Military history


IN THE EARLY HOURS of July 10, 1943, British and North American troops stormed ashore on the coast of Sicily in the first assault against Hitler’s “Fortress Europe.” In hindsight, the invasion of the Italian island was a triumph, a pivotal moment in the war, and a vital stepping-stone on the way to victory in Europe. It was nearly a disaster. The offensive—then the largest amphibious landing ever attempted—had been months in the planning, and although the fighting was fierce, the casualty rate among the Allies was limited. Of the 160,000 soldiers who took part in the invasion and conquest of Sicily, more than 153,000 were still alive at the end. That so many survived was due, in no small measure, to a man who had died seven months earlier. The success of the Sicilian invasion depended on overwhelming strength, logistics, secrecy, and surprise. But it also relied on a wide web of deception, and one deceit in particular: a spectacular trick dreamed up by a team of spies led by an English lawyer.

I first came across the remarkable Ewen Montagu while researching an earlier book, Agent Zigzag, about the wartime double agent Eddie Chapman. A barrister in civilian life, Montagu was a Naval Intelligence officer who had been one of Chapman’s handlers, but he was better known as the author, in 1953, of The Man Who Never Was, an account of the deception plan, code-named “Operation Mincemeat,” he had masterminded in 1943. In a later book, Beyond Top Secret Ultra, written in 1977, Montagu referred to “some memoranda which,1 in very special circumstances and for a very particular reason, I was allowed to keep.” That odd aside stuck in my memory. The “special circumstances,” I assumed, must refer to the writing of The Man Who Never Was, which was authorized and vetted by the Joint Intelligence Committee. But I could think of no other case in which a former intelligence officer had been “allowed to keep” classified documents. Indeed, retaining top secret material is exactly what intelligence officers are supposed not to do. And if Ewen Montagu had kept them for so many years after the war, where were they now?

Montagu died in 1985. None of the obituaries referred to his papers. I went to see his son, Jeremy Montagu, a distinguished authority on musical instruments at Oxford University. With an unmistakable twinkle, Jeremy led me to an upstairs room in his rambling home in Oxford and pulled a large and dusty wooden trunk from under a bed. Inside were bundles of files from MI5 (the Security Service, responsible for counterespionage), MI6 (the Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, responsible for gathering intelligence outside Britain), and the wartime Naval Intelligence Department (NID), some tied up with string and many stamped TOP SECRET. Jeremy explained that some of his father’s papers had been transferred after his death to the Imperial War Museum, where they had yet to be cataloged, but the rest were just as he had left them in the trunk: letters, memos, photographs, and operational notes relating to the 1943 deception plan, as well as the original, uncensored manuscripts of his books. Here, too, was Ewen Montagu’s unpublished two-hundred-page autobiography and, perhaps most important, a copy of the official, classified report on “Operation Mincemeat”—the boldest, strangest, and most successful deception of the war. The personal correspondence between Ewen Montagu and his wife, at least three letters a week throughout the war, was also made available to me by the Montagu family. Without their generous help, this book could not have been written. All quotations are cited in the endnotes, but for clarity, I have standardized spellings, avoided ellipses, and selectively used reported speech as direct speech.

If my discovery of these papers reads like something out of a spy film, that may be no accident: Montagu himself had a rich sense of the dramatic. He must have known they would be found one day.

More than half a century after publication, The Man Who Never Was has lost none of the flavor of wartime intrigue, but it is, and was always intended to be, incomplete. The book was written at the behest of the British government, in order to conceal certain facts; in parts, it is deliberately misleading. Now, with the relaxation of government rules surrounding official secrecy, the recent declassification of files in the National Archives, and the discovery of the contents of Ewen Montagu’s ancient trunk, the full story of Operation Mincemeat can be told for the first time.

The plan was born in the mind of a novelist and took shape through a most unlikely cast of characters: a brilliant barrister, a family of undertakers, a forensic pathologist, a gold prospector, an inventor, a submarine captain, a transvestite English spymaster, a rally driver, a pretty secretary, a credulous Nazi, and a grumpy admiral who loved fly-fishing.

This deception operation—which underpinned the invasion of Sicily and helped to win the war—was framed around a man who never was. But the people who invented him, and those who believed in him, and those who owed their lives to him, most certainly were.

This is their story.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!