BBC documentary uncovers the history of Ian Fleming's 'Operation Mincemeat'
In 1939, Ian Fleming, an imaginative chap in Naval intelligence, drew up a list of top secret schemes with which to outfox the Nazis. Number 28 was headed: âA suggestion (not a very nice one)â. Flemingâs idea was that âa corpse dressed as an airman with dispatches in his pockets could be dropped on the coastâ so that the fake documents in his possession might lead the Germans, ever so sneakily, right up the garden path - reports the Telegraph
âThere is no difficulty in obtaining corpses,â Fleming observed, âbut it would have to be a fresh one.â It was the sort of preposterous pipe dream that Flemingâs superiors could easily have dismissed as âsomething out of a James Bond novelâ. Except for the fact that Fleming had yet to write one. So instead they filed his not very nice suggestion away and waited for a suitable opportunity. It came in 1943.
The Allies, now in the ascendant, were itching to invade Italy. Sicily was the obvious place to start, but Hitler knew this as well as Churchill. A diversion was required and so Flemingâs morbid scheme was brought to life as Operation Mincemeat. Last night, BBC Twoâs atmospheric documentary supplied a blow-by-blow account of how this macabre hoax, âperhaps the greatest military deception since the Trojan horseâ, changed the course of the War.
Many viewers will have known the story. It has been told many times, most famously in Ronald Neameâs 1956 film The Man Who Never Was. But although BBC Twoâs Operation Mincemeat was at a considerable dramatic disadvantage â it had to rely on photographs, to-camera interviews and stilted re-enactments â it still brought the tale alive with an impressive marshalling of the facts. This was appropriate because the devilish cleverness of Operation Mincemeat was in the detail.
Once the team had identified a suitable corpse â that of a Welsh vagrant named Glyndwr Michael who had committed suicide â they gave him a new name (William Martin), a new job (in the Royal Marines), and a new identity. Authenticity was everything. One officer wore Martinâs uniform every day to give it a lived-in look. Each item in Martinâs wallet was painstakingly prepared, including a snapshot of his fake fiancÃ©e (in reality a secretary at MI5) and letters written by âPamâ to him. Stranger still, Martinâs underpants were commandeered, for reasons too long and silly to explain here, from the late Oxford historian HAL Fisher.
With the backstory in place, copywriters spent days drafting a fake letter from Lt Gen Archibald Nye, Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to General Alexander hinting that the Allies were planning to attack Nazi-occupied Greece. But they couldnât get the wording to ring true. Until, that is, they hit upon the blindingly obvious solution: ask Lt Gen Nye to write it himself.
Martinâs corpse was ditched in the sea off northern Spain with a briefcase chained to his wrist. It was found by fishermen and handed to the Spanish authorities before photographs of the âsecretâ documents in the briefcase were passed on, via the Nazisâ top spy in Spain, âa champion tennis player with manicured fingernailsâ, all the way up the German command chain to Hitler himself. And the Fuhrer, like his security staff, was completely fooled. Goebbels, who as Minister for Propaganda knew a thing or two about telling porkies, did wonder in his private diary whether it was all âan elaborate and very British hoaxâ but didnât dare contradict Hitler. And so Mincemeat carried the day: the Germans pulled troops out of Sicily and fortified Greece; the Allies invaded Sicily with relatively low casualties.
The story of Mincemeat is such a ripping, gripping yarn you could hear it a hundred times without getting bored. Yet what emerged most vividly last night was the Technicolor characters involved. Nowadays, espionage is presumably an increasingly digital pursuit, conducted by pasty men and women sitting at PCs. By contrast, Mincemeat was lead by Flight Lt Charles Cholmondeley, the proud owner of a waxed moustache and the kind of period surname that seems to have been phased out in the 1940s. (In his spare time Cholmondeley studied the mating habits of insects and hunted partridge. With a revolver.)
In a similar vein, the coroner who provided Michaelâs corpse went by the magnificent name of Sir Bentley Purchase. After giving the Mincemeat team extremely complicated directions to St Pancras morgue, Sir Bentley added, âAlternatively, you could get run over.â
The mission was underpinned by this kind of dry, black wit. Indeed, this might have been one of the reasons for its success. Churchill apparently wanted British spies to have âcorkscrew mindsâ precisely because Hitler âthought in straight linesâ and his agents were, in comparison to Cholmondeley and co, âdull, humourless and predictableâ. When I heard this, I found myself giving an involuntary patriotic salute.
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