Military history

CHAPTER EIGHT

The Butterfly Collector

CHOLMONDELEY AND MONTAGU were convinced that they had created a fully credible character in William Martin. “We felt that we knew1 him just as one knows one’s best friend,” wrote Montagu. “We had come to feel that we had known Bill Martin from his earliest childhood, [knowing] his every thought and his probable reaction to any event that might occur in his life.”

It is hardly surprising that Montagu and Cholmondeley felt they knew Bill Martin as well as they knew themselves, for in a way the personality they had created was their combined alter ego, the person they would have liked to be. One contemporary described Cholmondeley as “an incurable romantic2 of the old cloak and dagger school.” In Bill Martin he found an imaginary figure who could wear the cloak and wield the dagger on his behalf. Where Cholmondeley was earthbound by his eyesight and deskbound by his job, Bill Martin was a young warrior on the front line, heading to war with a girl waiting for him at home. Montagu once wrote that he “joined up to go to sea,3 to use my seamanship experience, and to fight.” Bill Martin was the active naval officer that he was not. But Montagu took the identification with Bill Martin a stage further.

“Ewen lived the part,”4 according to Jean Leslie. “He was Willie Martin and I was Pam. He had the sort of mind that worked that way.” Ewen (as Bill) began to pay court to Jean (as Pam) in earnest. He took her to clubs, to films, and out to dinner. He gave her presents, jewelry, and a Royal Marines shirt collar, as a memento of “Bill.”

“He wrote me endless letters,5 from Bill,” she remembered. Jean kept some of these letters from her imaginary fiancé. They are an extraordinary testament to one of the oddest love affairs imaginable, to the way that fiction was eliding into fact in an entirely unexpected way. Jean Leslie was not, it seems, averse to Montagu’s advances or, perhaps more accurately, to those of Bill Martin. She had a copy of the bathing photograph enlarged and wrote on it: “Till death us do part,6 Your loving Pam,” and gave it to Montagu.

Montagu wrote back:

Pam dearest,7

I just loved the photograph—so much so that I couldn’t bear the idea of anything happening to it and I have left it in the care of my best friend—I know you’ll like him a lot—he has done everything for me and made me what I am today.

This sounds as if I have a foreboding—I have, and from your inscription on the photo I think you have the same fear.

In case I don’t come back you may not like to wear the ring I gave you so I hope you will like this brooch. You can still wear that even if, as I hope you will, you meet someone worthier than me—I know he will understand if he is the sort of man you’ll like.

Ever yours,

Bill

P.S. Try the RNVR next time.

Ewen Montagu, of course, was in the RNVR, the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He placed Pam’s photograph on his dressing table at Kensington Court.

Montagu had been apart from his wife since 1940, with only one brief reunion in America in 1941, when he was sent out to liaise with the FBI. In letters to his wife, Ewen referred openly to his dates with a young woman with lodgings in the Elms in Hampstead, although he never identified Jean Leslie by name. “The girl from the Elms8 is one of Tar Robertson’s secretaries and is a very nice, very intelligent girl (22–24?),” he told Iris. “One of her appealing virtues9 [is] she is such a good listener.” He added: “She has been much connected10 with one side of my doings.” Iris had already broached the subject of whether she and the children should return to Britain. On March 15, 1943, Ewen wrote to her: “I took the girl from the Elms11 to dinner and we went to see ‘Desert Victory’ at the Astoria.” In the very same letter he observed: “I feel definitely that you ought12 not to come back yet.”

If Iris was suspicious of Ewen’s relationship with this unnamed woman connected with her husband’s “doings,” she was not alone. Montagu later claimed his reason for placing Pam’s photograph, with its loving inscription, on his dressing table at Kensington Court, had been to see whether his inquisitive mother would react to it, or even remove it. “If Mother did touch my things13 it would be the last straw. It is the only irritating thing she doesn’t do so far.” Lady Swaythling duly spotted the picture and demanded an explanation. “I told her truthfully that it was14 a souvenir of something I had been doing. … I’m not entirely sure what she thought I meant by that!!” Montagu’s mother began sending coded warnings to her daughter-in-law in New York, “writing in her letters15 that she felt that [Iris] should come home as soon as [her] job allowed it.”

The relationship between Ewen Montagu and Jean Leslie may have been mere romantic playacting, nothing more than flirtatious, joking banter. But when Iris later saw the photograph with its passionate dedication, Montagu insisted that it was a joke, part of a wartime operation, and that nothing had gone on between him (and his alter ego) and Jean (and hers). His wife may have believed him. He may have been telling the truth.

FORGING THE CHARACTER of Major William Martin, and flirting with his fiancée, had been a most pleasurable challenge. Far more taxing—and more important—was the task of creating documentary evidence to be planted on the body. If the faked intelligence was too obvious, the Germans would spot the hoax; if it was too subtle, they might miss the clues altogether. At what level should the disinformation be pitched? Major Martin was supposed to be a serving officer whose plane had crashed en route from Britain to Gibraltar. He could not simply carry operational orders or battle plans, since these would never have been entrusted to a single messenger but instead sent by diplomatic pouch. Moreover, if a message contained highly classified information, it would tend to be transmitted by encrypted wireless message. The false information, it was decided, would have to be conveyed in the form of private letters between individual officers of sufficiently elevated rank to ensure the enemy took the information seriously. These had to be names the Germans would recognize. A communication from some minor member of the planning staff in London to a counterpart in Algiers “would not carry enough weight.”16 The job, as Montagu saw it, was “to fake documents of a sufficiently17 high level to have strategic effect, even after prolonged study and consideration by suspicious and highly-trained minds which would be reluctant to believe them.” Even more problematic was the question of how, exactly, to phrase the disinformation. If Sicily was identified as the cover target but the Germans somehow discovered the trick, then that would reveal Sicily as the real target. Instead of the enemy being misled, he would be tipped off.

Montagu approached the forging of the letters as if he were in court, briefing his opposing counsel with selective, invented evidence. It was, he later reflected, “a crooked lawyer’s dream of heaven.”18 He set out three basic principles on which the letter or letters should be drafted:

1.     That the planted target [i.e., Greece, Sardinia, or both] should be casually but definitively identified.

2.     That two other places should be identified as cover, and that one of these should be Sicily itself and the other thrown in so that, if the Germans grasped that the document was a plant, Sicily should not be pinpointed.

3.     That the letter should be “off the record” and of the type that would go by the hand of an officer but not in an official bag; it would have to have personal remarks and evidence of a personal discussion or arrangement that would prevent the message’s being sent by signal.

Montagu knocked out a first draft: a letter from General Sir Archibald “Archie” Nye, vice chief of the Imperial General Staff (VCIGS) to General Sir Harold Alexander in Tunisia. Nye was privy to all military operations. Alexander was in command of an army under General Dwight Eisenhower at Eighteenth Army Group Headquarters. The two British generals knew each other fairly well and were senior enough to be fully apprised of the battle plans. Harold Alexander had fought with distinction in the First World War but was widely perceived as not too bright. Indeed, one colleague unfairly described him as “bone from the neck up.”19 Still, he was the epitome of British martial uprightness, ramrod stiff and always looking “as if he had just had a steam bath,20 a massage, a good breakfast and a letter from home.” More important, he was probably Britain’s most famous soldier after Montgomery and was destined to become Eisenhower’s commander of ground forces in Sicily. The Germans would know instantly who, and how important, he was.

Montagu’s rough draft was a chatty, chummy letter between two members of the top brass, making no obvious reference to Allied intentions but dropping clues that no careful reader could miss. It implied a debate over whether Sicily or Marseilles should be the cover target; it referred to a choice of landing spots in Sardinia; it contained some apparently idle chat about the American allies (“Will Eisenhower go ahead21 at his own speed?”), salutations from a mutual friend (“So and so—naming a general22—sends his best”), and some lighthearted ribbing of Montgomery, the victor of El Alamein, for his bigheadedness.

Montagu thought his draft hit the perfect note, with just the right mix of “personal and ‘off the record’”23 information. He was very pleased with it. His immediate bosses, however, were not. The planners at the London Controlling Section (LCS), the committee in overall command of deception, suggested a less ambitious plan, arguing that “the contents of such a letter24 should be of the nuts and bolts variety and not on a high level.” On March 11, Johnnie Bevan, the head of the LCS, flew to Algiers for a meeting with Dudley Clarke, the officer in command of deception for Operation Husky, the assault on Sicily. Clarke also believed that Operation Mincemeat was aiming too high. He suggested that the letter should merely give a false indication of the date of a planned invasion, without pinpointing where this would take place.

Over the next month, the letter would be repeatedly revised, redrafted, and rewritten, as senior intelligence officers, the Chiefs of Staff, and others added their two cents to the plan. One of the hazards of having a good idea is that intelligent people tend to realize it is a good idea and seek to play a part. Like most novelists, Montagu did not like the editing process. He did not like the way Operation Mincemeat was being watered down. He did not like senior officers pulling rank and tinkering with a project in which he had invested so much of his time, energy, and personality. But most of all, he did not like Johnnie Bevan.

Montagu had once been a supporter of Bevan, the smooth, patrician chief of the London Controlling Section. But tensions rose quickly in the cramped and strained atmosphere of wartime deception planning. Soon after Bevan was appointed, they began to spar, which led to disagreements, and culminated in a titanic personality clash. Bevan took malicious pleasure in ordering Montagu about; Montagu responded with withering contempt. Early in March, in the midst of discussions over the form of Operation Mincemeat, Montagu mounted a full-scale assault on Bevan, accusing him of being incompetent, mendacious, inefficient, and “almost completely ignorant25 of the German Intelligence Service, how they work and what they are likely to believe.”

When Montagu got the bit between his teeth, he was not easily reined in. Bevan, he protested, “is almost completely inexperienced26 in any form of deception work. He has a pleasant and likeable personality and can ‘sell himself’ well. He has not got a first grade brain. He can expound imposing platitudes such as ‘we want to contain the Germans in the West’ with great impressiveness. … I am sure he will not improve with experience. The remainder of the staff of the London Controlling Section are either unsuited to this sort of work (in which they are all wholly inexperienced) or are third rate brains.” This rant continued for several more pages. Montagu’s character assassination of Bevan was completely over the top. It was also wrong, because Bevan possessed a brain quite as supple as that of Ewen Montagu. The memo attacking Bevan was internally circulated to the chiefs of Naval Intelligence, but Montagu’s colleagues seem to have realized he was merely blowing off steam, and the document did not leave the NID—which was just as well, for if Montagu’s complaints had reached the ears of Churchill, who had complete faith in Bevan, he might well have been sacked. Some saw Montagu’s attitude toward Bevan as evidence of thwarted ambition and backstabbing. More likely, it was the overreaction of an obsessive perfectionist, frustrated at the way his pièce de résistance was being tampered with and deeply alarmed by what he saw as the leaden response to developments in the Mediterranean.

At the end of February, Bletchley Park deciphered a message from the Nazi high command to the German Command in Tunisia, assessing the situation in the Mediterranean. “From reports coming out27 about Anglo-American landing intentions it is apparent that the enemy is practicing deception on a large scale. In spite of this, a landing on a fairly large scale can be expected in March. It is thought the Mediterranean is the most probable theatre of operations and the first operation to be an attack against one of the large islands, the order of probability being Sicily first, Crete second, and Sardinia or Corsica third.” The Germans not only anticipated a deception operation but had correctly divined the intended target, and time was running out to change their minds. “Sicily has now been allowed28 to become our most probable target and will be hard to remove from the enemy’s minds,” warned Montagu. “It is much easier29 to persuade the Germans that we will attack X than it is to dissuade them from an appreciation already formed by them that we will attack Y.” Bevan seemed to be doing nothing: “He still has no deception30 plan for Husky. … Why, even now, weeks after HUSKY has been laid on, have we got no deception plan drafted, much less approved and started?” Mincemeat was pushing ahead, but if it did not work, there would be a “complete failure to31 deceive the Germans by any action of ours.” The Allies were on the verge of attacking a target that the Germans expected to be attacked. Britain and her allies, he warned, were “now in a highly dangerous situation.”32

Montagu wrote another letter to Tar Robertson, more temperate this time but flatly rejecting Bevan’s idea that a “nuts and bolts” letter would be sufficient: “It would be a very great pity33 if we used a letter on a low level. I do not feel that such a letter would impress either the Abwehr or the operational authorities.”

While Montagu fought it out with Bevan and the wrangling continued over the contents of the letters, a separate debate was under way to determine where the body should be floated ashore. After briefly toying with Portugal or the south coast of France, the planners had settled once more on Spain. Both Britain and Germany maintained embassies in Madrid, but pro-German and anti-British sentiment was rife, particularly within the armed forces and the Spanish bureaucracy. As one MI5 officer observed, parts of the Spanish state were effectively in German employ: “Spanish police records34 and officers of the Seguridad [the Spanish security service] were instructed to facilitate the Germans in all they required, passports to Spanish nationals were issued on German recommendation, or refused on their instructions. The Spanish press and radio services were under German control. The Spanish General Staff was collaborating to the maximum. The use of Spanish diplomatic bags was theirs for the asking.” If the misleading documents could be put into the right Spanish hands, then they would almost certainly be passed on to the Germans. But Spain was unpredictable, and there were plenty of Spaniards fundamentally opposed to the Nazis. The worst outcome would be if the body and its papers ended up with a British sympathizer and were handed back intact and unread. Where, then, was the most pro-German part of the Spanish coast?

A cable was sent to Captain Alan Hillgarth, the naval attaché at the Madrid embassy and Churchill’s intelligence chief in Spain, asking him to send a trusted lieutenant to London for an urgent conference. Salvador Augustus Gómez-Beare, assistant naval attaché at the British Embassy in Madrid, duly presented himself at the Admiralty, fresh off the plane from Madrid, and was ushered into Room 13.

Gómez-Beare, universally known by his nickname “Don,” was an Anglo-Spaniard from Gibraltar who perfectly straddled the two cultures. He was a British citizen, enjoyed a large private income, spoke pure upper-class English, and displayed impeccable English manners and habits as only someone who is not English can. He played bridge with Ian Fleming at the Portland Club and golf all year round. But in Spain he was Spanish and brown-skinned, spoke with a southern accent, and was invisible. In 1914, as a medical student in Philadelphia, he had volunteered to join the British army, and spent two years in the trenches before joining the Royal Flying Corps. During the Spanish civil war he had “worked in military intelligence35 for Franco’s army.” Gómez-Beare could reach places no Englishman could penetrate, “a Spaniard to Spaniards36 and an Englishman to the English, who served England with an intensity and thoroughness that no mere Anglo-Saxon could attain.” Hillgarth had recruited him in 1939, initially suggesting he be given the rank of captain in the Royal Marines “because of his enormous37 RAF moustache.” He was given the rank of lieutenant commander in the RNVR on condition he shave and despite having “no more than a smattering of sea experience,”38 but from the start of the war, Gómez-Beare could be found “padding about Madrid,39 driving up to San Sebastian, flitting over to Barcelona, hovering about Gibraltar, and smuggling British airmen out of France.” When Airey Neave escaped from Colditz in 1942, it was Gómez-Beare who smuggled him across the border to Gibraltar. He had a villa in Seville, a flat in Madrid, and spies in every corner of Spain. Gómez-Beare was Hillgarth’s primary recruiter and runner of secret agents.

Alan Hillgarth, as a senior member of the embassy staff in a neutral country, could not be seen to engage directly in espionage or recruit spies, but Gómez-Beare was under no such constraints. In Hillgarth’s words, he was “exceptionally favoured by character40 and linguistic attainments to cultivate such people, and in the majority of cases his contacts would not have agreed to work with anyone else.” Gómez-Beare’s spies ran through the Spanish bureaucracy like veins through marble: he had agents in the Spanish police, the security service, the Ministry of the Interior, the General Staff, and every branch of the military. He had informants in high society and low, from the salons of Madrid to the docks of Cádiz. These spies never met one another and only ever made contact through Gómez-Beare himself. “He was invaluable,”41 said Hillgarth. “It was he who handled our special contacts. His loyalty and discretion are unequalled and the Spaniards, particularly the Spanish Navy, love him.”

The Germans, by contrast, did not love Don Gómez-Beare. Britain’s assistant naval attaché narrowly escaped being blown up by a car bomb during a clandestine visit to Lisbon. Madrid was a festering nest of espionage and counterespionage, and for four years a fierce war had raged between British spies and German spies in Spain, undeclared, unofficial, and unrelenting. Both sides deployed bribery and corruption on a lavish scale. Abwehr agents spied on their British counterparts, who responded in kind; the Spaniards spied on both sides, rather inefficiently. At first, the odds seemed stacked against the British. The Germans simply had too many advantages, with numerous “privileges and facilities42 (of course unofficially)” provided by willing Spanish collaborators. The Abwehr infiltrated all branches of the civil service, police, government, and even business. But with time, the contest leveled out, as Hillgarth and Gómez-Beare extended their web of informants through a combination of charm, bribery, and skulduggery. “Spain contained a large43 number of German agents and plenty of Spaniards in German pay,” wrote Hillgarth. “They had some ingenious ideas. We did our best to learn their plans, and to some extent succeeded.” In this febrile atmosphere, it was impossible to be sure who was spying for whom. “Madrid was full of spies,”44 wrote Hillgarth. “No one is watched all the time, but everyone is watched some of the time.”

And no one was watched more closely, or better at watching, than Don Gómez-Beare.

Once tea had been served in Room 13, Montagu and Cholmondeley laid out their plans before the Gibraltarian. Where, they asked, would be the best place to launch a dead body with false information into German hands? Gómez-Beare considered the problem. If the body washed up close to Cádiz, then it might simply be handed over to the British authorities in Gibraltar, which would scuttle the plan at the outset. There was also, he explained, a “danger of the body45 being recovered and/or dealt with by the Spanish Navy who might not cooperate with the Germans.” The navy, owing in part to the efforts of Gómez-Beare, was far more sympathetic to Britain than were other branches of the military, so if possible the body and its contents should be kept out of naval hands.

The ideal place, Gómez-Beare finally declared, would be somewhere near Huelva, the fishing port on Spain’s southwest coast where the River Tinto flows into the Atlantic. “German influence in Huelva46 is very strong,” explained Gómez-Beare, and the town was home to a large and patriotic German community. The British consul in Huelva, Francis Haselden, was “a reliable and helpful man”47 whose assistance would be needed for the ruse to succeed. Huelva also had a “very pro-German chief of police48 [who] would give the Germans access to anything of interest found on the body.”

But most importantly Huelva was the home turf of a particular—and particularly troublesome—German spy. The agent in question was “active and influential”49 across the region, as well as highly efficient, well connected, and perfectly ruthless. It would not merely be desirable to stitch this man up, Gómez-Beare observed with a smile, but a positive pleasure.

ADOLF CLAUSS collected butterflies. The walls of his large home were covered with cases of butterflies, each one carefully pinned and identified. He spent his days with a butterfly net, binoculars, and camera on the cliffs at Rábida, where the Odiel and the Tinto meet and flow into the sea, the spot from which Christopher Columbus prepared to set sail for the New World. Clauss owned a large farm at Rábida, where he grew enormous tomatoes and beets. He painted, played tennis in the evenings, and smoked filterless cigarettes whenever he was awake. He constructed elaborate wooden chairs that fell apart when you sat on them. Adolf was an extraordinary-looking man. A bout of malaria picked up while traveling in the Congo had rendered him cadaverously thin, and as the disease recurred, he grew ever more emaciated. His large ears stuck out at right angles. He looked like a corpse with two saucers attached. His tendency to appear at your shoulder, silently and without warning, earned him the nickname “The Shadow.”50 At forty-six, Clauss was said to have retired, although quite what he had retired from was a mystery.

The Clauss family was the richest in Huelva. Adolf’s father, Ludwig, was an industrialist and entrepreneur who had moved from Leipzig to Spain at the end of the nineteenth century. With his partner, Bruno Wetzig, Ludwig set up a company processing agricultural products, selling fish to the Madrid markets, and supplying food and other material to the workers in the British-owned Rio Tinto mines. Clauss and Wetzig made a fortune. With this Ludwig purchased land outside Huelva, built himself a large, walled compound, and became Germany’s honorary consul.

The German community was matched by the equally large, and even richer, British community. If the Clauss family ruled over the Germans of Huelva, then the Rio Tinto Company ruled everyone else, employing more than ten thousand workers and running the town like a corporate fiefdom. The mines were seventy miles inland, and the copper and pyrite were brought to the dock at Huelva by a specially constructed railway. The company bosses rode around on horseback and were referred to as “the viceroys,”51 so arrogant and regal was their bearing. The richer Spaniards aped British colonial manners, taking tea at five and playing bridge. Privately, the British were loathed and resented for extracting so much money from Spanish soil: “First the Romans52 mined it, then the British, then the Spanish, by which time there was nothing left.”

Like many colonists, the British and Germans tended to exaggerate their cultural distinctiveness. The British built a reproduction English village, which they called Queen Victoria Barrio, with gabled cottages and a village green. The Germans sent their children to be educated in Germany and maintained German traditions: Spain was home, but Germany was the fatherland. Before the war, the two communities had mixed on terms of social equality, playing golf and tennis together and attending one another’s functions. With the outbreak of war, all social contact ceased.

Spanish opinion in Huelva was divided on Adolf Clauss, Ludwig’s younger son. Some said he was “the black sheep,”53 because he never seemed to do any work. Others reckoned he was “the only clever one in the family,”54 again, because he never seemed to do any work. Clauss was very clever indeed, and he was also probably working harder than anyone else in Huelva, spying for Hitler’s Reich.

Adolf Clauss had trained as an architect and industrial engineer in Germany. At age seventeen, with the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the army and volunteered for secret service work. Speaking impeccable Spanish, he was sent on a mission by submarine to blow up British factories in Cartagena. The rubber dinghy he set off in sank, owing to the weight of explosives on board, and Clauss was finally picked up by the Spanish navy after treading water for eight hours. He was briefly imprisoned and then sent back to Germany. The incident, oddly, seemed only to increase Clauss’s appetite for cloak-and-dagger work, and by 1920, although theoretically working as an agricultural technician, he was already the chief Abwehr agent in Huelva. Marriage to the daughter of a senior Spanish army officer gave Clauss entrée into the fascist Falange movement. When civil war erupted, he immediately enlisted as a captain in the Condor Legion, the German volunteer unit fighting for the Nationalists under General Franco. Most infamously, pilots of the Condor Legion carried out the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937, an act of brutality immortalized in Pablo Picasso’s famous painting. For most of the conflict, Clauss acted as the personal interpreter for Colonel Wilhelm von Thoma, commander of the Condor Legion’s ground contingent. When Madrid fell to the Nationalists, Captain Clauss proudly rode into the captured capital on his tank. He was awarded the Red Cross for Military Merit by a grateful Franco regime, to add to the Iron Cross already awarded for his service to Germany in the First World War. He later earned another Iron Cross from Hitler’s Third Reich. Clauss would later claim, as many did, that he had fought for Germany, not for Hitler. But there is no evidence he ever questioned Nazi policy. A number of Abwehr officers shrank from Hitler’s barbarism. Clauss was not one of these. When war broke out, he was happy to offer his well-honed espionage talents, his high-level Spanish contacts, and his almost limitless energies to the Nazi cause.

By 1943, Adolf Clauss was running the largest and most efficient spy ring on the Spanish coast. Huelva, situated between the Portuguese frontier and Gibraltar, was of vital strategic importance in the war. From here, British merchant ships headed into the Atlantic heavily laden with raw materials from the mines, and from his farm, ideally situated on the coast, Clauss monitored every ship leaving port and every ship coming in. His informants up and down the coast completed the picture. Sometimes he would take photographs using a Minox camera and long-distance lens. The information was then relayed to Berlin by a team of Abwehr wireless operators, working out of the German consulate at 51 Avenida de Italia. Adolf’s older brother Luis was an equally enthusiastic supporter of Nazism. Since their father, Ludwig Clauss, the honorary German consul, was now in his eighties and almost stone deaf, consular duties were delegated to Luis. Both sons were named vice-consuls, and the consulate was placed at the disposal of the Abwehr. Luis had a fleet of fishing vessels with onboard radios to relay shipping movements.

The other main function of the Abwehr chief in Huelva, in addition to sabotage and target spotting for U-boats, was bribery. Every evening, thin-faced Adolf Clauss could be found at the Café de la Palma, a bar near the port, buying drinks but drinking little, meeting and massaging his contacts, and discreetly distributing large quantities of cash. Clauss bribed everyone who mattered, and many who did not. He bribed the harbormaster and the stevedores, the officers of the Guardia Civil and the police chief. Word soon got out that Don Adolfo was prepared to pay handsomely for information on the movement of shipping, the activities of the British in Huelva, and the comings and goings of Spanish officials. Nothing could be said, nothing could be whispered, in Huelva without news eventually reaching the preternaturally large ears of Adolf Clauss, who faithfully relayed everything he heard back to his Abwehr bosses in Madrid.

Gaunt, introverted, and unsociable, Adolf Clauss nonetheless possessed the spy’s essential talent for listening. “He didn’t dispute;55 if you thought you had the right argument, he always let you have the last word.” But even his family found him “cold, distant and silent.”56 He started work at six in the morning and never took a siesta. He seldom drank alcohol. He almost never smiled. His was the mind of the collector, the perfectionist. He liked to collate the different sorts of information from his intelligence network and then to pin them down, in different compartments, like butterflies.

The British authorities in Huelva knew what the odd-looking German lepidopterist was up to, for the British had their own spies and informers. In Huelva’s peaceful, orange tree–lined streets, another spy contest was under way, a smaller but no less intense echo of the espionage battle taking place in Madrid. The Clauss spy network was a menace to British shipping. Countless lives had already been forfeited on account of his activities, yet Clauss was an elusive adversary. As one British intelligence officer put it: “He was an active and intelligent57 person. It was impossible for any of our agents to watch him and keep tabs on him. He was sharper and gave the slip to anyone who followed him.”

Don Gómez-Beare described the Clauss network to Montagu and Cholmondeley. Some of what he said was familiar. The decoding of Abwehr messages had revealed, early in the war, the existence in Huelva of this “very efficient German agent58 who had the majority of Spanish officials there working for him, either for pay or for fascist ideology.” For more than three years, Montagu had monitored the steady buildup of German espionage activity in southern Spain, the use of Spanish territorial waters by German U-boats, and the activities of what he called this “super-super efficient agent”59 in Huelva with “first rate”60 sources, who seemed to own the town: “No ship can move without being61 seen, named and reported by W/T [wireless telegraphy]. The Germans get reports from lighthouse keepers, fishing boats, pilots and navy vessels, and agents in neutral fishing boats.” When the Germans began building an infrared spotting system to track ships passing through the Strait of Gibraltar at night, Churchill briefly considered launching a commando raid against the installation. Only the most vigorous diplomatic objections from the British government persuaded the Spanish to intervene and have it removed. For the most part, the Spanish government quietly tolerated, or actively condoned, the German espionage and sabotage of British and Allied ships.

Gibraltar, just fifty miles south of Huelva, was Britain’s key to the Mediterranean, “one of the most difficult62 and complicated places on the map,” in John Masterman’s words. The Rock guarded the gateway to the sea, a pivotal British outpost on the Spanish coast and a magnet for spies. As MI5’s senior officer on the island wrote, in a burst of lyricism: Gibraltar was “the tiniest jewel in the imperial63 crown … this strategic dot on the world’s map is not only a colony: it is also a garrison town, a naval base, a commercial port, a civil and military aerodrome, and a shop-window for Britain in Europe.” The Abwehr funneled money to willing Spanish saboteurs in Gibraltar and the surrounding region through one Colonel Rubio Sánchez, code-named “Burma,” the chief of military intelligence in the Algeciras region. Sánchez was distributing five thousand pesetas a month to saboteurs in and around Gibraltar. So far, the damage was limited since, as the MI5 chief in Gibraltar pointed out, the saboteurs’ “mercenary instincts were64 more outstanding than either their efficiency or their enthusiasm.” Montagu believed that special intelligence had successfully foiled several sabotage attempts, but the threat from German espionage in southern Spain was growing. In the month that Operation Mincemeat was born, Montagu warned that German sabotage had “increased and spread”65 and was now being actively pursued by the Nazis and their collaborators “in all Spanish and Spanish owned ports.”66

Adolf Clauss had, so far, enjoyed a most pleasant and productive war. In Madrid and Berlin he was held in high esteem as “one of the most important,67 active and intelligent German agents in the South of Europe.” Even NID and MI6 had a healthy respect for his manipulative skills. His network of spies and informers extended from Valencia to Seville. If anything of importance or interest washed up within fifty miles of the Café de la Palma, let alone a body carrying documents, then Clauss would surely hear of it. The German spy’s industriousness would be used against him. Later, if the operation worked, the proof of Clauss’s espionage activities would be so blatant that it could be used to ignite a diplomatic row, and, with luck, “sufficient evidence can be obtained68 to get the Spaniards to eject him.” It was agreed: Huelva was the target, and if the unpleasant Clauss could be undermined, made to look a fool, and thrown out of Spain as a result, then so much the better.

A memo was sent to the Royal Navy’s hydrographer, the official repository of technical maritime information, with a veiled enquiry: if an object was dropped off the Spanish coast near Huelva, would the tides and prevailing winds bring it ashore? At the same time, Gómez-Beare was instructed to fly to Gibraltar and inform the flag officer there, and his staff officer in charge of intelligence, of the plan’s broad outlines. “They would have to69 be in the picture,” Montagu explained, “in case the body or documents should by any chance find their way to Gibraltar.” Before returning to Madrid, Gómez-Beare should visit the British consuls at Seville, Cádiz, and Huelva and instruct them that the “washing ashore of any70 body in their area was to be reported only to NA Madrid [naval attaché Alan Hillgarth] and to no other British authority.” Francis Haselden, the consul in Huelva, “was to be told the outline of the plan71 without, of course, any description of its object.” Gómez-Beare should then return to Madrid and fully brief his boss.

Captain Alan Hillgarth would stage-manage the Spanish end of the operation, and there was no one better suited to the task.

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