By Chet Yarbrough
“Operation Mincemeat” is a history of the real story of “The Man Who Never Was”, a book and movie produced in the 1950s about a British Secret Service operation to mislead the German Axis powers on the planned invasion of Italy in WWII.
Though this history is enlightening, Macintyre’s account makes the early British Secret Service look like an upper class boy’s club. The master minds of early British Secret Service espionage, MI5, are pictured as aspiring novelists from privileged, wealthy, Ivy League, English families playing in a game of war.
An idea to drop a dead body in the Mediterranean, off the Spanish coast, with false documents to mislead the Axis powers came from a novel written in the 1930s. Ian Fleming, one of MI5’s agents. Fleming recalls the novel and suggests the idea to the “boys club” in 1939. (As is well-known, Fleming went on to create the James Bond series.)
The details for execution of the plan are fascinating. The difficulty of acquiring a dead body, the creation of forged documents, the personal approval of Winston Churchill, and the bureaucratic arguments over minutiae before the plan could be executed beggar belief.
With all that preparation, it is surprising to hear of fundamental mistakes made on planted documents. The picture on the military ID to identify the dead body did not have the right hair-line.
One of the personal letters placed on the body incorrectly refers to a field commander as though he had knowledge of plans that he could not have had. In spite of these mistakes, the plan works perfectly and saves hundreds, probably thousands of Allied personnel by convincing Germany to build their defensive forces in Greece rather than Italy where the Allied invasion actually occurs.
There are stories of patriotism and hard work by the British Secret Service but they are diminished by the upper class characterization of the early agents. An office dalliance between the prime mover of the Mincemeat operation, agent Montagu, and an office secretary seems tawdry. The book concludes with Montagu’s battle over government declassification of the operation and his fight for publishing rights to the story of the deception.
The author’s characterization of the early days of the British Secret Service is not particularly heroic. There are pictures of real heroes in this history but they are soldiers in a real war. Much of MI5’s depiction is of upper class rich boys playing war at their desks in blacked out offices near Piccadilly.