Military history


Table-Tennis Traitor

THERE WAS DISCREET REJOICING among the handful of people privy to the secret. Montagu’s dark mood lifted: “I get more and more optimistic,”1 he told Iris. “We ought, by the time2 you get this, to have exposed Hitler’s weak spot (Italy) to attack and the Ities ought not to last too much longer.” Astonishingly, this overt reference to war plans passed the censor. “Mincemeat is in the making,”3 Guy Liddell, MI5’s head of counterespionage, wrote in his secret diary. “Plan Mincemeat has been approved4 by the prime minister. The documents are extremely well faked.”

Liddell was in overall command of “B” Section, that branch of the Security Service dedicated to rooting out enemy spies and suspected agents: he monitored defectors, suspect refugees, Nazi agents, double agents, Soviet sympathizers, and, among many others, Ivor Montagu. For while the Hon. Ewen was about to launch a most elaborate feat of espionage, concern about the behavior of the Hon. Ivor had been steadily growing within both MI5 and MI6.

In May 1942, MI5 noted that Ivor was “in close touch with many Russians5 in this country, including members of the embassy, the Trade Delegation and the TASS [news] agency.” Agents introduced into the audience during antiwar rallies, at which Ivor was a regular speaker, reported that he was “an incurable anti-nationalist.”6 One P. Wimsey (possibly his real name) filed a report stating that on December 16, 1942, Ivor Montagu addressed a meeting of the Friends of the Soviet Union and stated that “facilities for sport were far greater7 in Russia than in England.” Ivor was spotted having lunch with Constantine Zinchenko, second secretary at the Soviet embassy, and consorting with “men of decidedly foreign8 appearance, possibly Russian.” A minor scare was set off when he was seen hanging around a secret Royal Observer Corps installation in Watford, but the informant added that he “did not think Montagu would get9 anything secret unless he got inside the station.” Given “his association with the Russians10 in this country,” MI5 concluded that “any information of importance that came into his possession would undoubtedly be passed on.” Mr. Aiken Sneath (again, surely, a name too implausible not to be real) informed MI5, without producing any evidence, that Montagu was “an active Fifth Columnist.”11 His neighbors were encouraged to spy on him. They reported that “he is always very keen12 to listen to the foreign news” on the radio and “has a wooden hut13 at the bottom of the garden and it is well stocked with books.”

In 1940, Ivor had applied for a travel permit to visit the USSR as a journalist accredited to the Daily Worker. The application was turned down at the urging of MI5. “It does not seem desirable14 to allow the Communist Party to have a courier travelling from this country to Moscow. … A Communist Party member of his standing should not be allowed to leave the country. It is one thing to allow the Daily Worker to conduct its war propaganda in this country, but it is another thing to give such a newspaper special facilities for sending correspondents abroad for the purpose of facilitating propaganda.” Ivor complained about his failed application to a left-wing MP, who raised the matter in Parliament, demanding to know “whether this refusal is15 personal to Mr Montagu, whether I should be allowed to go, or whether it indicates hostility to Russia?”

Ivor had openly and vehemently opposed the war, but once the Soviet Union was locked in battle with Germany he had declared his willingness to fight. “I myself have registered16 and am ready to join up and I hope if I get in shall make a ruddy good soldier,” he told the Woolwich-Plumstead branch of the Anti-war Congress, words that were immediately channeled back to MI5. Ivor was called up in 1941, but his call-up papers were immediately rescinded, it being “most undesirable that he should17 be allowed to serve in HM armed forces.”

“I expect they’ve checked up on you,” one of his communist friends joked, and was overheard by the MI5 phone tapper.

Ivor had, by this time, moved with his family to the village of Bucks Hill in Hertfordshire, much to the annoyance of his Soviet handler: “Intelligentsia lives in the18 provinces and it is difficult to contact him.” But it was easy to spy on him.

Ivor Montagu was overdrawn and disheveled. He once met Sylvia Pankhurst, the suffragette; he listened to the foreign news, denigrated British sporting facilities, promoted Soviet films, mixed with left-wing actors and directors, and read books. He had a German woman living in his house, Elfriede Stoecker, a Jewish refugee. From MI5’s point of view, this was all most suspicious. Britain’s counterespionage officers saw signs of treachery in everything Ivor Montagu did: they saw it in his friends, his appearance, his opinions, and his behavior. But above all, they saw it in his passionate, and dubious, love of table tennis.

Suspicion that Ivor’s interest in Ping-Pong must disguise some darker purpose was the legacy of Colonel Valentine Vivian, the foremost communist spy hunter in the British Secret Service. Vivian headed Section V, MI6’s counterintelligence unit, before going on to become deputy chief of SIS in charge of MI6’s war station at Bletchley Park. Throughout his long intelligence career, most of Vivian’s energies, and those of Section V, were directed against British communists and the Comintern, which he regarded “as a criminal conspiracy19 rather than a clandestine political movement.” He had become deeply, even fanatically obsessed with the activities of Ivor Montagu, suspecting, quite rightly, that this son of privilege was more than merely a fellow traveler. But years of intense surveillance—opening Ivor’s letters, eavesdropping on his conversations, trailing and photographing him—had so far produced only circumstantial evidence of skulduggery. Colonel Vivian had convinced himself that Ivor Montagu’s enthusiasm for Ping-Pong was a cover for something much more sinister.

Many of Ivor’s intercepted letters—a suspiciously large number, in the eyes of the interceptors—referred to the supply of table-tennis equipment from foreign parts. Two Bulgarians, Zoltan Mechlovitz and Igor Bodanszky, wrote to him repeatedly, ostensibly about arcane aspects of the game, the spin potential of different types of balls, and the optimal bat weight. Vivian gave instructions that the Bulgarians should be investigated to find out if they are “known to be queer in any other way.”20 (The word “other” is most telling.) To the MI6 man in Sofia, Vivian wrote, “The reason for our tentative interest21 in these people will appear to you rather quaint. They write interminably to Ivor Montagu about table tennis and the trying out of table tennis balls. Montagu is, of course, known as a Ping Pong enthusiast well at the heart of the Table Tennis International, but even in England, which is not noted for sanity in this respect, we find it hard to believe that a gentleman can spend weeks upon weeks testing tennis balls.” The reply from Bulgaria was disappointing: “Bulgarian police authorities22 have nothing on their records. … In a superficial way one would judge that Mechlovitz and Bodanszky are perfectly solid individuals who spend their time testing table tennis balls.” Even more worrying was Ivor’s correspondence, before the war, with Fritz Zinn, treasurer of the German Table Tennis Association. The letters went back and forth, discussing something called the “Hanno-ball”23 and “certain net-stretchers.”24 There were also hints that Zinn was getting a divorce and was “suspected of running an illegal25 gaming club.” Was “Hanno-ball” code for some secret weapon? Was Ivor Montagu sending secret messages to his Bulgarian and German contacts under the seemingly innocent guise of sport? Could Montagu and these shadowy foreigners “be using the channel of international26 table tennis for this curious piece of domestic espionage”? Vivian was determined to break up the mysterious table-tennis conspiracy. “I know this all seems very trivial,”27 he wrote, “but when one looks at it closely it is also puzzling.”

Vivian was not alone in thinking that a man who spent so much time discussing table tennis was probably a spy. When he was first inducted into the inner circle of British intelligence, Ewen Montagu had expected that MI5 would make a thorough check of his background and thus would know about Ivor and his communist politics. “I had no great faith in the records28 of MI5. I felt that they were likely to confuse me with my younger and communist brother.” He was half right. One day, apparently apropos of nothing, John Masterman leaned across the table during a Twenty Committee meeting and asked Montagu in an offhand way: “How is the table tennis going?”29 Masterman had clearly been making his own enquiries into the Montagu brothers and had read up on Colonel Vivian’s investigation into the international table-tennis fraternity. “That’s my communist30 younger brother,” Montagu replied. “He’s the progenitor of table tennis, not me.” Montagu assumed Masterman had simply made a mistake, mixing up the two brothers. But the dry Oxford don did not make mistakes: he was probing to see if his colleague on the Twenty Committee might just be part of this sinister table-tennis connection.

Vivian was right, of course, but also profoundly wrong. Ivor Montagu was spying for the Soviet Union, as Agent Intelligentsia, and would continue to do so for the rest for the war, undetected and unrepentant. On the other hand, his interest in table tennis was neither puzzling nor malign. He just liked table tennis. The hunt for the Table Tennis Ring was a vivid red herring. Sometimes even MI5 officers can go slightly mad looking at the same spot and imagine shadows where none exist. As Freud once said, when asked about the significance of his ever-present pipe, “Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe.” And sometimes a table-tennis ball is just a table-tennis ball.

As the launch date for Operation Mincemeat approached, Cholmondeley and Montagu raced around London, attempting to tie up loose ends. The prime minister had approved the plan, and HMS Seraph was waiting, so the operation was now unstoppable, yet a number of serious problems remained: solutions would be found for all of them, none entirely satisfactory.

Nye was instructed to fold the key letter once, but only once. The “special examiners”31 at the Censor’s Department, responsible for investigating wartime postal communication, then took close-up photographs of the fold using a camera with a microscopic lens. That way, it might be possible to determine whether the letter had been opened and replaced in the envelope. In a final, rather melodramatic demonstration of spy craft, a single dark eyelash was placed in the fold of the paper. If this was still in place if and when the letter was retrieved, it would suggest the letters had not been read, but “if the eyelash was gone,32 it would be a simple way of knowing whether the letter had been opened.” Montagu was somewhat coy about the measures taken to detect whether the letters had been tampered with. To his lawyerly mind, the presence or absence of a single eyelash was not the sort of evidence that would stand up in court.

The key letter was placed in an envelope, and then sealed, twice, with the formal wax seal of the VCIGS, depicting the heraldic arms of the war office. Once again the Censor Department photographed the ragged edges of the wax seals, to ensure that any tampering could be traced. Mountbatten’s letters were also sealed, and the seals photographed in close-up. Once the letters were in his hands, Montagu ensured that he, and only he, handled them. The same went for Martin’s other possessions. Montagu kept Pam’s letters in his own wallet, unfolding and folding them repeatedly, as a newly engaged man might. The Germans, if they were suspicious and had the opportunity, might well dust the letters for fingerprints: “Mine were used for Major Martin’s33 throughout,” he wrote. This was a sensible precaution but hardly a foolproof one. If the Germans compared the fingerprints on the letters to those of the dead man, they would easily spot the difference.

The letters and proofs of the Commandos pamphlet would be placed inside “an ordinary black Government34 briefcase with the Royal cipher” embossed on the flap. The key to the lock was placed on Major Martin’s key chain. But here arose another issue. The Spaniards would be more likely to notice, and pass to the Germans, an official-looking briefcase, but how to ensure that the briefcase and body arrived in Spain together? The case might be placed in the dead man’s hand, but it was highly unlikely that rigor mortis alone would ensure that the body drifted ashore still clutching the case. The man was supposed to have died in an air crash, so the most realistic alternative would simply be to put the body and case into the water simultaneously but separately and hope both floated ashore. But as the hydrographer had made clear, the winds and tides off Huelva were highly unpredictable. A body held up by a life jacket would behave quite differently from a soggy leather briefcase filled with paper. The case might sink, or wash up in Portugal. The solution, it was agreed, would be to attach the briefcase to Major Martin using a leather-covered chain of the sort used by bank messengers, passing up the right sleeve and fastened to the belt by a dog-lead clip, with a similar clip at the other end attached to the case handle. The case and corpse would then float ashore chained together. This might serve to underline the value and importance of the contents in the case. The only snag was that British military officers never used this method to transport and safeguard documents. The chain seemed “horribly phoney”35 to Montagu’s mind. Cholmondeley was equally dubious. After a meeting with the other planners, he wrote “the use of a chain to the bag36 from the body [is] too doubtful and might endanger the whole operation.” But there was no alternative.

From the Air Ministry, Cholmondeley requisitioned a rubber dinghy and oars, of the type used on Catalinas. The original plan had been to distribute debris out at sea and have this float ashore with the body, but further research revealed that “little or no wreckage floated37 from a normal aircraft” after a crash, so it was agreed that “for simplification and for security38 with the submarine crew, nothing should be released except the rubber dinghy.”

Most frustrating was the apparent impossibility of finding a look-alike to pose for Bill Martin’s identity card. Two fellow officers had agreed to be photographed. Neither closely resembled Glyndwr Michael, but time was running out. In late March, Montagu attended a meeting at B1a to discuss the case of Eddie Chapman, the double agent “Zigzag.” Chapman, a career criminal, had been parachuted into Britain after being trained as a saboteur in a secret spy camp in occupied France, and Montagu was on the committee debating what to do with him. Sitting across the table was Chapman’s case officer, Ronnie Reed, a former BBC technician and radio expert. Reed’s resemblance to the man in the morgue was striking. Montagu would later assert that he “might have been the twin brother”39 of the dead man. He certainly had the same sharp chin and narrow face as Glyndwr Michael, though his hair was thicker and darker. Reed was four years older than the dead man and wore a small mustache. But he would do. Reed was duly photographed, the epaulettes of the Royal Marines battle dress clearly showing on his shoulders. Montagu believed Major Martin’s identity card looked “far more like40 [him] even after his death than mine was like me.” The only official photograph of William Martin shows a thin-faced man wearing a small, sly smile.

Bill Martin now had a face that fitted and a uniform that might not. They decided to return to St. Pancras Mortuary and try on the clothes Cholmondeley had broken in. A last-minute discovery that the trousers were too short or that the shirt did not fit would be disastrous. Stripping and then dressing the dead body—starting with the late Warden Fisher’s underwear and ending with the trench coat—was a task they “heartily disliked.”41 Montagu suffered an “odd psychological reaction”42 on seeing the corpse lying stiff on the mortuary slab, gradually being transformed into someone he almost knew by the clothes, and the personality, they had fashioned for it. The uniform fitted well. It was decided to leave him in battle dress inside the refrigerator and put the boots on later.

HMS Seraph had spent five months in the Mediterranean in close underwater combat with the enemy, before returning to Britain for repairs at Blythe dockyard. The submarine had then sailed around Scotland to the River Clyde, where she worked up under realistic conditions, preparing for her next sortie. She was now lying alongside the submarine depot ship HMS Forth at Holy Loch on the West Coast of Scotland, ready to return to battle. Her departure date was delayed by a week, and her commander, Lieutenant Bill Jewell, was “told to report to the intelligence43 side of the admiralty” while the remaining officers and crew continued “normal final training”44 at Holy Loch. The delay offered an additional week to complete the finishing touches and ensure that both Alan Hillgarth in Spain and Dudley Clarke in Algiers were fully prepared. Bevan sent a coded telegram to Clarke: “Mincemeat sails 19th April45 and operation probably takes place 28th April.”

The later date would also “enable the operation to be carried46 out with a waning moon in a reasonably dark period (approximately 28th–29th April).” Jewell arrived at Submarine Headquarters, a block of flats requisitioned in Swiss Cottage, north London, where Rear Admiral Barry told him to go to an address in St. James. There he was greeted by Montagu, Cholmondeley, Captain Raw, chief staff officer to Admiral Submarines, and a set of operational orders laying out his mission.

Ronnie Reed, the MI5 case officer who “might have been the twin brother” of Glyndwr Michael.

Lieutenant Norman Limbury Auchinleck Jewell was thirty years old, with a cheerful grin and bright blue eyes. Understated and charming, Bill Jewell, as he was known, was also tough as teak, ruthless, occasionally reckless, and entirely fearless. He had seen fierce action in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. His submarine had been depth charged, torpedoed, machine-gunned, and mistakenly shot at by the RAF; he had spent seventy-eight hours slowly suffocating with his crew in a half-crippled submarine at the bottom of the sea; he had taken part in several clandestine operations that, had they been intercepted, might have led to espionage charges and a German firing squad. In four years of watery war, Jewell had seen so much secrecy, strangeness, and violence that the request to deposit a dead body in the sea off Spain did not remotely faze him. “In wartime, any plan that saved47 lives was worth trying,” he reflected.

Jewell was never informed of the identity of the body or the exact nature of the papers it was carrying, and he hardly needed to be told of “the vital need for secrecy.”48 The tall man with the extravagant mustache was introduced as “a squadron leader for RAF intelligence.” The body, Cholmondeley explained, would be brought to him in Scotland, “packed, fully clothed and ready,”49 inside a large steel tube. This canister could be lifted by two men but should on no account be dragged by a single handle, “as the steel is made of light gauge50 to keep the weight as low as possible,” and it might give way if roughly handled. The possibility of the container breaking and the body falling out was too awful to contemplate. The canister would fit down the torpedo hatch and could then be hidden belowdecks. Jewell would also receive a rubber dinghy in a separate package, a locked briefcase with chain attached, and three separate identity cards for William Martin, with three different photographs. In idle moments, Montagu had taken to rubbing Martin’s fake identity cards on his trouser leg to give them the patina of use.

What, Jewell asked, should he tell the men under his command about this large object on his small ship? Montagu explained that the lieutenant could take his officers into his confidence once under way, but that the rest of the crew should be told only that the container “held a super-secret automatic51 meteorological reporting apparatus, and that it was essential that its existence and position should not be given away or it would be removed by the Spaniards and the Germans would learn of its construction.”

Jewell pointed out that if the weather was rough, the officers might need the help of the crew to get the canister up on deck. If a member of the crew spotted the body, he was instructed, he should be told that “we suspected the Germans52 of getting at papers on bodies washed ashore and therefore this body was going to be watched: if our suspicions were right the Spaniards would be asked to remove the Germans concerned.” This cover story could also be told to the officers, but “Lt Jewell was to impress53 on [them] that they would never hear the result and that if anything leaked out about this operation not only would the dangerous German agents not be removed, but the lives of those watching what occurred would be endangered.”

Upon reaching a position “between Portil Pillar and Punta Umbria54 just west of the mouth of the Rio Tinto River,” Jewell should assess the weather conditions. “Every effort should be made55 to choose a period with an onshore wind.” Jewell studied the charts and estimated “the submarine could probably56 bring the body close enough inshore to obviate the need to use a rubber dinghy.” Cholmondeley had originally envisaged setting off an explosion out at sea to simulate an air crash, but after some discussion “the proposed use of a flare was dropped.”57 There was no point in attracting any unnecessary attention.

Under cover of darkness, the canister should be brought up through the torpedo hatch “on specially prepared slides58 and lashed to the rail of the gun platform.” Any crew members should then be sent below, leaving only the officers on deck. “The container should then be opened59 on deck as the ‘dry-ice’ will give off carbon dioxide.” It would also smell terrible.

Montagu and Cholmondeley had given a great deal of thought to exactly how the briefcase should be attached to Major Martin. No one, even the most assiduous officer, would sit on a long flight with an uncomfortable chain running down his arm. “When the body is removed60 from the container,” they told Jewell, “all that will be necessary will be to fasten the chain attached to the briefcase through the belt of the trench coat which will be the outer garment of the body … as if the officer has slipped the chain off for comfort in the aircraft, but has nevertheless kept it attached to him so that the bag should not either be forgotten or slide away from him in the aircraft.” Jewell should decide which of the three identity cards most closely resembled the dead man in his current state, and put this in his pocket. The body, with life jacket fully inflated, should then be slipped over the side. The inflated dinghy should also be dropped, and perhaps an oar, “near the body but not too near61 if that is possible.” Jewell’s final task would be to reseal the canister, sail into deep water, and then sink it.

If, for any reason, the operation had to be abandoned, then “the body and container62 should be sunk in deep water,” and if it was necessary to open the canister to let water in, “care must be taken that63 the body does not escape.” A signal should be sent with the words: “Cancel Mincemeat.”64 If the drop was successful, then another message should be sent: “Mincemeat completed.”65

Jewell noted that the two intelligence officers seemed utterly absorbed by the project and had obviously had “a pleasant time building up66 a character.” Before the meeting broke up, Montagu asked the young submariner if he would like to contribute, in a small way, to “making a life for the Major of Marines.”67 A nightclub ticket was needed for the dead man’s wallet. Would Lieutenant Jewell care to spend a night on the town, and then send over the documentary evidence? “I had the enjoyment68 of going around London nightclubs on his ticket,” said Jewell. “It was an enjoyable period.”

While Jewell returned north with his new operational orders and a slight hangover, another telegram was dispatched to General Eisenhower in Algiers. “Mincemeat sails69 19th April and operation probably takes place 28th April but could if necessary be cancelled on any day up to and including 26th April.”

If all went according to plan, Major Martin would wash up in Spain on or soon after April 28, where an extraordinary reception was being prepared for him by Captain Alan Hillgarth, naval attaché in Madrid, spy, former gold prospector, and, perhaps inevitably, successful novelist.

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