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Book details how Allies fooled Hitler about invasion

Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre. Bloomsbury,  2010, 402 pages.
By David Strom

David Strom

SAN DIEGO — Two young British brothers fought against the Nazis during WWII. Both, Ewen and Ivor, worked for intelligence agencies. One served in the British secret service while the other, it was reported, may have been a spy for the Soviet Union. Ivor had two main passions. One was his strong belief in the values of Soviet Communism. His other major attraction was table tennis, a new “sport/hobby” that he worked hard at promoting. Ewen worked to defeat the Nazis through his British intelligence work. His courageous work as a spy was instrumental in shortening the European war.
 
On January 26, 1943 Glyndwr Michael was found dead. He presumably died from drinking rat poison. No one seemed to notice or care about his death. There were no inquiries made about the cause or circumstances of his dying. No one in his family came forward to claim his body. He was a forgotten human being-until the British intelligence learned of his death.
 
Two British spy agents, Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, had been hatching a plan to foil the Nazi war machine. The game plan, which was initially conceived by Cholmondeley, was unique and highly ingenious. It was put into operation mainly through the office of Ewen and the M16-British Intelligence. The two men worked closely together to get the plan approved by the spy agency and the British government. Prime Minister Churchill even gave the plan his blessing. 
 
Montagu and Cholmondeley were the principal leaders in the plot to drop a body, supposed that of an ill-fated spy, near the coast of southern Spain in April of 1943. These two worked in cramped quarters with nine or ten others, both men and women. All of them played a role in outwitting the Nazis. Getting a body to drop into the coastal waters off Spain was no easy task. What family would donate a loved one to be used as a decoy and floated into enemy or neutral territory without a proper burial? The dead man had relatives and yet, no one in the government tried to locate them or inform the family of the death of Glyndwr Michael. The use of the body and taking it out of the country was illegal according to British law. With the help of an undertaker, with the intelligence agency skirting the intent of the law pertaining to transportation of a corpse out of the country, M16 was able to carry out this very risky war-time adventure.
 
With corpse “in hand,” Cholmondeley and Montagu’s plan moved forward. They created a fictitious person. They gave that person a name-William Martin as well as a made-up family, including a fiancé-Pam. They created a backdrop of an historically grounded human being born into royalty and wealth which gave credibility to their fictional spy.
 
Montagu delighted in his creation of William Martin of the Royal Marines. In Montagu’s small cramped space, the war office assigned a very beautiful and single Jean Leslie. She became the poster child for Pam, William Martin’s fiancé. Jean, single and beautiful, and Ewen, a lonely married man whose wife and family were in the United States at the time, became “involved.” The two took on the created personalities of their fictionalized spy and his lover in their real life adventure to deceive the Nazis. (When the body of William Martin was placed in the cold water off of Spain, the real life adventures of Ewen and Jean came to an end.)
 
Early in April 30, 1943, a young American Navy captain took the frozen corpse from its container and dropped it into the water about 1600 yards off the city of Huelva on the Atlantic coast of southern Spain. Not long afterwards a fisherman retrieved the body, took it ashore and called the local Spanish authorities.
 
Attached to the badly decomposed British-uniformed body were love letters from Pam, a locked briefcase, and important messages to high-ranking personnel about the pending Allied invasion of Europe. All of this material was surveyed and inspected by Spanish authorities and then quickly given over to the Abwehr (Nazi military intelligence) in Madrid. The Abwehr examined the letters and learned that the allied forces that were massing in North Africa were preparing to attack Sardinia and the Greek Peloponnesus. According to the letter found on the corpse, Sicily was to be used as a decoy for the planned landing area. Finally, after the Nazi secret service was done copying the information, the material was handed over to the British consulate. The British hoped the Nazis took seriously what was in the notes taken from the corpse of William Martin. They needed to divert the attention of the Nazi military from the intended landing in Sicily;
 
The British consul quickly arranged a proper burial service & buried William Martin’s body, even placing a headstone to deter anyone from digging up and examining the body, yet again.
 
Of course, the Abwehr sent all of the made-up espionage and battle strategies information to Berlin, believing it to be important to the outcome of the war. There, the German general staff discussed the plausibility of the information. Some accepted it as legitimate while others were more skeptical. But the key actor in this drama and the most important in the decision-making equation was Hitler. He believed the doctored information discovered on the dead British officer that washed upon the Spanish coastal waters. That was enough.

Hitler quickly gave the order to dispatch a military division. General Rommel and the Nazi troops were dispatched to reinforce the Greek peninsula against an attack that never materialized. At the time that Hitler ordered the troops to Greece, his armies had suffered major defeats in North Africa and Stalingrad. They were currently fighting a major battle with the Soviets and might have won an important victory against Soviets, but the diverted division to Greece, against his generals’ recommendations, may have cost the Nazis an important victory that could have, possibly, stopped the Soviet Armies advances into western Europe.  
 
The allies invaded Sicily and opened a second front against the Nazis in Europe. The ingenious plan of Cholmondeley and Montagu had worked. They saved thousands of lives and, possibly, shortened the war. All of this is refreshingly told by Ben Macintyre in Operation Mincemeat: The True Story That Changed the Course of World War II. This spy story was made into the monetarily successful movie The Man Who Never Was.
 
It wasn’t until 1997 that the British government finally changed the cemetery tombstone in Huelva, Spain and added this sentence to its base: “Glyndwr Michael, served as Major William Martin, RM.”

*
Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University

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