Saturday, January 5, 2013

Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre

If you love spy novels and movies-especially in the James Bond style, you will enjoy this book. All the more so because it’s true.

Ewan Montague knew that in order to turn the tide of WWII, they were going to have convince Hitler that the allied forces were going to invade in places other than where they actually intended to invade.

This was not a new concept. In fact many British agents and double agents, the most famous being Agent Garbo, had spent most of the war feeding the German spy network, the Abwehr, false information about where England and America’s forces were and where they weren’t.

What was unique was their approach.

Ewan Montague and Charles Chomondeley, both members of MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA) concocted a plan that was so crazy and absurd it just might work. And it did.

Montague and Chomondeley enlisted the help of a man, Bill Martin, to plant information inside the Abwehr. This information would contain plans that the Allied forces were going to invade Greece rather than Sicily.  If Hitler bought it, he would concentrate his army far away from where the Allies were actually going to invade.

How did they do this? They had Lt. Martin’s plane crash into the ocean off the coast of Portugal where his body was discovered by Portuguese fishermen who turned it over to Spanish authorities. On his person was a briefcase attached to his trench coat with, among other things, tickets to a play he had just seen, a love letter from his fiancée, and..oh yes.. official letters “hinting” at the next Allied invasion. 

Did I mention that Bill Martin was already dead?

In fact, Bill Martin wasn’t his real name and he never served in the Royal Military. He was a homeless derelict named Glyndwr Michael whose body was found in a warehouse after he apparently committed suicide.
And his plane didn’t crash. He was never on a plane. He was transported by submarine and ejected into the ocean.

Operation Mincemeat, as the plan was dubbed, was an elaborate scheme that took months of preparation with no detail left unturned.

Macintyre’s books gives an excellent and exciting account of everyone involved. He gives the background of Glyndwr Michael, allowing the reader to see him as a real person that one could have sympathy for rather than viewing him merely as a prop in an espionage scheme.

He also gives us backgrounds of all the players involved: Montague’s family life and background, Cholmondeley’s, Lieutenant Jewell- the commander of the submarine that carried Martin/Michael’s body, as well as the likes of Ian Fleming and other spies who went on to become novelists. We also meet a number of men who inspired some of Fleming’s Bond characters such and “M” and “Q”.

As much as he is able, Macintyre  gives us the personas of the Germans who were at the receiving end of Allied misinformation. He devotes some tantalizing portions of his book to Agent Garbo. Since then I’ve read books written about that fascinating and mysterious man who is considered to be the greatest double agent of WWII.

Macintyre’s book is methodical and allows one to easily read the whole story from the germination of the idea, to persuading the right powers to implement Operation Mincemeat, to creating the legend of Lt. Martin, the nuts and bolts of getting Martin over to the enemy and the use of British intelligence to work the information through to the upper echelons of the Reich’s spy network.

Everything hinged on persuading Hitler’s most trusted advisor that everything the allies said was going to happen was true.

This man was Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne, Germany’s chief intelligence analyst. While other German spy agents worked out of motives for monetary gain and personal gain, even self-preservation, Roenne, alone cast a clear, cold eye over every piece of information that came across his desk. If they were going to convince Hitler of an invasion in Sardenia (rather than the actual location, Sicily), they were going to have to convince Roenne.

Many sources like to attribute the Allied victory over Germany to Britain’s spy network, and especially Agent Garbo. The fact is, none of these intelligence operatives would have gone anywhere without Roenne. Roenne was the one Hitler most trusted. He had an unswerving faith in this descendant of Latvian aristocracy. If Roenne didn’t convince Hitler of the truth of the reports, nothing would have transpired. Not only would Operation Mincemeat fail but so would the work of Agent Garbo.

Can I say now that out of all the operatives working, the Nazi, Roenne, is my hero? Why, do you ask? Let me tell you.

Because Roenne was, in fact, a devout Christian and anti-Nazi conspirator. He was appalled at the carnage and holocaust of human life Hitler’s regime wrecked. In his own way he was determined to do something about it.

Von Roenne, however, may have chosen to believe in the fake documents for an entirely different reason: because he loathed Hitler, wanted to undermine the Nazi war effort, and was intent on passing false information to the high command in the certain knowledge that it was wholly false and extremely damaging.
It is quite possible that Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne did not believe the Mincemeat deception for an instant. (pg. 383)

Von Roenne was a secret but committed opponent of Nazism... he detested Hitler and the uncouth thugs surrounding him....His Christian conscience had been outraged by the appalling SS terror unleashed in Poland...From 1943 onward, he deliberately and consistently inflated the Allied order of battle, overstating the strength of the British and American armies in a successful effort to mislead Hitler and his generals....

.....Perhaps, like other German anti-Nazi conspirators, he just wanted Germany to lose the war as swiftly as possible, to avoid further bloodletting and remove Hitler and his repellent circle from power. Whatever his reasons, and despite his reputation as an intelligence guru, by 1943 von Roenne was deliberately passing information he knew to be false, directly to Hitler’s desk. (pg. 385, 386).

Macintyre goes on to say the Roenne’s finest hour was when he “faithfully passed on every deception ruse fed to him” about the Normandy invasion and the buildup to D-day. He accepted every “bogus unit” and “inflated forty-four divisions in Britain to an astonishing eighty-nine.”

Macintyre maintains that without Roenne’s “willing connivance” the entire deceptive operation surrounding D-Day could have unraveled.

Other historians, whom Macintyre lists in his bibliography, corroborate these facts.

Eventually Roenne was found out through his connections and friendship with the German Nazis who conspired to assassinate Hitler. Even though he wasn’t involved in the plot, his association with those that were sufficed to determine his fate.

Roenne was given a mock trial in the “People’s Court” where he stated that “Nazi race policies were inconsistent with Christian values.” (pg. 387)

I won’t describe here how he was executed. Just know that it was long and agonizing. And Hitler had it filmed for his personal viewing pleasure.

The night before he died Roenne wrote a letter to his wife:

In a moment now I shall be going home to our Lord in complete calm and in the certainty of salvation. (pg. 387)

I believe some of the most fascinating aspects of the war efforts as well as allied success can be attributed to Germans like Roenne who fought against Hitler and his regime from the inside. I wonder how many of us would have had the courage to do so in similar circumstances? Would I?

In conclusion, Operation Mincemeat is a rollicking read that pulls you right into the heart of a roller coaster ride of spy networking and scheming that prevented a terrorist organization to rule the world.

Kindle $11.99

I borrowed this book from my local library.


  1. I have heard about this operation for many years, but only in bullet points, this sounds like a wonderful book (I'll make sure to buy it from here when I do). The stories that come out of WWII never cease to amaze me.

    Excellent post Sharon.

    1. Thanks, Zohar. You will thoroughly enjoy this book. I read it in two days. Not a boring sentence in it.

  2. This book sounds terrific. One of my interests is World War II and the espionage stories are some of the most interesting.

    I had never heard of Von Roenne before but stories such as his are in inspirartion.

    1. Brian, you would thoroughly enjoy this book. As I said to another commentator, there's not a boring sentence in it.

  3. Excellent! Thanks, Sharon. I so enjoy tasting the books you read through your reviews...Terry is reading an 800 page autobiography about a civil engineer. How long would it take you to read something like that? Just curious.

    1. I have people like you in mind when I review, Phyllis. I know a lot of people won't get around to reading these books so I want them to get the salient points.

      I'm not sure how long it would take me to read 800 pages. It would depend on the book. Mincemeat was 600 pages large print and I read it in two days. On the other hand, Josephus was 1000 pages small print, double columns and it took me three years. War and Peace took me a month. My translation of W and P is over 1300 pages-although I admit I quit before reading all the epilogues.

  4. I'm embarrassed to say that I was totally unaware of this little nugget of history. I'm going to go do some reading now. Thanks!


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.