Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre
This is a bit of a rare treat: a 99p kindle deal of the day that was well
Mincemeat was the name of the secret operation to fool the Germans into
thinking that an allied attack would focus on Sardinia, rather than
Sicily. A corpse was found, kitted out as a British soldier, and dumped in
the Mediterranean where it was hoped the Germans would come across
it. Documents with the soldier would, it was hoped, lead the Germans to
believe that the forthcoming allied attack would focus on Sardinia, and not
This story was the background of Letters for
a Spy, which I remember enjoying - although that was a fictionalised
imagining of how the Germans might have gone about verifying the identity
of the soldier: something which never happened in real life.
There was loads of interesting historical detail in this book, some of
which I highlighed:
- Ewen Montagu, the main character behind the Mincemeat scheme had a
brother Ivor, who founded the English Ping Pong Association. In addition,
Ivor had communist sympathies, and so was a cause of significant worry to
the security services, who suspected that he might be passing information
from Ewen to the Russians. Ivor's correspondence with people in Europe
about how to make table-tennis balls came in for particular scrutiny: it was
assumed that the letters must be in code, because they couldn't believe
anyone could be that interested in ping pong balls.
- Ewen's wife Iris's father was a painter built a fake nine-foot tree
out of steel, shrouded in real bark, to be used as an observation post on
the Western Front.
- The Germans developed a system "Knickebein" to guide their bombers by
brodcasting from separate transmitters, in a way that meant the
broadcasts would cross over the target. The British called this
"Headache", and formed a secret committee to come up with countermeasures
(called "Aspirin"). These worked, although the Germans didn't know how
their system had been broken.
- Charles Fraser-Smith (who was the inspiration for "Q" in the Bond
novels) was called on to help with the Mincemeat. One of his inventions
had been "a compass hidden in a button which unscrewed clockwise, based on
the impeccable theory that the 'unswerving logic of the German mind' would
never guess that something might unscew the wrong way.
- Alan Hillgarth, the spanish naval attache, was called on to
help. Hillgarth had a pretty fantastic back story, including an expedition
to find treasure in the jungles of Bolivia. This was a magnificent
failure, but "Hillgarth would never forget: otherwise sensible people
would be persuaded to believe, passionately, what they already wanted to
believe. All it required was a few, carefully forged documents, and some
profoundly wishful thinking on the part of the reader"
- When they had to take the corpse from London to Scotland, so it could
be placed on the submarine that would transport it to Spain, they were
driven by John Horsfall, a professional racing driver
- The letters containing the fake information were read by the Germans,
but when the documents made their way back to the British, they appeared
to have been unopened. "The letters had been stuck down with gum, and then
secured with oval wax seals. 'Those seals held the envelopes closed as all
the gum had washed off.' By pressing on the top and bottom of the
envelope, the lower flap of the envelope, which was larger than the top
one, could be bent open. Inserting a thin metal double prong with a blunt
metal hook into the gap, the Spanish spies snagged the bottom edge of the
letter, wound the still-damp paper tightly around the probe into a
cylindrical shape, and then pulled it out through the hole in the bottom
half. Even the British, normally so dismissive of the espionage efforts of
others, were impressed by the Spaniards' ingenuity: 'It was possible to
extract all the letters through the envelopes by twisting them out,
leaving the seals intact'.".
Very readable, made me want to read more.
Completed : 11-May-2015