Military history

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Bill’s Farewell

EWEN MONTAGU HAD BEEN PLANNING “Bill Martin’s Farewell Party” for some time, but he did not tell Jean Leslie until the afternoon of April 22. He sent a note from “Bill” inviting “Pam” to see the variety star Sid Field in “Strike a New Note” at the Prince of Wales, to be followed by dinner at the Gargoyle Club. The MI5 secretary was thrilled by the invitation from her office admirer: “I rushed home,1 changed out of office clothes, and threw on some makeup.” Cholmondeley had bought four tickets for the evening performance—that way they could demonstrate that the tickets had been bought in a block, even though the counterfoils of the two in the middle were missing and already en route to Spain in a dead man’s pocket. Wasting the tickets, Montagu later wrote, would have been “absurd.”2 Besides, it was an ideal opportunity to continue the courtship of his imaginary fiancée. Charles Cholmondeley’s date for the evening was Avril Gordon, another young secretary in the office who had helped Hester Leggett compose Pam’s letters. Both women were “in the loop” on Operation Mincemeat, although ignorant of its details.

Montagu remained firmly in character. The death of Bill Martin, presumed drowned at sea following an air crash, would shortly be announced, but in the meantime Montagu composed a personal tribute to him, to be published in the Times in due course. The ruse would have to be maintained and reinforced long after Mincemeat had landed. The notice reads like a description of the man Montagu would have liked to have been: the desk-bound literary genius who insists on fulfilling his patriotic duty, only to die tragically. The fake obituary was never published, but it offers a fascinating insight into the spymaster’s level of emotional involvement.

Bill Martin’s death3 “on active service” came as a complete surprise to many of his friends when it was announced in your columns. Few of them knew that he had for some time been serving with the Commandos where hitherto unsuspected qualities had been revealed.

Martin was a unique personality and his loss is tragic. An ever-growing number of his more discerning contemporaries were convinced that he had genius. He made little mark at school where he was more interested in his own reading and music than in the normal work and athletics of his friends. After a university career during which he impressed with his literary talents and qualities of leadership a small circle of dons and college friends, he retired into the country to farm, fish and write.

On the outbreak of war, Martin, who had already been profoundly stirred by the growing menace to all that he loved most deeply, hastened to offer his services to his country. He found himself placed in an office job, and although it was an important one and well suited to his talents, the determined if unorthodox efforts which he made to escape and prepare himself for more active and dangerous work, were ultimately successful.

As to others of an imaginative and artistic temperament, Martin’s experiences with the Commandos had brought a new meaning into life, an immense stimulus to creative activity. He had refused, until the war was over, to publish any of his work. We will therefore have to wait some time before a wider public can appreciate his rare talent.

The two couples made an attractive sight as they entered the Prince of Wales Theatre, the men in full uniform, the women in their best dresses and heels. Montagu handed the tickets to an usherette. “We were terribly agitated4 when she tore the tickets,” said Jean. “Would she notice that two were missing?” She did, and summoned the manager, who accepted that the middle counterfoils had been torn off “as a joke.”5

The lights dimmed, and the four settled into the plush seats of the circle to watch Sid Field open his new show. A veteran performer, Field had toured the provincial music halls for thirty years, singing, dancing, and performing comic skits. He had recently broken into the big time, playing the part of “Slasher Green,” a cockney bruiser. “Strike a New Note” was his first West End appearance, and he was supported by a group of young theatrical hopefuls “gathered from every part6 of the country,” performing together as “George Black and the Rising Generation.” Black, a theatrical impresario, is today as obscure in public memory as Sid Field, but some of the rising generation rose very high indeed. Among the cast were two unknowns, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, aged sixteen and seventeen respectively.

“Strike a New Note” had opened to rave reviews a month earlier: the Times had hailed Field as “definitely ‘a find’”7 the Daily Mail noted “the loudest laughter we8 have heard in years;” the Daily Telegraph was gratified that “all his jokes are clean.”9 By April the show was playing to packed houses.

Sid danced, told jokes, performed sketches, and sang: “I’m going to get pickled10 when they light up Piccadilly, I’m going to get pickled like I’ve never been before.”

In fact, Sid was already well pickled, since he never went onstage without “an adequate ration of gin.”11 “Strike a New Note” was tailor-made escapism for wartime theatergoers. Many in the audience were American GIs, and the satires on Anglo-American relations raised the loudest cheers. The war seemed impossibly distant, even irrelevant. A note on the back of the program read: “If an Air Raid Warning12 should be received during the performance the audience will be informed. Those desiring to leave the theatre may do so, but the performance will continue.” The show ended with Sid’s fan song:

When you feel unhappy13

And if you’re looking blue

We recommend

Sid Field to you.

Even the cast seemed a little bemused by the rapturous audience reception. Jerry Desmonde, Sid Field’s straight-man sidekick, wrote: “The laughs came like the waves14 of a rough sea, breaking on a shingle beach, and when they came they lasted. They lasted a long, long time.”

Eight hundred miles away, far out at sea, Lieutenant Scott stood on the deck of the Seraph, listening to the waves breaking, and peered through the darkness toward the coast of Portugal. “The weather was warm at last,15 and it was a delight to keep a watch on the bridge at night beneath a cloudless sky.”

Jean left the theater on Montagu’s arm, high with excitement, her ears ringing with the applause. Bill Martin’s farewell party continued at the Gargoyle Club, a raffish rooftop den above Meard Street in Soho. Founded in 1925, the Gargoyle was the haunt of artists, writers, and actors, the epitome of decadent glamour. It could only be reached by a tiny, rickety elevator, the dimensions of which “were such that strangers16 entering it left as intimate friends at the top.” The interior was decorated in Moorish style, the walls decorated with mirrored shards of eighteenth-century glass inspired by Henri Matisse, who was a member, as were Noël Coward, Augustus John, and Tallulah Bankhead. Spies, including Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, were drawn to its dark corners and air of secret assignation. The Gargoyle was half lit, avant-garde, and slightly louche. The filmmaker Michael Luke described the atmosphere inside as “mystery suffused with a tender17 eroticism.” Jean Leslie had never been anywhere like this before. Her mother would have been scandalized.

It was a “very cheerful evening,”18 Montagu recalled. It was also distinctly flirtatious. The foursome was shown to a corner table with a banquette and two chairs. Montagu suggested that the women sit together on the banquette. Getting into the dramatic spirit, Avril Gordon remarked playfully: “Considering Bill and Pam are engaged,19 they are the least affectionate couple I know. They don’t even want to sit together at his farewell party before he goes abroad.” An American couple eavesdropping at the next table looked round sharply. Warming to his own role, and sensing they were being overheard, Montagu replied that he had only known Pam for a few days before getting engaged to her. “It would be different20 if Pam and I knew one another better,” he said loudly. “My boss has said in a letter that although I am quiet and shy at first, I really do know my stuff”—a reference to Mountbatten’s fake letter to Admiral Cunningham, in which he had used these words to describe Major Martin. It was also a deliberate double entendre. The couple looked daggers at this naval officer, engaged to a young woman on such brief acquaintance and now joking about his own romantic prowess. The man was clearly a cad. Registering strong disapproval, they got up to dance. Still, if they did not like that sort of suggestive conversation, they should not have come to the Gargoyle Club. The foursome spent the evening drinking and dancing. Cholmondeley proposed a toast “to Bill,” and they clinked glasses. The men were relaxed and plainly enjoying themselves, but Jean sensed an undercurrent of tension. “They kept looking at their watches21 and saying things like: ‘I wonder if he’s afloat now.’” She noticed that Ewen Montagu seemed anxious, as if his life were about to change.

The next morning, Montagu wrote to Iris as usual, in a tone of forced indifference: “I had to go and take22 someone officially to the theatre. We went to see a new comedian who has been a lot in the North but hadn’t been in London before. He was called Sid Field and is frightfully funny. A thoroughly good evening.”

In a few days, the engagement of Pam and Bill would come to its predestined end, and so would the strange parallel bond between a naval officer and his secretary. Montagu, who had been so “smitten”23 in the early days of the fantasy, was never quite as flirtatious after the farewell dinner. Lady Swaythling’s report to Montagu’s wife about the suspicious signed photograph on his dressing table had had its intended effect. The letter from Iris demanding an explanation has not survived, but it is not hard to imagine what was in it. Montagu asked a colleague, who happened to be passing through New York, to visit his wife and clarify matters on his behalf. Iris seems to have accepted his explanation. “I am glad that Verel24 told you about my doings,” he wrote. “I was more nervous of what you might think about the photo and its compromising inscription than what Mother might think!!!” “Pam” and “the girl from the Elms” disappeared from Montagu’s life. But nearly half a century later, he was still writing to Jean as “Pam” and signing himself “Bill.”

As the Seraph neared the drop-point, the anxiety level in Room 13 rose steadily. “We were all very excited,25 but also worried, and we couldn’t tell anyone outside the room what was happening,” Pat Trehearne recalled. Any number of things might go wrong, and the stakes could hardly have been higher.

ALTHOUGH NEVER FORMALLY integrated into Operation Barclay, the Mincemeat plan was part of a vast operation to deceive the Germans into believing that the next blow would fall simultaneously in Sardinia and Greece, as a prelude to a major campaign in the Balkans, in order to keep as many German troops as possible away from Sicily and the central Mediterranean. Johnnie Bevan in London and Dudley Clarke of “A” Force had devised a scheme of staggering complexity, including the use of double agents, Greek partisans, false rumors, and an entire bogus British Twelfth Army poised to invade the Balkans. The host assembled at Cyrenaica in Libya, within range of German reconnaissance planes, consisted of dummy landing craft, dummy gliders, and dummy tanks, as well as real antiaircraft batteries and fighters to be scrambled at the first sign of enemy aircraft, reinforcing the lie. A genuine sabotage operation was planned to concentrate German attention on Greece. Hints of an impending Greek invasion were dropped at diplomatic dinner parties in neutral countries, in the hope that these would filter back to Germany. Greek troops underwent amphibious training in Egypt, calls for Greek speakers were sent out, and Greek drachmas were bought on the Cairo foreign exchange. “One patriotic Greek managed26 to remain with a British unit and was no doubt amazed to find himself landing in Sicily instead of his homeland.” Leaflets were distributed on “hygiene in the Balkans.”27 Similar, though less intensive, efforts were made to indicate an impending assault on Sardinia at the other end of the Mediterranean: fishermen in Algeria were quizzed on their knowledge of Sardinian waters.

At the same time, preparations for the real invasion of Sicily were progressing swiftly, with troops assembling at North African ports. If Mincemeat and Barclay worked, then the Germans would see those preparations as elements of Brimstone, the fake plan for attacking Sardinia, and the supposed attack on Greece. The airfields in Sicily would have to be bombed, since, in Montagu’s words, “no major operation could be28 launched, maintained, or supplied until the enemy airfields and other bases in Sicily had been neutralised.” If the plan succeeded, the bombing would be seen as supporting action for the invasions in the eastern and western Mediterranean, and not as a prelude to what they were: a full-scale assault on Sicily itself. Various false dates for an imminent invasion were spread through numerous channels, and then “postponed.” The false dates were selected to coincide with the darkest lunar periods. That way, it was hoped, the enemy might assume a dark night was the only time to fear an attack, and relax its guard when the moon was high.

Operation Barclay was to be, in Clarke’s words, “the peak of the Deception effort29 in the Mediterranean.” Operation Mincemeat was only one element in that mighty effort, but it was a pivotal one. If it failed, then all the other elements of the deception might be revealed as part of an enormous fraud, allowing the Germans to reinforce Sicily and see the preparations for invading Greece as the sham they were. As Montagu had warned at the outset, “if they should suspect30 that the papers are a ‘plant’ it might have far-reaching consequences of great magnitude.” The responsibility weighed heavily on Montagu’s shoulders. “I had to carry the can31 (and have it on my conscience) if anything happened to Seraph.”

There would be no second chance. John Godfrey, the former boss of Naval Intelligence, had always insisted that deception was a dish best served piping hot: “Intelligence, like food,32 soon gets stale, smelly, cold, soggy and indigestible, and when it has gone bad does more harm than good. If it ever gets into one of these revolting conditions, do not try to warm it up. Withdraw the offending morsel, and start again.” Once Mincemeat went bad, it would have to be discarded. Jewell was under no illusions: the smallest hitch, and the operation would be aborted, the body taken to Gibraltar, and the documents handed to the Staff Officer (intelligence) “with instructions to burn33 the contents unopened.” Contingency plans were also laid in case matters went awry after the body was launched. On April 22, a coded message was sent to the senior intelligence officer in Gibraltar: “Operation known as Mincemeat34 repeat Mincemeat has been mounted. … If body is sent to Gibraltar with documents in despatch case please advise Robertson MI5 immediately and give opinion whether such documents have or have not been tampered with. If such documents come into your hands they are to be sent complete with seals intact by direct weighted air bag addressed Colonel Robertson MI5.”

On the evening of April 28 the Seraph rounded Cape St. Vincent and headed for Huelva. Jewell summoned his officers to the wardroom. Seated around the table, in addition to Jewell and his second-in-command, David Scott, were Lieutenants Dickie Sutton, John Davis, and Ralph Norris. Taking a large envelope from the safe, Jewell proceeded to describe the gist of Operation Mincemeat. As Scott remarked, the contents of the canister came as “something of a shock.”35 What seemed to upset him most was the thought that “sailors had been sleeping36 alongside it, possibly using part of it as a pillow.” The officers nodded and asked no questions. After dropping off a genial American general in one part of the Mediterranean, picking up a grumpy French one in another, blowing up a whale, and becoming, briefly, an American submarine, their new mission was just about par for the course. Jewell stressed “the vital need for absolute secrecy.”37 Submariners are notoriously superstitious. When Jewell was out of earshot, one of the officers remarked: “Isn’t it pretty unlucky38 carting dead bodies around?”

At dawn the next day, just off Punta Umbria, Jewell gave the order to dive. For the next few hours, he and Scott carried out “a close range reconnaissance39 of the beach, making sure we knew every landmark.” The place seemed all but deserted, with just a handful of fishing huts and a few boats drawn up on the sand. This mission, Scott reflected, wrongly, was going to be “easy, even enjoyable.”40 The only impediment was a strong offshore wind. Their orders were clear: “The operation had to be carried41 out as near as we could manage to the time of low water” with “an onshore wind,42 or no wind at all.” Jewell decided to wait. “The next day turned out to be ideal,”43 Scott wrote. “The wind was light and Southerly and the sky overcast.” Seraph withdrew twelve miles off the coast to recharge her batteries and waited for low tide and complete darkness. In London, the Admiralty requested the Air Ministry to “arrange total bombing restrictions”44 in the area. Naval Intelligence reported “no known defensive dangers”45 near Huelva.

At 1:00 a.m. on April 30, the submerged submarine stealthily approached the shore once more. Two hours later, the Seraph had reached the prearranged spot, 148 degrees off Portil Pilar and some eight cables, a little under one mile, from the beach. “We were just about to surface,”46 Jewell said, “when the fishing fleet went over the top of us, going out to collect sardines.” Waiting until the boats were well clear, the Seraph surfaced and Jewell surveyed the area with his binoculars. “A large number of small fishing boats47 were working in the bay,” “the closest about a mile off”—too far, he calculated, to be able to spot the dark submarine. The sky was overcast with low clouds and patchy visibility, and the wind was picking up.

The crew had been told that the officers were “landing some pseudo-secret instruments48 on the beach in order to try to trap a German agent known to be operating in the vicinity of Huelva, and that we hoped enough evidence against him could be gathered to result in his expulsion from neutral Spain.” Three of the crewmen hauled the canister through the torpedo hatch, which is usually only opened in harbor. The metal tube was laid on the fore casing and the crewmen ordered to return below. Scott manned the bridge, while Lieutenant Norris acted as lookout. Lieutenants Sutton and Davis set to work, unscrewing the bolts in the canister lid. Scott ran the echo sounder, which showed almost twelve feet of water beneath the keel. They “crept in a little closer49 to the beach.” Major Martin was lifted out of the steel tube at 4:15 a.m. There was, as Jewell put it with his usual understatement, “some little stink.”50 Perhaps through oxygen trapped in the dead man’s uniform and blanket, decomposition had accelerated during the passage from Scotland. Several of the officers recoiled. They had seen the worst of wartime underwater combat, but as Jewell observed, “I doubt if any of them51 had seen a dead body at that time.” Jewell himself was sublimely unconcerned. “I had seen bodies before.52 My father was a doctor, a surgeon. My brothers were doctors. I wasn’t that worried by it.” Jewell’s official report described the extent of the decay. “The blanket was opened up53 and the body examined. The brief case was found to be securely attached. The face was heavily tanned and the whole of the lower half from the eyes down covered with mould. The skin had started to break away on the nose and cheek bones. The body was very high.”

Working quickly, Jewell inflated the “Mae West,” transferred the documents from envelope to briefcase, locked it, and placed the keys in the pocket of the corpse. He then selected the identity card picturing Ronnie Reed and added that to the pocket. Up on the bridge, Lieutenant Scott was becoming steadily more anxious. It was now four thirty, and a glimmer of dawn light was spreading over the water. More worrying, the wind was strengthening and the submarine was drifting closer to the shore. “We seemed to be practically54 on the beach.” The Seraph’s draft was twenty feet. The depth at low water in her current position was just fourteen feet. The tide was almost out, and the submarine was very nearly aground.

Bill Jewell straightened, took off his officer’s cap, and, bending his head, briefly recited “what I could remember55 of the funeral service,” a fragment of the Psalm 39. The choice was oddly appropriate, given the extreme secrecy of their mission: “I will keep my mouth as if it were with a bridle: while the ungodly is in my sight. Held my tongue, and spake nothing: I kept silence, yea, even from good words; but it was pain and grief to me.” The three officers then picked up the body and gently slipped it into the sea. Jewell turned to Scott on the bridge and gave the thumbs-up sign. “With some relief,”56 Scott jammed the submarine full speed astern. “The wash of the screws helped Major Martin on his way.” As the submarine headed seaward, Scott could just make out the gray shape, drifting toward the shore. In the official report on the operation, Jewell was praised for steering so close to the beach, even though the submarine had almost grounded: “He virtually assured success57 by approaching as close inshore as he did.”

A half mile south, the half inflated rubber dinghy and oar were thrown overboard, while the officers stuffed the blankets, tapes, and dinghy packaging inside the canister. Still on the surface, powered by the quieter electric motor, Scott steered the submarine into deep, open water. Twelve miles out, the Seraph stopped for the last time and the canister was thrown overboard. The seafloor here was two hundred fathoms down. The canister would never be found. If, that is, it could be made to sink. Charles Fraser-Smith had made Major Martin’s capsule too well. “Because it had been designed58 to keep the ice from melting, it had pockets of air all the way around it.” The double skin acted as a built-in buoyancy tank. A Vickers gun was brought up from below, and the canister was “riddled by fire.”59 Still it would not go down and, worse, it was drifting toward the shore. Jewell then handed Scott a .455 service revolver and instructed him to stand on the fore planes while Jewell maneuvered the submarine until the canister was directly below him. “He did this with his usual skill,”60 Scott wrote, “and I fired all six shots into the top of the canister.” Still the steel tube bobbed defiantly on the surface. It was, Jewell reflected, “a hell of a time,”61 and time was now running out. “Daylight was fast approaching,62 and we could see some fishing boats not far off.” Jewell opted for radical measures. The steel tube, now resembling a large colander with some two hundred bullet holes in it, was hauled back onto the casing and packed with plastic explosive inside and out. The fuse was lit and the canister lowered overboard, and the submarine hastened to get out of the way. The resulting explosion was exceptionally loud. In Jewell’s laconic epitaph: “It then disappeared, finally.”63 Jewell was relieved, but he knew he had taken a risk. His orders were to sink the canister in one piece, not to blow it to smithereens. Fragments of the casing, or even bits of blanket and tape, might now wash ashore. Perhaps these would be assumed to be debris from the downed aircraft, but not necessarily. Moreover, even if the Spanish fishermen in the bay had not spotted the submarine setting off the explosion, they would surely have seen the flash and heard the sound echoing through the still dawn. In his final report, Jewell made no mention of having to explode the canister, merely observing that after being shot full of holes, “it was seen to sink.”64 Indeed, he did not tell anyone how the canister had been blown to shreds until 1991, when he was seventy-seven years old.

“We dived and set course for Gibraltar,”65 wrote Scott. “Breakfast tasted wonderful, and so was the deep sleep into which I fell immediately afterwards.”

At 7:15 a.m., Lieutenant Jewell of HMS Seraph sent a wireless message to the Admiralty in London: “Mincemeat Completed.”66 Back on land in Gibraltar, Jewell scribbled a postcard, which he posted to Montagu: “Parcel delivered safely.”67

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