Military history


Corkscrew Minds

DECEIVING THE ENEMY IN WARTIME, thought Admiral John Godfrey, Britain’s director of naval intelligence, was just like fishing: specifically fly-fishing, for trout. “The Trout Fisher,”1 he wrote in a top secret memo, “casts patiently all day. He frequently changes his venue and his lures. If he has frightened a fish he may ‘give the water a rest for half-an-hour,’ but his main endeavour, viz. to attract fish by something he sends out from his boat, is incessant.”

Godfrey’s “Trout Memo” was distributed to the other chiefs of wartime intelligence on September 29, 1939, when the war was barely three weeks old. It was issued under Godfrey’s name, but it bore all the hallmarks of his personal assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond novels. Fleming had, in Godfrey’s words, a “marked flair”2 for intelligence planning and was particularly skilled, as one might expect, at dreaming up what he called “plots” to outfox the enemy. Fleming called these plans “romantic Red Indian daydreams,”3 but they were deadly serious. The memo laid out numerous ideas for bamboozling the Germans at sea, the many ways that the fish might be trapped through “deception, ruses de guerre,4 passing on false information and so on.” The ideas were extraordinarily imaginative and, like most of Fleming’s writing, barely credible. The memo admitted as much: “At first sight,5 many of these appear somewhat fantastic, but nevertheless they contain germs of some good ideas; and the more you examine them, the less fantastic they seem to appear.”

Godfrey was himself a most literal man. Hard-driving, irascible, and indefatigable, he was the model for “M” in Fleming’s Bond stories. There was no one in naval intelligence with a keener appreciation of the peculiar mentality needed for espionage and counterespionage. “The business of deception,6 handling double agents, deliberate leakages and building up in the minds of the enemy confidence in a double agent, needed the sort of corkscrew mind which I did not possess,” he wrote. Gathering intelligence and distributing false intelligence, was, he thought, like “pushing quicksilver7 through a gorse bush with a long-handled spoon.”

The Trout Memo was a masterpiece of corkscrew thinking, with fifty-one suggestions for “introducing ideas8 into the heads of the Germans,” ranging from the possible to the wacky. These included dropping footballs painted with luminous paint to attract submarines; distributing messages in bottles from a fictitious U-boat captain cursing Hitler’s Reich; sending out a fake “treasure ship”9 packed with commandos; and disseminating false information through bogus copies of the Times (“an unimpeachable and immaculate10 medium”). One of the nastier ideas envisaged setting adrift tins of explosives disguised as food, “with instructions on the11 outside in many languages,” in the hope that hungry enemy sailors or submariners would pick them up, try to cook the tins, and blow themselves up.

Though none of these plans ever came to fruition, buried deep in the memo was the kernel of another idea, number 28 on the list, fantastic in every sense. Under the heading “A Suggestion (not a very nice one)”12 Godfrey and Fleming wrote: “The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.”

Basil Thomson, former assistant premier of Tonga, tutor to the King of Siam, ex-governor of Dartmoor prison, policeman, and novelist, had made his name as a spy catcher during the First World War. As head of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Division and the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, he took credit (only partly deserved) for tracking down German spies in Britain, many of whom were caught and executed. He interviewed Mata Hari (and concluded she was innocent) and distributed the “Black Diaries” of the Irish nationalist and revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, detailing his homosexual affairs: Casement was subsequently tried and executed for treason. Thomson was an early master of deception, and not just in his professional life. In 1925, the worthy police chief was convicted of an act of indecency with Miss Thelma de Laval on a London park bench and fined five pounds.

In between catching spies, carrying out surveillance of union leaders, and consorting with prostitutes (for the purposes of “research,”13 as he explained to the court), Thomson found time to write twelve detective novels. Thomson’s hero, Inspector Richardson, inhabits a world peopled by fragrant damsels in distress, stiff upper lips, and excitable foreigners in need of British colonization. Most of Thomson’s novels, with titles such as Death in the Bathroom and Richardson Scores Again, were instantly forgettable. But in The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (an oddly tautological title), published in 1937, he planted a seed. The novel opens on a stormy night with the discovery of a dead man in a barn, carrying papers that identify him as “John Whitaker.” By dint of some distinctly plodding detective work, Inspector Richardson discovers that every document in the pockets of the dead man has been ingeniously forged: his visiting cards, his bills, and even his passport, on which the real name has been erased using a special ink remover and a fake one substituted. “I know the stuff14 they use; they employed it a lot during the war,” says Inspector Richardson. “It will take out ink from any document without leaving a trace.” The remainder of the novel is spent unraveling, at inordinate length, the true identity of the body in the barn. “However improbable a story sounds we are trained to investigate it,” says Inspector Richardson. “Only that way can we arrive at the truth.” Inspector Richardson is always saying things like that.

The Milliner’s Hat is not a classic of the detective genre. The public was unmoved by Inspector Richardson’s efforts, and the book sold very few copies. But the idea of creating a false identity for a dead body lodged in the mind of Ian Fleming, a confirmed bibliophile who owned all Thomson’s novels: from one spy and novelist it passed into the mind of another future spy/novelist, and in 1939, the year that Basil Thomson died, it formally entered the thinking of Britain’s spy chiefs as they embarked on a ferocious intelligence battle with the Nazis.

Godfrey, the trout-fishing admiral, loved nothing more than a good yarn, and he knew that the best stories are also true. He later wrote that “World War II offers15 us far more interesting, amusing and subtle examples of intelligence work than any writer of spy stories can devise.” For almost four years, this “not very nice” idea would lie dormant, a bright lure cast by a fisherman/spy, waiting for someone to bite.

IN LATE SEPTEMBER 1942, a frisson of alarm ran through British and American intelligence circles when it seemed that the date of the planned invasion of French North Africa might have fallen into German hands. On September 25, a British Catalina FP119 seaplane, flying from Plymouth to Gibraltar, crashed in a violent electrical storm off Cádiz on Spain’s Atlantic coast, killing all three passengers and seven crew members. Among these was Paymaster-Lieutenant James Hadden Turner, a Royal Navy courier, carrying a letter to the governor of Gibraltar informing him that General Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander, would be arriving on the rock immediately before the offensive and that “the target date16 has now been set as 4th November.” A second letter, dated September 21, contained additional information on the upcoming invasion of North Africa.

The bodies washed ashore at La Barrosa, south of Cádiz, and were recovered by the Spanish authorities. After twenty-four hours Turner’s body, with the letter still in his pocket, was turned over to the local British consul by the Spanish admiral in command at Cádiz. As the war raged, Spain had maintained a neutrality of sorts, although the Allies were haunted by the fear that General Francisco Franco might throw in his lot with Hitler. Spanish official opinion was broadly in favor of the Axis powers, many Spanish officials were in contact with German intelligence, and the area around Cádiz, in particular, was known to be a hotbed of German spies. Was it possible that the letter, revealing the date of the Allied attack, had been passed into enemy hands? Eisenhower was said to be “extremely worried.”17

The invasion of North Africa, code-named “Operation Torch,” had been in preparation for months. Major General George Patton was due to sail from Virginia on October 23 with the Western Task Force of thirty-five thousand men, heading for Casablanca in French Morocco. At the same time, British forces would attack Oran in French Algeria, while a joint Allied force invaded Algiers. The Germans were certainly aware that a major offensive was being planned. If the letter had been intercepted and passed on, they would now also know the date of the assault and that Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean and North Africa, would play a key role in it.

The Spanish authorities assured Britain that Turner’s corpse had “not been tampered with.”18 Scientists were flown out to Gibraltar, and the body and letter were subjected to minute examination. The four seals holding down the envelope flap had been opened, apparently by the effect of the seawater, and the writing was still “quite legible”19 despite immersion for at least twelve hours. But some forensic spy craft suggested the Allies could relax. On opening Turner’s coat to take out the letter in his breast pocket, the scientists noticed that sand fell out of the eyes in the buttons and the button holes, having been rubbed into the coat when the body washed up on the beach. “It was highly unlikely,”20 the British concluded, “that any agent would have replaced the sand when rebuttoning the jacket.” The German spies operating in Spain were good, but not that good. The secret was safe.

Yet British suspicions were not without foundation. Another victim of the Catalina air crash was Louis Daniélou, an intelligence officer with the Free French Forces code-named “Clamorgan,” who was on a mission for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the covert British organization operating behind enemy lines. Daniélou had been carrying his notebook and a document, written in French and dated September 22, that referred, albeit vaguely, to British attacks on targets in North Africa. Intercepted and decoded wireless messages indicated that this information had indeed been passed on to the Germans: “All the documents,21 which included a list of prominent personalities [i.e., agents] in North Africa and possibly information with regard to our organisations there, together with a notebook, have been photostatted and come into the hands of the enemy.” An unnamed Italian agent had obtained the copied documents and handed them on to the Germans, who mistakenly accorded the information “no greater importance22 than any other bit of intelligence.” The Germans may also have suspected the “documents had likely23been planted as a deception.”

An important item of military intelligence had washed into German hands from the Atlantic; luckily, its significance had eluded them. “This suggested that24 the Spanish could be relied on to pass on what they found, and that this unneutral habit might be turned to account.” Here was evidence of a most ingenious avenue into German thinking, an alluring fly to cast on the water.

The incident had rattled the wartime intelligence chiefs, but in the corkscrew mind of one intelligence officer it lodged and remained. That mind belonged to one Charles Christopher Cholmondeley, a twenty-five-year-old flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, seconded to MI5, the Security Service. Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumly”) was one of nature’s more notable eccentrics but a most effective warrior in this strange and complicated war. Cholmondeley gazed at the world through thick, round spectacles, from behind a remarkable mustache fully six inches long and waxed into magnificent points. Over six feet three inches tall, with size twelve feet, he never quite seemed to fit his uniform and walked with a strange, loping gait, “lifting his toes as he walked.”25

Cholmondeley longed for adventure. As a schoolboy at Canford School, he had joined the Public Schools Exploring Society on expeditions to Finland and Newfoundland to map as-yet-uncharted territory. Living under canvas, he had survived on Kendal Mint Cake, discovered a new species of shrew that died inside his sleeping bag, and enjoyed every moment. He studied geography at Oxford, joined the Officers’ Training Corps, and in 1938 applied, unsuccessfully, to the Sudan Service. He briefly worked for the King’s Messengers, the corps of couriers carrying messages to embassies and consulates around the world that was often seen as a stepping-stone to an intelligence career. The most distinguished of Cholmondeley’s ancestors was his maternal grandfather, Charles Leyland, whose gift to the world was the Leyland cypress, or leylandii, cause of countless suburban hedge disputes. Cholmondeley had a more glamorous future in mind: he dreamed of becoming a spy, a soldier, or at least a colonial official in some far-flung and exotic land. One brother, Richard, died fighting at Dunkirk, further firing Charles’s determination to find action, excitement, and, if necessary, a hero’s death.

Cholmondeley had the mind of an adventurer, but not the body, nor the luck. He was commissioned a pilot officer in November 1939, but his poor eyesight meant he would never fly a plane, even if a cockpit could have been found to accommodate his ungainly shape. “This was a terrible blow,”26 according to his sister. So far from soaring heroically into the heights, as he had hoped, Cholmondeley was grounded for the duration of the war, his long legs cramped under a desk. This might have blunted the ambitions of a lesser man, but Cholmondeley instead poured his imagination and energies into covert work.

By 1942, he had risen to the rank of flight lieutenant (temporary) in the RAF’s Intelligence and Security Department, seconded to MI5. Tommy Argyll Robertson (universally known as “Tar” on account of his initials), the MI5 chief who headed the B1A, a section of British intelligence that ran captured enemy spies as double agents, recruited Cholmondeley as an “ideas man,”27 describing him as “extraordinary and delightful.”28 When off duty, Cholmondeley restored antique cars, studied the mating habits of insects, and hunted partridge with a revolver. Cholmondeley was courtly and correct and almost pathologically shy and secretive. He cut a distinctive figure around Whitehall, his arms flapping when animated, hopping along the pavement like a huge, flightless, myopic bird. But, for all his peculiarities, Cholmondeley was a most remarkable espionage thinker.

Some of Cholmondeley’s ideas were harebrained in the extreme. He had, in the words of a fellow intelligence officer, “one of those subtle29 and ingenious minds which is forever throwing up fantastic ideas—mostly so ingenious as either to be impossible of implementation or so intricate as to render their efficacy problematical, but every now and again quite brilliant in their simplicity.” Cholmondeley’s role, like that of Ian Fleming at Naval Intelligence, was to imagine the unimaginable and try to lure the truth toward it. More formally, he was secretary of the top secret XX Committee, or Twenty Committee, the group in charge of overseeing the exploitation of double agents, so-called because the two roman numerals formed a pleasing pun as a double-cross. (The name may also have been an ironic tribute to Charlie Chaplin, whose The Great Dictator, a film released in 1940, features a dictator operating under an “XX” flag, mimicking a swastika.) Under the chairmanship of John Masterman, a dry and ascetic Oxford don, the Twenty Committee met every Thursday in the MI5 offices at 58 St. James’s Street to discuss the double-agent system run by Tar Robertson, explore new deception plans, and plot how to pass the most usefully damaging information to the enemy. Its members included representatives of navy, army, and air intelligence, as well as MI5 and MI6. As secretary and MI5 representative at this weekly gathering of high-powered spooks, Cholmondeley was privy to some of the most secret plans of the war. He had read the 1939 memo from Godfrey and Fleming containing the “not very nice” suggestion of using a dead body to convey false information. The Catalina crash off Cadiz proved that such a plan might work.

On October 31, 1942, just one month after the retrieval of Lieutenant Turner’s body from the Spanish beach, Cholmondeley presented the Twenty Committee with his own idea, under the code name “Trojan Horse,” which he described as “a plan for introducing documents30 of a highly secret nature into the hands of the enemy.” It was, in essence, an expanded version of the plan outlined in the Trout Memo:

A body is obtained31 from one of the London hospitals (normal peacetime price ten pounds); it is then dressed in army, naval, or air force uniform of suitable rank. The lungs are filled with water and the documents are disposed in an inside pocket. The body is then dropped by a Coastal Command aircraft at a suitable position where the set of the currents will probably carry the body ashore in enemy territory. On the body’s being found, the supposition in the enemy’s mind may well be that one of Britain’s aircraft has been either shot or forced down and that this is one of the passengers. While the courier cannot be sure to get through, if he does succeed, information in the form of the documents can be of a far more secret nature than it would be possible to introduce through any normal B1A channel.

Human agents or double agents can be tortured or turned, forced to reveal the falsity of the information they carried. A dead body would never talk.

Like most of Cholmondeley’s ideas, this one was both exquisitely simple and fiendishly problematic. Having outlined his blueprint for building a latter-day Trojan Horse, Cholmondeley now set about poking holes in it. An autopsy might reveal that the corpse had not died from drowning, or the plane carrying out “the drop”32 might be intercepted. Even if a suitable body could be found, it would have to be made to “double for an actual officer.”33 One member of the Twenty Committee pointed out that if a corpse was dropped out of a plane at any height, it would undoubtedly be damaged, “and injuries inflicted after death34 can always be detected.” If the body was placed in a location where it would wash into enemy or enemy-occupied territory, such as Norway or France, there was every possibility of “a full and capable post-mortem”35 by German scientists. Catholic countries, however, had a traditional aversion to autopsies, and Spain and Portugal, although neutral, were both leaning toward the Axis: “Of these, Spain was clearly36 the country where the probability of documents being handed, or at the very least shown to the Germans, was greater.”

Cholmondeley’s idea was both new and very old. Indeed, the unsubtle choice of code name shows how far back in history this ruse runs. Odysseus may have been the first to offer an attractive gift to the enemy containing a most unpleasant surprise, but he had many imitators. In intelligence jargon, the technique of planting misleading information by means of a faked accident even has a formal name: the “haversack ruse.”

The haversack ruse was the brainchild of Richard Meinertzhagen, ornithologist, anti-Semitic Zionist, big-game hunter, fraud, and British spy. In The Seven Pillars of Wisdom T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Meinertzhagen’s contemporary, offered a pen portrait of this extraordinary and extraordinarily nasty man: “Meinertzhagen knew no half measures.37 He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good. He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri. His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain.”

In 1917, a British army under General Sir Edmund Allenby twice attacked the Turks at Gaza but found the way to Jerusalem blocked by a strong enemy force. Allenby decided that he should launch his next offensive at Beersheba in the east, while hoping to fool the Turks into expecting another attack on Gaza (which was the most logical target). The officer in control of the deception was Major Richard Meinertzhagen, on Allenby’s intelligence staff.

Meinertzhagen knew that the key to an effective deceit is not merely to conceal what you are doing but to persuade the other side that what you are doing is the reverse of what you are actually doing. He stuffed a haversack with false documents, a diary, and twenty pounds in cash and smeared it with his horse’s blood. He then rode out into no-man’s-land until shot at by a Turkish mounted patrol, upon which he slumped in the saddle as if wounded, dropped his haversack, binoculars, and rifle, and galloped back to the British lines. One of the letters (written by Meinertzhagen’s sister Mary) purported to be from the haversack owner’s wife, reporting the birth of their son. It was pure Edwardian schmaltz: “Good-bye, my darling!38 Nurse says I must not tire myself by writing too much. … Baby sends a kiss to Daddy!” Meinertzhagen now mounted an operation to make it seem as if a feverish search was under way for the missing bag. A sandwich, wrapped in a daily order referring to the missing documents, was planted near enemy lines, as if dropped by a careless patrol. Meinertzhagen was ordered to appear before a (nonexistent) court of inquiry to explain the lost haversack.

The Turks duly concentrated their forces at Gaza and redeployed two divisions away from Beersheba. On October 31, 1917, the British attacked again, rolling back the thin Turkish line at Beersheba. By December, the British had taken Jerusalem. Meinertzhagen crowed that his haversack ruse had been “easy, reliable and inexpensive.”39 But victory may also be attributed to another devious Meinertzhagen ploy: the dropping of hundreds of cigarettes laced with opium behind Turkish lines. Some historians have argued that the haversack ruse was not quite the success Meinertzhagen claimed. The Turks may have been fooled. Or they may just have been fantastically stoned.

The ruse had already been updated and deployed during the Second World War. Before the battle of Alam Halfa in 1942, a corpse was placed in a blown-up scout car, clutching a map that appeared to show a “fair going”40 route through the desert, in the hope of misdirecting Rommel’s tanks into soft sand, where they might get bogged down. In another variation on the theme, a fake defense plan for Cyprus was left with a woman in Cairo who was known to be in contact with Axis intelligence. The most recent variant had been plotted, with pleasing symmetry, by Peter Fleming, Ian Fleming’s older brother, an intelligence officer serving under General Archibald Wavell, then Supreme Allied Commander in the Far East. Peter, who shared his brother’s vivid imagination and was already a successful writer, concocted his own haversack ruse, code-named “Error,” aimed at convincing the Japanese that Wavell himself had been injured in the retreat from Burma and had left behind various important documents in an abandoned car. In April 1942, the fake documents, a photograph of Wavell’s daughter, personal letters, novels, and other items were placed in a green Ford sedan and pushed over a slope at a bridge across the Irrawaddy River, just ahead of the advancing Japanese army. Operation Error had been great fun, but “there was never any evidence41 that the Japanese had paid any attention to the car, much less that they drew any conclusions from its contents.”

This was the central problem with the haversack ruse: it was deeply embedded in intelligence folklore, the source of many an after-dinner anecdote, but there was precious little proof that it had ever actually worked.

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