History Books

Operation Mincemeat

How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured and Allied Victory

by Ben Macintyre (Harmony 2010)

Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory — is not just a spy book but a boy's own spy book. The story of a successful attempt to mislead the Germans about the Allied invasion Southern Europe in 1943, by planting false documents on a carefully dressed corpse and dropping it into the sea near Huelva, Spain, this is what we might call a Holocaust-free book about World War II. It is the sort of story, overseen by the shade of crafty Odysseus, that might be told of any war. Remove the risk to soldier's lives that hung on the operation's consequences, and you have an elaborate university prank, the sort of thing that a properly rakish undergraduate might be proud to be sent down for. We find ourselves comfortably planted on the sunnier side of the intraversible gulf between the worlds of Ian Fleming — a player in Mincemeat — and John le Carré.

Mr Macintyre makes bold claims for the importance of his plot; by and large, they seem to be inarguable. If for no other reason than kindling Hitler's fear of losing the Balkans, and pulling soldiers out of Russia in order to prevent that eventuality, Operation Mincemeat was an effective component in the pivot that (in hindsight, at any rate) turned the tide of World War II. But this is not to say that the details on which Montagu and Cholmondely lavished such extraordinary attention were of equal importance in the operation's success. At least as Mr Macintyre tells the story, it would appear that dumb luck imparted a sheen of importance upon the dead man's briefcase that it might not have had otherwise. Not entirely unforeseeably, the case came directly into the custody of the Spanish navy — possibly the most pro-British institution in Spain. This made it very difficult for the Germans to put their hands upon the trove, while at the same time putting the English in the awkward position of appearing to worry about missing documents — but not so much that the Spanish might return the case to them without having given the Germans an unauthorized peek. This minor log-jam — the case travels from Huelva to Cadiz to Madrid without falling into the possession of anyone bribable by the Germans — is the funniest thing in the book, not simply because it sounds the only note of narrative suspense but because it generates a classic case of desire inflamed by impatience. By the time the Germans did get to read the bogus letters, they were certain of their authenticity.

I say that the unwonted safety of the briefcase is the only suspenseful element in Operation Mincemeat not only because we know the book's subtitle, perhaps misguidedly, assures us of its success but because, for the most part, no one is in any mortal danger. Ewen Montagu was a Jew — a bad thing to be at that time, unless, like Montagu, you were an English barrister and a wealthy baron's second son, taking time out from the law to weave deceptions for the Naval Intelligence Department. There were plenty of brushes with disaster, but the worst that could happen — well, the deaths of thousands of invading Allies would have been very bad, indeed. But we get to know only two of them even halfway up-close, and one is a rather comical undertaker who sips tea in his foxhole, wearing a Jantzen swimsuit. Mr Macintyre's ebullience suggests that we are still at war, and very much in need of good morale. 

Mr Macintyre writes very well; if he didn't, his tale would drown in its own stew of detail, sinking faster than a torpedoes submarine. Is this the occasion, one feels impelled to ask, to note that a West End comedy that the Mincemeat plotters go to see — whether in search of corroborative detail or to gratify an inappropriate longing — numbered among its cast the teenaged Morecambe and Wise, future giants of British entertainment? Mr Macintyre is singularly unafraid of losing his narrative tension. Not two pages into the chapter about Alan Hillgarth, a swashbuckling (but small) British attaché in Madrid, we're whisked back more than ten years in time, for an account of a Bolivian treasure hunt that brings both Werner Herzog and Indiana Jones to mind. Even more distracting is the extensive coverage of Montagu's younger brother Igor, a Communist agent; if ever a tangent belonged in a concise footnote, Igor's career in Table Tennis is it. Amidst such an informational hailstorm, infelicitous tonal juxtapositions are all but inevitable. Here, for example, Bill Jewell, the dashing and fearless commander of the Seraph, a submarine with not one but two vital missions to play in this story, grows a Valentine.

The Hotel St George was the best hotel in Algiers and Eisenhower's headquarters. Built on the site of an ancient Moorish palace, it was surrounded by botanical gardens with hibiscus, roses, and flowering cacti; in both war and peace, visitors sipped cocktails in the shade of vast umbrellas beneath the palms and banana trees, served by Algerian waiters in starched uniforms with epaulettes. The hotel chief, in Jewell's estimation, "could turn out a meal, even in the depleted Algiers of that day, in keeping with the finest traditions of French cuisine." Rudyard Kipling, André Gide, Simone de Beauvoir, and King George V of England all stayed at the St George. On June 7, 1943, the hotel hosted the crucial conference at which Churchill and Eisenhower finalized plans for the Allied invasion of Sicily. That same month, it was the setting for the culmination of Jewell's campaign to win Rosemary Galloway. For two joyful weeks, he had wooed her with every weapon at his disposal: French food, an American swimming pool, and a British car with doors that wouldn't open. Rosemary was in no mind to resist, and at the end of this sustained bombardment she had sunk, unresistingly, into Lieutenant's Jewell's arms.

... Before meeting Rosemary, Jewell had not cared very much whether he lived or died. Now, he discovered, he cared very much indeed.

Somebody in this passage needs to get a room. (May 2010)

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