Military history


Gold Prospector

IN HIS SIX NOVELS, Alan Hillgarth hankered for a lost age of personal valor, chivalry, and self-reliance. “Adventure was once a noble1 appellation borne proudly by men such as Raleigh and Drake,” he wrote in The War Maker, but it is now “reserved for the better-dressed members of the criminal classes.” Hillgarth’s own life read like something out of the Boy’s Own Paper or the pages of Rider Haggard.

The son of a Harley Street ear, nose, and throat surgeon, Hillgarth had entered the Royal Naval College at the age of thirteen, fought in the First World War as a fourteen-year-old midshipman (his first task was to assist the ship’s doctor during the Battle of Heligoland Bight by throwing amputated limbs overboard), and skewered his first Turk, with a bayonet, before his sixteenth birthday. At Gallipoli he found himself in charge of landing craft, as all the other officers had been killed. He was shot in the head and leg and spent the recovery time learning languages and cultivating a passion for literature. Hillgarth was small and fiery, with dense, bushy eyebrows and an inexhaustible supply of energy. He was also an arborphile: he loved trees and was never happier than in forest or jungle.

In 1927, Evelyn Waugh recalled his first meeting with “a young man called Alan Hillgarth,2 very sure of himself, writes shockers, ex-sailor.” By this time, Hillgarth had embarked on a second career as a novelist, a third as adviser to the Spanish Foreign Legion during the uprising of the Rif tribes in Morocco, and a fourth as a “King’s Messenger” carrying confidential messages on behalf of the government. But it was Hillgarth’s fifth career, as a treasure hunter, that defined the rest of his life—and the next stage of Operation Mincemeat.

In 1928, Hillgarth met Dr. Edgar Sanders, a Swiss adventurer born in Russia and living in London, who told him a most intriguing story. Sanders had traveled to the interior of Bolivia in 1924, lured by legends of a vast hoard of gold, the treasure of Sacambaya, mined by the Jesuits and hidden before they were expelled from South America in the eighteenth century. Sanders showed Hillgarth a document, given to him by one Cecil Prodgers, a Boer War veteran and rubber tapper, who claimed to have obtained it from the family of an elderly Jesuit priest. The document identified the hiding place of the gold as a “steep hill all covered3 with dense forest … from where you can see the River Sacambaya on three sides,” topped by “a large stone shaped like an egg.”4 Beneath the stone, according to the account, lay a network of underground caverns “that took five hundred men5 two-and-one-half years to hollow out.” The gold inside was protected by “enough strong poison to kill6 a regiment.”

Sanders claimed to have found the site amid the ruins of a once-great Jesuit colony at a place called Inquisivi, deep in the remote Quimsa Cruz range of the eastern Andes. Nearby, Sanders claimed to have found hundreds of skulls, “reputed by the local Indians7 to be those of the slaves who were engaged in burying the treasure and then massacred by the Jesuits to prevent them divulging the secret.”

A “squarish man with conspicuously8 high cheekbones and hard slate eyes,” Sanders was clearly fanatical in his quest, and utterly convincing. In a final flourish, he laid out his scientific proof. A German scientist named Charles Gladitz, of the New Process Company of Southall, Middlesex, claimed to have discovered that metals, including gold, give off rays that “record themselves on a photographic9 plate of the ground under which this mineral lies.” Gladitz had examined Sanders’s photographs of the site and declared, unequivocally, that this was “the definite location of a strong10 gold source.” Sanders believed the Jesuits had created the underground cavern by tunneling from the riverbank, but the water table had since risen and getting to the entrance would require large pumps, digging equipment, a lot of money, and a great deal of sweat.

Sanders invited Hillgarth to join him in what promised to be the greatest treasure hunt of all time. The twenty-eight-year-old accepted without hesitation.

The Sacambaya Exploration Company was duly formed. On the eve of the Great Crash, money could be minted from dreams, and investors flocked to a project promising returns of 48,000 percent.

Hillgarth and Sanders set about recruiting “men who had had considerable11 experience of harsh conditions.” These were described in detail: “Sacambaya is a poisonous place,12 a dark, dirty valley, shut in by hills that rise almost immediately to 4,000 feet. It is either very dry or you are flooded out. It is generally very hot by day and pretty near freezing at night. It abounds in bugs, fleas, flies, ants, mosquitoes, sand-flies, rattlesnakes and other kinds of snakes. It is famous among Indians as a plague spot of Malaria. There are also skunks.” There were also bandits, no certainty of success, and a high probability of death. But this was an age that revered Shackleton and Scott. The expedition was overwhelmed with applicants. Some twenty-four men were chosen on the basis of expertise, resilience, and amusement value, including a photographer, an expert Serbian miner called Joe Polkan, and, crucially, a doctor. An American engineer named Julius Nolte would be picked up en route in Bermuda.

On March 1, 1928, the expedition set sail from Liverpool on the first stage of the nine-thousand-mile journey from England to Sacambaya. The forty tons of equipment stashed in the hold included two Morris six-wheel tractors, four vast compressors to drive the pneumatic hoists, picks, spades, and drills, two pumps, six cranes, a petrol motor, winches, electric light plants, forges, tents, mosquito nets, and a circular saw to cut wood for the railway that would have to be built at the other end. Dr. P. B. P. Mellows, of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, brought, in addition to the usual medical supplies, twenty-eight thousand quinine tablets to fight malaria and five thousand aspirin. Hillgarth purchased twenty rifles and twenty automatic pistols, four shotguns, two automatic rifles, and enough ammunition to start a small war, as “protection against the often13 extremely unpleasant individuals with whom one is always liable to come in contact in such places.” At sea, the captain of the SS Orcoma threw a celebratory dinner consisting of coupe de viveurs à la moelle, filets de sole Sacambaya, and biscuit glacé Inquisivi.

From the port of Arica in Chile, the expedition chartered a train to take them the 330 miles to La Paz, then south along the Antofagasta line as far as a station called Eucalyptus, where the line stopped. From here the road, such as it was, went as far as the town of Pongo, “across 20 miles of pretty14 poisonous, gradually rising desert, then through a succession of extremely unpleasant mountains, until it crosses the snowline at about 17,000 [feet], finally to descend in a series of perfectly horrible zigzags, into a nasty little valley.”

Pongo was a one-eyed mining town built to service the Guggenheim mines, presided over by a formidable American woman named Alicia O’Reardon Overbeck, whom the team nicknamed “Mrs. Starbird.” “This is the furthest outpost15 of what might be called civilization,” wrote Hillgarth. “This was the end of the road.” Sacambaya was still forty-five miles distant, along a track partly washed away by rains. Now the hard work began. The Morris trucks were abandoned, the equipment disassembled, and the smaller machinery packed into loads of up to five hundred pounds, and strapped on to reluctant mules. The largest items, including the compressors, each weighing one and a half tons, had to be dragged along the mountain tracks using manpower and oxen.

“This,” said Hillgarth, with echoing understatement, “was quite an undertaking.”16 In places the track had to be rebuilt, cut out of the solid rock. In one twelve-mile stretch the river had to be crossed and recrossed twenty-seven times. At times, the heavy machinery had to be lowered with a block and tackle. One compressor, two oxen, and several men hurtled over the edge and were saved only by becoming entangled in trees thirty feet below. Hillgarth, five other white men, and twenty Indians successfully transferred all the equipment to Sacambaya in five weeks and four days. Hillgarth declared that the total losses en route amounted to “one case containing 200 lbs17 of macaroni.”

That was the last piece of good news.

The treasure caves, Sanders calculated, must be about “100 feet into the hillside.”18 Armed with modern technology and an ancient document, the Sacambaya Exploration Company now set about picking, drilling, pumping, and blasting its way into the earth in pursuit of Jesuit gold. For ten hours a day, six days a week, from June to October, the men hacked into the mountain. Some thirty-seven thousand tons of rock were removed to create an enormous hole.

Conditions at Sacambaya were quite as nasty as advertised. Within weeks, three quarters of the men had jiggers, small worms that burrow into the feet. Any injury became instantly infected in the soggy, fly-infested atmosphere of the camp. “A complete absence of fresh fruit19 and vegetables from our dietary [sic] has brought on chronic constipation, but a great range of purges varying in propulsive powers have catered for all tastes,” Dr. Mellows reported cheerily. The mules and oxen came under repeated attack from vampire bats, which were also partial to human gore if they could get it. “One of our party awakened20 the other night and in the light of the full moon in his tent was startled to find a vampire bat tearing at his mosquito net.” Mellows identified a new ailment he named Sacambayaitis: “Claustrophobia brought on by21 being shut up in an unhealthy valley between high mountains for month after month, working hard, living on a monotonous diet, with no diversions, subject to constant fear of possible attack by bandits, and day by day living on the edge of a psychical volcano.”

The only member of the team immune to Sacambayaitis was Alan Hillgarth. The photographs of the expedition show him fresh-faced and happy: digging, grinning, never without a tie, even when helping to perform a rustic appendectomy on a colleague. Hillgarth was unstoppable.

It was not the jiggers, the claustrophobia, the constipation, bats, or bandits that finally did for the Sacambaya Exploration Company, but water. It poured from the sky in sheets and bubbled up from the ground in gouts, filling every hole as soon as it was dug, despite the panting efforts of the pumps. The men built a makeshift dam out of empty petrol cans, flattened and reinforced with timber, spun yarn, and rope. Hillgarth worked up to his neck in water to try to bed the foot of the dam in the impermeable clay they believed was a few feet farther down, but still the water poured in. Finally, even Hillgarth had to admit defeat, despite believing that the cave wall might be just fifteen feet away.

The expedition had been an unmitigated, magnificent disaster. The company went spectacularly bust. Two of the team headed into the interior and were never seen again. The chief engineer was left behind in Pongo. “He has fallen seriously in love22 with Mrs Starbird,” observed Sanders, “and apparently does not intend to leave.” Polkan, the Serbian miner, was poisoned in La Paz, “either by the hotel people or the police.”23

Sanders was flung into a Bolivian jail. Some months earlier, he had realized the Bolivian police were intercepting his mail, so he had planted a fake letter referring to a shipment of mustard gas, to see if this would flush them out. The Bolivian authorities took the letter at face value: Sanders was accused of planning a coup against the Bolivian government and charged with smuggling arms into the country, including fifty machine guns and one hundred tons of poison gas.

Hillgarth returned to Britain to face the wrath of his investors and the knowledge that he had been thoroughly and comprehensively duped. Sanders’s documents, it transpired, were fakes. The words on them had not even been written by a Spanish speaker, since they contained numerous grammatical errors and modern English idioms directly translated into Spanish. Gladitz and the New Process Company had vanished.

The Sacambaya debacle had been a salutary experience. “No body of men could have24 done more than we did,” wrote Hillgarth. A very large hole in the Bolivian jungle was testament to the heroic pointlessness of that achievement, but it was also a lesson that Hillgarth would never forget: otherwise entirely sensible people could be persuaded to believe, passionately, what they already wanted to believe. All it required was a few carefully forged documents and some profoundly wishful thinking on the part of the reader. The Sacambaya trip formed the basis for Hillgarth’s fifth and most successful novel, The Black Mountain, published in 1933 to acclaim from, among others, Graham Greene.

By then, Hillgarth had settled in Majorca with his wife, Mary, and three children, becoming honorary British vice-consul and then consul in Palma. At the same time, “he doubled up as a spy.”25 On the eve of the Spanish civil war, Winston Churchill met Hillgarth in Majorca, on his way to a holiday in Marrakech. They got on famously. When Clementine Churchill complained about the smell of the drains at their hotel, Hillgarth invited the Churchills to stay at his picturesque villa, Son Torella.

Hillgarth played a pivotal role as a go-between during the Spanish civil war, helping to arrange prisoner swaps between the two sides and successfully ensuring the bloodless handover of Minorca to Franco’s forces in 1939. The commander of Nationalist forces in the Balearic Islands was Rear Admiral Salvador Moreno Fernández, and it was through him that Hillgarth arranged for the Republican forces to leave the island, thus averting, in Hillgarth’s words, “an intense bombardment which26 could have caused some 20,000 deaths.” Hillgarth’s prolonged negotiations with Moreno, a convivial and subtle politician, marked the start of a most fruitful partnership. When Captain John Godfrey of HMS Repulse wanted to dock in Barcelona, it was Hillgarth who ensured, through his navy contacts with Franco’s regime, that the British ship did not come under air attack.

As the newly appointed director of Naval Intelligence at the start of the war, Godfrey remembered Hillgarth and recommended his promotion to naval attaché in Madrid. It was an inspired appointment to a most difficult and sensitive job. Neutral Spain was pivotal to British interests, the key to the Mediterranean and Gibraltar. With the fall of France, there were German troops on Spain’s border. Franco was in debt to both Italy and Germany for arms. Would he side with the Axis powers, and if he did not, and Spain remained nonbelligerent, would Hitler invade? Hillgarth’s role was to combat Nazi influence, stymie German sabotage efforts, prevent U-Boats from refueling and resupplying at Spanish ports, and countering the pro-Axis Falange within Franco’s government. With Ian Fleming, he helped to plan the campaign of sabotage and guerrilla war that would erupt if Spain was invaded, code-named “Operation Goldeneye,” the name that Fleming would eventually bestow on his Caribbean home. British policy required a nuanced approach, and Hillgarth’s reports showed how well he understood that delicate balance: Franco was anxious to preserve his neutrality and freedom of action, Hillgarth reported, but “a decisive German victory over Russia27 might enable the Falange to take complete control [and] Spain would probably throw in her lot with Germany.”

Sir Samuel Hoare, a former Chamberlain loyalist appointed ambassador in Madrid by Churchill, played this tricky game at the diplomatic level. Hillgarth did so at a subterranean level, while simultaneously coordinating the operations of MI6, SOE, and his own network of agents. In all of this, Hillgarth had the personal backing of Winston Churchill (they were distinctly similar characters), who regarded him as a “very good”28 man “equipped with a profound knowledge29 of Spanish affairs.” The prime minister instructed Hillgarth to write to him “privately about anything interesting.”30 Ian Fleming shared Churchill’s high opinion of Hillgarth, describing him as a “useful petard and a good war-winner.”31 Despite contrasting personalities, Hoare and Hillgarth got on well and cooperated closely. Hoare called him “the embodiment of drive.”32 By contrast, Kim Philby, who ran counterintelligence on the Iberian desk at MI6 and was later revealed as a Soviet spy, disliked Hillgarth intensely, believing that Churchill’s support, the “secret funds that were made available33 to him for undercover activity,” and his direct access to “C,” Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6, had all “helped to feed the gallant34 officer’s illusions of grandeur.” Philby was particularly irked by Hillgarth’s choice of “Armada” as a code name, which he considered self-inflating.

It is hard to say which reflected better on Hillgarth: the admiration of Fleming and Churchill or Philby’s animosity.

Philby would have been even more angered had he known the extent of funds available to Hillgarth for the purposes of bribery, on a staggering scale. Adolf Clauss bribed policemen and dockworkers; Gómez-Beare paid off “local police, dock watchmen and stevedores.”35 But Hillgarth bribed generals.

The Spanish armed forces contained many patriotic monarchists opposed to the fascist Falange who had no desire to become “expendable parts of Hitler’s war machine.”36 Such officers, Hillgarth calculated, needed only a little financial encouragement to lobby Franco against an alliance with Hitler and keep Spain out of the war. The money was channeled to the generals through Juan March, a Majorcan businessman whom Hillgarth had known for many years. March had made a fortune in tobacco, worked for British intelligence in the First World War, helped to finance Franco’s rebellion in 1936, and purchased twelve bombers for Mussolini. He was small, thin, greedy, clever, morally void, and monstrously bent. March “took corruption for granted,37 and used it casually and openly.” He had been imprisoned for bribery and escaped to France, and by 1939 he was the richest, and dodgiest, man in Spain, nicknamed “the last pirate of the Mediterranean,”38 with a fortune that extended to shipping, oil, banks, and newspapers. “It would be a mistake to trust him an inch,”39 Hillgarth reported cheerfully. But March was also prepared to back Britain, and that, as far as Hillgarth was concerned, was all that mattered: “He has already had two German agents shot40 in Iviza [Ibiza], though I did not ask him to do so.” March was the ideal conduit for bribing the generals. The money would have no British fingerprints on it, and if word ever leaked that March was involved, no one would be remotely surprised.

In the first phase of the scheme, with Churchill’s approval, ten million dollars was released by the Treasury and deposited in a Swiss bank in New York. From this, selected Spanish generals were invited to make withdrawals, in pesetas, with the balance to be paid after the war. Some two million dollars is thought to have been funneled to General Antonio Aranda Mata, who was expected to take over the army if Franco should fall. Another happy beneficiary was General Luis Orgaz y Yaldi, the commander of Spanish Morocco. (Orgaz was being rewarded by both sides: the Abwehr promised him “an amphibious car.”41) It is probable that Admiral Moreno, the man who had negotiated the surrender of Minorca with Hillgarth and had since been promoted to Navy Minister in Franco’s government, was also on the payroll. The admiral had long opposed Spanish involvement in the war; he kept Hillgarth abreast of the mood in Francoist government circles, reassuring him that if Germany ever invaded Spain there would be a general uprising: “There was not a Spaniard who would not42 wish to fight if the Germans came in,” he told Hillgarth.

Hillgarth poured money into the pockets of sympathetic officers. “The Cavalry of St George43 have been charging,” noted Hugh Dalton, head of SOE and minister for economic warfare. This was an oblique reference to the image of St. George slaying the dragon on the British gold sovereign. In September 1941, the scheme hit a snag. The Swiss account in New York was locked as part of the American freeze on European assets, but Hillgarth urgently needed reinforcements from St. George’s cavalry. “We must not lose them now,44 after all we have spent—and gained,” wrote Churchill, who sent an urgent appeal, via Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. Treasury secretary, to Roosevelt, urging him to unfreeze the New York account. The sluice gates reopened. There is no documentary evidence that Roosevelt backed this campaign of corruption and subversion, but as the historian David Stafford notes, “his approval can safely be assumed.”45

The bribery scheme continued up to 1943, but whether the “Cavalry of St. George” achieved anything is open to question. Many Spanish officers were already disinclined to become entangled in the war and were naturally opposed to the fascists, fearing that “German victory would mean servitude46 for Spain, and an end to the individual freedom which is as necessary as air to most Spaniards.” Even Hillgarth acknowledged, with the sort of generalization beloved of certain Englishmen, that “the Spaniard is xenophobic and suspicious47 and wants to keep clear of other peoples’ quarrels.” The money may simply have made the generals rich—and Juan March even richer—but it certainly reaffirmed Churchill’s faith in his Madrid spymaster, and paymaster: “I am finding Hillgarth a great prop,”48 he said.

Hillgarth possessed, by his own account, “a natural sympathy”49 for Spain. “Handling Spaniards is a special50 technique,” he wrote. “Everything in Spain is on a personal basis.” He cultivated his contacts like an expert forester planting trees, propagating and nourishing them, metaphorically and literally, with large and lavish dinners. An intelligence officer, he once remarked, “will be at a very definite51 disadvantage if he is a teetotaller. A good digestion is also important.” Charming, polished, and speaking perfect Spanish, Hillgarth moved effortlessly through the Madrid elite, making contacts with generals, admirals, diplomats, and foreign newspaper correspondents. “Even during the worst of the war,52 I had little difficulty in maintaining old friendships and making new ones,” he recalled later.

Hillgarth could call in (or buy in) favors from every level of Spanish officialdom. But perhaps his most useful agent, whom he ran in tandem with MI6, was “Agent Andros,” a senior officer in the Spanish navy. Andros has never been identified. More than sixty years later, under Britain’s draconian secrecy laws, MI6 will not divulge the name of the “very reliable and well placed53 straight agent called ANDROS who obtained information of great value.” Andros would also demonstrate his value as a double agent. In 1943, he was approached in Madrid by a senior officer of the SD, the Sicherheitsdienst, the feared intelligence service of the SS, named Eugene Messig, who asked him “to supply intelligence which54 he would send straight to Berlin (i.e. not through the German intelligence HQ in Madrid).” The SD and the Abwehr were mutually suspicious rivals. “C” was initially dubious, fearing that this “might compromise a very55 valuable agent,” but Hillgarth was keen to open a channel of disinformation into the SS. Andros accepted Messig’s invitation and began feeding him nuggets of false information, selected by Hillgarth: “The items were so chosen56 that the Germans would be bound to draw the deductions that we wanted.” Andros, who also went by the code name “Blind,” proved a brilliant double agent, successfully passing on information indicating that the Spanish navy had learned, through its own sources, that U-boats were liable to attack from British planes and submarines in Spanish waters: “Messig swallowed the stories57 whole, was extremely pleased, and continually pressed for more.” In order to mislead Messig, Andros must have had genuine access to top-grade Spanish intelligence. “It was a delicate job.58 However, Andros was in particularly good position to inform Messig.” The admission that Andros was in a “particularly good position” to misinform the Germans suggests that he may have been a senior figure within Spanish naval intelligence. Whoever Andros was, Hillgarth trusted him completely.

The British and German spies circled one another, spitting like cats. Hillgarth knew that “copies of all our telegrams59 were given to the Germans” and that the telephones in the embassy were being tapped. “It seemed that the listening60 in was done by an Abwehr member, but it might have been done by a Spanish telephone operator. Abwehr wireless traffic made it clear that a senior Spanish official had been ‘squared’ to allow the tapping.” Hillgarth warned: “Only by naval ciphers61 can really safe messages be sent.” Some of the Spanish staff at the embassy were suspected of being in German pay. One of the guards at the British embassy was “suborned by a woman in German pay”62 but was intercepted before he could do much damage. Even so, he knew that the Germans “kept lists of everyone63 who went in and out of the British embassy.”

Hillgarth relished the contest—“the Germans would have someone64 following him, and he would have someone following the Germans”—and found the constant surveillance, by both Spanish and German spies, quite amusing, since these were usually “very amateurish and inefficient.”65Occasionally he would bump into Abwehr officers at official functions. “Our deportment towards the German66 diplomats was to behave as if they did not exist. If we met them at a party, we ignored them. They did exactly the same to us.”

Madrid was the crucible of European espionage, and as chief among the British spies, Hillgarth found himself fielding some odd customers from the intelligence world.

Dudley Wrangel Clarke was the master of “A” Force, based in Cairo, the unit devoted to deception operations in the Mediterranean. As the intelligence officer in overall command of deception for Operation Husky, Clarke had been involved at every stage in the buildup to Operation Mincemeat. But Hillgarth had already come across him in a very different guise. In October 1941, he had bailed Dudley Clarke out of a Spanish jail. There was nothing so odd in that. Hillgarth was often bailing people out of jail. What made the occasion special, and acutely embarrassing, was Colonel Clarke’s outfit: he was dressed as a woman. A Spanish police photograph shows this master of deception in high heels, lipstick, pearls, and a chic cloche hat, his hands, in long opera gloves, demurely folded in his lap. He was not even supposed to be in Spain, but in Egypt. In spite of the colonel’s predicament, in the photo he seems thoroughly comfortable, even insouciant.

His fellow spy chiefs were not. Guy Liddell of MI5 noted, “The circumstances of his release67 were to say the least of it peculiar. At the time he was dressed as a woman complete with brassiere etc.” It is the “brassiere etc” that gives it away. What on earth was the blighter thinking of? A chap might go in disguise, if needed, but in a brassiere? The Spanish authorities seemed to find the incident equally amusing and put out a propaganda leaflet announcing that a man named “Wrangal Craker”68 who claimed to be the Times correspondent in Madrid had been arrested, dressed as a woman.

Having helped to get Clarke out of prison, Hillgarth obtained the photographs of his colleague, both in and out of drag, and gleefully sent them to Churchill’s personal assistant, Charles “Tommy” Thompson, who showed them to the prime minister. Hillgarth attached a deadpan note, but you can hear him snorting. “Herewith some photographs69 of Mr Dudley Wrangel Clarke as he was when arrested and after he had been allowed to change.” The “after” photograph showed Clarke in his more usual bow tie and jacket. “PM has seen,” said a note scrawled on Hillgarth’s letter. Sadly, history does not relate Churchill’s reaction to what he had seen. Word of the photographs spread around Whitehall: some wondered whether Clarke was “sound in mind,”70 while the more sympathetic explanation was that “he is just the type who imagines71 himself as the super secret service agent.” It did his career no long-term damage, but Dudley Clarke’s strange episode of cross-dressing remains an enduring mystery.

By the spring of 1943, following the successful North African campaign, the danger that Spain might join the Axis had receded, and after more than three years of playing cat and mouse with the Germans, Hillgarth was keen to counterattack. In February 1943, he sent a letter to the director of Naval Intelligence, declaring: “It is time to pass from the defensive72 to the offensive. It is time to get tough.” Axis submarines were still using Spanish waters; Spanish fishing vessels were being used to spot U-boat targets; German and German-paid saboteurs were preying on British shipping; and the Spanish port authorities were supplying the Abwehr with “more or less any naval intelligence73 they obtain.” All of this was in direct violation of Spanish neutrality. Despite repeated British protests, Hillgarth pointed out, “the Axis was allowed with little74 or no interference from the Spanish authorities, and in spite of constant British representations, to establish and maintain observation and reporting stations at vantage points along the Spanish coast.” Hillgarth specifically cited the activities of Adolf Clauss’s older brother Luis in Huelva.

The solution Hillgarth proposed was simple and dramatic: “I have found a good man75 prepared to stick a limpet bomb on one of the larger German ships from a fishing boat, on a dark night with rain.” The cost of the operation would be fifty thousand pesetas, five thousand before and forty-five thousand on completion. The bomb would be timed to go off after the enemy ship left harbor. The Foreign Office should not be involved. “All operations are, if I may say so,76 better left to me,” wrote Hillgarth. “If anything goes wrong there is a perfectly good comeback by referring to German sabotage in Spain, and I could always be disowned and officially sacrificed. I am happy to stand the rub, as I feel so strongly that the situation now warrants action of this kind.” All Hillgarth wanted was a nod of approval and a bomb.

The request was turned down flat. If the Spaniards got wind that the British naval attaché was sticking limpet mines to boats, there would be a diplomatic explosion, possibly undoing all Hillgarth’s good work to date. “You and your staff have shown77 that you are quite able to take care of yourselves, but I am not prepared to take the chance of anything going wrong,” wrote Rushbrooke, the new director of Naval Intelligence, adding that an attack on German shipping in Spanish waters was both “undesirable and unnecessary.”78

Hillgarth was deeply frustrated, itching to land a blow on his German adversaries but held in check. The Cavalry of St. George had disbanded. He was getting bored. At the very moment Hillgarth’s sabotage plan was vetoed, Gómez-Beare reappeared in Madrid, fresh from his briefing on Operation Mincemeat and with new instructions for his boss: once the body was delivered by HMS Seraph, it would be up to Hillgarth to coordinate its reception in Spain, find out where and when it landed and what had happened to the documents, and maintain the essential fiction that a crucial batch of secrets had gone missing.

The novelist would now write the second chapter of Operation Mincemeat. He would take the role of hero; Gómez-Beare would play second lead; Adolf Clauss in Huelva would, with luck, act as the helpful receptionist.

And in Madrid, at the very center of the web of German intelligence, was a man who might have been typecast as the leading villain.

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