The incredible story of Operation Mincemeat

Thursday 2 December 2010, 11:13

Ben Macintyre Ben Macintyre Presenter

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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.

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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.

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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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    Comment number 21.

    Some sections of the ULTRA-classified official report on Operation Mincemeat, which was publicly released in 1996, are available here: http://www.psywar.org/forum/index.php/topic,477.msg

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    Comment number 22.

    Although I agree that Ben Macintyre's book "Operation Mincemeat" is well researched it does or did include in his earlier publication a misleading error on page 64, concerning my father Major William Martin whose military identity was unwittingly used. He joined the service in 1927 not "1937" No apology has been received from Ben Macintyre except an assurance the error will be corrected in next paperback edition..

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    Comment number 23.

    I am a little surprised at the preamble, i.e. suggesting that the story of Mincemeat had only just fully come to light. Thaddeus Holt's book, "The Deceivers" published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson in 2004, devotes eight pages to the subject. Mincemeat was one element - an important one without doubt - of a large deception plan named BARCLAY which was designed to keep the Axis forces concentrated in the Balkans - that is away from Sicily.

    I do not agree with Mr McIntyres assertion that Mincemeat, successful as it was was the "greatest deception operation of the war;" I think that that distinction applies to FORTITUDE which so successfully kept large elements of the German army in the Pas de Calais for several months whilst the Allies landed in Normandy and advanced into France in 1944.

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    Comment number 24.

    It occurs to me that Montagu and Cholmondeley took a tremendous chance on the Spanish pathologist not recognising that 'Major Martin' had died a long time earlier. In fact, there is good evidence that the local pathologist in Huelva knew this at once, but preferred to keep his suspicions to himself (see Jimmy Burns,'Papa Spy', 2009, p. 234. Burns's father was Press Secretary of the British embassy in Madrid).

    However, the point that has never been raised is how the planners of the deception thought that the teeth of a neglected tramp could have been in such condition that anyone opening his mouth could possibly have believed he was a Major of Royal Marines, who would have enjoyed excellent care from a dentist.

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    Comment number 25.

    Re: post 24 by Michael Alpert.

    To quote from the offical Operation Mincemeat report: "Sir Bernard Spilsbury was consulted on the subject of corpses. He advised that if the body of a man who had died from suitable causes were washed ashore in Spain, no one could tell, without elaborate post mortem, that he had not died in an air crash. Spaniards were bad pathologists; as Roman Catholics they had a dislike of post mortems".

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    Comment number 26.

    In the film 'The man who never was' this deception was failry accurately documented, but in real lifeI thought the Government Minister to approve this sceme was Duncan Sandys? working next to Ian Fleming was Dennis Wheatley who also came up with schemes, and himself wrote many WW2 books based on his knowledge gained in the Intelligence service.

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    Comment number 27.

    I have to agree with Andyht57, Royal Navy Fleet Headquarters, Portsmouth confirmed in 2006 that the "Man who never was", was in fact John Melville who was killed when HMS Dasher blew up off Arran on the 27th March 1943. Please read the excellent books on the subject by John and Noreen Steele particularly the latest "The American Connection to the Sinking of HMS Dasher"

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    Comment number 28.

    For the benefit of Rays a Larf, andyht57, peekey, rjhj, Henry McDermott, and anyone else of a conspiratorial nature still perpetuating the Dasher myth, may I offer conclusive proof that the body was that of Glyndwr Michael, and not John Melville?

    Among the declassified documents relating to Operation Mincemeat is a “top secret” memo written by Ewen Montagu, reporting a conversation with Bentley Purchase, the coroner who supplied the body. Critically, this was written after the body had been buried in Spain. Once the operation was underway, senior intelligence officers began to fear the body could be exhumed by the Germans and subjected to a second post-mortem, which might reveal that “Major Martin” had not died after an air crash at sea, but from rat poison.

    Purchase was reassuring: “Mincemeat [the body] took a minimal dose of a rat poison containing phosphorus. This dose was not sufficient to kill him outright and its only effect was so to impair the functioning of the liver that he died a little time afterwards. Apart from the smallness of the dose, the next point is that phosphorus is not one of the poisons readily traceable after long periods, such as arsenic, which invades the roots of the hair.”

    Why would the organisers of Operation Mincemeat have been worrying about the poison being detected if, as the conspiracists insist, this was the body of a seaman who had died in the HMS Dasher disaster? The body buried in Huelva was poisoned; therefore it was the body of Glyndwr Michael; therefore the Dasher theory is wrong.

    The Royal Navy made a mistake in identifying the body as that of Melville, and has since admitted it, repeatedly.

    Surely the time has come to admit that the mystery is over, let poor John Melville rest in peace, and give Glyndwr Michael his due.

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    Comment number 29.

    The description of the delivery driver, Singen Jock Forceful (sorry, I have no idea re, the correct spelling), is inaccurate to say the least and smacks of fluffing the story up for entertainments sake.

    At the time, one Willy Grover, was a serving member of SOE and ran a cell in Northern France (one of three successful race drivers to serve in the SOE). He was the inaugural winner of the Monaco GP in 1939 and was a works Bentley driver. Their story is recounted in the excellent book 'The Grand Prix Saboteurs' by Joe Saward.

    One other character could also be described as the 'fastest race driver' in the country at the time, Tony Rolt. Rolt was incarcerated in Colditz and was the designer and builder of the glider that was not used but was recreated at a later date and did indeed fly. Rolt went on to win the 1957 Le Mans and was the designer of the Ferguson 4-wheel drive system, later fitted on the Jensen FF.

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    Comment number 30.

    Apologies, he won the first Monaco Grand Prix in 1929...

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    Comment number 31.

    "Michael was found in a disused warehouse". Was Michael's death witnessed? If not,how do we know when he died? How do we know he died of a rat poison containing phosphorus? How do we know how much poison he took? Was Bentley Purchase able to come to his conclusions without a post-mortem being carried out?

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    Comment number 32.

    Macintyre took a long time to say tell a short story (see Secrets of WW2: The corpse that fooled Hitler; same story 28 min), but more importantly he overly emphasises the importance of MINCEMEAT; which merely confirmed Hitler's suspicions of an Allied attack on Greece. Though a successful deception, it was NOT the overriding influence which caused the Germans to mount defences in Greece rather than Sicily. Interesting deception nonetheless, Zigzag has more potential as an exciting TV story.

 

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