The incredible story of Operation Mincemeat

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Operation Mincemeat was probably the most successful, and certainly the oddest deception operation of the Second World War - and perhaps any war. It involved obtaining a dead body, dressing it up as British officer, equipping it with false documents and leaving it somewhere where the Nazis would find it. All with the aim of fooling the Germans into thinking that, instead of invading Sicily in 1943, the Allied troops massed in North Africa were aiming for Greece.

I'm presenting BBC Two's documentary, also called Operation Mincemeat, and if the story sounds a little James Bond to you, that is no accident. It was partly inspired by Ian Fleming, then a young officer in naval intelligence. But it was put into action by two highly eccentric intelligence officers, Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, neither of whom had any qualms about obtaining the body of a homeless man, and then turning him into someone else entirely.

Their plan was inspired, and entirely illegal. After the war, the officials involved tried to keep the name of the dead man a secret, but then in 1996, by accident, a key document was declassified formally identifying the 'man who never was' as Glyndwr Michael, a Welshman who had killed himself with rat poison in a disused warehouse.

I doubt such a plan would be feasible today, even in wartime. Imagine the scandal if it was revealed that British agents had deliberately stolen a dead body. One of the reasons it worked so well was that the organisers were left alone to get on with it, almost without supervision. That would never happen now.

The operation required exceptionally detailed planning. For example, they had to create a fake identity card, but had real difficulty finding someone who looked like Glyndwr Michael.

He had never been photographed when he was alive, and his dead body could not be made to look anything but dead. Eventually they spotted someone in the MI5 canteen, a fellow intelligence officer who was a dead ringer for the dead man, and hauled him off to be photographed.

On the BBC History messageboards, Pete asks an interesting question about whether the Germans ever suspected the body with the top secret documents was a plant.

British intelligence scoured the Germans' intercepted wireless messages for any hint that the ruse had been rumbled, and found none at all. On the contrary, in the words of a triumphant message sent to Churchill, "Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker."

The only person in the entire German High Command who had any suspicions was Josef Goebbels, the propaganda minister, who wondered in his diary whether the documents might be an elaborate hoax.

But he was far too cowardly to share his doubts with Hitler, who never doubted the authenticity of the papers - in large part because they confirmed what he already wanted to believe.

Pete also asks how much of a success the operation was in terms of moving troops to Greece to defend against an invasion that never happened. Of course, that is very difficult to quantify, since it would have to be measured in lives saved, battles unfought, and blood unspilled.

But we can certainly say this: Sicily, the real target, was left comparatively lightly defended, and the island was conquered far faster than many had feared. An entire Panzer division was moved from France to Greece, to the precise spots identified in the Mincemeat documents.

And, perhaps most importantly, the great German assault on the Eastern Front, around Kursk, was called off once the invasion of Sicily was underway.

Urnungal is right that codenames were supposed not to refer in any way to the objective, individual or operation - a rule that was broken by all sides, throughout the war. Mincemeat was no exception. They chose the name because it appealed to their rather ghoulish sense of humour.

They did, however, re-use codenames. This was partly intentional since it was hoped that if, by any chance, the Germans did come across the code name, they might assume it referred to the earlier operation, and ignore it.

And lastly from the BBC History messageboards is Ferval's mention, of the film of The Man Who Never Was. It is indeed based on reality, but only very loosely. The book of that name, by one of the principal organisers, Ewen Montagu, was written under very particular constraints. Much had to be concealed, and parts are deliberately misleading.

The film went one stage further and, in the interests of drama, invented things that never happened and people, to coin a phrase, who never were. By the time the story reached Hollywood, it was partly fantasy.

Ben Macintyre is the presenter of Operation Mincemeat.

Operation Mincemeat is on at 9pm on Sunday, 5 December on BBC Two.

Read more on the BBC News website: Operation Mincemeat: How a dead tramp fooled Hitler

Comments made by writers on the TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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