Sometimes, expectations can be devastating. This time last week, I was visiting friends in New York City. One of my must-stop-at places was The Dram Shop. Dram is a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn that I had dinner at one time last year. I like to consider myself a burger afficionnado and for my money, the Dram Shop has the best burger I’ve ever had. Returning, to have the burger, gave me considerable pause. What if it was a fluke? What if the burger recipe has changed? Different cook?? What if my taste buds have changed?
I had a similar conundrum before I started “Operation Mincemeat” by Ben Macntyre. Before I began the Book Blitz, I had read several laudatory reviews of the book. It was consistently unavailable at the Medford Library, so you can imagine the chance I had of picking it up when I was living in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, the book, much like The Dram Shop’s burger, met my high expectations.
Operation Mincemeat opens in late 1943 as the Allied Powers were preparing for the invasion of Sicily. Knowing that the Axis forces expected an amphibious attack on the island, British intelligence forces began the task of convincing their German counterparts that the invasion would occur somewhere else in the Mediterranean.
Mincemeat’s plan was to use a dead body, carrying false military information, hoping that it would get in the hands of German agents who would pass it along to Berlin. MacIntrye explains that the genesis for plan originated in a mid-1930’s mystery novel. A few years later, intelligence officer Ian Fleming, later author of the James Bond series, also suggested the idea.
The plan was as follows: the body would be dropped off the coast of Spain after a plane crash. On his body would be correspondence between generals discussing how the plan to attack Sicily was a decoy. Spain, while neutral, had pockets of German support throughout the country and government.
While the plan was out there, the majority of the story details how the pieces of the plan came together before it was acted out. The ability to complete this plan is astounding when the hurdles are taken into consideration. It includes, but is not limited to: finding a body that looks like it has drowned, drafting the correspondence, finding the right spot along the coast line to drop the body, making it look like a plane crash, finding a way to transport the body and ensure it doesn’t decompose. Critically important was creating a person behind the body. A person who would be believable enough for the German spies and Germany military officers would see as credible.
The two figures responsible for overseeing Operation Mincemeat were Lt. Cmdr. Ewan Montagu and Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley. These two radically different soldiers were the ones who procured the body, wrote the story of Major William Martin. Mactinyre does a good job of highlighting the differences between Martin’s fictitious life and the sad story of Glyndwr Michael, the man whose body was at the center of Operation Mincemeat.
The larger story is one of Allied, primarily British, personnel versus the Axis – Germany – military efforts. It is hard to ignore, at least in terms of intelligence and counterintelligence, the British simply out hustled the German spies. The British intelligence network had spies, double agents, agents that never existed. The German spies took much of the information fed to them at face value. One intelligence official was so worried about his own safety, he kept feeding his higher ups in Berlin information from an “Agent Garbo” who was claiming to live in the UK but was actually in Portugal. Eventually the British got wind of this and brought him to London to maximize the duping. By 1943, the German regime had become a coterie of yes-men with an unwillingness to critique the Fuhrer’s decisions.
Macintyre deftly moves from spy story to biographer and back to war historian as the book progresses. The writing is superb as MacIntrye manages to keep a lay reader in the loop by avoiding military jargon and providing useful descriptions of many of the characters who cross the pages.
If you are looking for the antithesis of Operation Mincemeat in World War II, check out this article about a Germany espionage plan, codenamed “Pastorius.” Ineptitude all around.