Saturday 20 August 2022

Guest Review: Operation Mincemeat By Ben Macintyre

 April, 1943: a sardine fisherman spots the corpse of a British soldier floating in the sea off the coast of Spain and sets off a train of events that would change the course of the Second World War.

Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: he was dead. His mission: to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allied armies planned to invade Greece.

This is the true story of the most extraordinary deception ever planned by Churchill's spies: an outrageous lie that travelled from a Whitehall basement all the way to Hitler's desk.

Review: By the end of 1942 during the Second World War, the Allies had achieved success in North Africa. Although the British and Americans believed a major invasion of Northern France would not be possible until 1944, an amphibious landing in Southern Europe in 1943 was feasible. The island of Sicily was the obvious target providing a springboard for the invasion of mainland Italy. However, because it was the obvious target, it would also be obvious to the Axis forces. A deception plan was needed to try to divert attention away from Sicily.

This book is the true story of an extraordinary operation, codenamed “Operation Mincemeat” and conceived as part of the overall deception strategy. It resulted from one of the suggestions in a memorandum, known as the “Trout Memo”, drawn up at the beginning of the War by the Director of Naval Intelligence Rear Admiral John Godfrey, with the help of his assistant Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, who would later go on to write the James Bond books. Operation Mincemeat was placed under the charge of intelligence officers Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu and Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley. It involved placing correspondence to Allied commanders in North Africa detailing forthcoming plans for invasions in Greece and Sardinia, with a diversionary attack on Sicily, on a dead body which would be deposited just off the Southern coast of Spain. The intention was the body, made to appear as a military courier, would be washed ashore, and the Spanish authorities, some of whom were sympathetic to Germany, would allow German intelligence access to the documents, before returning them to the British authorities. It was hoped that this would encourage the Axis forces to spread their defences thinly across a wide area of the North Mediterranean coast, necessitating a weakening of Sicily’s defences.

In the 1950s, and at the instigation of the government, Ewen Montagu wrote a book, “The Man Who Never Was”, describing the operation. However, because of security restrictions at the time, many details were glossed over. Ben Macintyre’s book was published in 2010 when previously classified material had been released. It describes the lengths to which Montagu and Cholmondeley went to obtain a corpse, invent a new persona for it as a Royal Marines officer, ensure that authentic-looking documents were planted on it, and arrange for a submarine to release it just off the Spanish coast. There then followed a tense wait to see: if the body was picked up; if the authorities believed it was that of a drowned British officer; if copies of the documents found their way into the hands of German intelligence and, if so, were they believed to be genuine; and if the subsequent invasion of Sicily in July 1943 was successful.

Operation Mincemeat was a plan so audacious that people forget that it is a true story. Ben Macintyre’s book provides a detailed account of the planning and execution of the operation, describing the numerous characters involved. I found it really captured the excitement of the operation, as the plan was conceived, put into practice and the instigators waited to see if it achieved its objectives. I would recommend it to anyone interested in wartime intelligence operations, or indeed anyone who likes a good adventure story featuring a number of eccentric characters. A television documentary based on the book was shown later in the same year of its publication. A feature film, also based on the book, and which I also recommend, was released in the UK in 2022.

To order your copy now, just click the link: UK or US

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