24 Jun 19
THE incredible story of a hoax operation to disguise the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily is being turned into a film.
Operation Mincemeat will reunite actor Colin Firth with Shakespeare In Love director John Madden.
The incredible story of one of the most successful wartime deceptions ever attempted is being turned into a film
The ingenious plan known as Operation Mincemeat depended on a single secret agent – a dead homeless man who would be passed off as a naval officer
Rights for the World War Two drama, described by Madden as “a bizarre and seductive cinematic blend of high-level espionage and ingenious fiction”, proved a winner with distributors at last month’s Cannes Film Festival.
The movie is based on the book of the same name. Here, its author tells the true story behind the film.
THE TRUE STORY
One April morning in 1943, a sardine fisherman spotted the corpse of a British soldier floating in the sea off the coast of Spain — and set in motion a chain of events that would change the course of World War Two.
Operation Mincemeat was one of the most successful wartime deceptions ever attempted — and certainly the strangest.
It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any spy before or since: He was dead.
His mission was to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allies would invade Greece.
The taking of Sicily was key, as it helped to secure the Mediterranean and paved the way for an assault on mainland Italy.
The brainchild of an eccentric RAF officer and a brilliant Jewish barrister, the hoax involved an extraordinary cast of characters.
They included the inventor of James Bond, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submarine captain, an angry admiral and a dead Welsh tramp.
Using fraud, imagination and seduction, Churchill’s team of spies spun a web of deceit so elaborate and convincing they began to believe it themselves.
The hoax started in a windowless basement beneath London’s Whitehall. It travelled from the capital to Scotland to Spain to Germany — and ended up on Hitler’s desk.
Operation Mincemeat originated in the mind of Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond, who worked in naval intelligence during the war.
Soon after the conflict was declared in 1939, Fleming drew up a list of possible deception operations for his demanding boss, Admiral John Godfrey, the model for M in the spy films.
One (“not a very nice one,” as he put it) was to find a dead body, equip it with false papers and leave it in a place where the Germans would find it.
The most obvious place was Spain, which was teeming with Nazi sympathisers. If the body and fake documents could be made to fall into the right hands, they would certainly be passed to the Germans.
The plan was dreamt up by James Bond creator Ian Fleming who drew up a list of possible deception operations for his demanding boss, Admiral John Godfrey
It was then up to two important men to execute the plan, one of which was lawyer Ewen Montagu of Navy intelligence
Montagu worked with Charles Cholmondeley, an RAF officer who was working with MI5, and the pair set about convincing Hitler that the Allies didn’t intend to attack Sicily
The plan was put into action before the invasion of Sicily in 1943.
British and US troops were massed in North Africa, preparing for the invasion of southern Europe, but the target was obvious. Churchill said: “Anyone but a fool would know it’s Sicily.”
The challenge for British intelligence was how to convince Hitler that the Allies did not intend to attack Sicily — and then attack Sicily.
The two architects of Operation Mincemeat were lawyer Ewen Montagu of Navy intelligence (to be played by Colin Firth in the forthcoming film) and an RAF officer working for MI5, Charles Cholmondeley.
Early in 1943, they were tipped off that the body of homeless man Glyndwr Michael had been brought into the mortuary at St Pancras in London.
MAJOR MARTIN IS BORN
He had killed himself with rat poison. After consulting with Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Britain’s top forensic expert, the spies decided the Germans could be fooled into thinking he had drowned at sea.
Glyndwr’s body was put in the mortuary fridge and they set about inventing a fake personality for him as Major William Martin, of the Royal Marines.
They constructed false identity papers, a uniform and orders indicating he was an important courier transporting vital military documents.
He would also be carrying letters from his bank manager, a receipt for an engagement ring and theatre ticket stubs.
Many years later, Montagu wrote: “We talked about him until we did feel that he was an old friend. Major Martin had become a real person to us.”
They also faked love letters from a non-existent fiancée named “Pam”. “Bill darling, do let me know as soon as you get fixed & can make some more plans.”
In the dead man’s wallet they included a photograph of Pam, actually Jean Leslie, a young and attractive secretary in MI5.
[quote credit=”Ewen Montagu”]We talked about him until we did feel that he was an old friend. Major Martin had become a real person to us.[/quote]
The most important fake documents, in an attaché case chained to the dead man’s wrist, were marked “personal and most secret” and indicated that the Allies intended to invade Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, and Sardinia in the west.
A second forged letter, from Lord Louis Mountbatten, then chief of combined operations, contained the phrase: “Let me have him [Martin] back as soon as you are finished with him. He might bring some sardines with him.”
Sardines, of course, come from Sardinia. Montagu wrote: “I thought that sort of joke would appeal to the Germans.”
Montagu and Cholmondeley constructed false identity papers to put on Glyndwr Michael’s body so that he would pass as Major William Martin, of the Royal Marines
They also faked love letters and pictures from a non-existent fiancée named Pam – actually MI5 secretary Jean Leslie
Glyndwr would carry orders indicating he was an important courier transporting vital military documents as well as letters from his bank manager, a receipt for an engagement ring and theatre ticket stubs
The bluff represented a serious gamble. If the Germans realised they were being deceived, then instead of reducing troop numbers in Sicily, they would bolster them, with bloody consequences.
The body would be transported to the shores of Spain by HMS Seraph, a submarine under the command of Captain Norman “Bill” Jewell.
While Seraph awaited her unlikely cargo on the West Coast of Scotland, the team constructed an airtight steel canister, six feet long, in which Major Martin would lie, packed around with dry ice to slow decomposition.
Meanwhile, MI6 confirmed a particularly active German spy was known to be operating in the Huelva region in southwestern Spain — the perfect target for the deception.
On April 16, they dressed Glyndwr in the uniform of William Martin, defrosted his frozen feet to put on his stiff army-issue boots, placed the body in the steel container labelled “optical instruments” and loaded it into the back of a van.
Shortly after 4am on April 24, the Seraph surfaced off the coast of Spain and the corpse, fitted with a lifejacket, was slipped gently into the sea. Captain Jewell sent a wireless message: “Mincemeat completed.”
Through MI5’s files and wireless messages intercepted by codebreakers at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, it is possible to reconstruct in detail the progress of Operation Mincemeat, from Huelva, to Madrid, to the German High Command.
After being dragged from the sea by the fisherman, Glyndwr’s body was buried in Huelva cemetery under a marble gravestone that read: “William Martin. Born 29th March, 1907. Died 24th April, 1943.”
Meanwhile, German spies had intercepted the briefcase and fake contents and sent them to Nazi High Command.
Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, had his doubts, as revealed in his diary.
But most of the top Nazi generals were fooled by the documents. General Jodl, head of the German Supreme Command Operations staff, declared: “You can forget about Sicily. We know it’s in Greece.”
Hitler was convinced by the deception. As they picked up the messages revealing the Nazis had fallen for it, MI5 sent a coded message to Churchill: “Mincemeat swallowed whole.”
The results were extraordinary. The First German Panzer Division of tanks was moved to Greece from France to defend against the expected landing.
German minefields were laid off Greece. An entire group of torpedo boats was redeployed from Sicily to the Aegean, and two more Panzer divisions were moved from Russia to Greece just as they were most needed in the battle at Kursk, 280 miles from Moscow.
By coincidence, the assault on Sicily was spearheaded by HMS Seraph under Bill Jewell, which planted buoys to lead the invaders to the beaches.
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In the early hours of July 10, Allied troops poured into Sicily, meeting little resistance. The surprised Italian defenders swiftly surrendered.
For two weeks, the Germans remained convinced the main attack would come in Greece and waited for an invasion that never came.
Half a century after Operation Mincemeat, the British government added a new line to the headstone in Huelva cemetery: “Glyndwr Michael, served as Major William Martin.”
Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story That Changed The Course Of World War II, by Ben Macintyre, is published by Bloomsbury, £8.99.
Allied troops met little resistance when liberating Sicily as the operation had been a success
For the next two weeks, the Germans remained convinced the main attack would come in Greece
Colin Firth has been lined up to play Ewen Montagu in the forthcoming film
Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story That Changed The Course Of World War II is available now
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