Military history


Target Sicily

THE PLAN OF ACTION agreed by Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt when they met in Casablanca in January 1943 was, in some respects, blindingly obvious: after the successful North Africa campaign, the next target would be the island of Sicily.

The Nazi war machine was at last beginning to stutter and misfire. The British Eighth Army under Montgomery had vanquished Rommel’s invincible Afrika Korps at El Alamein. The Allied invasion of Morocco and Tunisia had fatally weakened Germany’s grip, and with the liberation of Tunis, the Allies would control the coast of North Africa, its ports and airfields, from Casablanca to Alexandria. The time had come to lay siege to Hitler’s Fortress. But where?

Sicily was the logical place from which to deliver the gut punch into what Churchill famously called the soft “underbelly of the Axis.”1 The island at the toe of Italy’s boot commanded the channel linking the two sides of the Mediterranean, just eighty miles from the Tunisian coast. If the combined British and American armies were to free Europe, prize Italy out of the fascist embrace, and roll back the Nazi behemoth, they would first have to take Sicily. The British in Malta and Allied convoys had been pummeled by Luftwaffe bombers taking off from the island, and, as Montagu remarked, “no major operation could be2 launched, maintained, or supplied until the enemy airfields and other bases in Sicily had been obliterated so as to allow free passage through the Mediterranean.” An invasion of Sicily would open the road to Rome, draw German troops from the eastern front to relieve the Red Army, allow for preparations to invade France, and perhaps knock a tottering Italy out of the war. Breaking up the “Pact of Steel” forged in 1939 by Hitler and Mussolini would shatter German morale, Churchill predicted, “and might be the beginning3 of their doom.” The Americans were initially dubious, wondering if Britain harbored imperial ambitions in the Mediterranean, but eventually they compromised: Sicily would be the target, the precursor to the invasion of mainland Europe.

If the strategic importance of Sicily was clear to the Allies, it was surely equally obvious to Italy and Germany. Churchill was blunt about the choice of target: “Everyone but a bloody fool would know it was Sicily.”4 And if the enemy was foolish enough not to see what was coming, he would surely cotton on when 160,000 British, American, and Commonwealth troops and an armada of 3,200 ships began assembling for the invasion. Sicily’s five-hundred-mile coastline was already defended by seven or eight enemy divisions. If Hitler correctly anticipated the Allies’ next move, then the island would be reinforced by thousands of German troops held in reserve in France. The soft underbelly would become a wall of muscle. The invasion could turn into a bloodbath.

But the logic of Sicily was immutable. On January 22, Churchill and Roosevelt gave their joint blessing to “Operation Husky,” the invasion of Sicily, the next great set-piece offensive of the war. General Eisenhower was summoned to Casablanca and given his orders.

All of which presented Allied intelligence chiefs with a fiendish conundrum: how to convince the enemy that the Allies were not going to do what anyone with an atlas could see they ought to do.

The previous June, Churchill had established the London Controlling Section (a deliberately vague title) under a “controller of deception,” Lieutenant Colonel John H. Bevan, to “prepare deception plans5 on a worldwide basis with the object of causing the enemy to waste his military resources.” Bevan was responsible for the overall planning, supervision, and coordination of strategic deception, and immediately after the Casablanca conference, he was instructed to draw up a new deception policy to disguise the impending invasion of Sicily. The result was “Operation Barclay,” a complex, many-layered plan that would try to convince the Germans that black was white or, at the very least, gray.

Johnnie Bevan was an Old Etonian and a stockbroker, an upright pillar of the establishment whose convivial and modest temperament belied an exceedingly sharp mind. He had that rare English ability to achieve impressive feats with a permanent air of embarrassment, and he tackled the monumental task of wartime deception in the same way that he played cricket: “When things were looking pretty bad6 for his side at cricket, he would shuffle in, about sixth wicket down, knock up 100 and shuffle out again looking rather ashamed of himself.” Bevan played with the straightest of straight bats, as honest and upright a team player as one could imagine—which was probably what made him such a superb deceiver.

While Bevan controlled the business of deception from within the Cabinet War Rooms, the fortified underground bunker beneath Whitehall, his counterpart in the Mediterranean was Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Wrangel Clarke, the chief of “A” Force, the deception unit based in Cairo. Clarke was another master of strategic deception, but of a very different stamp. Unmarried, nocturnal, and allergic to children, he was possessed of “an ingenious imagination7 and a photographic memory.” He also had a flair for the dramatic that invited trouble. For the Royal Tournament in 1925, he mounted a pageant depicting imperial artillery down the ages, which involved two elephants, thirty-seven guns, and “fourteen of the biggest Nigerians8 he could find.” He loved uniforms, disguises, and dressing up. Most of one ear was lopped off by a German bullet when he took part in the first commando raid on occupied France, and in 1940 he was summoned to Egypt at the express command of General Sir Archibald Wavell and ordered to set up a “special section of intelligence9 for deception.” Clarke and “A” Force had spent the last two years baffling and bamboozling the enemy in a variety of complicated and flamboyant ways.

Between them, Lieutenant Colonels Bevan and Clarke would construct the most elaborate wartime web of deception ever spun. Yet in its essence, the aim of Operation Barclay was quite simple: to convince the Axis powers that instead of attacking Sicily, in the middle of the Mediterranean, the Allies intended to invade Greece, in the east, and the island of Sardinia, followed by southern France, in the west. The lie went as follows: the British Twelfth Army (which did not exist) would invade the Balkans in the summer of 1943, starting in Crete and the Peloponnese, bringing Turkey into the war against the Axis powers, moving against Bulgaria and Romania, linking up with the Yugoslav resistance, and then finally uniting with the Soviet armies on the eastern front. The subsidiary lie was intended to convince the Germans that the British Eighth Army planned to land on France’s southern coast and then storm up the Rhône Valley once American troops under General Patton had attacked Corsica and Sardinia. Sicily would be bypassed.

If Operation Barclay succeeded, the Germans would reinforce the Balkans, Sardinia, and southern France in preparation for invasions that would never materialize, while leaving Sicily only lightly defended. At the very least, enemy troops would be spread over a broad front and the German defensive shield would be weakened. By the time the real target became obvious, it would be too late to reinforce Sicily. The deception plan played directly on Hitler’s fears, for the Ultra intercepts had clearly revealed that the Führer, his staff, and local commanders in Greece all feared that the Balkans represented a vulnerable point on the Nazis’ southern flank. Even so, shifting German attention away from Sicily would not be easy, for the strategic importance of the island was self-evident. A German intelligence report produced in early February for the supreme command of the armed forces, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), was quite explicit, and accurate, about Allied intentions: “The idea of knocking10 Italy out of the war after the conclusion of the African campaign, by means of air attacks and a landing operation, looms large in Anglo-Saxon deliberations. … Sicily offers itself as the first target.” The deception operation would need to shift Hitler’s mind in two different directions: reducing his fears for Sicily, while stoking his anxiety about Sardinia, Greece, and the Balkans.

“Uncle” John Godfrey identified what he called “wishfulness” and “yesmanship”11 as the twin frailties of German intelligence: “If the authorities were clamouring12 for reports on a certain subject the German Secret Intelligence Service was not above inventing reports based on what they thought probable.” The Nazi high command, at the same time, when presented with contradictory intelligence reports, was “inclined to believe the one13 that fits in best with their own previously formed conceptions.” If Hitler’s paranoid wishfulness and his underlings’ craven yesmanship could be exploited, then Operation Barclay might work: the Germans would deceive themselves.

The deception swung into action on a range of fronts. Engineers began fabricating a bogus army in the eastern Mediterranean; double agents started feeding false information to their Abwehr handlers; plans were drawn up for counterfeit troop movements, fake radio traffic, recruitment of Greek interpreters and officers, and the acquisition of Greek maps and currency to indicate an impending assault on the Peloponnese.

While Bevan and Clarke began weaving together the strands of Operation Barclay, Montagu and Cholmondeley went hunting for a dead body.

In his initial plan, Cholmondeley had assumed one could simply pop into a military hospital and pick a bargain cadaver off the shelf for ten pounds. The reality was rather different. The Second World War may have been responsible for the deaths of more people than any conflict in history, yet dead bodies of the right sort were surprisingly hard to find. People tended to be killed, or to kill themselves, in all the wrong ways. A bombing victim would never do. Suicides were more common than in peacetime, but these were usually by rope, gas, or chemical means that could easily be detected in a postmortem examination. Moreover, the requirements were specific: the plan called for a fresh male body of military age, with no obvious injuries or infirmities, and cooperative next of kin who would not object when the corpse of their loved one was whisked away for unspecified purposes, in an unstipulated place, by complete strangers. For advice, Montagu turned to someone who knew more about death than any man living.

Sir Bernard Spilsbury was the senior pathologist of the Home Office, an expert witness in many of the most famous trials of the age, and the pioneer of the modern science of forensics. Sir Bernard collected deaths as other people collect stamps or books. For half a century, until his own mysterious demise in 1949, Spilsbury accumulated ordinary deaths and extraordinary deaths, carrying out some twenty-five thousand autopsies: he studied death by asphyxiation, poisoning, accident, and murder, and he jotted down the particulars of each case in his spidery handwriting on thousands of index cards, laying the foundations for modern crime scene investigation (CSI).

Spilsbury had come to public attention with the infamous Dr. Crippen case of 1910. When Michigan-born Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen was captured attempting to flee to North America with his mistress, it was Spilsbury who identified the remains buried in his cellar in London as those of his missing wife, Cora, through distinctive scar tissue on a fragment of skin. Crippen was hanged in 1910. Over the next thirty years, Spilsbury would testify in courtrooms across the land, laying out the Crown’s case in clear, precise, inarguable tones of moral rectitude. The newspapers adored this erect, handsome figure in the witness box, combining scientific certainty with Edwardian moral character. As one contemporary observed, Spilsbury was a one-man instrument of retribution: “He could achieve single-handed14 all the legal consequences of homicide—arrest, prosecution, conviction and final post mortem—requiring only the brief assistance of the hangman.” His courtroom manner was famously oracular and clipped, never using three words where one would suffice: “He formed his opinion;15 expressed it in the clearest, most succinct manner possible; then stuck to it come hell or high water.”

Before Spilsbury, forensic pathology was widely discredited, regarded as scientifically and medically dubious. However, by 1943, he had helped to transform the study of dead bodies—the “beastly science,” as it was known—into a branch of science both ghoulish and glamorous. Simultaneously, he acquired a reputation for experimenting on himself. Spilsbury inhaled carbon monoxide to test its effect on the body and made notes on his sensations (which were unpleasant). He climbed down a manhole in Redcross Street to check on gas that had killed a workman. When he accidentally swallowed meningitis germs in a hospital laboratory, he “just carried on.”16 It was rumored that Sir Bernard could identify the cause of death simply by smelling a corpse. In 1938, the Washington Post hailed him as “England’s modern Sherlock Holmes.”17

But a lifetime of inhaling death, peering into cadavers, and familiarity with the darkest sides of human nature had affected the great scientist. Media attention had gone to his head. Sir Bernard was aloof, arrogant, and utterly convinced of his own infallibility. He saw the world bleakly, through a veil of cynicism and self-satisfaction, and seldom evinced a shred of sympathy for anyone, living or dead. With heavy-lidded eyes and a “haughty, aristocratic bearing,”18 he looked like a lizard in a lab coat, and smelled permanently of formaldehyde.

Ewen Montagu arranged to meet the famous pathologist over a glass of lukewarm sherry at Spilsbury’s club, the Junior Carlton, in Pall Mall. Spilsbury had already done macabre service for British intelligence. Captured enemy spies were offered a stark choice: either work as double agents or face execution. Most agreed to cooperate, but a few resisted or were deemed unusable. These, the “unlucky sixteen”19 as they became known, were tried and executed. Spilsbury was brought in to carry out autopsies on these executed spies, including Josef Jakobs, shot by firing squad in the summer of 1941, the last person to be executed in the Tower of London.

Sir Bernard was sixty-six but looked far older. Montagu was not in the habit of subservience, but he had seen Spilsbury perform in court and was deeply in awe of “that extraordinary man.”20 Conscious of how odd the words sounded, the younger man explained that the navy “wanted the Germans and Spaniards21 to accept a floating body as that of a victim of an aircraft disaster.” What manner of death would fit in with the impression the government wished to give? Spilsbury’s heavy lids did not even blink at the question. Indeed, as Montagu later recorded, “never once did he ask why22 I wanted to know, or what I was proposing to do.”

There was a long pause while the forensic scientist considered the question and sipped his sherry. Finally, in his courtroom voice, “clear, resonant, without any trace23 of uncertainty,” he presented his verdict. The easiest way, of course, would be to find a drowned man and float him ashore in a life jacket. But failing that, any number of other causes of death would do, for the victims of air accidents at sea, Spilsbury explained, do not necessarily die from traumatic injury or drowning: “Many die from exposure,24 or even from shock.”

Spilsbury returned to his laboratory at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and Montagu reported back to Cholmondeley that the hunt for a suitable corpse might be easier than they had anticipated. Even so, it was hardly possible to ask around for a dead body, as gossip would undoubtedly spread and embarrassing questions would ensue. Briefly they considered whether grave robbery might be the answer, “doing a Burke and Hare,”25 but that idea was swiftly scotched. In 1827, William Burke and William Hare stole the body of an army pensioner from its coffin and sold it to the Edinburgh Medical College for seven pounds. They went on to murder sixteen people, selling their bodies for medical dissection. Hare testified against Burke, who was hanged and publicly dissected. This was not a happy comparison. Stealing corpses was unpleasant, immoral, and illegal, and even if they were successful, a body that had lain in earth for only a few days would be too decomposed for use. What was needed was a discreet and helpful individual with legal access to plenty of fresh corpses.

Montagu knew just such a man: the coroner of St. Pancras in northwest London, who went by the delightfully Dickensian name of Bentley Purchase.

UNDER ENGLISH LAW, the coroner, a post dating back to the eleventh century, is the government official responsible for investigating deaths, particularly those that occur under unusual circumstances, and determining their causes. When a death is unexpected, violent, or unnatural, the coroner is responsible for deciding whether to hold a postmortem and, if necessary, an inquest.

Bentley Purchase was a friend and colleague of Spilsbury in the death business, but Purchase was as cheery as Sir Bernard was grim. Indeed, for a man who spent his life with the dead, the coroner was the life and soul of every occasion. He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny, which, of course, it is. No form of violent or mysterious mortality surprised or upset him. “A depressing job?”26 he once said. “Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.” He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers and joke: “They were found in Auntie’s bag27 when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.” A farmer by birth, Purchase was “rugged in appearance and character,”28 with “an impish sense of humour”29 and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and his model piggery in Ipswich. He never wore a hat and laughed loudly and often.

Montagu knew Purchase as “an old friend from my barrister days”30 and dropped him a note asking if they might meet to discuss a confidential matter. Purchase replied with directions to the St. Pancras Coroner’s Court and a typically jovial postscript: “An alternative means of getting31here is, of course, to get run over.”

Purchase had fought in the First World War as a doctor attached to the field artillery, winning the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”32 and fighting on until 1918, when a shell splinter removed most of his left hand. By the time war broke out again, he was nearly fifty, too old to wear a uniform but “aching to get into the war.”33 Indeed, he had already demonstrated a willingness to help the intelligence services and, if necessary, “distort the truth in the service of security.”34 When an Abwehr spy named William Rolph killed himself by putting his head in a gas oven in 1940, Purchase obliged with a verdict of “heart attack.” In the same month that he received Montagu’s note, Purchase had been called in to deliberate on the case of Paul Manoel, an agent of the Free French Intelligence Service who had been found hanging in a London basement following interrogation as a suspected enemy agent. Purchase’s inquest was “cursory in the extreme.”35

The coroner was initially dubious when Montagu explained that he needed to find a male corpse for “a warlike operation”36 but “did not wish to disclose why a body37 was needed.”

“You can’t get bodies just38 for the asking, you know,” Purchase told him, grinning. “I should think bodies are the only commodities not in short supply at the moment [but] even with bodies all over the place, each one has to be accounted for.”

Montagu would say only that the scheme required a fresh cadaver that might appear to have drowned or died in an air accident. The matter, he added gravely, was “of national importance.”39

Still Purchase hesitated, pointing out that if word got out that the legal system for disposing of the dead was being circumvented, “public confidence in coroners40 of the country would be shaken.”

“At what level has this scheme41 been given approval?” the coroner asked.

Montagu paused before replying, not entirely truthfully: “The prime minister’s.”42

That was enough for Bentley Purchase, whose “well developed sense of comedy”43 was now thoroughly aroused. Chortling, he explained that, as a coroner, he had “absolute discretion”44 over the paperwork and that in certain circumstances a death could be concealed, and a body obtained, without getting official permission from anyone. “A coroner,”45 he explained, “could, in fact, always get rid of a corpse by a certificate that it was going to be buried outside the country—it would then be assumed that a relative was taking it home (i.e. to Ireland) for burial and the coroner could then do what he liked with it without let, hindrance or trace.” Bodies were pouring into London morgues at an unprecedented rate: in the previous year Purchase had dealt with 1,855 cases and held inquests into 726 sudden deaths. Many of the bodies “remained unidentified46 and were in the end buried as unknowns.” One of these would surely fit the bill. The St. Pancras mortuary was attached to the coroner’s court, so Purchase offered to give Montagu a tour of the bodies currently in cold storage. “After one or two possible corpses47 had been inspected and for various reasons rejected,” the two men shook hands and parted, with Purchase promising to keep a lookout for a suitable candidate.

The St. Pancras mortuary was without doubt the most unpleasant place Montagu had ever been; but then, his had been a life almost entirely free of unpleasant places and upsetting sights.

Ewen bemoaned “the inevitable misery of separation”48 from his family. His letters to Iris are filled with longing and loneliness. “I miss you most frightfully,”49 one letter reads, “and life has just seemed one long, gray monotone since we have been separated.” But he had grown to enjoy his existence as a bachelor spy. “The interest and pressure of my work50 managed to keep my morale up,” he wrote. “In a way it was like a mixture of constructing a crossword puzzle and sawing a jigsaw puzzle and then waiting to see whether the recipient could and would solve the clues and place the bits together successfully.” The only drawback to living at Kensington Court was the presence of Lady Swaythling, with whom he argued constantly. He found time to get away for fishing trips to Exmoor. “It was lovely51 to be far from the noise and the worry and just listening to the noise of the stream,” he told Iris. “I haven’t enjoyed anything as much since you left.” He relished the fishing most when it was hardest: “The greatest fun52 is the very delicate casting into awkward places.”

Lord Swaythling had taken the Rolls Royce with him to Townhill, so Montagu borrowed a bicycle to commute to work. In order to transport “super-secret papers,”53 he bolted a large pannier on the front, to which he chained his briefcase. The head of security at the Naval Intelligence Department questioned whether it was safe to cycle around with a briefcase full of secrets. What if the case was stolen? But after some argument, Montagu was given formal permission to continue with this unorthodox arrangement for transporting documents “as long as I always wore54 a shoulder holster and an automatic pistol.”

On January 24, 1943, Montagu cycled back as usual to Kensington Court, where the massive front door was opened by Ward, the butler. Nancy, “one of the best cooks in London,”55 had rustled up a fine dinner in spite of rationing, although Lady Swaythling insisted that standards had slipped. “Mother is too awful56 for words,” Ewen wrote to Iris. “She complains that she can’t get her nice chocolates ‘of decent quality’ whereas everyone else is overjoyed at getting any at all.” Ewen ate alone in the dining room paneled in oak from the Place Vendôme, beneath the glowering portraits of his ancestors. There was always plenty of cheese. He then spent an hour in the great library, working on the “crossword puzzles”57 in his briefcase. The Casablanca Conference had ended with the decision to invade Sicily. Cholmondeley’s plan to foist a dead body on the Germans with false documents was still only on the drawing board, but the decision at Casablanca had sharply accelerated the timetable: unless Montagu found a suitable body, and fast, Trojan Horse would be, in a manner of speaking, dead in the water.

Finally, Montagu turned in, returned the papers to his briefcase, locked it, and headed to the basement bedroom where he now slept because of air raids. Mabel the maid (“who had been in the family58 for more than 35 years”) had turned down the crisp cotton sheets on the bed.

That same evening, in a grimy, disused warehouse on the other side of London, a young Welshman swallowed a large dose of rat poison, ending a life that could not have been more different, in every conceivable way, from that of the Honourable Ewen Montagu.

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