Military history

CHAPTER NINE

My Dear Alex

EVEN CHARLES CHOLMONDELEY’S elastic mind was having trouble wrapping itself around the problem of how to transport a corpse from London to Spain and then drop it in the sea, without being spotted, in such a way that it would appear to be the victim of an air crash. There were, he reckoned, four possible methods of shipping Major Martin to his destination. The body could be transported aboard a surface ship, most easily on one of the naval escorts accompanying merchant vessels in and out of the Huelva port. This option was rejected, “owing to the need for placing1 the body close inshore;” nothing was more likely to attract the attention of Adolf Clauss and his spies than a Royal Navy ship lingering in shallow waters. An alternative would be to take the body by plane and simply open the door and throw it out at the right spot. The problem, however, was that “if the body were dropped in this way2 it might be smashed to pieces on landing,” particularly if it had already started to decompose. A seaplane, such as a Catalina, might be able to land, if the conditions were right, and slip the body into the water more gently. Cholmondeley drew up a possible scenario: the seaplane and its cargo would “come in from out at sea3 simulating engine trouble, drop a bomb to simulate the crash, go out to sea as quickly as possible, return (as if it were a second flying boat) and drop a flare as if searching down the first aircraft, land, and then while ostensibly searching for survivors, drop the body etc, and then take off again.” On examination, this plan seemed far too elaborate. Any number of things could go wrong, including a real plane crash.

A submarine would be better. The drop could be carried out at night, and if there was insufficient depth of water, then a rubber dinghy could be used to take the body closer inshore. The submarine captain could monitor the winds and tides in order to surface and drop the body at the optimum moment. “After the body has been4 planted it would help the illusion if a ‘set piece’ giving a flare and explosion with delayed action fuse could be left to give the impression of an aircraft crash.” The only problem, as Cholmondeley delicately put it, was the “technical difficulties in keeping5 the body fresh during the passage.” Submariners were a notoriously hardy bunch, able to withstand long periods underwater in the most fetid and cramped conditions. But even submariners would surely object to having a rotting corpse as a shipmate. Moreover, the operation was top secret: the presence of a dead body on a submarine would not remain secret very long. “Of these methods,”6 Cholmondeley concluded, “a submarine is the best (if the necessary preservation of the body can be achieved).”

There is no easy way to smuggle a dead body aboard a submarine, let alone prevent it from rotting in the warm, muggy atmosphere of a submarine hold. For help, Cholmondeley turned to Charles Fraser-Smith of “Q-Branch,” the chief supplier of gadgets to the Secret Service. A former missionary in Morocco, Fraser-Smith was officially a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Supply’s Clothing and Textile Unit; his real job was to furnish secret agents, saboteurs, and prisoners of war with an array of wartime gizmos, such as miniature cameras, invisible ink, hidden weaponry, and concealed compasses. Fraser-Smith provided Ian Fleming with equipment for some of his more outlandish plans, and he doubtless helped to inform the character of “Q,” the eccentric inventor in the James Bond films. Fraser-Smith possessed a wildly ingenious but supremely practical mind. He invented garlic-flavored chocolate to be consumed by agents parachuting into France in order that their breath should smell appropriately Gallic as soon as they landed; he made shoelaces containing a vicious steel garrote; he created a compass hidden in a button that unscrewed clockwise, based on the impeccable theory that the “unswerving logic of the German7 mind” would never guess that something might unscrew the wrong way.

With the help of Fraser-Smith, Cholmondeley drew up a blueprint for the world’s first underwater corpse transporter. This was a tubular canister, six feet six inches long and almost two feet in diameter, with a double skin made from 22-gauge steel and the space between the skins packed with asbestos wool. One end would be welded closed, while the other had an airtight steel lid that screwed onto a rubber gasket with sixteen bolts. A folding handle was attached to either end, and a box wrench was clipped to the lid for easy removal. With the body inside, Cholmondeley estimated the entire package would weigh about four hundred pounds and would fit snugly into the pressure hull of a submarine. Sir Bernard Spilsbury was consulted once more. Oxygen, he explained, was the cause of rapid decomposition. But “if most of the oxygen had previously8 been excluded” from the tube with dry ice, and if the canister was completely airtight, and if the body was carefully packed around with dry ice, then the corpse would “keep perfectly satisfactorily”9 and remain as cold as it had been inside the morgue. Fraser-Smith’s task, then, was to design “an enormous Thermos flask”10 thin enough to fit down the torpedo hatch. The Ministry of Aircraft Production was given the plans and instructed to build this container as fast as possible, without being told what it was for. On the outside of the canister should be stenciled the words “HANDLE WITH CARE11—OPTICAL INSTRUMENTS—FOR SPECIAL FOS SHIPMENT.”

Montagu, meanwhile, contacted Admiral Sir Claude Barry, the flag officer in command of submarines (FOS) to find out which submarine might best be used for the mission. Barry replied that British submarines passed Huelva frequently en route to Malta; indeed, HMS Seraph was currently in Scotland, docked at Holy Loch on the Clyde and preparing to return to the Mediterranean in April. The Seraph was commanded by Lieutenant Bill Jewell, a young captain who had already carried out several secret assignments and who could be relied on for complete discretion. Montagu drew up some draft operational orders for Jewell and arranged to meet the submarine officer in London and give him a full briefing on his new mission.

The hydrographer at the Admiralty submitted his report on the winds and tides off the coast at Huelva. As befits a man immersed in the vagaries of marine conditions, he was distinctly noncommittal, pointing out that “the Spaniards and Portuguese12 publish practically nothing about tides, tidal streams and currents off their coasts.” Moreover, “the tides in that area13 run mainly up and down the coast.” If the object was dropped in the right place, in the right conditions, “wind between S[outh] and W[est]14 might set it towards the head of the bight near P. Huelva.” However, if the body did wash up on the shore, there was no guarantee it would stay there because “if it did not strand,15 it would be carried out again on the ebb.” This was less than perfect, but not discouraging enough to call off the operation. In any case, Montagu reflected, the “object” in question was a man in a life jacket, rather larger than the object the hydrographer had been asked to speculate about, and might be expected to catch an onshore wind and drift landward. He concluded: “The currents on the coast16 are unhelpful at any point but the prevailing south west wind will bring the body ashore if Jewell can ditch it near enough to the coast.”

In the last week of March, Montagu drew up a seven-point progress report for Johnnie Bevan, who had just returned from North Africa, where he had coordinated plans for Operation Barclay with Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Clarke. Relations between Montagu and Bevan remained tense. “I am not quite clear as to who17 is in sole charge of administrative arrangements in connection with this operation,” Bevan wrote to Montagu, in a note calculated to rile him. “I think we all agree that there are quite a number of things that might go wrong.” Montagu was fully aware of the dangers and in no doubt whatsoever that he was in sole charge of the operation, even if Bevan did not see it that way. Privately, Montagu accused Bevan of “thinking it couldn’t come off18 and disclaiming all responsibility.”

Montagu’s report laid out the state of play: the body was almost ready, with Major Martin’s uniform and accoutrements selected; the canister was under construction; Gómez-Beare and Hillgarth were standing by in Spain. And there was now a deadline: “Mincemeat will be taken out19 as an inside passenger in HMS Seraph leaving the northwest coast of this country probably on the 10th April.” That left just two weeks to complete preparations. Montagu and Cholmondeley had deliberately sought to arrange everything before obtaining final approval for the operation, on the assumption that senior officers were far less likely to meddle when presented with a fait very nearly accompli. But there was now little time to finalize the last, and by far the most important, piece of the puzzle. Montagu’s letter to Bevan ended on a note of exasperation: “All the details are now20 ‘buttoned up,’” he wrote. “All that is required are the official documents.”

The debate about what should, or should not, be contained in Major Martin’s official letters had already taken up more than a month. It is doubtful whether any documents in the war were subjected to closer scrutiny or more revisions. Draft after draft was proposed by Montagu and Cholmondeley, revised by more senior officers and committees, scrawled over, retyped, sent off for approval, and then modified, amended, rejected, and rewritten all over again. There was general agreement that, as Montagu had originally envisaged, the keystone of the deception should be a personal letter from General Nye to General Alexander. It was also agreed that the letter should identify Greece as the target of the next Allied assault and Sicily as the cover target. Beyond this, there was very little agreement about anything at all.

Almost everyone who read the letter thought it could do with “alteration and improvement.”21 Everyone, and every official body concerned, from the Twenty Committee to the Chiefs of Staff, had a different idea about how this should be achieved. The Admiralty thought it needed to be “more personal.”22 The Air Ministry insisted the letter should clearly indicate that the bombing of Sicilian airfields was in preparation for invading Greece, and not a prelude to an attack on Sicily itself. The chief of the Imperial General Staff and chairman of the Chiefs of Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, wanted “a letter in answer to one from23 General Alexander.” The director of plans thought the operation was premature and “should not be undertaken24 earlier than two months before the real operation,” in case the real plans changed. Bevan wondered whether the draft letter sounded “rather too official”25 and insisted, “we must get Dudley Clarke’s26 approval as it’s his theatre.” Clarke himself, in a flurry of cables from Algiers, warned of the “danger of overloading27 this communication” and stuck to the view that it was “a mistake to play for high28 deception stakes.” Bevan remained anxious: “If anything miscarries29 and the Germans appreciate that the letter is a plant they would no doubt realise that we intend to attack Sicily.” Clarke framed his own draft, further enraging Montagu, who regarded this effort as “merely a lowish grade innuendo30at the target of the type that has often been, and could always be, put over by a double agent.” The director of plans agreed that “Mincemeat should be capable31 of much greater things.” Bevan then also tried his hand at a letter, which again Montagu dismissed as “of a type which could have32been sent by signal and would not have appeared genuine to the Germans if carried in the way this document would be.” There was even a brief but fierce debate over how to spell the name of the Greek city Kalamata. The operation seemed to be running into a swamp of detail.

Typically, Montagu tried to insert some tongue-in-cheek jokes into the letter. He wanted Nye to write: “If it isn’t too much trouble,33 I wonder whether you could ask one of your ADCs to send me a case of oranges or lemons. One misses fresh fruit terribly, especially this time of year when there is really nothing to buy.” The Chiefs of Staff excised this: General Nye could not be made to look like a scrounger. Even to the Germans. Especially to the Germans. So Montagu tried another line: “How are you getting on34 with Eisenhower? I gather he is not bad to work with. …” That was also removed: too flippant for a general. Next Montagu attempted a quip at the expense of the notoriously bigheaded General Montgomery: “Do you still take the same size35 in hats, or do you need a couple of sizes larger like Monty?” That, too, was censored. Finally, Montagu managed to squeeze a tiny half joke in at the end, relating to Montgomery’s much-mocked habit of issuing orders every day. “What is wrong with Monty?36 He hasn’t issued an order of the day for at least 48 hours.” That stayed in, for now.

Montagu’s temper, never slow to ignite, began smoldering dangerously as the deadline neared and the key letter was tweaked, poked, and polished. And then scrapped and restarted. Page after page of drafts went into the files, covered with Montagu’s increasingly enraged squiggles and remarks.

Finally, the Chiefs of Staff came up with a good suggestion: why not have General Nye draft the letter himself, since this would be “the best way of giving it37 an authentic touch”? Archie Nye was no wordsmith, but he knew General Alexander fairly well, and he knew the sound of his own voice. Nye read all the earlier drafts and then put the letter into his own words. The key passage referred to General Sir Henry “Jumbo” Wilson, then commander-in-chief of the Middle East, making it appear that he would be spearheading an attack on Greece; it indicated, falsely, that Sicily was being set up as a cover target for a simultaneous assault in another part of the Mediterranean; it referred to some run-of-the-mill army matters, which also happened to be authentic, such as the appointment of a new commander of the Guards Brigade and an offer from the Americans to award Purple Hearts to British soldiers serving alongside American troops. Above all, it sounded right. Montagu, after so many weeks spent trying to pull off the forgery himself, admitted that Nye’s letter was “ideally suited to the purpose.”38 The false targets were “not blatantly mentioned39 although very clearly indicated,” allowing the enemy to put two and two together, making at least six.

Bevan wrote to Nye, asking him to have the letter typed up and then to sign it in nonwaterproof ink, since a waterproof signature might raise suspicions. “Your signature in ink might40 become illegible owing to contact with sea water and consequently it would be advisable to type your full title and name underneath the actual signature.”

Bevan had one final tweak. “General Wilson is referred to41 three times as ‘Jumbo,’ ‘Jumbo Wilson’ and ‘Wilson.’ I wonder whether it would not be more plausible to refer to him on the first occasion as ‘Jumbo Wilson’ and ‘Jumbo’ thereafter.”

Ewen Montagu, naval intelligence officer, lawyer, angler, and the principal organizer of Operation Mincemeat.

Charles Cholmondeley, the RAF officer seconded to MI5 whose “corkscrew mind” first alighted on the idea of using a dead body to deceive the Germans.

Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the senior pathologist at the Home Office and pioneer of forensics who knew more about death than any man alive.

Bentley Purchase, the cheerful coroner of St. Pancras.

Iris Montagu, wife of Ewen.

Admiral John Godfrey, the irascible director of naval intelligence and model for “M” in the Bond novels, whose “Trout Memo,” written in 1939, inspired the deception plan.

Ian Fleming, wartime naval officer and the creator of James Bond, seen here in Room 39 of the Admiralty, the nerve center of British naval intelligence.

Ivor Montagu, filmmaker, communist, Table Tennis pioneer, and Soviet spy, with his wife, Hell.

Ewen Montagu at work in Room 13, c. 1943.

Cartoon by Robert Bartlett depicting Ewen Montagu in Room 13. Montagu tended to shout on the scrambler telephone; the operator is telling him to hush.

Jean Leslie, the attractive MI5 secretary whose photograph would be used to depict “Pam,” the fictional fiancée of “William Martin.”

The staff of Section 17M in Room 13 in the Admiralty basement: Ewen Montagu, front row, seated second from right; Joan Saunders, back row, third from right; Juliette Ponsonby, fourth from right; Patricia Trehearne, second from right.

Glyndwr Michael, dressed as Major William Martin, on the Hackney mortuary gurney. His clenched hand and discolored upper face are evidence of phosphorus poisoning. The figure on the right is PC Glyndon May, the coroner’s officer.

Charles Fraser-Smith, the inventor who designed the canister to transport the body.

Cholmondeley and Montagu posing outside the van at Langbank on the River Clyde, at dawn on Sunday, April 18, 1943, a few hours before delivering the body to the submarine.

The racing driver Jock Horsfall, enjoying a cup of tea in the back of the van taking the body to Scotland. “William Martin” is inside the canister.

Salvador Augustus “Don” Gómez-Beare, assistant naval attaché, First World War flying ace and agent-runner.

The crew of HM Submarine Seraph posing in the conning tower. Lieutenant Bill Jewell is at the helm (left); his second-in-command, First Lieutenant David Scott, is standing, center.

Nye replied: “I referred to him variously42 intentionally (and committed a couple of—almost—grammatical errors) so as not to be guilty of too meticulous a letter. In fact, in dictating letters, which one normally does, these things occur and I think to leave them in makes it more realistic.” At the last moment, Nye dropped the joke about Monty. “I would never have written43 such a thing. … It wouldn’t be me. It might have struck a false note and, if so, did one really gain anything by taking such a risk?” The general toyed with a joke of his own: “P.S. We saw you on the cinema44 the other night and Colleen thought you looked uncommonly like Haile Selassie!” General Alexander did look a little like the Ethiopian emperor, and Nye thought this remark “might help to strike45 the right note of informality.” On the other hand, General Nye had no sense of humor and was enough of a realist to know it. His final letter was entirely joke-free. He sent it back with a note and a flourish: “Now I hope your friends46 will ensure delivery.” It was, in Montagu’s words, “a truly magnificent letter.”47

Telephone: Whitehall 9400

Chief of the Imperial General Staff

War Office

Whitehall

London S.W.1.

23rd April 1943

Personal and Most Secret

My Dear Alex,

I am taking advantage of sending you a personal letter by hand of one of Mountbatten’s officers, to give you the inside history of our recent exchanges of cables about Mediterranean operations and their attendant cover plans. You may have felt our decisions were somewhat arbitrary, but I can assure you that the C.O.S. Committee gave the most careful consideration both to your recommendation and to Jumbo’s.

We have had recent information that the Boche have been reinforcing and strengthening their defences in Greece and Crete, and C.I.G.S. felt that our forces for the assault were insufficient. It was agreed by the Chiefs of Staff that the 5th Division should be reinforced by one Brigade Group for the assault on the beach south of CAPE ARAXOS and that a similar reinforcement should be made for 56th Division at KALAMATA. We are earmarking the necessary forces and shipping.

Jumbo Wilson had proposed to select SICILY as the cover target for ‘HUSKY,’ but we had already chosen it as cover for operation ‘BRIMSTONE.’ The C.O.S. Committee went into the whole question exhaustively again and came to the conclusion that in view of the preparations in Algeria, the amphibious training which will be taking place on the Tunisian coast and the heavy bombardment which will be put down to neutralise the Sicilian airfields, we should stick to our plan for making it the cover for ‘BRIMSTONE’—indeed, we stand a very good chance of making him think we will go for Sicily—it is an obvious objective and one about which he must be nervous. On the other hand, they felt there wasn’t much hope of persuading the Boche that the extensive preparations in the Eastern Mediterranean were also directed at Sicily. For this reason they have told Wilson his cover plan should be something nearer the spot i.e. the Dodecanese. Since our relations with Turkey are now so obviously closer, the Italians must be pretty apprehensive about these islands.

I imagine you will agree with these arguments. I know you will have your hands more than full at the moment and you haven’t much chance of discussing future operations with Eisenhower. But if, by any chance, you do want to support Wilson’s proposal, I hope you will let us know soon, because we can’t delay much longer.

I am very sorry we weren’t able to meet your wishes about the new commander of the Guards Brigade. Your own nominee was down with a bad attack of the ’flu and not likely to be really fit for another few weeks. No doubt, however, you know Forster personally; he has done extremely well in command of a brigade at home, and is, I think, the best fellow available.

You must be about as fed up as we are with the whole question of war medals and ‘Purple Hearts.’ We all agree with you that we don’t want to offend our American friends, but there is a good deal more to it than that. If our troops who happen to be serving in one particular theatre are to get extra decorations merely because the Americans happen to be serving there too, we will be faced with a good deal of discontent among those troops fighting elsewhere perhaps just as bitterly—perhaps more so. My own feeling is that we should thank the Americans for their kind offer, but say firmly it would cause too many anomalies and we are sorry we can’t accept. But it is on the agenda for the next Military Members Meeting, and I hope you will have a decision very soon.

Best of Luck

Yours ever,

Archie Nye

General the Hon Sir Harold R.L.G. Alexander,

G.C.B., C.S.I, D.S.O., M.C.

Headquarters, 18th Army Group

The letter twanged every chord. It indicated that there was not one assault planned, but two: General Wilson’s army under Montgomery would attack two points in Greece under the code name “Husky;” General Alexander, under Eisenhower’s command, was preparing to launch a separate attack in the western Mediterranean, code-named “Brimstone.” The cover target for this latter operation was Sicily. The letter openly stated the intention to deceive the Germans into believing an attack on Sicily was imminent, pointing out that amphibious training in North Africa and the bombardment of Sicilian airfields would tend to support that impression. The training and bombing were, of course, preparations for the real attack on Sicily. “Husky” was the genuine code name for that invasion; if the Germans came across any allusion to Husky in the future, having read Nye’s letter, they would, with luck, assume that this referred to the attack on Greece.

Nye’s letter hinted at a second assault in the western Mediterranean but did not say where the fictional Operation Brimstone would be aimed. Nor did it explain why such an important letter was being carried by this particular officer. There was nothing to explain what Major Martin was doing in North Africa, on the eve of a major invasion. A second letter was called for. Since Martin was on the staff of Combined Operations, Colonel Neville of the Royal Marines, who had been consulted on Major Martin’s uniform, drafted a letter to be signed by Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of Combined Operations, and addressed it to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander in chief in the Mediterranean. Cunningham was Eisenhower’s naval deputy, a hard-grained Scot with red-rimmed eyes who had been in uniform ever since the Boer War. Like Alexander, his name and seniority would be well known to the Germans; unlike Alexander, there was nothing smooth and refined about Admiral Cunningham, who preferred the cut and thrust of battle to the comforts and trappings of high rank. His favorite expression, when things seemed to be going too well, was “It’s too velvety-arsed and Rolls Royce48 for me.” The letter clearly indicated that Martin, a trusted expert on landing craft, was coming out to help Admiral Cunningham with preparations for the next amphibious assault.

In reply quote: S.R. 1924/43

Combined Operations Headquarters

1A Richmond Terrace

Whitehall, S.W.1

21st April

Dear Admiral of the Fleet,

I promised VCIGS that Major Martin would arrange with you for the onward transmission of the letter he has with him for General Alexander. It is very urgent and very ‘hot’ and as there are some remarks in it that could not be seen by others in the War Office, it could not go by signal. I feel sure that you will see that it goes on safely and without delay.

I think you will find Martin the man you want. He is quiet and shy at first, but he really knows his stuff. He was more accurate than some of us about the probable run of events at Dieppe and he has been well in on the experiments with the latest barges and equipment which took place in Scotland.

Let me have him back, please, as soon as the assault is over. He might bring some sardines with him—they are ‘on points’ here!

Yours sincerely,

Louis Mountbatten

Admiral of the Fleet Sir A.B. Cunningham G.C.B.,

D.S.O.

Commander in Chief Mediterranean

Allied Forces HQ

Algiers

The most crucial element of the letter was the last paragraph, clearly indicating that the assault on which Martin would advise was to be on the home of the sardine. Operation Brimstone, therefore, must be aimed at Sardinia. It was, Montagu admitted, a “laboured”49 witticism. Like many Britons, Montagu found the German sense of humor somewhat leaden. “I thought that that sort of joke50 would appeal to the Germans.”

The Germans might or might not be amused, but would they be taken in? This second letter contained some dangerous flaws. It appeared to indicate that Mountbatten knew the contents of Nye’s letter which, in reality, was exceedingly unlikely. Would the chief of Combined Operations have needed to explain why the information was not being sent by cable? The sardines joke smelled fishy. Louis Mountbatten was a member of the royal family and hardly constrained by rationing. If anyone could get sardines whenever he wanted them, it was surely Lord Louis. The reference looked dangerously like an artificial attempt to crowbar the word “sardines” into the letter.

There was one final letter to add to the cache. This had no military significance whatsoever and was included, literally, to make weight. If Martin was carrying only two letters, he would most probably have put them in an inside pocket for safety. But in that case, they might be overlooked by the Spanish or Germans, as had happened with the body of Lieutenant Turner in 1942: “Papers actually on the body51 would run a grave risk of never being found at all due to the Roman Catholic prejudice against tampering with corpses.” An attaché case would be much harder to miss, but if Martin were to carry a briefcase, then he would need something bulkier than a couple of letters to put in it. Hilary Saunders, the House of Commons librarian and the husband of Montagu’s colleague Joan Saunders, had just written a pamphlet on the history of the Commandos, a tub-thumping story of derring-do to boost public morale. It was decided that in addition to the other letters, Martin’s attaché case would contain proofs of this worthy book, together with another letter from Mountbatten, asking General Eisenhower to write a blurb for the American edition.

In reply quote: S.R. 1989/43

Combined Operations Headquarters

1A Richmond Terrace

Whitehall, S.W.1

22nd April

Dear General,

I am sending you herewith two copies of the pamphlet which has been prepared describing the activities of my Command; I have also enclosed copies of the photographs which are to be included in the pamphlet.

The book has been written by Hilary St. George Saunders, the English author of Battle of Britain, Bomber Command, and other pamphlets which have had a great success both in this country and in yours.

The edition which is to be published in the States has already enjoyed pre-publication sales of nearly a million and a half, and I understand the American authorities will distribute the book widely throughout the U.S. Army.

I understand from the British Information Service in Washington that they would like a ‘message’ from you for use in the advertising for the pamphlet, and that they have asked you direct, through Washington, for such a message.

I am sending the proofs by hand of my Staff Officer, Major W. Martin of the Royal Marines. I need not say how honoured we shall all be if you will give such a message. I fully realise what a lot is being asked of you at a time when you are so fully occupied with infinitely more important matters. But I hope you may find a few minutes’ time to provide the pamphlet with an expression of your invaluable approval so that it will be read widely and given every chance to bring its message of co-operation to our two peoples.

We are watching your splendid progress with admiration and pleasure and all wish we could be with you.

You may speak freely to Major Martin in this as well as any other matters since he has my entire confidence.

Yours sincerely,

Louis Mounbatten

General Dwight Eisenhower

Allied Forces H.Q.

Algiers

Both letters were written on the same typewriter and signed by Mountbatten himself, who was told the letters were needed for a secret mission. The only element now missing was the seal of approval from on high.

At ten thirty in the morning on April 13, the Chiefs of Staff Committee gathered for its seventy-sixth meeting. Presided over by the chief of the Imperial General Staff, the first sea lord, and the chief of the Air Staff, the committee included eight other senior officers from the different services. Item 10 on the agenda was Operation Mincemeat. The letters were approved, and Lieutenant General Sir Hastings “Pug” Ismay was told to inform Johnnie Bevan of the decision, with instructions to make an appointment with the prime minister in order to obtain final approval for the operation to commence. Ismay dropped Churchill a note, advising him that “the Chiefs of Staff have approved,52 subject to your consent, a somewhat startling cover plan in connection with HUSKY. May the Controlling officer see you for five minutes within the next day or two, to explain what is proposed?” The note came back with “yes” scrawled in Churchill’s hand. “10.15 on Thursday.”

Two days later, Bevan found himself sitting on Winston Churchill’s bed and explaining Operation Mincemeat to a prime minister wearing his pajamas and dressing gown and puffing on a large cigar. Large wine cellars that had once served a stately home opposite St. James’s Park had been transformed into a fortified network of chambers, tunnels, offices, and dormitories known as the Cabinet War Rooms, the operational nerve center. Above the War Rooms was the No. 10 Annexe, including the private flat where Churchill usually slept. Britain’s wartime prime minister tended to work late, whisky in hand, and rise at a commensurate hour.

Bevan had arrived for the meeting in full uniform, at ten o’clock sharp. “To my surprise I was ushered53 into his bedroom in the annexe where I found him in bed smoking a cigar. He was surrounded with papers and black and red cabinet boxes.” Churchill loved deception plans, the more startling the better, and relished the seamy, glamorous trade of espionage. “In the higher ranges of Secret Service54 work, the actual facts of many cases were in every respect equal to the most fantastic inventions of romance and melodrama,” Churchill wrote after the war.

Bevan handed over a single sheet of foolscap paper outlining the plan, and Churchill read it through. Bevan felt he had better say something: “Of course there’s a possibility55 that the Spaniards might find out this dead man was in fact not drowned at all from a crashed aircraft, but was a gardener in Wales who’s killed himself with weed-killer.” Bevan had left the details to Montagu and Cholmondeley and now found himself trying to explain the pathology of chemical poisoning to a prime minister in his nightwear, and scrambling the facts in the process. “Weed-killer goes into the lungs56 and is very difficult to diagnose,” he bluffed. “Apparently it would take you three weeks to a month just to find out what it was.”

Churchill “took much interest”57 in the scheme, so much so that Bevan felt obliged to warn him that it could go spectacularly wrong. “I pointed out that there58 was of course a chance that the plan might miscarry and that we would be found out. Furthermore that the body might never get washed up or that if it did, the Spaniards might hand it over to the local British authority without having taken the crucial papers.”

The prime minister’s response was characteristically pithy. “In that case, we shall59 have to get the body back and give it another swim.”

Churchill was on board. But he had one stipulation: before Operation Mincemeat could go ahead, agreement must be obtained from General Eisenhower, whose invasion of Sicily would be profoundly affected by its success or failure. Leaving Churchill to finish his cigar in bed, Bevan returned to the London Controlling Section offices and dashed off a “Most Secret Cypher Telegram,” under the code name “Chaucer,” to Eisenhower at Advance Headquarters in Algiers. The response arrived within hours: “General Eisenhower gives full60 approval MINCEMEAT.”

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