intelligence officer named Ewen Montagu and an MI5 (counterespionage) officer named Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced, with classic British poesy, “Chumley”). Inspired by the plot of an obscure Brit mystery novel, entitled The Milliner’s Hat (passed along to them by none other than James Bond creator Ian Fleming), the two whipped up a fantastic recipe for deception:
Take one dead body of a lost and forgotten soul. Give body a new name and identity and dress it up in the uniform of a high-ranking military officer. Next, add forged papers alluding to an upcoming massive—but imaginary--Allied invasion aimed at both Greece (far to the east of Sicily) and Sardinia (to the west); stir in a number of other unrelated, but very realistic-appearing documents and personal ephemera such as love letters, personal photos, actual theater tickets, and dunning notes.
Put documents in an official briefcase; chain briefcase to body. Next, insert body in British sub. Sub will then sail to the southwest Atlantic coast of Spain. There, sub very quietly dumps body off so it looks like part of the wreckage from a plane crash. The Spanish—though neutral in the war, they’re still mostly sympathetic to the Nazis—will find documents and hand them off to German intelligence. Once Der Führer sees the documents, he will—we all hope--split his army away from Sicily to both Greece and Sardinia in order to stop the imaginary invasion, leaving Italy open to Allied conquest.
There are enough holes in this scheme to raise the eyebrow of a master fiction plotter like Alan Furst. But if Allies don’t come up with something, the invasion of Sicily will likely cost tens of thousands of Allied casualties and prolong human civilization’s most ghastly war against one of history’s most murderous barbarisms.
That “Operation Mincemeat”worked as stunningly well as it did—indeed its consequences, as Ben MacIntyre tells with buoyancy and zest for page after absorbing page, may well have guaranteed the final defeat of the Nazis—is more than a tribute to the dashingly daft imaginations of the plotters. It’s also one of those remarkable alchemies one finds in history, the kind that seems irreproducible in fiction.
A crucial element in this plot’s success was the authoritarian nature of the enemy. The Nazi hive mind, in the wide-eyed, inflexible thrall of the Cult of Hitler, was one where doubts were never expressed and questions—the right questions—were never asked. As you may recall from the run-up to the Iraq War (and other current fevers, like this one), such an environment is perfect for promoting feverish mass thinking.
Once a meme like this seeps into the hive mind, there’s no getting rid of it, no matter how loudly dull, unromantic facts scream otherwise. Sometimes, the more wrong an idea appears, the more fervently the hive will cling to it, even if it kills them all.
There were also some stunning turns of luck along the way: from an incompetent, but well-regarded, German spy (a converted former Jew, desperate to prove his worth to his masters) the so-called invasion plans made their way to a covert anti-Nazi German intelligence officer, who likely saw through the ruse but passed them on anyway—I can see him grinning with secret glee--to Hitler. Hitler, after the briefest hesitation, swallowed every word. The only Nazi who didn’t believe any of it was, naturally, their most accomplished liar of all, Joseph Goebbels.
Operation Mincemeat is one of those books that I hated having to put down. I would have happily starved to death in my chair reading it. Full of colorful, eccentric real-life characters, good and bad alike, and stunning revelations, there’s a rare buoyant spirit about this story and its telling
that seem beyond our reach in our tortured times. It’s likely that spy craft will never again seem like such a noble adventure.
This story was previously told by Ewen Montagu himself in a slim account titled The Man Who Never Was (made into a 1953 film starring Clifton Webb). Montagu's work was subject to the Official Secrets Act and so he had to be careful what he revealed, including the most touching revelation of all—the identity of the body he and his co-conspirators sent floating out into history. Both he and Cholmondeley went to their graves believing they carried that secret with them. But if you want to find out what that top secret is, you’ll have to read Operation Mincemeat for yourself.
Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel, Dragon's Ark, will be out this fall from Ambler House. More of his work can be found at the Red Room web site for writers. His comic screenplay Whackers can be found at Smashwords.com. You can also follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.
Causes Thomas Burchfield Supports
The Nature Conservancy; Africare; Capitol Public Radio