Military history


Hook, Line, and Sinker

A LOUD CHEER ERUPTED from Room 13 as the news of success in Sicily broke. Cholmondeley performed a shuffling dance and a strange ululation. “Auntie” Joan Saunders wiped her eyes.

The strain of waiting had been almost unbearable. As the success of Operation Mincemeat became clearer, Montagu privately feared his part in the war might be coming to an end. “Even if I have once brought off1 something really important and worth-while … I’m never going to be allowed to do anything of the kind again.” The pressure had left the planners hollow-eyed, in Montagu’s words, “too keyed-up to read2 a book or to get to sleep.”

Looking back, Montagu recalled the flooding relief as the Allies surged through Sicily.

“It is really impossible3 to describe the feeling of joy and satisfaction at knowing that the team must have saved the lives of hundreds of Allied soldiers during the invasion—a feeling mixed with the delight that we had managed to do what we said we could do and what so many of our seniors had said was impossible—and what I have always thought even Churchill really thought was only worth trying as a desperate measure.” For Montagu, a special pleasure lay in the subsequent discovery that Hitler himself had fallen for the phony documents: “Joy of joys to anyone,4and particularly a Jew, the satisfaction of knowing that they had directly and specifically fooled that monster.”

The deception had succeeded beyond every expectation, and Montagu was jubilant: “We fooled those of the Spaniards5 who assisted the Germans, we fooled the German Intelligence Service both in Spain and in Berlin, we fooled the German Operational Staff and Supreme Command, we fooled Keitel, and, finally, we fooled Hitler himself, and kept him fooled right up to the end of July.” The operation had also been gratifyingly economical: “One specially made canister,6 one battledress uniform, some dry ice, the time of a few officers, a van drive to Scotland and back, about 60 miles added to HMS Seraph’s passage and a few sundries: about £200 at most.”

There was no grand celebration over the success of Operation Mincemeat, no return to the Gargoyle Club with Montagu and Jean Leslie playing the parts of Bill Martin and his beloved Pam. Montagu’s wife, Iris, perhaps prompted by the dark hints from her mother-in-law, had announced that she was returning from America with the children. Montagu knew that Hitler was still planning to unleash pilotless flying bombs on London and that the capital remained deeply unsafe. Since this information came from Ultra, however, he could not tell Iris. “The most I could do7 was make vague references to ‘Hitler’s last fling.’ But this made no impression on her.” It was probably not Hitler’s fling that worried her. Iris and the children returned to London while the invasion of Sicily was under way. The reunion was a joyful one. The photograph of Pam in her bathing suit, lovingly signed, was swiftly removed from Montagu’s dressing table. Montagu could not yet explain what that was all about. Perhaps this was just as well.

Secret messages of congratulation flooded in from those who had touched, or been touched by, Operation Mincemeat. Dudley Clarke, the cross-dressing maverick behind “A” Force, wrote: “I do congratulate you8 most warmly on the success of your ‘M’ operation. It was very remarkable and a fine piece of organisation and whatever the developments may be you have achieved 100% success.” General Nye also applauded the planners: “It is a most interesting story9 and it seems it was swallowed hook, line and sinker.” Frank Foley, the celebrated MI6 officer who had helped thousands of Jews to escape from Germany before the war, told Montagu that the operation had been “the greatest achievement10 in the [deception] line ever brought off.” In his diary, Guy Liddell celebrated: “Mincemeat has been an outstanding success.”11

There was already talk of medals for the framers of Operation Mincemeat. Johnnie Bevan and Ewen Montagu had spent months at loggerheads, but to Bevan’s great credit he insisted that both Montagu and Cholmondeley deserved formal recognition, albeit secretly. “From evidence at present available12 it appears that a certain deception operation proved a considerable success and influenced German dispositions with all-important strategical and operational results. The fact that it achieved such very successful results must be attributed in large measure to the ingenuity and tireless energy on the part of these two officers.” Montagu had pushed the operation through by force of personality, while Cholmondeley “was the originator of this ingenious13 scheme and was responsible, in conjunction with a certain naval officer, for the detailed execution of the operation.” Both men, Bevan recommended, “should receive a similar decoration, since each seems to have played equally vital parts on the plot.”

Montagu was so delighted by the success of Mincemeat that he proposed a sequel. A plane carrying the Polish prime minister in exile, Władysław Sikorski, had crashed on takeoff from Gibraltar on July 4. Six days later, on Sicilian D-day, Montagu sent a note to Bevan pointing out that “papers from Sikorski’s aircraft14 are still washing up and likely to reach the Spanish shore” and suggesting that this might be an opportunity to plant some false documents among the debris. The object would be “to show that Mincemeat was genuine15 and that we are going to attack Greece, etc. and that we only delayed it and switched from Brimstone [Sardinia] to Sicily because we suspected that the Spaniards might have shown the papers in Mincemeat to the Germans.” Mincemeat II was vetoed by Rushbrooke, the director of naval intelligence, because the Germans could not be expected to fall for the same ruse twice. “Not worth trying.16 The Spaniards will know that everything of importance has been recovered, and a valuable secret ‘wash up’ could have no verisimilitude.”

The success of the Sicily invasion could not, of course, be attributed to Operation Mincemeat alone. To an important degree, the deception plan reinforced what the Germans already believed. Every element of Operation Barclay—of which Mincemeat was but one strand—tended to back up that misperception. Moreover, the comparative weakness of German forces in Sicily reflected Hitler’s mounting doubts about Italy’s commitment to the war. Sicily was a strategic jewel, but it was also an island, physically separated from the rest of the Axis forces. If large numbers of German troops were committed to defend it, but Italy dropped out of the war, they would be isolated, and Sicily would become, in Kesselring’s words, a “mousetrap for all German17 and Italian forces fighting down there.”

Yet up to, and even after, the invasion of Sicily, the effects of Mincemeat lingered on in German tactical planning, slewing attention to the east and west. The night before the attack, Keitel had distributed a “Most Immediate”18 analysis of Allied intentions, predicting a major Allied landing in Greece, and a joint attack on Sardinia and Sicily: “Western assault forces appear19 to be ready for an immediate attack while the Eastern forces appear to be still forming up,” he wrote. “A subsequent landing20 on the Italian mainland is less probable than one on the Greek mainland.” Half the Allied troops available in North Africa, Keitel predicted, would be used “to reinforce the bridgehead which … would be established in Greece.”

Ultra intercepts showed that four hours after the landings, twenty-one ground-attack aircraft took off from Sicily, which was now under attack, heading for Sardinia, which was not. The same day, the Abwehr in Berlin sent a message to its Spanish office “stating that the High Command21in Berlin were particularly anxious that a sharp lookout should be kept for convoys passing through the straits of Gibraltar which might be going to attack Sardinia. It gave, as a reason for these orders that the High Command appreciated that the attack on Sicily was possibly only a feint and that the main attack was going to be elsewhere.” That assessment, Naval Intelligence noted with satisfaction, was “entirely consistent with the Mincemeat story.”22

The same effects were visible at the other end of the Mediterranean, where the fictional attack on Greece was directly undermining Germany’s ability to repel the genuine attack on Sicily. The R-boats, or Räumboote, were 150-ton minesweepers and a key component of German naval strength, used to pick up mines but also for convoy escort, coastal patrol, mine laying, and rescuing downed air crews. On July 12, Sicilian D-day +2, the commander of German naval forces in Italy cabled headquarters to complain that “the departure of the 1st R-boat23 Group, sent to the Aegean for the defence of Greece, had prejudiced the defence of Sicily, as the Gela barrages were no longer effective, the shortage of escort vessels was ‘chronic,’ and the departure of any more boats, as ordered, would have a serious effect.” Yet the belief in an impending Greek attack remained rooted: in late July, Rommel was dispatched by Hitler to Salonika to take command of the defense of Greece if and when the Allies attacked. The Abwehr laid intricate plans in anticipation of the expected assault on Greece, including teams of secret agents and saboteurs to be left behind if the Germans were forced to withdraw.

The recriminations on the Axis side started almost immediately after the invasion. When he heard that the Italian coastal defenders had failed to repulse the attack, Goebbels muttered darkly about “macaroni-eaters”24 but refrained from pointing out that he had never quite believed in the Abwehr’s great intelligence coup. Hitler never admitted he had been fooled, but his military response to the invasion was proof enough that he knew he had made a major strategic error in failing to reinforce Sicily. “Hitler’s own reaction25 was immediate. He ordered two more German formations, 1st Parachute and 29th Panzer Grenadier Division to be hurried to Sicily to throw the invaders into the sea.” Again, it was too late.

Others within the German hierarchy realized they had been sold a fantastic and extremely damaging lie and responded with fury. Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, demanded a full explanation of why Major Martin’s documents, indicating that the attack on Sicily was a decoy, had been so blithely accepted as genuine: “This report has been proved26 to be false, since the operation directed by the English and Americans against Sicily, far from being a sham attack, was of course one of their planned major offensives in the Mediterranean. … The report from ‘a wholly reliable source’ was deliberately allowed by the enemy to fall into Spanish hands in order to mislead us.” Von Ribbentrop suspected that the Spaniards had been in on the ruse all along and ordered his ambassador in Madrid, Dieckhoff, to conduct a full-scale witch-hunt: “Undertake a most careful27 reappraisal of the whole matter and consider in so doing whether the persons from whom the information emanated are directly in the pay of the enemy, or whether they are hostile to us for other reasons.” Dieckhoff blustered and tried to swerve out of the way: “The documents had been found28 on the body of a shot-down English officer, and handed over in the original to our counter-intelligence here by the Spanish General Staff. The documents were investigated by the Abwehr and I have not heard their investigations cast any doubt on their authenticity.” Rather weakly, Dieckhoff argued that the enemy must have altered its plans after losing the documents. “The English and Americans had29 every intention of acting in the way laid down in the documents. Only later did they change their minds, possibly regarding the plans as compromised by the shooting down of the English bearer.”

Von Ribbentrop was having none of it. “The British Secret Service is quite30 capable of causing forged documents to reach the Spaniards,” he insisted. The deception had been intended to persuade Germany “that we should not adopt31 any defensive measures … or that we should adopt only inadequate ones.” With the Allies storming through Sicily, he wanted names, and he wanted heads to roll. “It is practically certain32 that the English purposely fabricated these misleading documents and allowed them to fall into Spanish hands so that they might reach us by this indirect route. The only question is whether the Spaniards saw through this game, or whether they were themselves taken in.” The finger of suspicion pointed at Admiral Moreno, the double-dealing Navy Minister, and at Adolf Clauss and his Spanish spies. Further up the chain of command, it cast a shadow over the Abwehr in Spain and the intelligence analysts in Berlin who had verified the fakes. “Who originally circulated33 the information?” demanded von Ribbentrop. “Are they directly in the pay of our enemies?”

Karl-Erich Kühlenthal was also in the firing line. “After the invasion of Italy34 had actually taken place, Berlin reprimanded [the Abwehr office in] Spain for having failed to submit adequate data.” Kühlenthal, as adept at escaping blame as he was skilled at gathering credit, kept his head down until the storm passed. He must have known that the documents passed to Berlin back in May had been proven entirely misleading, but he said nothing. Kühlenthal watched the invasion of Sicily with mounting consternation, but at least one of his fellow intelligence experts, who had played an equal role in facilitating the fraud, may have witnessed the unfolding of events with secret satisfaction. Not until July 26, more than a fortnight after the landings in Sicily, did Alexis von Roenne, head of FHW and secret anti-Nazi conspirator, issue a report stating that “at present at any rate,35 the attack planned against the Peloponnese had been given up.” Von Roenne was too canny to acknowledge that the letters were fakes; he merely asserted, like Dieckhoff, that the plans had changed. In Hitler’s world there was no room for an honest mistake.

The most significant victim in the fallout on the Axis side was Mussolini himself. From the first Allied footfall in Sicily, Il Duce was doomed, though he refused to acknowledge it. Goebbels noted: “The only thing certain36 in this war is that Italy will lose it.” The Pact of Steel was cracking up. By July 18, the Allied front line had moved halfway up Sicily. That day, Mussolini sent an almost defiant cable to Hitler: “The sacrifice of my country37 cannot have as its principal purpose that of delaying a direct attack on Germany.” The Führer summoned him to an urgent meeting. Il Duce did not care to be summoned anywhere but went meekly. The two fascist leaders met in Feltre, fifty miles from Venice, where Hitler launched into a long harangue, lambasting the “inept and cowardly”38 Italian troops in Sicily and insisting: “What has happened now in Sicily must not be allowed to happen again.” In the midst of the tirade, an aide interrupted to inform Mussolini that Rome was under massive air attack, the first time the capital had been targeted. Mussolini sat impassively through the two-hour monologue. The great Italian bull seemed to be fatally gored, diminished, and distant. At the end of the excruciating meeting, he said simply: “We are fighting for a common39 cause, Führer.” It sounded more like an epitaph than a statement of solidarity. On July 22, Palermo fell to Patton’s American troops. Three days later, Mussolini was outvoted by the Fascist Grand Council, summoned by King Victor Emmanuel III to a private audience, and toppled. “It can’t go on any longer,”40 said the king: Mussolini must resign at once, to be replaced by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the former chief of the armed forces. Italy’s deposed dictator left the royal Villa Savoia hidden in an ambulance, and the new government in Rome began the secret task of extracting Italy from the war and Hitler’s poisonous embrace. In Badoglio’s words: “Fascism fell, as was fitting,41 like a rotten pear.” The next day, Rommel was recalled from Greece to defend northern Italy.

Would it have fallen so fast, or rotted so quickly, without Operation Mincemeat? The invasion of Sicily was a far from perfect military operation, bedeviled by poor planning and personal rivalries between selfish and powerful men. A relatively small contingent of German troops successfully held up the advance of an Allied host seven times larger and then evacuated the island to continue the battle up mainland Italy. The fight for Sicily was grim, bitter, and costly. But how much worse would it have been had the Nazi high command been prepared for it? What if, say, the full-strength, battle-tempered First Panzer Division, instead of being dispatched to Greece to await an imaginary invasion, had been deployed along the coast at Gela?

It is impossible to calculate how many lives, on both sides of the conflict, were saved by Operation Mincemeat, or exactly how much it contributed to hastening the end of the war and the defeat of Hitler. The Allies had expected it would take ninety days to conquer Sicily. The occupation was completed on August 17, thirty-eight days after the invasion began. Looking back after the war, Professor Percy Ernst Schramm, keeper of the OKW war diary, left no doubt that the fake documents had played a critical role: “It is well known that under42 the influence of the letters, Hitler moved troops to Sardinia and southern Greece, thereby preventing them from taking part in the defence against [Husky].” In September, Italy formally surrendered, although the war in Italy would not end until May 1945.

The impact of the Sicilian invasion was felt 1,500 miles away on the blood-soaked eastern front and, most important, around the Russian city of Kursk. On July 4, Hitler had launched Operation “Citadel,” his massive, long-awaited offensive against the Red Army following the German defeat at Stalingrad. The battle of Kursk would be history’s largest tank battle, the most costly day of aerial warfare yet fought, and Germany’s last major strategic offensive in the east. With nine hundred thousand troops and three thousand tanks, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein planned to eliminate the bulge in the lines known as the Kursk salient, encircle the Soviets, and then head south to reconquer more lost territory. Repeated delays and excellent Soviet intelligence ensured that the Red Army had a good idea of what was coming. Like Sicily, Kursk was an obvious target; unlike Sicily, by the time the attack came, it was massively fortified, with layered, in-depth lines of defense, a million mines, three thousand miles of trenches, and an army of 1.3 million men, with reserves strategically placed to strike back when German troops were exhausted. After five days of furious combat, the battle still hung in the balance. The German blitzkrieg in the north of the battlefront had stalled, with terrible losses on both sides, but in the south the German forces, although heavily depleted, pushed on. By July 12, the German forces had broken through the first two Soviet lines of defense and believed that the final breakthrough was at hand.

But by now, events in the Mediterranean had changed the strategic picture—and the cast of Hitler’s mind. Three days after the invasion of Sicily, the Führer summoned von Manstein to the Wolf’s Lair, his headquarters in East Prussia, and announced that he was suspending Operation Citadel. The field marshal insisted that the Red Army was tottering and the German offensive at a critical stage: “On no account should we43 let go of the enemy until the mobile reserves which he had committed were decisively beaten.” But Hitler had made up his mind. “Inescapably faced with the dilemma44 of deciding where to make his main effort, he gave the Mediterranean preference over Russia.” One week after Allied troops landed on the shores of Sicily, Hitler canceled the eastern-front offensive and ordered the transfer of the SS Panzerkorps to Italy. Hitler’s decision to call off the attack, partly in order to divert forces to threatened Italy and the Balkans (which he still feared were threatened), marked the turning of the tide. For the first time, a blitzkrieg attack had failed before breaking through enemy lines. The Red Army launched a devastating counterattack, taking first Belgorod and Orel and then, on August 11, the city of Kharkov. By November, Kiev itself would be liberated. The Third Reich never recovered from the failure of Operation Citadel, and from then until the end of the war, the German armies in the east would be on the defensive as the Red Army rolled, inexorably, toward Berlin. “With the failure of Zitadelle45 we have suffered a decisive defeat,” wrote General Heinz Guderian, the foremost German theorist of tank combat. “From now on, the enemy was in undisputed possession of the initiative.”

Unsurprisingly, those involved in the planning and execution of Mincemeat were unanimous in their self-congratulation. A “top secret” assessment of the operation, written shortly before the end of the war, described it as “a small classic of deception,46 brilliantly elaborate in detail, completely successful in operation. … The Germans took many actions, to their own prejudice, as a result of Mincemeat.” At the very least, the deception had encouraged Hitler to do what he already wanted to do. The German defenses in southern Europe had been spread “as widely and thinly as possible”47 by stoking fears of multiple assaults, instead of the one massive attack on southern Sicily. “There can be no doubt48 that Mincemeat succeeded in the desired effect [and] caused the dispersal of the German effort at a crucial time. … It was largely responsible for the fact that the East end of Sicily, where we landed, was much less defended both by troops and fortifications.” Even more gratifying, the progress of the lie had been tracked at every stage: “Special intelligence enabled us49 to know that the enemy was deceived by it.” In one of his last private messages to Churchill from Madrid, Alan Hillgarth described how the success of the Sicilian campaign had transformed public and official opinion in Spain: “Sicily has impressed50 everyone and delighted most. Mussolini’s resignation and what it presages has stunned opponents.” The fear that Franco might side with the Axis was now over, and so was Hillgarth’s role in Spain.

Bill Jewell often wondered, in later years, how much Operation Mincemeat “really affected the outcome51 in Sicily.” He was told that this was “impossible to estimate.”52 Deception may not be measured in battlefield yards won or soldiers lost, but it can be gauged in other ways, large and small: in the toppling of Mussolini and the buttressing of Hitler’s fixation with the Balkans; in the thin defenses on Sicily’s coast that allowed the Allied army ashore with so little bloodshed; in the Axis troops tied up in Sardinia and the Peloponnese and the great retreat at Kursk; in the Panzers waiting on the shores of Greece for an attack that never came; in Derrick Leverton sitting unscathed in his foxhole as the German counterattack petered out.

Later historians have been equally convinced that the deception not only worked but succeeded dramatically, and with a profound impact. Hugh Trevor-Roper called Operation Mincemeat “the most spectacular single episode53 in the history of deception.” The official history of World War II deception described it as “perhaps the most successful single54 deception of the entire war.” It was also the luckiest. The deception depended on skill, timing, and judgment, but it would never have succeeded without an astonishing run of good fortune.

Wars are won by men like Bill Darby, storming up the beach with all guns blazing, and by men like Leverton, sipping his tea as the bombs fell. They are won by planners correctly calculating how many rations and contraceptives an invading force will need; by tacticians laying out grand strategy; by generals inspiring the men they command; by politicians galvanizing the will to fight; and by writers putting war into words. They are won by acts of strength, bravery, and guile. But they are also won by feats of imagination. Amateur, unpublished novelists, the framers of Operation Mincemeat, dreamed up the most unlikely concatenation of events, rendered them believable, and sent them off to war, changing reality through lateral thinking and proving that it is possible to win a battle fought in the mind, from behind a desk, and from beyond the grave. Operation Mincemeat was pure make-believe; and it made Hitler believe something that changed the course of history.

This strange story was conceived in the mind of a writer and put into action by a fisherman, who cast his fly on the water with no certainty of success but an angler’s innate optimism and guile. The most fitting, and aptly fishy, tribute to the operation was contained in a telegram sent to Winston Churchill on the day the Germans took the bait: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”55

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