Military history

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

Mincemeat Digested

BARON ALEXIS VON ROENNE appeared, on the outside, to be the consummate Nazi intelligence officer: a veteran of the First World War, a wounded war hero, holder of the Iron Cross, loyal to his oath, and the Führer’s favorite intelligence analyst. “Hitler had implicit faith1 in Von Roenne and in his reasoning ability, and seems to have liked him personally.” The aristocratic former banker had fought in the celebrated Potsdam Regiment, attended the War Academy, and demonstrated his intellectual mettle from the outset of the war. In 1939, he had been entrusted with the task of assessing whether Britain and France would come to Poland’s aid if Germany attacked that country, and had sent a special report to Hitler, predicting that “the Western allies would protest2 a German attack, but would take no military action.” Von Roenne’s prediction was “exactly what Hitler wanted to hear;”3 he was exceptionally attuned to the Führer’s wishful thinking. “Hitler was greatly impressed4 by Von Roenne’s intuition, as well as by the accuracy of his evaluation,” writes the historian David Johnson. In 1940, von Roenne predicted that the Maginot Line, supposedly protecting France’s eastern border, could be circumvented, enabling a successful German assault. Again, he was correct. By May 1943, von Roenne had become Hitler’s most trusted reader of the intelligence runes, a fearsome responsibility. “It was his mission to produce5 for the high command the definitive intelligence they needed. … It was at his desk that the buck-passing ended.”

Colleagues described von Roenne as cold and distant, “an intellectual but6 aloof person, impossible to make friends with.” Von Roenne’s unapproachable manner was, perhaps, unsurprising, for there was another side to him, the obverse of the prim fascist functionary, of which his Nazi colleagues—and, most important, Hitler—knew nothing whatsoever. Von Roenne was a secret but committed opponent of Nazism, living a double life. He detested Hitler and the uncouth thugs surrounding him. He was an old-fashioned monarchist with a military cast of mind, steeped in feudal tradition and the belief that certain people (like himself) “because of their origins,7 have title to be a higher class among the people.” His Christian conscience had been outraged by the appalling SS terror unleashed in Poland. Quietly, but with absolute conviction, he had turned against the Nazi regime. From 1943 onward, he deliberately and consistently inflated the Allied order of battle, overstating the strength of the British and American armies in a successful effort to mislead Hitler and his generals. His precise motive is still uncertain. Von Roenne may simply have been compensating for the tendency of his superiors to deflate military numbers. He may have been trying to impress his bosses. He was a fanatical opponent of Bolshevism, which threatened to destroy the class system to which he was heir, and he may have calculated, in common with other German anticommunists, that “if Germany should give in to8 superior force in the West the Allies would help hold back the Soviets: and inflating Allied strength was a means to that end.” Perhaps, like other German anti-Nazi conspirators, he just wanted Germany to lose the war as swiftly as possible, to avoid further bloodletting and remove Hitler and his repellent circle from power. Whatever his reasons, and despite his reputation as an intelligence guru, by 1943 von Roenne was deliberately passing information he knew to be false, directly to Hitler’s desk.

Von Roenne’s finest hour would come with the invasion of Normandy in 1944. In the buildup to D-day, he faithfully passed on every deception ruse fed to him, accepted the existence of every bogus unit regardless of evidence, and inflated forty-four divisions in Britain to an astonishing eighty-nine. Without von Roenne’s willing connivance, the entire elaborate net of deception woven for D-day might have unraveled. In the words of one historian, “his way of fighting the Nazi war9 machine was to inflate estimates of Allied troop strength in England and convince Hitler and OKW that the main attack would be Calais,” when he may well have known that the real attack was aimed at Normandy. His determination to be deceived played a crucial part in the last chapter of the war.

Von Roenne was not directly involved in the failed plot, led by Claus von Stauffenberg, to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. But he was close friends with Stauffenberg and the other conspirators of the Schwarze Kapelle, the Black Orchestra, and his links with the planned rebellion were sufficient to ensure a grim fate in the ferocious Gestapo reprisals that followed. Hitler’s revenge was breathtakingly brutal. A month after the July plot, von Roenne was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death after a show trial by the “People’s Court.” In his own defense, von Roenne simply declared that Nazi race policies were inconsistent with Christian values. On October 11, 1944, with other alleged conspirators, he was bound hand and foot in Berlin-Plötzensee Prison, hung on a meat hook, and left to die slowly. In an additional exercise in barbarity, Hitler ordered some of the executions to be filmed for his viewing pleasure. On the eve of his death, von Roenne wrote a martyr’s epitaph to his wife: “In a moment now I shall be going10 home to our Lord in complete calm and in the certainty of salvation.” Von Roenne undoubtedly helped the Allies to win the war, but his precise reasons for doing so are an enduring mystery. If Kühlenthal was losing the intelligence war by accident, then von Roenne seemed to be losing it by design.

In May 1943, the allegation that Colonel von Roenne was an anti-Nazi conspirator working to undermine Hitler would have been unthinkable, even treasonable. The diminutive baron was still Hitler’s favorite intelligence analyst, and if he declared that there was “absolutely convincing proof11 of the reliability” of this “resounding Abwehr success,”12 then that is what Hitler was most likely to believe.

For two weeks, during the wait for news from Spain, the atmosphere in Room 13 had been “frousty, peevish and petulant.”13 Montagu had intensified his grumbling, complaining that “he had to duck each time he had14 to go under the air duct, and approach Room 13 in a stooping position.” Given the pressure, he muttered, it was “surprising that we only have five15 breakdowns among the female staff.”

On May 12, the very day that Hillgarth reported the safe return of the briefcase, Juliette Ponsonby, the secretary of Section 17M, went to collect the latest Bletchley Park dispatches from the teleprinter room in the Admiralty. Montagu began leafing through the printouts and then suddenly uttered a loud whoop and banged the table so hard his coffee cup flew off the desk. That morning, the interceptors had picked up a wireless message sent by General Alfred Jodl, the OKW chief of the Operations Staff responsible for all strategic, executive, and war-operations planning, stating that “an enemy landing on a large scale16 is projected in the near future in both the East and West Mediterranean.” The information, sent to the senior German commanders southeast and south, with copies to the Naval Staff Operations Division and Air Force Operations Staff, was described by Jodl as coming from “a source which may be regarded17 as being absolutely reliable.” The message then furnished full details of the planned attack on Greece, precisely as described in Nye’s letter. Jodl himself gave his seal of approval to the documents: “It is very unusual for an intelligence18 report to be passed on in operational traffic or by someone of [such] seniority with so high a recommendation of reliability,” wrote Montagu, who had studied thousands of such signals. “So far as I can recollect19 it is almost unknown that such a thing should happen.”

The mood in the Admiralty basement changed instantly with the arrival of Most Secret Source message 2571. “Everyone jumped up and down.20 We were so thrilled,” recalled Pat Trehearne. The ladies hugged one another. The gentlemen shook hands. The fly had been taken, and the tension seemed to vanish.

No corresponding message relating to the fake assault in the west on Sardinia was picked up, but the British concluded it was “almost certain”21 that German commanders in the western theater had received by teleprinter “similar details from the letter22 which concerned that area.” Jodl’s message was only the hors d’oeuvre. From this moment on, evidence steadily accumulated showing that “the Germans were reinforcing23 our imaginary invasion areas in Greece … and at the same time spreading their available forces into Sardinia.” These were, in Montagu’s words, “wonderful days.”24

Winston Churchill was in Washington for the war conference code-named “Trident,” working on plans with Roosevelt for the invasion of Italy, the bombing of Germany, and the Pacific war. A telegram was immediately dispatched to the prime minister, stating cryptically that Mincemeat had reached “the right people and from best25 information they look like acting on it.”

Cholmondeley was quietly jubilant. Montagu scribbled a celebratory note on a postcard and sent it to Bill Jewell of HMS Seraph: “You will be pleased to learn26 that the Major is now very comfortable.” He also wrote to Iris in New York: “Friday was almost too good27 to be true. I had marvellous news of the success of a job that I was doing (it was so good that I feel a snag must arise).” Montagu was deeply relieved, yet he remained cautious, knowing that the deception was still at an early stage. The Abwehr in Madrid had fallen for the hoax, and so, it seemed, had the intelligence analysts in Berlin. The initial messages, wrote Montagu, “proved that we had convinced them.28 Now would they convince the general staff?”

He had no cause to fret, for back in Germany the Mincemeat lie was building up steam. On the day Jodl’s cable was sent to Germany’s Mediterranean commanders, Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff, the German ambassador in Madrid, sent a telegram to the Foreign Office in Berlin: “According to information29 just received from a wholly reliable source, the English and Americans will launch their big attack on Southern Europe in the next fortnight. The plan, as our informant was able to establish from English secret documents, is to launch two sham attacks on Sicily and the Dodecanese, while the real offensive is directed in two main thrusts against Crete and the Peloponnese.” Dieckhoff was clearly writing without the benefit of von Roenne’s analysis, for he missed the reference to Sardinia. An hour later, Dieckhoff sent another message, reporting that Francisco Gómez-Jordana y Souza, the Spanish foreign minister, had told him “in strict confidence”30 that Allied attacks should be expected in Greece and the western Mediterranean. The secret was now streaming through the upper echelons of the Spanish government and being fed back to the Germans. “Jordana begged me not to31 mention his name,” reported Dieckhoff, “especially as he wanted32 to exchange further information with me in the future. He considered the information wholly trustworthy, and felt it his duty to pass it on.”

The Mincemeat letters were now, finally, homing in on the ultimate target. Three weeks and three thousand miles after their journey began, the forgeries finally landed on the desk of the man for whose eyes they had always been intended, the only person whose opinion really mattered.

Adolf Hitler’s initial response was skeptical. Turning to General Eckhardt Christian, the Luftwaffe chief of staff, he remarked: “Christian, couldn’t this be a corpse33 they have deliberately planted on our hands?” General Christian’s response is not recorded, and by May 12, the day after von Roenne’s enthusiastic report, any doubts in Hitler’s mind had evaporated. That day, the Führer issued a general military directive: “It is to be expected that34 the Anglo-Americans will try to continue the operations in the Mediterranean in quick succession. The following are most endangered: in the Western Med, Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily; in the Eastern Med, the Peloponnese and the Dodecanese. … Measures regarding Sardinia and the Peloponnese take precedence over everything else.” The orders reflected a dramatic shift in priorities since, as Montagu observed, “the original German appreciation35 had been that Sicily was more likely to be invaded than Sardinia.” Sicily now appeared to be, in German thinking, the least vulnerable of the Mediterranean islands, with the focus firmly trained on Greece and Sardinia. Hitler ordered “all German commands36 in the Mediterranean to utilise all forces and equipment to strengthen as much as possible the defences of these particularly endangered areas during the short time which is probably left to us.”

In Washington D.C., Roosevelt and Churchill were hammering out the next stage of the war, looking beyond Operation Husky. “Where do we go from Sicily?”37 the president asked. The Americans favored assembling a mighty army in Britain to attack across the Channel as soon as possible. Churchill and his advisers preferred an invasion of the Italian mainland itself, disemboweling the soft underbelly. “The main task which lies before us,”38 the British argued, “is the elimination of Italy”—this would force Hitler to divert troops from elsewhere and undermine German strength on both the eastern and western fronts. After three days in the presidential retreat in the mountains of Maryland, later named Camp David, Churchill addressed a joint session of Congress: “War is full of mysteries and surprises,”39 he said. “By singleness of purpose, by steadfastness of conduct, by tenacity and endurance—such as we have so far displayed—by this and only this can we discharge our duty to the future of the world and to the destiny of man.” The Anglo-American conference broke up with the agreement that Eisenhower would continue the fight in the south of Europe, while a great cross-Channel offensive would be prepared for the following May. But first, Sicily.

At the press conference ending the Trident meeting, Churchill was asked: “What do you think is going40 on in Hitler’s mind?” There was laughter, and Churchill replied: “Appetite unbridled.41 Ambition unmeasured—all the world!” Secretly, Churchill now knew that in one corner of Hitler’s mind, another conviction had settled: that the Allied armies in North Africa were aiming at Greece in the east and Sardinia in the west, while Sicily would be left alone.

With the effects of Operation Mincemeat appearing in intercepted German messages, Montagu raised a security issue. If someone outside the secret saw reports referring “to a document that had been42 captured from a dead body” there would be a serious “security flap,”43 and questions would be asked about why top secret documents had been carried abroad in this way, in defiance of wartime regulations. Bletchley Park had been instructed to ensure that any messages referring to the intercepted Mincemeat documents were initially sent only to “C,” the head of MI6, and to Montagu himself. “Arrangements could then be made44 to warn recipients or to limit the distribution.”

Von Roenne had chosen to accept the documents at face value, and his analysis was now hurtling up the German power structure. Not everyone was entirely convinced. Major Percy Ernst Schramm, who kept the OKW war diary, recalled the intense discussion among senior officers over whether the letters might be forged: “We earnestly debated45 the question ‘Genuine or not? Perhaps genuine? Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, the Peloponnese?’ ” On May 13, a skeptical officer at FHW in Zossen, identified by the code name “Erizo,” sent a message to the Abwehr in Madrid demanding more details about the discovery of the documents. “The evaluation office attach special46 importance to a more detailed statement of the circumstances under which the material was found. Particular points of interest are, when the body was washed ashore, when and where the crash is presumed to have taken place. Whether aircraft and further bodies were observed, and other details. Urgent Reply by W/T [wireless] if necessary.”

German analysts had now spent several days studying the letters and the accompanying reports. The demand for greater detail on the discovery suggests that the inconsistency between the postmortem, indicating at least eight days of decomposition, and Kühlenthal’s timing of just three days between crash and discovery had not gone unnoticed. The FHW also appears to have questioned how a decomposing corpse at sea for more than a week could still be holding a full briefcase when it reached the shore. And if a plane had crashed in the Mediterranean, where was the wreckage? The cable was followed by a telephone call from FHW, again pressing for more details.

The Madrid Abwehr office replied, somewhat huffily, that it had already requested, four days earlier, a detailed report on the discovery from the Spanish General Staff: “The latter immediately despatched47 an officer to the spot. The results of the officer’s findings partly differ in detail from the facts of the case as first represented by the General Staff. Detailed report will arrive at Tempelhof [airport in Berlin] on evening of 15/5. Have it collected.”

Kühlenthal had clearly picked up the new note of skepticism in Berlin, and, as he always did when under pressure, he simultaneously covered his back and passed the buck: “Oberst Lt. Pardo on the 10th May,48 was emphatic that the answers he gave us were a complete story of the whole affair without reservations, but it seems, however, that this was not so.” The Spanish officer sent by the General Staff to Huelva to find out more about the discovery of the body and the papers had now returned to Madrid. “The result of his investigations49 was communicated to us this morning in the presence of Oberst Lt. Pardo’s commanding officer.”

The Spanish staff officer had done his job well, interviewing most of the protagonists in the story, including the fishermen, the naval authorities, and the pathologist: his verbal report added numerous corroborating details and corrected others. “In contrast to the first statement50 of Oberst Lt. Pardo, that the corpse carried the brief case clutched in his hand, it appears that the above mentioned brief case was secured to the corpse by a strap around the waist. The attaché case was fastened to this strap by a hook.” The new report, sent from the Abwehr office in Spain to Colonel von Roenne at FHW, as well as the Abwehr chiefs, accurately described how the papers and briefcase had traveled up the Spanish chain of command, from Huelva to Cádiz to Madrid, before being presented to Admiral Moreno himself. “He (the Minister for Marine)51 handed the whole collection—the courier’s brief case, together with all papers found in his breast pocket—to A.E.M. [Alto Estado Mayor, the Spanish General Staff] who undertook the opening, reproduction and resealing, and then returned them to him. He then gave the whole collection to the British Naval Attaché in Madrid.” The British plane carrying the courier seemed to have vanished into the sea without a trace, at least none that Adolf Clauss and his agents in Huelva could find. “A search for the remains52 of Major Martin’s aircraft and also for the corpses of any other passengers in this plane was unsuccessful.” But, as ever, Kühlenthal had an excuse: “The fishermen state53 that in the area where the corpse was found there are strong currents and other corpses together with parts of the aircraft might later on be found in other places.”

Far harder to explain away was how the body had so thoroughly decomposed in such a short time. But Kühlenthal was up to the task.

A medical examination54 of the corpse showed that there were no apparent wounds or marks which could have resulted from a blow or stab. According to medical evidence, death was due to drowning (lit: the swallowing of sea water). The corpse carried an English pattern life-belt and was in an advanced state of decomposition. According to medical opinion, it had been in the water from five to eight days. This contradicts the evidence provided by the discovery of a night club bill on the corpse dated 27th April, and the discovery of the corpse at 9.30 in the morning of the 30th April. It is, however, considered possible that the effect of the sun’s rays on the floating corpse accelerated the rate of decomposition. The doctors also stated that the corpse was identical with the photographs in its military papers with the sole exception that a bald patch on the temples was more pronounced than in the photographs. Either the photograph of Major Martin had been taken some two or three years ago or the baldness on the temples was due to the action of sea water.

Here was a classic example of willingness to believe, blended with self-deception and outright falsification. The earlier report had gotten the date of the theater tickets wrong, but rather than correct the error, this report fudged the time gap. The Spanish pathologists had concluded that death took place at least eight days before April 30, but in order to fit it in with his own (erroneous) timing, Kühlenthal changed this to between five and eight days. Two spurious but plausible-sounding scientific explanations were adduced to explain why the corpse was rotting and why Major Martin looked substantially older than his photograph. The Abwehr had decided from the outset that the discovery was genuine and marshaled the evidence, despite obvious flaws, toward that belief. Kühlenthal stood by his intelligence coup. With the information now swirling around the upper reaches of the Nazi war machine, he had no choice.

In the fetid basement of the Admiralty, Montagu and Cholmondeley were sweating over an entirely unforeseen development that would have been funny had it not been so deeply alarming: Major Martin’s briefcase had disappeared, again. Hillgarth had taken receipt of the case and other personal effects on May 11 and promised to send them in the diplomatic bag to London on May 14. By May 18, the package had still not arrived at Room 13, and the Mincemeat team was starting to panic. That evening, Hillgarth received a telegram in secret cipher: “Bag not yet arrived.55Urgent that letters should be received earliest possible. Was bag sent by air or sea?” Hillgarth immediately replied that the items, packed in “a small, sealed bag,”56 had left Madrid for Lisbon, as planned, and should have arrived by air, addressed personally to Ewen Montagu. Here was a surreal situation: for months, they had been working to get the bag into the wrong hands, as if by accident. Now it might very well have fallen into the wrong hands, by accident.

In the same telegram, Montagu asked whether the rubber dinghy set adrift by the Seraph had ever washed up. He also passed on the news that initial signs seemed to show that Mincemeat was working: “Evidence that operation successful57 but vital that no suspicion should be aroused.” Hillgarth replied that there was no trace of the dinghy, which had almost certainly been appropriated by the fishermen of Punta Umbria.

From his own discreet investigations, Hillgarth already knew that the deception was taking satisfactory shape. Agent Andros had “reported that there was great excitement58 over some official documents found on the body of a British officer at Huelva.” The rumor mill was grinding away: “I naturally asked him to find out59 what he could.” A few days later, Hillgarth ran into Admiral Moreno at a cocktail party for foreign diplomats. The minister of marine brought up the subject of the documents unprompted and “said that immediately he heard60 they had reached Madrid (he was in Valencia) he gave Chief [of] Naval Staff orders to hand over to me at once.” This was a bald lie. German documents show that Moreno took personal custody of the papers, and then handed them, unopened, to the General Staff.

There then followed a most revealing conversation between Hillgarth and his Spanish friend.

“Why did you go to so much trouble?”61 Hillgarth asked nonchalantly.

“I was anxious no one should have62 an unauthorised look at them,” Moreno replied. “Which might be a serious matter.”

Moreno had tripped himself up. Hillgarth had requested the return of the case through a third party but had never indicated that this was anything other than a routine matter, let alone that the contents were secret and should be kept from “unauthorised” eyes. “He obviously did not know63the exact terms of my request which was verbal and could never alone have led him to say what he did,” Hillgarth reported to London. “It can be taken as a certainty64 that Spanish Government know contents of documents. I am not so certain they have reached the enemy. Yet they were more than a week in Huelva and Cadiz.”

The Spanish admiral was playing a dangerous double game. On May 19, the German ambassador Dieckhoff sent another message to Berlin, describing a meeting with Moreno: “He told me that all his information65 indicated that strong forces would be concentrated in preparation for an attack on Greece and Italy. … The Navy Minister regards an attack on Greece as especially likely.” While reassuring the British that their secrets were safe, Moreno was simultaneously passing those secrets to the Germans. The duplicitous Spanish admiral would make a very useful tool for reinforcing the deception. “The operation has given conclusive66 proof of the extent to which the Spaniards will go in assistance to the Axis.”

On May 21, to the intense relief of the Mincemeat team, the package containing Major Martin’s briefcase and other effects finally arrived in London. No satisfactory explanation was offered for its weeklong, heart-stopping disappearance. Spanish bureaucracy was not alone in moving in mysterious ways. The letters were immediately sent to the Special Examiners (censorship) for microscopic analysis. First they inspected the wax seals and found that despite all that had happened over the preceding weeks, these were still perfectly intact. “The seals were photographed67 and marked by us before they were despatched, and they have been photographed also after their return. They have not been altered in any way.”

But that was only part of the story. “Although we can say that there68 has been no tampering with the seals [it is] quite possible that the letters have been rolled out, from under the bottom flaps … as the bottom flap was very much deeper than the upper, there was plenty of room for the contents to be taken out.” The eyelash was missing from each envelope, but the examiners had laid another, rather more scientific, trap. Before being placed in the briefcase, back in April, each letter had been folded into three, symmetrically, just once. A letter when folded dry creates a crease that is noticeably “sharper than one made in it when69 it was well soaked and soft, more like that which would be made in a piece of cloth.” Under the microscope, it was revealed that at least one of the letters had been folded twice, “once symmetrically and secondly70 irregularly … while the letter was wet.” Thus, the examiners deduced that when the Spaniards had closed up the key letter, “it was not done on exactly71 the same folds and there were damaged fibres in the paper minutely separate from the new folds.”

There was one other test. To extract the letters, the paper must have been tightly wound around a metal prong. The letters had been soaked again before being replaced inside the envelopes, and despite the delayed journey from Spain, they were still slightly damp. A piece of paper rolled up when wet will tend to curl up when dried out. The censors extracted the letters and then carefully watched to see whether or not the paper would lie flat. Sure enough, “as the letter began to dry72 naturally, outside the envelope, the edges began to curve upward, that is to say as they would if the letter had been rolled out of the back of the envelope.” Moreover, the rolling up must have happened when the letter was folded in three, since the examiners noted that “when the letter is folded up,73 it all curves the same way.” Here was solid physical proof that the letters had been opened, corroborating the evidence now appearing in the intercepted wireless messages.

The Germans would be expecting the British to examine the returned letters carefully to see if they had been tampered with. The deception would be reinforced if the Germans could be made to believe that such an examination had been carried out and that the British scientists were satisfied the letters had never been opened. The best person to pass on that message would be the fickle Admiral Moreno.

A message was drafted to Captain Hillgarth, referring to his earlier conversation with the admiral. “Inform Minister of Marine as soon74 as possible that sealed envelopes have been tested by experts and there was no trace of opening or tampering before they reached care of Spanish Navy and that you are instructed to express our deep appreciation for the efficiency and promptitude with which Spanish Navy took charge of all documents before any evilly disposed person could get at them. You should say that you may tell him in confidence that one of the letters was of the greatest importance and secrecy and the appreciation expressed at this token of friendship is most sincere.” This message was sent not in cipher but by naval cable. A second, secret, cable informed Hillgarth that the “letters [were] in fact opened,”75 but he should spread the word to anyone “likely to pass it on”76 that the British were confident the letters were never read in Spain. “Important there should be no77 repetition no suspicion that we believe letters were read so that present success may not be endangered.”

Despite the misgivings of some at FHW, and Kühlenthal’s blustering excuses for the gaps and contradictions in the story, the lie had by now firmly embedded itself in German strategic thinking and was beginning to metastasize, spreading out through the veins of Axis intelligence. Important and exciting information, whether true or false, develops its own momentum. So far from being questioned, the expected attacks in Greece and Sardinia were fast becoming accepted wisdom.

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