Military history


Hitler Loses Sleep

FOUR DAYS AFTER von Roenne’s initial analysis, one Captain Ullrich, an officer on the German General Staff, offered a fresh assessment of the intelligence. This report, dated May 14, “consisted of comments1 for the perusal of Admiral Doenitz;” Ullrich was, if anything, even more wildly enthusiastic about the Mincemeat information than von Roenne.

“No further doubts remain2 regarding the reliability of the captured documents,” Ullrich wrote. “Examination as to whether they were intentionally put into our hands shows that this is most unlikely.” It is not clear what examination, if any, had been made in order to clear up “remaining doubts.” No new evidence had been found, and no formal investigation had been undertaken. Yet the impetus of wishful thinking was unstoppable.

Captain Ullrich next addressed the question of “whether the enemy3 is aware of the interception by us of these documents or whether he is only aware of the loss of a plane over the sea.” The analyst was confident that Germany now had the upper hand. “It is possible that the enemy knows nothing of the capture of these documents but it is certain that he will know they have not reached their destination. Whether the enemy intend to alter the operations they have planned or accelerate the timing is not known but remains improbable.” The letter from Nye to Alexander was “urgent;”4 Alexander had been asked to “reply immediately5 ‘since we cannot postpone the matter any longer.’” On the other hand, there had been sufficient time to send the letter by air courier, rather than by wireless, and to await a response. “It is the opinion6 of the German General Staff that sufficient time remains for alteration in the planning of both the Eastern and Western Mediterranean operations.”

With Germanic precision, Ullrich laid out his conclusions: the attacks in the east and west would be simultaneous, “since only in this case7 would Sicily be unsuitable as cover for both;” the troops attacking Greece would probably leave from Tobruk, in northeastern Libya; Alexandria would not be used as an embarkation point, since it would be “absurd”8 to pretend that such forces could reach Sicily, in conformity with the cover plan. (“This shows how wrong a staff9 can be, as Sicily was invaded from Alexandria,” Montagu remarked when Captain Ullrich’s report was eventually recovered.) It was possible, thought Ullrich, that the Fifth and Fifty-sixth Divisions would “comprise the whole of10 the assault forces” in the Peloponnese. As for the decoy attack on Sicily, this might be a brief commando-style assault followed by an immediate retreat but could also “be continued after the11 launching of the actual operation.” The report concluded by stressing that the German defensive focus should shift, emphatically, to Greece. “It must be especially12 emphasised that this document indicated extensive preparations in the Eastern Mediterranean. This is especially important because from that area, on account of the geographical situation, there has, up to this time, been considerably less news about preparations than from the area of Algiers.” There was, of course, another very good reason why the Germans had less evidence of an attack in the east: the Allies, in reality, had no plans to launch one. Once again, when the truth did not fit, the Germans willingly maneuvered the facts in favor of the deception.

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who had been made commander in chief of the German navy three months earlier, undoubtedly read Captain Ullrich’s analysis, since he wrote on it. Among the documents seized at Tambach by Ian Fleming’s Red Indians in 1945 was Ullrich’s original report: in the margin, Dönitz’s “personal squiggle”13 is clearly visible, the initials indicating that he had read it and absorbed its contents. Dönitz was one of Hitler’s most trusted decision makers and would become his heir: his influence was critical.

Benito Mussolini had long believed that the next Allied attack would be aimed at Sicily, the key strategic point for a full-scale assault on Italy. His German allies now set about convincing him otherwise. Dönitz returned from Rome and sent a report of his meeting with Mussolini to Hitler. In his official war diary for May 14, the German admiral noted, “The Führer does not agree14 with the Duce that the most likely invasion point is Sicily. Furthermore, he agrees that the discovered Anglo-Saxon order confirms the assumption that the planned attack will be directed mainly against Sardinia and the Peloponnesus.” A few days later, Hitler wrote to Mussolini: “It is also clear from documents15 which have been found that they intend to invade the Peloponnese and will in fact do so. … If the British attempts are to be prevented, as they must be at all costs, this can only be done by a German division.” Hitler’s faith in his Italian ally was fading fast, and Italian troops could not be relied on to do the job. “Within the next few days16 or weeks, a large number of German divisions must be sent immediately to the Peloponnese.” With regard to the Balkan threat, the Nye letter had not changed Hitler’s mind; it had merely bolstered what he already, wrongly, believed. As the intelligence historian Michael Handel writes in his assessment of Operation Mincemeat: “It is very unusual and very difficult17 for deception to create new concepts for an enemy. It is much easier and more effective to reinforce those which already exist.”

Corroborative tidbits flooded in from all sides as Mincemeat’s false information spread through German sources official and unofficial. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the RSHA—the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or Reich Security Main Office (the organization formed by Himmler’s combining the Security Service and the Gestapo)—told the foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, that his spies in the British and American embassies in Madrid confirmed that “targets of enemy operation18 [are] Italy and her islands as well as Greece.” The Turkish embassies in London and Washington picked up the news and reported to Germany that “the Allies wanted to advance19 into the Balkans via Greece.” General Jodl was overheard on the telephone telling German commanders in Rome: “You can forget Sicily,20 we know it’s Greece.”

Additional Ultra intercepts showed that the German Abwehr station in Rhodes, citing the Italian high command as its source, reported “that the Allied attack21 would be directed against Cape Araxos and Kalamata” and added a little embroidery of its own: “Allied submarines had received22 orders to assemble at an unknown assembly-point for massed operations.” The warning was passed from Athens to German commanders in the Aegean and on Crete, the army commander in southern Greece, and the Abwehr in Salonika, which “forwarded it to Belgrade and Sofia.”23 The deception was reinforcing itself, to London’s delight: “The reports coming from24 opposite quarters seemed to confirm each other and have evidently, for the time being at least, been accepted as true.”

The information had all originated in the same place, but having trickled out in the form of gossip, rumor, and information passed from source to source, it now filtered back to Germany, confirming itself like an echo growing ever louder.

On May 19, Hitler held a military conference in which he referred to the expected assault on Greece and the thrust up through the Balkans. The Führer’s “congenital obsession about the Balkans,”25 stoked by the Mincemeat letters, was keeping him awake. “In the last few days,26 and particularly last night, I have again been giving much thought to the consequences which would follow if we lost the Balkans, and there is no doubt that the results must be very serious.” The ravenous German war machine could not survive without raw materials from the Balkans and Romania, the source of half its oil, all its chrome, and three fifths of its bauxite. German commanders had emphasized the threat of an Allied offensive in Greece since the previous winter, and discussions between the Axis allies in February had concluded that Greece was vulnerable. The documents had crystalized Hitler’s preexisting anxieties (“the danger is that they will establish27 themselves in the Peloponnese”); he now proposed “as a precaution to take a further28 preventive measure against an eventual attack on the Peloponnese.” Partisan activity was increasing in the German-held Balkans, and from Hitler’s perspective the area seemed, in his own words, the “natural”29 target. Greece was the thin end of an exceedingly sharp wedge: “If a landing takes place30 in the Balkans, let us say the Peloponnese, then in a foreseeable time Crete will go,” he told his generals at the conference on May 19. “I have therefore decided31 whatever happens to transfer one armoured division to the Peloponnese.”

While the fake letter from General Nye concentrated Hitler’s mind on Greece, Montagu’s joke about sardines focused German attention on Sardinia. “Sardinia is particularly threatened,”32 observed General Walter Warlimont, deputy chief of the operations staff. “In the event of the loss33 of Sardinia, the threat to Northern Italy is extremely acute. This is the key point for the whole of Italy.” German fears about the vulnerability of Greece and the Balkans were mirrored by Hitler’s anxiety over Sardinia: “He foresaw that from Sardinia34 the enemy could threaten Rome and the main ports of Genoa and Leghorn, strike simultaneously through upper Italy and at Southern France, and strike at the heart of the European fortress.”

A British spy within Italian government circles, meanwhile, reported that the Mincemeat information had reached Rome “through the Spaniards and not directly35 through the Germans”—confirmation that the Spanish General Staff had made its own copies of the documents and passed these on to the Italians. “The Italian High Command36 have the details of the letter and have accepted it as genuine.” The Italian ambassador in Madrid told the Germans that he had obtained “information from an absolutely37 unimpeachable source that the enemy intend landing operations in Greece in the very near future.” The German ambassador in Rome passed on the news, now no longer new, to Berlin. It is an intriguing comment on the state of the Axis alliance that the Italians delivered this high-grade information to the Germans, but the Germans, who had known it for considerably longer, felt no such obligation to share intelligence with their Italian allies.

Fragments of corroborative information were swirling around the diplomatic world. British intelligence discovered that the German ambassador in Ankara had informed the Turkish minister in Budapest that the German army would soon be reinforcing its military stance in Greece but that it had no hostile intentions toward neutral Turkey: “There would be troop and transport38 movements towards the south which will affect Greece but that the Turkish Government should not be worried in any way as these were not aimed against Turkey.” As always with whispers of gossip, the information tended to get mangled in transition. From Madrid, Hillgarth reported wryly: “German circles here have a story39 that they have obtained warning of our plans through papers found on a British officer in Tunis.” Soon after, Hillgarth received the report from Agent Andros describing, in minute detail, how the documents had reached German hands. “The degree of Spanish complicity”40 was laid bare: “This exchange of information with the Germans in fact took place at the highest levels in Madrid.” Andros confirmed that Leissner and Kühlenthal, the two most senior Abwehr officers, had been directly involved in obtaining the documents from the Spaniards, and the entire episode, as Montagu wrote to “C,” was “adding to our knowledge of German41 intrigues in Spain.”

Months later, shards of the false intelligence continued to ricochet from one source to another, breaking up in the process. A spy in Stockholm reported that the local Germans had information from a British aircraft shot down in the Mediterranean with battle orders showing “simultaneous landings in Sardinia42 and the Peloponnese,” and a secondary attack on Sicily. Almost every other detail in the report was inaccurate, but it was plain that it had come, as the report put it, from “our refrigerated friend.”43

One by one, Hitler’s key advisers were being drawn into the deception, either by access to the documents themselves or through independent “confirmation,” as the same intelligence arrived by other routes: Canaris, Jodl, Kaltenbrunner, Warlimont, von Roenne. By May 20, Mussolini “had come round to the same view.”44 A collective willingness to believe seems to have gripped the upper reaches of the Nazi war apparatus, driven by Hitler’s own belief. It takes a brave man to stand up to the boss in such circumstances. The men surrounding Hitler were not made of such stuff.

Nazi confidence was in dire need of reinforcement—with the Axis powers defeated in North Africa, bogged down in blood on the eastern front, facing an increasingly confident Allied enemy. Before the arrival of the Mincemeat letters, the entire southern coast of Europe had appeared vulnerable. Now, instead of waiting for the Allied armies to attack somewhere, anywhere, the Germans and their Italian allies could lie in wait at Kalamata, Cape Araxos, and Sardinia and then hurl the British and Americans back into the sea. The papers washed up in Spain represented more than just an intelligence coup: here was a real chance to strike back. The tide of war was turning, but here, floating in on the waves, was an opportunity to reverse the current. Fate was smiling on Germany. No wonder they chose to believe.

There was one man in Hitler’s circle who remained skeptical. Joseph Goebbels was alone among the Nazi elite in wondering whether the letters that had so conveniently arrived in German hands at this opportune moment were nothing more than “camouflage,”45 an elaborate effort by the British to put Germany off the scent. The Nazi propaganda minister knew better than most that reality, in war, is a malleable and fickle substance. “The truth is whatever helps bring victory,”46 he wrote. Goebbels had no faith in the Abwehr, which made such extravagant claims for its spy networks but produced so little of real use. “Despite all the assertions,47 our political and military intelligence just stinks,” he complained. Having bungled and blustered its way through four years of war, the Abwehr was now trumpeting a “resounding”48 success with a set of letters that revealed Allied planning down to a comma. Goebbels thought he knew the British mind. He had the Times translated for him daily and complained about the newspaper exactly as if he were a retired general living in the Home Counties, rather than the master of Nazi propaganda. “The Times has once again sunk49 so low as to publish an almost pro-Bolshevik article,” he harrumphed. “It praised the Bolshevik revolution and used words that make one blush with shame.” Dr. Goebbels may have been one of the most repulsive creatures in the bestiary of Nazism, but he had a sensitive nose for a lie, and the British letters smelled wrong. To use the favorite expression of Admiral Cunningham, one of the notional recipients, something about the letters was just too “velvety-arsed and Rolls Royce.”50

“I had a long discussion with51 Admiral Canaris about the data available for forecasting English intentions,” Goebbels wrote in his diary for May 25, 1943. “Canaris has gained possession of a letter written by the English General Staff to General Alexander. This letter is extremely informative and reveals English plans almost to the dotting of an ‘i.’ I don’t know whether the letter is merely camouflage—Canaris denies this energetically—or whether it actually corresponds to the facts.” Unlike most of Hitler’s advisers, and Hitler himself, Goebbels tried to test the reality presented in the letters against what he knew of British strategic thinking. “The general outline of English plans52 for this summer revealed here seems on the whole to tally. According to it, the English and Americans are planning several sham attacks during the coming months: one in the west, on Sicily, and one on the Dodecanese islands. These attacks are to immobilise our troops stationed there, thus enabling English forces to undertake other and more serious operations. These operations are to involve Sardinia and the Peloponnesus. On the whole this line of reasoning seems to be right. Hence, if the letter to General Alexander is the real thing, we shall have to prepare to repel a number of attacks which are partly serious and partly sham.” No other senior Nazi wondered if the letter was the real thing. Goebbels kept his doubts to himself, and his diary.

The trickiest aspect of lying is maintaining the lie. Telling an untruth is easy, but continuing and reinforcing a lie is far harder. The natural human tendency is to deploy another lie to bolster the initial mendacity. Deceptions—in the war room, boardroom, and bedroom—usually unravel because the deceiver lets down his guard and makes the simple mistake of telling, or revealing, the truth.

The invasion of Sicily was planned for July 10. That left a gap of two months in which the elaborate fabrication had to be protected, buttressed, and fortified. For weeks, Allied deception planners had built up the fictional “Twelfth Army” in Cairo, the dummy force apparently poised to strike at the Peloponnese, by spreading modern Greek myths: recruiting Greek fishermen familiar with the coast, distributing Greek maps to Allied troops, employing Greek interpreters.

On June 7, Karl-Erich Kühlenthal sent a message to Juan Pujol asking his star spy to find out whether the British were recruiting Greek soldiers in preparation for the assault. The First Canadian Division was already training in Scotland and preparing to embark for Sicily. Kühlenthal assumed they were heading for Greece. “Try to find out if Greek troops53 are stationed close to the First Canadian Army or elsewhere in the South of England, and if so, which Greek troops are these?” wrote Kühlenthal. “It is of greatest importance to discover the next operation.” Garbo told his handler that Agent No. 5, a wealthy Venezuelan student, would immediately head to Scotland “to investigate the presence54 of Greek troops.” The Greek troops did not exist, of course, but then, neither did Agent No. 5.

The Germans had clearly taken the bait, but they would also be watching closely for any evidence confirming or disproving what they now believed. Dudley Clarke sent a message suggesting that “the only serious danger”55 of the deception being uncovered would be a “legal or illegal exhumation56 with a view to a more thorough autopsy” on the body in the Huelva cemetery. Montagu arranged another meeting with the St. Pancras coroner, Bentley Purchase, who reassured him that an autopsy at this late stage would probably be inconclusive. “By the time that he had been57 buried for a short period his internal organs must have been, according to the coroner, in a very mixed up condition [and] the lungs would probably have been liquefied,” making it even harder to establish death by drowning. Montagu sent a message to Bevan: “Although no one in this world58 can be certain of anything it does not seem that the fear that the Germans may learn anything from a disinterment and subsequent autopsy is well founded.”

Still, a large slab of engraved marble might help to discourage any grave robbing, while giving William Martin the sort of dignified gravestone he deserved. On May 21, Alan Hillgarth received an encoded message from London: “Suggest unless unusual59 that a medium priced tombstone should be erected on grave with inscription such as quote William Martin, born 29th March 1907 died 24 repetition 24 April 1943 beloved son of John Glyndwyr repetition Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales. Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori. R.I.P. end quote.” Montagu spelled Glyndwr Michael’s first name wrong in his cable: the error was duly transferred to the stone. For a moment, the spies had second thoughts. Would a large marble gravestone look suspicious? “This to be done unless restrictions60 on making payment from England to Spain or other wartime difficulties would have made it too difficult for a father to get this done in normal circumstances.” Hillgarth replied immediately: “Please send me ordinary cipher61 signal saying that relations would like this stone put up telling me to get on with it I will then get exchange in normal way and proceed immediately.” Germany’s spies within the British embassy could be relied on to pick up the message and relay it to the Abwehr in the usual way. In a final element of stage design, the Mincemeat team wrote: “Suggest Consul place wreath62 now with card marked quote From Father and Pam end quote.” Mario Toscana, the Huelva gravestone carver, was instructed to make the stone “as fast as possible.”63 Francis Haselden sent the wreath as instructed, as well as several bouquets picked from the garden of the Casa Colón, the headquarters of the Rio Tinto Company. “The purpose of this was not only64 to carry out what would probably have occurred in real life, but also to enable the grave to be visited often enough to discourage any chance of a secret and illicit disinterment for further autopsy.” Lancelot Shutte, Haselden’s sidekick, would make a daily pilgrimage to the graveside, ostensibly as an official mourner, in reality to see if the flowers had been moved and the grave disturbed.

Hillgarth composed and dictated a letter, addressed to “John G. Martin ESQ” but for the attention of Kühlenthal and his spies:


   In accordance with instructions65 from the Admiralty, I have now arranged for a gravestone for your son’s grave. It will be a simple white marble slab with the inscription which you sent to me through the Admiralty, and the cost will be 900 pesetas.

The grave itself cost 500 pesetas, and, as I think you know, it is in the Roman Catholic cemetery.

A wreath with a card on it with the message you asked for has been laid on the grave. The flowers came from the garden of an English mining company in Huelva.

I have taken the liberty of thanking the Vice Consul, Huelva, on your behalf for all he has done.

May I express my deep sympathy with you and your son’s fiancée in your great sorrow?

I am, Sir, Your obedient servant, Alan Hillgarth

At the same time, Montagu sent a message to Hillgarth with the same audience in mind: “I have been asked66 by Major Martin’s father, fiancée and friends to thank you for the trouble you and the Vice Consul have taken in connection with his funeral and to say how much they appreciate the promptitude with which you returned his personal effects. Few though they were, as Major Martin was an only son and just engaged to be married, they will be greatly treasured.” Here was confirmation for the Germans that all Martin’s accoutrements were safely back in Britain. “Could you possibly procure67 for him a photograph of the grave after the tombstone has been erected?” Hillgarth duly obliged.

As far as the Germans knew, the British authorities were deeply relieved to get their valuable documents back intact. Another small outlay by Hillgarth would bolster that impression, by way of local gossip: “A reasonable reward of not more68 than £25 should be given to the person who handed the papers to the safe custody of naval Authorities. It is left to your judgement whether this should be done by you through Naval Authorities or by Consul Huelva direct.” The sum of twenty-five pounds was a small fortune in wartime Huelva: José Rey’s fishing trip would turn out to be the most lucrative of his life.

While “Pam” and “Father” grieved in private, the news of Major William Martin’s death now needed relaying to a wider, public audience. The Germans had access to the British casualty lists, and if Martin’s name failed to appear on them, suspicions might be aroused. At least equal suspicion might be provoked among Royal Marines officers if one of their number was suddenly declared dead without warning. A letter, marked most secret and personal, was sent to the commanders of the three Royal Marines Divisions, as well as the colonel who edited the Globe and Laurel, the official Marines newsletter: “No action is to be taken69 in respect of the notification of the death of Major William Martin. This officer was detached on special service and no mention will be made in General Orders.” The casualty section received a curt order: “Insert the following entry70 in the next suitable casualty list ‘Tempy Captain, (Acting Major) William Martin, R.M.’ This should appear at the earliest possible moment.” But it was not so easy to slip a false death past the authorities. The Department of the Medical Director-General later demanded to know whether Major Martin had died in action and if so, how. The navy’s legal department wanted to know if the gallant major had left a will “and, if so, where was it?”71 Both departments were politely, but firmly, told to mind their own business.

The announcement of Major William Martin’s death on active service duly appeared in the Times on Friday, June 4, 1943. By pure chance, the names of two other real naval officers, whose deaths in an aircraft accident had previously been reported in the newspaper, appeared on the same list. The Germans, Montagu speculated, might link the reported death of Martin with that accident. The death of Leslie Howard, “distinguished film and stage actor,”72 was reported in a news story alongside the Roll of Honour featuring W. Martin. The civilian plane carrying the actor had been shot down by a German fighter over the Bay of Biscay. Somewhat eerily, an Abwehr informant may have mistaken Howard for Winston Churchill, who had recently visited Algiers and Tunis. It is safe to assume that more public attention was paid to this “severe loss to the British theatre73 and to British films” than to the obscure death of a officer whom no one, bar a few spies, had ever heard of.

The Times was the place all important people wanted to be seen dead in, and it is not possible to be deader than in the death columns of Britain’s most venerable newspaper. That said, several people have been pronounced dead in the press while being very much alive, including Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain (twice), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In July 1900 George Morrison, the Peking correspondent of the Times, read of his own death in his own newspaper after he was believed to have perished during the Boxer Rebellion. (The obituary described him as devoted and fearless. A friend remarked: “The only decent thing they can do74 now is double your salary.” They didn’t.) This, however, was the first time in the newspaper’s history that a person was formally pronounced dead without ever having been alive.

At the end of May, the director of Naval Intelligence noted in his secret diary that “the first German Panzer Division75 (strength about 18,000 men) is being transferred from France to the Salonika region.” The information was graded “A1.” This was the first indication of a major troop movement in response to the Mincemeat papers. An intercepted message added further details of the “arrangements for the passage76 through Greece to Tripolis, in the Peloponnese, of the 1st German Panzer Division.” The movement seemed directly linked to the information in Nye’s letter, since Tripolis, Montagu noted, was a “strategic position well suited77 to resist our invasion of Kalamata and Cape Araxos.” The First Panzer Division, with eighty-three tanks, had seen fierce action in Russia but was now “completely reequipped.”78 Last located by British intelligence in Brittany, the Panzer division was a formidable, hardened force, and it was now being rolled from one end of Europe to the other, to counter an illusion.

On June 8, Montagu wrote an interim report on the progress of Operation Mincemeat. “It is now about half way between79 the time when the documents in MINCEMEAT reached the Germans and the present D-Day for Operation HUSKY, and I have therefore considered the state of the Germans’ mind in so far as we have evidence.” Montagu summarized the intercepted messages, known troop movements, diplomatic gossip, and double-agent feedback, all of which suggested the most “gratifying” progress. “The present situation is summed80 up in the [June 7] message to Garbo which to my mind indicates the Germans are still accepting the probability of an attack in Greece, and are still anxiously searching for the target we foreshadowed in the Western Mediterranean.” Goebbels remained silent on the subject, but whatever other suspicions there may have been on the German side now seemed to be allayed: “They raised (but did not pursue)81 the question [of] whether it was a plot.”

“Mincemeat has already resulted82 in some dispersal of the enemy’s effort and forces,” Montagu wrote. “It is to be hoped that, as visible signs in the Eastern Mediterranean increase, the story we have put over may be ‘confirmed’ and lead the enemy to take their eye off Sicily still more, although they obviously cannot entirely neglect the re-inforcement [sic] of so vulnerable and imminently threatened a point. It already appears to be having the desired effect on the enemy and (as the preparations for Husky grow) its effect may become cumulative.”

There was still time for Mincemeat to go horribly wrong, but so far, Major Martin’s secret mission was going swimmingly. Montagu’s interim report declared: “I think that at this half way stage83 Mincemeat can still be regarded as achieving the objective for which we hoped.”

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