A rather breathless review in The New York Times in May described Ewen Montagu, “The man who never was,” as a principal in a deception which tricked the Nazis into expecting an invasion of Greece rather than Sicily by the Allies in 1943, after having driven Rommel and the Afrika Korps from North Africa. The idea—which the Times implies was unheard of until now—was to drop a corpse where it would conveniently wash up on a Spanish beach, planted with false papers naming Greece as the invasion target and Sicily as the diversion. The Spaniards would hopefully place the false papers in German hands, and the Germans would shift their defenses to Greece and ignore Sicily—the real target.
The corpse was that of Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh gardener, “The Man Who Never Was,” subject of a video and a website.
Improbable? Yet, the review continues,
…the operation succeeded beyond wildest expectations, fooling the German high command into changing its Mediterranean defense strategy and allowing Allied forces to conquer Sicily with limited casualties. It was one of the most remarkable hoaxes in the history of espionage.
According to the review, Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre, credits the deception to Ewen Montagu, “a shrewd criminal lawyer and workaholic with a prematurely receding hairline and a penchant for stinky cheese.” Wonderful stuff, but like many stories in the Churchill genre, this is not a new story but an old one, which Sir Martin Gilbert covered long ago—nearly a quarter century ago, in fact, in his Volume VII of the Churchill official biography, Road to Victory (1976).
The Times review omits the originator of the plan, who was not Ewen Montagu but Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondley (pronounced “Chumley”) of MI5, who had been acting as a liaison officer with Col. John Bevan’s deception team, the London Controlling Section. It was Bevan who secured the approval of the Prime Minister, albeit with some doubts. “Of course,” Churchill said, “there’s a possibility that the Spaniards might find out that this dead man was in fact not drowned at all from a crashed air-craft, but was a gardener in Wales who’d killed himself with weed-killer.” When Bevan added that the wind and tide might be wrong and the body might not wash up, Churchill replied, “…well, in that case you’ll have to take him on another swim, won’t you.” (Road to Victory, page 405.)
As Martin Gilbert’s book explains, Cholmondley had the idea and Montagu was put in charge of setting it up. Sir Martin does credit Montagu with “indispensable support” for the successful hoax.
While Sir Martin gives this story the three pages it deserves, I wonder if it’s the stuff of an entire book. A historian colleague writes: “It may be just a good story that exaggerates the importance of the deception, as intell operatives and officers invariably do. But to do more than suggest that would require research in the military intell files to detect just what the effect of the deception really was.”
Macintyre’s book perhaps does this. Among previous available information, none mentions any transfer of significant (or insignificant) numbers of troops from Italy to Greece. Minefields and port defenses in Greece hardly diverted resources from Sicily. The loss of a group of motor torpedo boats would not have had a signal effect on the invasion of Sicily. Sending Rommel to Greece was a sign that the Germans bought the deception—but Rommel he was no “defensive” general.
Martin Gilbert wrote that “Operation Mincemeat” was a successful enterprise. The Spaniards found the washed up body, allowed the Germans to copy the papers, and the German High Command “anticipated” Greece and the Balkans as the locations of Allied landings, with Sicily as a cover operation. Mussolini demurred, but according to Gilbert, Hitler rejected his ally’s wise skepticism. Wrote Admiral Doenitz: “The Fuehrer does not agree with the Duce that the most likely invasion point is Sicily.”
Tote one up to Mussolini, not famous for his military perspicacity, and another boner for Adolf Hitler. The story puts me in mind of what Churchill said when Hitler escaped assassination in July 1944:
When Herr Hitler escaped his bomb on July 20th he described his survival as providential; I think that from a purely military point of view we can all agree with him, for certainly it would be most unfortunate if the Allies were to be deprived, in the closing phases of the struggle, of that form of warlike genius by which Corporal Schicklgruber has so notably contributed to our victory.