By Joseph Kanon
Sunday, May 30, 2010; B06
How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
By Ben Macintyre
400 pp. $25.99
Of the many plots cooked up by British Intelligence during World War II, Operation Mincemeat is probably the best known and by now the most legendary. The story again, briefly: In 1943 a corpse disguised as a Maj. William Martin of the Royal Marines and carrying fake classified papers concerning Allied strategy in the Mediterranean is made to wash up on a beach in Spain, presumably the victim of a plane crash. The hope is that Spanish officials, ostensibly neutral but really pro-Axis, will pass the documents on to the Germans (they did), who will think they have stumbled on an intelligence gold mine (they did) and alter their Mediterranean defenses accordingly, thus easing the way for the Allied invasion of Sicily.
It was an implausible ruse that worked, with all the now-classic elements of that era's spy fiction: dapper and ingenious British officers, dull-witted and credulous Germans, and shifty double agents, both real and imagined. The original germ of the plan, in fact, had been proposed to Naval Intelligence four years earlier by none other than Lt. Comm. Ian Fleming (the models for both "M" and "Q" make appearances here), who in turn got the idea from a 1937 thriller by Basil Thomson, once head of Scotland Yard's Criminal Investigations Department.
The real Operation Mincemeat, not surprisingly, proved irresistible material. Despite secrecy regulations, Duff Cooper used it as the basis for a 1950 novel, "Operation Heartbreak," and, after much pleading, the operation's chief organizer, Ewen Montagu, was given permission to tell the official (censored) version in "The Man Who Never Was" in 1953 -- an instant hit that sold more than 3 million copies, became a popular 1956 movie, with Clifton Webb as Montagu, and is still in print. The story has appeared in accounts of World War II intelligence operations ever since. What, then, is there left to say?
Quite a lot, it turns out, all of it entertaining. Ben Macintyre, an associate editor for the Times of London, is a first-rate journalist who seems to have talked to everyone connected with the operation (or their descendants) and worked his way through recently declassified documents in the National Archives. But -- true to the spirit of the operation -- his most important source turned out to be the deceased Montagu himself, or more specifically, a dusty trunk he left behind with bundles of files from MI5, MI6 and Naval Intelligence; letters, memos, photographs; original, uncensored drafts; and so on, an intelligence bonanza more genuine than the one foisted on the Germans. Macintyre has made the most of it. Here, finally, is the complete story with its full cast of characters (not a dull one among them), pure catnip to fans of World War II thrillers and a lot of fun for everyone else.
We now learn that the dead man was Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welshman who committed suicide by swallowing rat poison in an abandoned warehouse near Kings Cross; that the coroner (the wonderfully named Bentley Purchase) bent the law to snatch the body for Montagu; that Montagu had a flirtation (if not more) with the secretary who posed as Maj. Martin's fiancée; that there were the usual personality clashes and interdepartmental rivalries.
But Macintyre does more than fill in the pieces Montagu left out. By extending the action from Whitehall to Spain and Berlin, he gives the story a sweep it's never had before (the Madrid section alone is worth this retelling). He throws in surprises: Montagu's brother Ivor, the communist filmmaker and Ping-Pong expert, was a Soviet agent, as neither Montagu nor MI5 knew at the time. Macintyre has a novelist's flair for detail, not only the relevant (the entire operation cost about £200), but a few of the gee-whiz variety (American invasion forces were issued 144,000 condoms, fewer than two each), and even those that can make a scene leap to the eye, e.g., the American "who drove with one leg permanently hanging out of his Jeep."
But most of all, he gives us characters. There is a dashing submarine commander (his photo confirms the adjective) who once hunted treasure in the Bolivian jungles. There are gentlemanly rogues (Montagu said Fleming was "charming to be with, but would sell his own grandmother. I like him a lot."). And there is an intelligence officer, the also wonderfully named Dudley Wrangel Clarke, who is arrested in Madrid dressed as a woman, brassiere and all, but not as part of any operation. Nothing here is humdrum. What might have been a routine trip -- delivering the body to the submarine -- becomes an action scene when the driver, a racecar driver in civilian life ("Jock" Horsfall), goes so fast in the blackout that he fails to see a roundabout and sails over the grass circle in the middle.
"Operation Mincemeat" has been No. 1 on the Sunday Times list in London, and no wonder. Part of the great charm of this book is that Macintyre recognizes that the ruse, in all its colorful eccentricity, plays into Britain's mythology of World War II. He takes pains to remind us of its serious purpose -- and indeed many lives were saved in Sicily -- but at its heart the story is the war in Technicolor. Could it really have been like this? Full of daring and self-effacing heroism and romantic conquests in Algiers? "Operation Mincemeat" suggests that it really was -- at least some of the time.