Military history

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Mincemeat Revealed

EWEN MONTAGU began lobbying the British government for permission to reveal Operation Mincemeat before the war had even ended. In 1945, he was offered the “considerable sum” of £750 to reveal the story, although who made the offer and how they learned of Operation Mincemeat is unclear. Montagu wrote to the War Cabinet Office asking to be allowed to publish his account of what had happened. “I am a prejudiced party,1 but I feel strongly that no harm could result and good might well be obtained,” he wrote, adding that the story had already “leaked fairly widely.” Anticipating the objection that the operation would reveal how Britain had partly lied its way to victory, he argued: “It would pay to release Mincemeat2 as a specialised ad hoc operation to draw attention away from the fact that deception was a normal operation.”

Montagu’s request was turned down flat. Guy Liddell of MI5 told him, “The Foreign Office3 would never allow publication in any form in view of the inevitable effect on our relationship with Spain.” Yet it was true that the story was starting to leak. Indeed, a copy of the report on Operation Mincemeat, one of only three made, had gone missing in March 1945. Another remained in Montagu’s possession, apparently with Guy Liddell’s blessing, “in case the embargo4 should eventually be lifted.”

Two months after the Normandy landings, a British radio journalist named Sydney Moseley picked up the scent from a contact in British intelligence. Moseley had worked for the Daily Express and the New York Times; he was also John Logie Baird’s business manager and a tireless promoter of the new technology of television. And he knew a good story when he heard one. In August 1944, Moseley broadcast an item on the Mutual Broadcasting System radio network in America: “Our intelligence [agents] obtained5 over in England the body of a patient that had died, and dressed it up in the uniform of a senior officer. In due course this body … floated across the Channel to the enemy-occupied coast where, as was hoped, it was picked up. As a result of a set of faked documents, orders, and plans, the Nazis actually did concentrate their forces elsewhere, and when we made the big move into Normandy, they still regarded it as a feint.” Moseley concluded his report: “I believe this story6 is the greatest of the war.” Moseley had the wrong location, and the wrong D-day, but his story was close enough to the truth to put a gale-force wind up the secret services.

Tar Robertson wrote to Bevan, pointing out that while the Official Secrets Act could silence the inquisitive in the UK, it had no power in the United States: “Unless some action is taken7 fairly soon, this, being such an attractive subject, will produce sooner or later, a flood of stories in America, some of which will be true, others invented.” On the other hand, if the journalist was approached and urged to keep quiet, that would show that “there was in fact some truth8 behind what Moseley says.” It would be better to ignore the story and “leave the American authorities9 and Moseley in ignorance on this whole question.” Even so, it was only a matter of time before others came hunting. Britain’s spymasters were adamant: “We should do our utmost10 to stop the true story getting out.”

The story, when it finally emerged, came not from an inquisitive journalist but from Winston Churchill himself. In October 1949, Alfred Duff Cooper, later Viscount Norwich, the wartime minister for information, began work on a novel based on the story of Operation Mincemeat. Operation Heartbreak tells the story of William Maryngton—an unambiguous tribute to William Martin—a man unable to serve his country in life but deployed in death in a way that was equally unmistakable. The last chapter reads: “Dawn had not broken,11 but was about to do so, when the submarine came to the surface. The crew were thankful to breathe the cool, fresh air, and they were still more thankful to be rid of their cargo. The wrappings were removed, and the Lieutenant stood to attention and saluted as they laid the body of the officer in uniform as gently as possible on the face of the waters. A light breeze was blowing shoreward, and the tide was running in the same direction. So Willie went to war at last, the insignia of field rank on his shoulders, and a letter from his beloved lying close to his quiet heart.” Operation Heartbreak is a charming fiction quite obviously based on fact.

Duff Cooper had learned of the case in March 1943, while head of the Security Executive, but he must also have obtained access to the Mincemeat file itself after the war was over. Montagu believed “Duff Cooper learned of Mincemeat12 from Churchill in one of his expansive ‘after-dinner’ moods and then was (I’m pretty sure, but my evidence doesn’t amount to proof) shown a copy of the report by someone I won’t name.” It is just possible that Montagu himself showed Duff Cooper the file, as a way of bringing pressure on the government to allow him to tell the nonfiction version. Churchill may well have wanted the story to be told. When the other Operation Mincemeat—a simple mine-laying operation—was revealed in the 1950s, Alan Brooke, former chief of the Imperial General Staff, apparently got his Mincemeats confused and wrote: “Sir W always wanted to hear13 this story told.”

The authorities in 1950, however, most emphatically did not want the story told, and when Whitehall got word of the contents of Operation Heartbreak, Duff Cooper came under intense pressure—possibly from Prime Minister Clement Attlee himself—not to publish. The story, it was pointed out, might damage Anglo-Spanish relations, and British intelligence might want to use the same ruse in the future. Duff Cooper “considered the objections14 to be ridiculous.” According to Charles Cholmondeley, Cooper threatened to say that he had learned the story “direct from Churchill15 if prosecuted.” Operation Heartbreak was published on November 10, 1950, prompting a ripple of critical acclaim and “consternation in security quarters.”16 It sold forty thousand copies.

The cat was now out of the bag, at least in fictional form, and Montagu renewed his demand to be allowed to publish because “there could not be one law17 for a Cabinet Minister and a different one for the blokes who do the work.” He wrote to Emanuel “Manny” Shinwell, the defense secretary, demanding to know whether Cooper would be prosecuted for breaching the Official Secrets Act and, if not, whether there was any reason why he should not now publish his own nonfiction account. Again the authorities resisted. Publication of the facts would be “wholly contrary to18 the public interest,” wrote Sir Harold Parker, permanent secretary to the minister of defense. “Any true account19 would have to show how the law was manipulated to secure possession of a corpse, the forgery of documents from well-known firms (whether with their consent or not), and the use made of beliefs of Catholics” as part of the plot. Sir Harold also ordered Montagu to return the Mincemeat files, since “there is no longer any20 reason for you to retain a copy of the record of the operation.”

Montagu immediately fired back: “One would not think21 even the most ardent Catholic would be offended that a man of unknown religious belief was buried as a Catholic to save thousands of lives and render the invasion of Sicily more certain of success.” And the Mincemeat files would remain firmly in his possession until the minister saw sense: “I see no reason why22 I should hand over my copy.”

After months of wrangling, the authorities partly relented. In a later letter to John Godfrey, Montagu wrote: “I forced Shinwell to agree23 that, if they did not prosecute Duff Cooper, they must give me permission to publish. … Shinwell gave me a clear consent.” The deal came with strings attached: Montagu had to write an outline of what he planned to write, submit the finished manuscript for vetting, and “sympathetically consider advice24 as to modification.” He began writing immediately. Initially he envisaged an extended magazine article and contacted the editor of Lifemagazine, who was wildly enthusiastic. By April 1951, a first draft outline was completed. Now he hesitated, wondering whether “it would be wrong to publish.”25

Meanwhile an enterprising journalist named Ian Colvin, who had worked in Berlin before the war and would go on to become deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, had picked up rumors that there was more to Operation Heartbreak than fiction and gone digging. In 1952, the diaries of Erwin Rommel were published, in which the field marshal described being sent to Greece soon after the invasion of Sicily to resist an expected attack. A footnote, written by Basil Liddell Hart, hinted at the connection to the story told in Operation Heartbreak. Ian Colvin, in Montagu’s words, “shot off to Spain”26 and began asking questions. When Britain’s ambassador to Spain learned what the journalist was up to, he “cabled back in a frenzy,”27 fearful of a major breach in Anglo-Spanish relations. “The Foreign Office’s chief worry28 was that Colvin had been told by our ex vice-consul in Huelva that he had been in the know and had taken part in deceiving the Spanish government.” The Foreign Office took a dim view of “using diplomats to lie29 and deceive their host-government.”

The Foreign Office was not the only branch of the British government fearful of what Colvin might find and urged the Joint Intelligence Committee to intervene. “Further pressure was applied30 by the Home Office who were very worried lest it became known that a coroner had handed over a corpse with no one’s permission.”

The Joint Intelligence Committee decided on a preemptive strike. Colvin had already been commissioned by the Sunday Express and was getting close to the truth in Spain. A spoiling operation was launched. Montagu was told he should now write his account as long as he did not reveal any information on “the true means31 by which the corpse was obtained and details from which the man’s real identity could be inferred.” He would have to do so very fast. He was “rushed round to the Sunday Express32 who had first claim on Colvin’s work and they said they would consider it if they got the story written by Monday so that they could decide before they got Colvin’s.” This was an underhand trick. Colvin had worked hard on the story for two years: the government, and the newspaper that had commissioned him, were now conniving to scoop him.

Montagu later wrote, disingenuously, that government permission to write his account had been “wholly unexpected”33 and that permission to do so had been unsolicited. “The request not to publish,34 which I had accepted, was altered to a request that I should write the true story and publish it as soon as possible so as to kill these dangerous untruths.” The reason given for the volte-face was that Colvin’s account was likely to be “so wildly inaccurate35 as to be dangerous.” The reverse was true: the danger of Colvin’s account was its probable accuracy, in particular the fear that it would reveal the way British diplomats had deceived the Spanish government and how Bentley Purchase had simply conjured up a corpse to order. The guardians of official secrecy knew they could edit and mold what Montagu might write. This would be a “controlled version,36 in which delicate points could be modified,” whereas Colvin, in Montagu’s own words, was “someone not under any control or influence.”37 If the story of Operation Mincemeat must be told, it would be told in a way that would not upset the Spanish and would conceal how the body had been obtained. Writing to John Godfrey, Montagu was quite explicit about the terms of his deal with the intelligence censors: he would not reveal secret information, most important the Ultra intercepts, and he would write nothing that could embarrass the Foreign or Home Offices. “The return that the country38 got was therefore not only the protection of ‘our sources,’ but also the other two quite important points”—concealing the roles of Haselden and Hillgarth in Spain and Purchase in London. The newspaper could edit the serialization, but the final version would need to be approved by the secret services before publication: “The Express will submit39 and get passed anything that they may add or any alterations that they may make.” The story of Operation Mincemeat would be an official publication in all but name.

Montagu claimed to have written his account in the space of forty-eight hours “with much black coffee40 and no sleep” in order to get it to the newspaper’s offices by Monday, January 24. In fact, a draft was complete and had already been approved by the authorities and sent to the Sunday Express at least three weeks before the newspaper’s deadline. On January 8, Montagu wrote to Jean Leslie, now Jean Gerard Leigh (“or should it be41 ‘Pam’?”), warning her that his book was about to be published: “The powers that be42 have decided that an accurate story by me ‘under control’ would be less dangerous than an inaccurate one which might lead anywhere.” Montagu asked Jean for permission to use her photograph as “Pam”: “We don’t want to alter43 anything of that kind as we want to be able to say ‘this is true.’” Montagu assured her that she would be identified only as “a girl working in my section.”44 Montagu sent a simultaneous letter to Bill Jewell informing him that “Mincemeat is soon going45 to be published” and that his draft had been approved by Whitehall: “My account has been vetted46 and passed,” he wrote. “I felt that you ought not47 to be taken by surprise.”

Jewell raised no objection, but Jean was concerned: “I was most interested48 to hear that part of your and Bill’s doubtful past are to be revealed to the unsuspecting public,” she wrote. “But what should my answer be if someone sees through the ravages of time and identifies me with Pam!? … Perhaps you would come and have a drink one evening and put me ‘in the picture’ if it is not too late.” Montagu suggested that if anyone made the connection and asked what she had done during the war, she should “merely say that you were49 working in a branch of the War Office.”

Charles Cholmondeley wanted nothing to do with the project. As an MI5 officer, he refused to be named, but his natural reticence would have prevented his participation in any case. Montagu had first raised the idea of writing a book together two years earlier, after the appearance of Operation Heartbreak. He now offered to cut his former partner in on the deal, with a quarter share of the profits from “book, film rights, or other uses50 to which the story might be put.” Cholmondeley’s response was typically polite, but firm. “As you will recall,51 when you originally broached the subject in 1951, I felt, due to my position, that I could not take part in it.” In the interim, Cholmondeley had left MI5. “Whilst the general situation52 has changed considerably,” he wrote, “I do not feel that my own53 rather peculiar position has done so and therefore I must reaffirm my decision to take no part and accept no benefit from this publication. I am sure you will appreciate this difference in our positions, but reaching this decision has not been easy and believe me I am not less appreciative of your very generous offer.”

The first installment of the story, proclaiming “the war’s most fantastic secret54 disclosed for the first time,” appeared in the Sunday Express on February 1 under the headline “The Man Who Never Was”—the title was the inspiration of the news editor, Jack Garbutt. This was followed by two more installments. Ian Colvin was understandably furious at being elbowed out of the story, but as a sop he was allowed to write an introduction to and analysis of the pieces. His own book of the story—necessarily incomplete, but nonetheless a remarkable piece of investigation—appeared later that year under the title The Unknown Courier.

Montagu’s book, The Man Who Never Was, was published a few months later by Evans Brothers, with the image of a faceless marine on the cover (wrongly wearing service dress). It was an instant, huge, and enduring best seller, going on to sell more than three million copies. It has never been out of print.

Opinion among Montagu’s former colleagues in the intelligence world was sharply divided over the decision to reveal Operation Mincemeat. Charles Cholmondeley made no comment on the contents but was generous, as ever: “I shall look forward55 to a gripping and soul searing saga of the silver screen at some future date.” Mountbatten gave qualified support: “Although I heartily disapproved56 of Operation Heartbreak, and told the author so when I saw him, once the beans had been spilt in that way I think it was probably a good thing that the true story should be told.” However, Archie Nye, the author of the plot’s centerpiece, was sharply critical, telling Montagu that he would need “a good deal of persuasion57 that the merits of publication exceeded the drawbacks.” John Masterman was also opposed. “You and I don’t agree58 on the wisdom of publishing Mincemeat in this form,” he wrote. “I always thought that a good deal could be published with advantage but I also thought that such publication should be anonymous and with official sanction.” (Such scruples did not endure. In 1972, Masterman would publish his own account of the Double Cross System, under his own name, and in the teeth of strong official opposition.) The most trenchant criticism came from Admiral John Godfrey. “Uncle John blitzed me59 on the phone in quite the old way,” Montagu told another former denizen of Room 13. The old admiral testily pointed out that the book claimed to be nonfiction, while withholding key truths: “Your admirable Man Who Never Was60 covers up the real final secret—how did we know that the Germans had access to the despatches?”

The Man Who Never Was remains a classic of postwar literature. With a lawyer’s precision, Montagu laid out the plot in careful steps to reveal “an exploit more astonishing61 than any story in war fiction.” Inevitably, some of the writing is a little dated, but more than half a century later it is still gripping, a tour de force of reconstruction.

Yet the book is—and was always intended to be—partial, in both senses. In some ways, it fulfilled the demands of postwar propaganda. In Montagu’s telling, the British planners made no mistakes and the Germans were duped without the slightest hint that anything might go wrong. He can be forgiven for presenting himself as the hero of his own drama—many of those involved could or would not be identified—but in so doing, he made Operation Mincemeat appear to be a one-man show. Cholmondeley appears fleetingly in the book under the pseudonym “George.” The others who played roles, large or small—Alan Hillgarth, Don Gómez-Beare, Johnnie Bevan, Charles Fraser-Smith, Juan Pujol, Jean Leslie—were not only unnamed but in some cases simply excised from the story. The Ultra secret would not be revealed until the 1970s, so Montagu was unable to describe how the success of the operation had been tracked. The book was carefully vetted and contained nothing that might embarrass the government: the extent to which British diplomatic officials had cooperated in deceiving the Spanish was glossed over, as was the level of Spanish collaboration with the Germans; the way the body had been obtained was made to seem entirely official and aboveboard. Partly for dramatic effect, partly in obedience to the guardians of official secrecy, and partly because that is the way he was, Montagu “managed to give the impression,”62wrote one detractor, “that he was single-handedly responsible for the entire deception scheme.”

As for Glyndwr Michael, he was removed from the story, permanently, or so Montagu believed. In a first draft of The Man Who Never Was, he concocted a story in which the “real” identity of the dead man was hinted at, misleadingly, as “an only son,63 an officer of one of the services, from an old service family.” He wrote: “His parents were then64 alive and we decided to take a chance on their agreeing to our plan. We could not tell them the whole story but we felt we could not in decency keep them completely in the dark. They did not like the idea—who would?—but they agreed on the strict condition that neither the real name nor any identifying particulars of their son would ever come out.” In the final version of the book, however, he opted for an even vaguer explanation, claiming that he had asked the relatives of the dead man for permission to use the body “without saying what we proposed65 to do with it and why” and that “permission, for which our indebtedness was great, was obtained on condition that I should never let it be known whose corpse it was.” Montagu presented his refusal to divulge the name as a matter of honor, since he had given his word to the relatives of the dead man. In 1977, he claimed that all those relatives had since died: “I gave a solemn promise66 never to reveal whose body it was and, as there is no one alive from whom I can get a release, I can say no more.” The truth, of course, was that none of Michael’s few relatives had ever been contacted, let alone asked for permission to use his body. This was a cover-up to spare the blushes of the British government and to avoid the admission that the body had been obtained by falsifying a legal certificate indicating burial outside the country and used entirely without permission.

While not exactly a white lie, this untruth was surely an excusable shade of gray. In the midst of a ferocious war, Montagu and Cholmondeley had persuaded a coroner to bend the law in the national interest. Bentley Purchase had done so on the understanding that he would not be later called to account. The Joint Intelligence Committee would never have allowed Montagu to publish a book revealing that the body of Glyndwr Michael had, in effect, been seized illegally by government intelligence officers: that would have provoked a scandal, as well as undermining the moral high ground upon which The Man Who Never Was rested. If the identity had been revealed, then Glyndwr Michael’s relatives might, with some reason, have kicked up an almighty stink. So Montagu hid the truth with another deception and continued to hide it for the rest of his life.

During the war, Ewen Montagu had complained: “My work is such that67 I will never be able to mention its importance and people will merely say ‘Oh, he didn’t do much good in the war.’ I will therefore go down as someone who was a failure when tested in the war.” The publication of The Man Who Never Was turned him, almost overnight, into a celebrity. He toured the United States, gave lectures, and appeared on American television alongside a chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs. Hollywood swiftly came calling, as Cholmondeley had predicted, and a vigorous auction ensued. The film rights were finally purchased by 20th Century Fox.

The film of The Man Who Never Was, an Anglo-American Technicolor Cinemascope production, opened with a royal premiere attended by the Duchess of Kent, on March 14, 1956. Shot in Britain and Huelva, it starred the American actor Clifton Webb playing Montagu and Gloria Grahame as “Lucy,” his secretary’s fictional flatmate. André Morell played Sir Bernard Spilsbury, while William Squire was submarine commander Bill Jewell. The script, by Nigel Balchin, used the truth where convenient and made up the rest, including an Irish spy in Britain deployed by the Nazis to verify the identity of the body. Montagu was long past caring and declared himself entirely happy with the “thrilling incidents which,68 although they did not happen, might have happened.” Mountbatten got an early look at the script and complained that it made him “appear to be grudging69 and rather ‘Old Blimpish.’” He wrote, “I would like to make it clear70 that I was the most enthusiastic supporter of this idea from the beginning.” He even tried to insert a line to make his character more appealing: “I would have no objection71 to the addition of a phrase like ‘Nice of Mountbatten to take a dead man on his Staff.’” Among those on set during filming was a tall, ungainly man with an extravagant air-force mustache, who was described as a “technical adviser” and known only as “George.” He did not appear in the credits. Even the director, Ronald Neame, never knew that “George” was Charles Cholmondeley—content, as ever, to organize matters anonymously from the wings.

In the film, Montagu makes a cameo appearance as an air vice marshal with doubts about the plan’s feasibility. At one point in the film, Montagu leans over to Webb, looks him in the eye, and declares: “I suppose you realise, Montagu, that, if the Germans see through this, it will pinpoint Sicily.” This was a wonderfully surreal moment: the real Montagu addressing his fictional persona, in a work of filmic fiction, based on reality, which had originated in fiction.

The film was a box-office and critical success, winning a BAFTA for best British screenplay. Perhaps the ultimate accolade, the sign that Operation Mincemeat had truly and permanently entered British culture, came in 1956, when The Goon Show devoted an entire episode to the story. Monty saw the film in Holland and, rather missing the point, complained that Archie Nye had looked quite different. Adolf Clauss went to see The Man Who Never Was in Huelva’s Teatro Mora. He told his son: “There’s nothing true in it.72 It was nothing like that.” Someone tipped off the press to the identity of “Pam.” Jean Gerard Leigh was besieged by journalists and denied everything.

Montagu had hoped that by framing his refusal to identify the body as a promise he could never break, he would end all attempts to attach a name to it. The very title of his book seemed to imply that the corpse had no previous existence worthy of mention. But there was a man, and the runaway success of the book and film ensured that the speculation over who he might have been started immediately. The body was variously identified as “a derelict alcoholic73 found beneath the arches of Charing Cross Bridge,” a professional soldier, and “the wastrel brother74 of an MP.” Numerous candidates were put forward, with evidence ranging from possible to wishful to fanciful. The conspiracy theories continue to this day.

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