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Andrew Lycett reviews Ben Macintyre's navy intelligence true-story, 'Operation Mincemeat'

08-Feb-2010 • Bond Style

Author of Ian Fleming's official biography, Andrew Lycett reviews the latest offering from Ben Macintyre ("For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming And James Bond") for The Telegraph.

What makes the spy story such an essentially British literary genre? Looking back to the 19th-century boys’ adventure tale, it celebrates feats of derring-do, creative cunning and patriotism. Similar qualities have served the British well in an esoteric field of warfare – military deception. During the Second World War, they wrong-footed the enemy through all sorts of meticulously planned ruses. In his latest book, Ben Macintyre plays up the links between spy fiction and deception as he focuses on one inspired disinformation exercise that his publishers ambitiously say changed the course of the Second World War.

Operation Mincemeat was geared to making the Nazis believe that, following their invasion of North Africa, the Allies intended in early 1943 to push up into Europe through Greece and Sardinia rather than Italy (via Sicily). On this occasion the artifice involved not phantom divisions but, more subtly, letters and other documentation found on the body of a supposedly drowned British officer washed up on the shores of southern Spain.

Macintyre attributes the origins of this ingenious plot to a now defunct branch of the secret services, the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), and the 'Trout Memo’ written by its head, Admiral John Godfrey, with the help of his personal assistant Ian Fleming, who would later create James Bond. This neat paper compared intelligence to the work of a fisherman trying to snare trout. It listed 51 ways of bamboozling the Germans, including one which drew on a novel by the former Scotland Yard chief, Basil Thomson, detailing how a dead body could be given a false identity.

The idea was taken up by Charles Cholmondeley, secretary of the Twenty (otherwise XX or Double Cross) Committee, which oversaw the process whereby German agents captured in Britain were 'turned’ and induced to feed back false information to their controllers. Already professional deceivers were working on Operation Barclay to convince the Germans that the Allies’ invasion of Europe would come anywhere but through Sicily. Now, with an intimate knowledge of Nazi intelligence’s workings in Spain, a naval dimension was added.
Ewen Montagu, a rich Jewish barrister who was NID representative on the Twenty Committee, took on organisational responsibility for Mincemeat. He found the necessary dead body (an unemployed suicide called Glyndwr Michael) and set about establishing this unfortunate’s new identity as Major Martin, courier of official letters hinting at an invasion through Greece and Sardinia. His lovingly assembled evidence also included bogus indications of a complex personal life in love letters, theatre tickets and other paraphernalia.
Although Mincemeat was revealed long ago (it was the subject of a 1956 film The Man Who Never Was), its story has never been told so fully. Macintyre has drawn on personal accounts as well as new material from Spanish and German sources. His unravelling of what happened once Glyndwr/Martin washed up in Huelva is brilliant – from the compromises of Spanish functionaries, through the uncertain reactions of German spies in Spain (luckily station chief Kuhlenthal was enough of a careerist to pass on the particulars to Hitler) to the fine tuning by Captain Alan Hillgarth, Britain’s spy master in Madrid and another author of thrillers.

Macintyre keeps the war’s broad sweep in focus, while fleshing out the human, frequently hilarious, background to Mincemeat. (Who would have guessed that Montagu would have taken a shine to Jean Leslie, the attractive NID secretary who provided the life story of the dead man’s fiancée, 'Pam’?) Macintyre’s descriptive talents bring otherwise dour Admiralty boffins to life. And he demonstrates how the creativity of so many would-be authors added nuance and credibility to the workings of official deception. With its fun, flair and sense of adventure, this book succeeds in making a complex wartime operation read like veritable spy fiction.

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