Military history


Spanish Trails

ADOLF CLAUSS had much to occupy his mind. His attempts to obtain the briefcase had so far failed. The Spanish naval authorities were proving vigorously uncooperative. Perhaps they would be more amenable to an approach from a fellow Spaniard. Frustrated, the German spy resolved to try a more indirect approach. Lieutenant Colonel Santiago Garrigós was commander of the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police, for the Huelva district and an enthusiastic recipient of German largesse. Clauss instructed Garrigós to “do everything necessary1 to obtain copies of the documents which were found in the brief case.” Garrigós may have been a keen collaborator, but he was also a coward, and knew that if he asked Elvira or Pascual del Pobil to show him the documents, they would conclude that he was on the German payroll and send him packing. “Notwithstanding his great desire2 to serve the Germans, this Lt Colonel apparently did not have the courage to approach the naval judge” and simply demand that he open the letters. Garrigós did, however, persuade someone in the naval office to tell him what was in the briefcase. He sent the list to Clauss:

1. three British operation bulletins

2. two plans

3. thirty-three photographs

4. three envelopes addressed to Cunningham, General Eisenhower, and General Alexander

Helpfully, but unnecessarily, Garrigós added, “These three persons are in command3 of the Allied troops in North Africa.” Clauss knew that whatever was in that briefcase must be extremely interesting. Heavier guns were mobilized. The German consul, Ludwig Clauss, was once again wheeled out and asked by his son to approach his “intimate friend,”4 Joaquín Miranda González, the civilian governor of Huelva and head of the provincial Falange. A keen fascist, Miranda “nursed a profound antipathy5 towards the British, in common with the sentiment among most officials, and maintained excellent relations with the German consulate. … He treated the Germans with favouritism and the British with a heavy hand.” Miranda was anxious to help and made discreet enquiries at the naval office, but he too stopped short of demanding that the letters be opened. “This gentleman,” reported one of Hillgarth’s agents, “did not dare to ask the naval judge6 for copies of the documents.” Clauss received this fresh rebuff with mounting frustration and growing curiosity. He had spent a small fortune bribing the local officials. “In Huelva, Don Adolfo7can open every door,” it was said. Yet the door to Captain Elvira’s safe remained firmly shut. A bag full of secret British documents had been sitting in Huelva for three days, and so far, these had been “neither copied nor photographed8 [and] were only seen and read in the naval judge’s office.” The three envelopes, which Clauss knew must contain the most important information, were still sealed.

Back in London, Cholmondeley and Montagu were equally frustrated that the information appeared to have reached its target, only to become lodged in the annoyingly honest hands of the Spanish navy. They decided to give the pot a stir.

Alan Hillgarth sent a cable to London, unencrypted, reporting that Major Martin of the Royal Marines had been laid to rest with due decorum: “I am glad to say the naval9 and military authorities were well represented and extremely sympathetic.” Two days after the funeral—enough time, it was estimated, for news of Major Martin’s death to filter through the British military bureaucracy—the Naval Intelligence Department in London sent a much less casual-sounding cable to Hillgarth in Madrid, numbered 04132. It was marked Top Secret but intended for German eyes and carefully flavored with rising anxiety. “Some of papers Major Martin10 had in his possession are of great importance and secrecy. Make formal demand for all papers and notify me by personal signal immediately of addressees of any official letters recovered. Such letters should be returned addressed to Commodore Rushbrooke, Personal, by fastest safe route and should not repetition not be opened or tampered with in any way. If no official letters are recovered make searching but discreet inquiries at Huelva and Madrid to find whether they were washed ashore and if so what has happened to them.”

At the same time, Montagu sent a separate message to Hillgarth, using the secret personal cipher that was the only safe method of communication with the spy-riddled embassy in Madrid. “Carry out instructions11 in my Naval Signal as this is necessary cover but lack of success is desirable.” The message merely confirmed what Hillgarth already knew. The novelist/naval attaché would be creating a fiction especially for Kühlenthal and his informants, but, once again, this would need to be done with extreme subtlety. The Germans knew British diplomatic methods by now: if a bag full of secrets really had been lost, the British would still not rush in and demand its return, as this would tip off the Spanish to its importance. Hillgarth must start with an apparently routine enquiry and then gradually give the impression of greater and greater urgency. It was a tricky balancing act, since enquiries must be “kept on such a plane12 as (theoretically) not to arouse Spanish suspicions that we were really frightened that someone might get those documents, but in fact making it plain to them that we were so frightened.”

Hillgarth passed on London’s message to Haselden in Huelva, instructing him to make a “searching but discreet”13 investigation into the whereabouts of these important and secret papers. At the same time, he set the first cog of Madrid’s mighty rumor mill grinding into action. In wartime Spain, practically the only commodity freely available everywhere was gossip: spies traded in it, the government was saturated with it, and just about everyone, from Franco down, indulged in it. Gossip was currency. Gossip was power. “Rumours are extremely easy14 to spread in Spain,” wrote Hillgarth. “The country lives on word of mouth stories. A casual word in a club or café is often enough.” To get a rumor flying, he told London, all he need do was “select from among his acquaintance15 the most inveterate gossips and, taking into account their connections, use them accordingly.” Hillgarth quietly began to spread word that the British were searching for an important set of documents in Huelva: he knew that, as in any game of “telephone,” the story would be mangled and inflated as it passed from one gossip to the next, and with any luck, it would soon reach the Germans, who would react accordingly.

The British naval attaché also made an unobtrusive approach to Rear Admiral Moreno, the Navy Minister. Hillgarth liked Moreno, believing him to be “sincerely anti-war.”16 The two men were friends, although perfectly happy to use their friendship for mutual manipulation. On an earlier occasion, Hillgarth recalled, “I managed to make the Minister17 of Marine so sorry for me because he could not do what I wanted that in the end he did it, at considerable hazard to himself, just because he felt he was letting a friend down if he didn’t.” Through a contact in the Spanish navy, Hillgarth sent word to the admiral, asking for assistance in securing the return of the attaché case. Hillgarth was careful to make the request a verbal one and commit nothing to paper. Moreno was a reliable and well-informed source and almost certainly one of the prime recipients of British gold. But Hillgarth also knew that the Spanish minister of marine, while professing his attachment to Britain and to Hillgarth personally, was in close contact with the German embassy and spoke frequently to the German ambassador, Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff. Moreno was the ideal conduit: he was the government minister in command of the navy, and thus likely to see the documents sooner rather than later; he would make strenuous efforts to retrieve them and return them to Britain; but he could also be relied upon to pass on the information to the Germans, or at least enable access to the documents, thus ensuring the continued goodwill of both sides. Four days after the funeral of Major Martin, Hillgarth secretly reported to London “that the Minister of Marine,18 who knew nothing of the papers or effects, was expecting an early report” from naval authorities in the south and had pledged to keep him abreast of developments. Hillgarth gave Moreno no indication of what might be in the briefcase and was careful to avoid any impression of undue anxiety.

Finally, Hillgarth mobilized his most trusted informant, the senior Spanish naval officer code-named “Agent Andros,” and asked him to keep track of what happened to the briefcase and its contents. To judge from results, Andros was perfectly placed to do this, reinforcing suspicion that he may have been the chief of Spanish naval intelligence. The report he subsequently sent to Hillgarth and MI6 was astonishingly detailed, an almost daily account of the fate of Major Martin’s briefcase.

Hillgarth’s rumormongering paid swift dividends. On May 5, Captain Elvira, the senior navy officer in Huelva, informed Vice-Consul Haselden that he had been ordered to pass the dead man’s effects, under guard, to his superior officer in San Fernando, Cádiz, who would arrange for their onward transfer to the Ministry of Marine in Madrid. He also shared this information with the German vice-consul, Adolf Clauss. Haselden passed the information on to Hillgarth, who sent a telegram to London through the normal, permeable channels:

Vice Consul Huelva saw body.19 Post Mortem performed. Verdict drowning several days previously. Funeral attended by representative military and naval officers.

1. Pocket book containing private letters

2. Identity disc

3. Identity papers

4. Medal and crucifix

5. Black leather documents case, locked and attached to strap. By lifting flap envelope could be seen inside. Presumably this is what is referred to in your [telegram] 041321.

Vice Consul was informed all effects must be sent C. in C., Cadiz (who is unfortunately pro-German). In due course they will reach Ministry of Marine and be handed to me. Vice Consul had no (repeat no) chance of obtaining possession of the case. Am trying everything possible, but fear too much display of interest will only increase official curiosity, which is already aroused.

Montagu and Cholmondeley sent back a message in kind, subtly infused with the flutter of rising panic: “Secret papers probably in black20 briefcase. Earliest possible information required whether this came ashore. If so, it should be recovered at once. Care should be taken it does not get into undesirable hands if it comes ashore later.”

At the same time, they sent a separate message, by “Most Secret Special Route,” urging Hillgarth to maintain the guise of a harassed official being asked to perform the impossible. “Normally you would be getting21 frantic messages asking you to get the secret documents at once, and to hurry the Spaniards. You must adjust your actions to achieve desired results and maintain normal appearance.” Hillgarth needed no stage directions: “Understood and acted on throughout,”22 he replied.

While Hillgarth played the part of a spy under pressure, there was nothing remotely fake about the strain Adolf Clauss was now under. The German spy had sent word to Abwehr headquarters in Madrid as soon as the body was discovered. When he learned that a briefcase containing British documents had also come ashore, he confidently told Madrid that he would be able to copy the contents within days. The messages flying between London and Madrid had been picked up by the Germans’ eavesdroppers, as predicted, and the Abwehr spy chiefs in Madrid were now thoroughly alerted to the existence of a cache of secret documents that the British were desperate to retrieve. What had seemed, at first, to be a golden intelligence opportunity was turning into a nightmare for the Abwehr’s man in Huelva. Clauss had “promised to obtain copies23 of the documents, but was unable to keep his promise.” Gómez-Beare was also in Huelva, making “discreet inquiries whether any24 bag or paper had been washed ashore.” The presence of the Gibraltarian was undoubtedly communicated to Clauss, ratcheting up the strain another notch.

Agent Andros reported: “As the local Germans were not able25 to obtain copies of these documents, to which they attached the utmost importance, the matter was taken up in Madrid by either Leissner personally, or by Kühlenthal.” The ambitious Karl-Erich Kühlenthal saw an opportunity to add another feather to his espionage cap.

Clauss’s reputation was at stake, and to make matters worse, his colleagues and bosses were muscling in. Through its own informants, the Abwehr in Portugal had gotten wind of what was happening and offered to help. Clauss was “summoned to Villarreal de San Antonio26 [in nearby Ayamonte] for a conference” on what to do about the situation. The full might of the German secret services on the Iberian Peninsula was now unleashed in an effort to obtain the British documents that the British, with equal determination, were trying to put into their hands.

Clauss insisted he could still get the documents through his Spanish contacts. He instructed the willing Colonel Santiago Garrigós to go immediately to Seville and make contact with a fellow member of the Guardia Civil, Major Luis Canis, a man described by Agent Andros as “very pro-German and in German pay.”27 Canis was probably Clauss’s most important contact. “This individual,”28 Hillgarth’s spy reported, “who is under complete German control, is in charge of the contra espionage services in the Seville Captain General’s headquarters and therefore of all Andalucia.” In theory, Canis was responsible for tracking espionage activities aimed at Spain; in reality, he was an employee of the German Abwehr. Garrigós explained the situation to Canis and instructed him, on behalf of Clauss, “to do everything possible to obtain29 copies of the documents, availing himself of his official position.” The head of counterespionage for the region might reasonably claim an interest in anything of intelligence value washing up on the coast. Canis selected one of his junior officers from the counterespionage unit and told him to go to San Fernando, where Major Martin’s effects were now lodged with the Cádiz naval authorities. “Urging him to use the utmost30 discretion,” Canis told this officer to sniff around the naval headquarters, talk to the naval commander there, and obtain, by whatever means necessary, “accurate information regarding31 the contents of the documents.” He very nearly succeeded. Someone in the naval office in Cádiz agreed to photograph the contents of the briefcase: the letters, photographs, and proofs of Hilary Saunders’s book about the Commandos. This person, however, flatly refused to open the letters, “either because they were afraid32 to break the seals lest the Minister of Marine should disapprove, or more probably because they had no experience in opening them without leaving a trace.” Admiral Moreno was known to be sympathetic to the British; if he found out that someone had opened official letters without the highest authorization, the minister would hit the roof. The naval commander in Cádiz, it transpired, was not quite as pro-German as the British thought. He refused to hand over the letters, and Canis’s officer trailed home with a flea in his ear and a handful of photographs of no intelligence value whatever. “Either because of the junior rank33 of his envoy, or because this person acted with excessive discretion or perhaps because this is the usual procedure in the Navy, he had to return to Seville and confess that he had not been able to obtain any information whatever and stated that he had been told by the naval authorities that if the Captain General of Seville wanted any information about the documents he should address himself to the Ministry of War in Madrid.” Furious and embarrassed, Canis prepared to head to Cádiz and confront the naval authorities in person. But it was already too late.

Admiral Moreno, the Navy Minister, had sent explicit orders that the briefcase and its contents must be “forwarded, unopened,34 to the Admiralty, Madrid,” and they were now en route, in the custody of an official from the marine commandant’s office. Adolf Clauss had failed to intercept the documents in Huelva; his agent Luis Canis has failed to obtain them in Cádiz; it was now up to Karl-Erich Kühlenthal to try to snare them in Madrid, and quickly. The items belonging to Major Martin had been in Spanish custody for more than a week. The British were apparently agitating to get them back, and sooner or later the Spanish authorities would have to comply in order to avoid a major diplomatic row, even though this was the very last thing the British wanted.

Back in London, Johnnie Bevan sent a progress report to the Chiefs of Staff. There was, he warned, “only scanty information”35 so far. “Mincemeat was found by36 the Spaniards washed ashore at Huelva on 1st May. … It seems that certain documents were taken from him by Spaniards and that these have been passed back to the Spanish authorities in Madrid.”

For Montagu and Cholmondeley, the slow progress was worrying and the uncertainty agonizing. Agent Andros’s report describing German efforts to obtain the papers would not reach London for many weeks. All they knew for certain was that Major Martin’s effects had been passed to the navy, the least pro-German of the Spanish services. Hillgarth had laid an obvious trail for the Germans to follow, but had they picked up the scent? The code breakers at Bletchley Park combed the messages passing among the Abwehr stations in Huelva, Madrid, and Berlin but found nothing to indicate that the Germans were aware of the documents’ existence, much less of their contents. Mincemeat, it seemed, might simply work its way through Spanish military bureaucracy and back to Britain without ever reaching the Germans.

The operation organizers reacted to the tension in different ways. Cholmondeley went for long walks around St. James’s, a tall, gangling figure plunged in thought. He spent hours in his garage at Queen’s Gate Mews, tinkering with the Bentley he was restoring. Montagu’s primary reaction to tension was irritation. Reality’s stubborn refusal to conform to his expectations made him peevish. With the fraud apparently in stasis, he complained bitterly, largely about little things. “We sweat away, 11 of us,37 in far too small and low a room, with often foul potted air and five typewriters often all going at once, jaded and headachy from the conditions. By giving up many of my days off, by coming in after dinner, I have managed to keep up with essential work although I am usually too tired in the evening to do anything but go to bed straight after dinner. No one has any idea, or will even consider, how hard pressed we are.”

With the departure of Bill Martin, his alter ego, and stuck once more behind a desk, Montagu appears to have turned in on himself, wondering if the complex ruse he had created would prove an abject and potentially calamitous failure. The strain brought out his sarcasm. Bitterly, he reflected that the Abwehr chiefs were more appreciative of his work than his own bosses, since the Germans, at least, sent money and praise to the double agents, real and invented, that he was helping to run. He wrote a half-joking letter of resignation: “It is requested that I may38 be given permission to relinquish my commission in the RNVR in order to be free to join the German Navy. The reason for this request is that my services are appreciated more highly by Admiral Canaris than they appear to be by their Lordships. The former has just awarded me a special bonus and has agreed to my pay being increased. Signed, E.S. Montagu Failed-Commander RNVR.” He never sent the letter. Montagu knew he sounded petty—“I always was a selfish shit”39—but could not help himself. Cholmondeley was the ideas man, content to see his inspirations float away, in this case literally, to whatever outcome fate intended. But Montagu was a perfectionist and a workaholic: “I have never been able40 to half-do a job,” he wrote, “even if it means working to a standstill.”

At the forefront of Montagu’s mind was the knowledge that massing on the coast of North Africa were thousands of Allied soldiers, whose future depended on a ruse that had once seemed like a jolly game but was now a matter of life and death on a massive scale. “If I had made a slip in the preparation41 and devising of Mincemeat,” Montagu reflected, “I could have ballsed-up Husky.”

That anxiety would have been at least partially relieved had he been able to witness the frantic scenes taking place at Abwehr headquarters in Madrid, where Leissner, Kühlenthal, and the other German spies were now focused on a single task: getting inside Major Martin’s briefcase. A week after the funeral, the documents had arrived at the admiralty in Madrid and passed immediately into the hands of Admiral Moreno himself. Then they seemed to vanish into the labyrinth of Spanish military officialdom. The Germans were desperate to get them; the British were equally determined that the Germans should do so; the only obstacle was Spanish bureaucracy, inefficient, self-important, and leisurely in the extreme. “Official procedure is always42 slow,” Hillgarth had warned. In this case, it appeared to have ground to a halt.

Major Kühlenthal was tying himself in knots trying to find out where the papers might be, and whom he needed to bribe in order to get them. Admiral Moreno, it seemed, had taken receipt of the attaché case personally and then handed over everything to the Alto Estado Mayor, the Supreme General Staff. Kühlenthal had several high-level contacts within the General Staff, but when enquiries were made there, the Abwehr was “informed that they had not43 received the documents or copies of them and in fact that they knew nothing at all about the matter.” Next stop was the Spanish Ministry of War, but the response was the same. The Abwehr now turned to the Gestapo, which maintained a permanent office in Spain. The Gestapo chief in Spain was asked to get in touch with his informants in the Dirección General de Seguridad, or DGS, the state security apparatus, and get them working on the case. “Again they failed,44 as nothing was known about the matter.” The last person known to have had the package was Admiral Moreno, who had received it from “an official of the [Cádiz] Marine45 Commandant’s Office;” but no one seemed to know whom he had passed it to, and the Germans “did not dare approach46 the Ministry of Marine” to ask him, as Moreno would almost certainly tip off the British to the hunt.

For help, the Germans turned to one of their most trusted spies, a Spanish air force officer named Captain Groizar, “an assiduous worker for the Germans,”47 in the words of Agent Andros, with wide-ranging military contacts. Groizar reported “that he had heard about the body48 and documents being washed ashore and promised to get into touch with the Army General Staff.” Groizar appears to have worked, in some undefined capacity, for Spanish intelligence, enjoying “many privileges and facilities49 to investigate anything in which he may be interested.” The Spanish captain went first to the General Staff, without success; he then applied to the DGS but was “unable to obtain any fresh50 information;” then he made contact with “certain high officials in the police,”51 with the same negative result. Groizar’s enquiries produced nothing, but by poking sticks into every corner of the Spanish military hierarchy, the Germans stirred up a swarm of speculation surrounding the missing briefcase. “Great interest was aroused52 in these documents,” Andros later reported. “Groizar fostered this interest53 to such an extent that eventually Lt. Colonel Barron, Secretary General of the Directorate General of Security, took a personal interest in the matter.”

This was the turning point. Colonel José López Barrón Cerruti was Spain’s most senior secret policeman, a keen fascist, and an exceptionally tough cookie. He had fought in the Blue Division, the Spanish volunteer unit sent to the Russian front to fight alongside Hitler’s troops, and he now ran Franco’s security service with ruthlessness and guile. The Blue Division, formed in 1941 and so called for the color of its Falangist shirt, represented the high-water mark of Spanish military collaboration with Nazi Germany. If the Condor Legion, in which both Adolf Clauss and Kühlenthal had served, was Germany’s gift to Franco, then the Blue Division was Spain’s gift to Hitler. No other nonbelligerent country raised an entire division to fight in the war. Some forty-five thousand Spaniards volunteered to fight for fascism, and Barrón was among the first. Like all members of the division, he had sworn a personal military oath to Hitler. The Blue Division had fought fiercely on the eastern front in appalling conditions for over two years, leaving five thousand dead. “One can’t imagine54 more fearless fellows,” declared SS general Sepp Dietrich. Hitler had been so impressed by the division that he had ordered a special medal for its members. The unit had been formally disbanded in 1943. By then, José Barrón had become Franco’s head of security. Hillgarth had his own spies within the state security apparatus, but the prevailing attitude in the DGS was vigorously pro-German. Under Barrón, the unit actively worked to gather information for the Germans and ordered provincial governors to compile files on every Jew in Spain. Colonel Barrón, then, was a battle-hardened fascist veteran, an avowed Germanophile presiding over a secret police force riddled with spies and German sympathizers. Once Colonel Barrón was on the scent, it was only a matter of time before the documents were located and made available to the Germans.

Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, ambitious and paranoid, was becoming frantic. He was now in the same uncomfortable position in which he had placed Adolf Clauss, under growing pressure from above to produce documents he had promised but unable to deliver. Word of the elusive British attaché case had by now reached the upper echelons in Berlin, most notably Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr. Canaris had close links with the Spanish government dating back to the First World War, when he had worked as a secret agent in Spain under civilian cover, gathering naval intelligence. In 1925, Canaris had established a German intelligence network in Spain. He spoke fluent Spanish and cultivated close relations with the Nationalists, including General Franco himself and Martínez Campos, his intelligence chief. It was almost certainly Kühlenthal, the Abwehr chief’s protégé, who informed Canaris of the so-far-fruitless hunt for the documents, “in the hope that he will come to Spain55 where they think he will be able to obtain copies because of his great friendship with many high military officers, especially General Vigon, Minister for Air, and General Asensio, Minister for War.” Juan Vigón, former head of the Supreme General Staff, had personally negotiated with Hitler, on behalf of Franco, in the early days of the war. Carlos Asensio was keenly pro-German and had long argued that Spain should enter the war in support of Hitler. According to a British intelligence report, “approaches were made by the Germans”56 to both men, but in the end, the aid of these two powerful generals, and the intercession of Canaris, proved unnecessary.

Nine days after arriving in Spain, the faked letters landed in the Germans’ lap.

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