HISTORY APRIL 30, 2010
by Ben Macintyre
Harmony Books, 387 pp., $25.99
There is a running joke in Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat about spydom’s inability to come up with meaningless code names: the wiliest operators across the globe appear powerless before the allure of a bad pun. Winston Churchill detested this: “[Operations] ought not to be given names of a frivolous character such as ‘Bunnyhug’ and ‘Ballyhoo,’” he wrote. “Intelligent thought will already supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names that do not suggest the character of the operation and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug.’”
The great man may have unwittingly suggested a scenario for an excellent Monty Python skit, but keeping the names well-sounding was never the problem. It is “suggesting the character of the operation” that proved near-impossible to resist. During World War II, all sides punned with abandon. The Brits called Stalin, whose name roughly means “man of steel,” Glyptic, which roughly means “image of stone.” The Germans, in turn, dubbed their British invasion plans Sealion, a code a first-grader could crack if it fell into his hands.
A nearly flawless true-life picaresque, Ben McIntyre’s new bookzeroes in on one of the few times in war history when excessive literary imagination, instead of hobbling a clandestine enterprise, worked beyond its authors’ wildest dreams. Predicated precisely on papers falling into the wrong hands—in spy-speak, “the Haversack Ruse”—Operation Mincemeat consisted of MI5 floating a dead body, dressed up as a British naval officer, off the Nazi-friendly coast of Spain. A supposed victim of an air crash, the body carried “top secret” letters indicating that the imminent Allied attack on Sicily was in fact targeting Greece. Inevitably intercepted by German spies, the letters made their way up the Nazi food chain onto Hitler’s desk, so influencing the Fuhrer that he moved whole divisions away from Italy; the Allies were able to take Sicily with a fraction of expected losses, substantially hastening the end of the war.
This story, or a fraction of it, has been told before, in a tidied-up memoir by one of the protagonists and its 1950s Hollywood adaptation, The Man Who Never Was. Macintyre, working from a trove of original documents, fills in many fascinating lacunae, including the personal history of World War II’s least likely hero: the Welsh ne’er-do-well who provided the plotters with a corpse. But Operation Mincemeat is more than the sum of its Grand Guignol logistics. Along the way, this story of clever men in a cramped basement outsmarting an enemy horde becomes an entirely unexpected ode to intellect, civilization, and wit.
The main architects of the mad plot are Ewen Montagu, an heir to British-Jewish aristocracy itching for martial action, and Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumly”), an ideas man with a “remarkable mustache fully six inches long and waxed into magnificent points.” This is the kind of book where every character, major or minor, comes with a set of splendid quirks, at least one of them involving animals. (Is history really so colorful?) Richard Meinertzhagen, who had used a similar haversack ruse against the Turks, is an “ornithologist, anti-Semitic Zionist, big-game hunter, fraud, and British spy.” A coroner named Bentley Purchase loves “Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and his model piggery in Ipswitch.” Montagu’s younger brother Ivor is “a committed communist, the pioneer of British table tennis, a collector of rare mice, and a radical filmmaker.” Cholmondeley himself went exploring Finland and Newfoundland as a boy, and “discovered a new species of shrew that died inside his sleeping bag” - a sentence that P.G. Wodehouse would have envied.
What’s even more remarkable, almost everyone involved in this romp—excuse me, I mean secret operation—was a writer in his spare time. Literary brio informs every aspect of Mincemeat. Cholmondeley’s top secret group inside MI5, was called Twenty Committee, because the Roman numerals XX “formed a pleasing pun as a double cross”; his and Montagu’s job was to run spies who did not exist, which is as close to literature as one can get in government employ. John Masterman, the committee’s chairman, penned detective stories about a crime-solving Oxford don. Alan Hillgarth, the naval attache in Madrid who would play a part in the plan’s second half, had written a novel acclaimed by fellow spy Graham Greene. And if that were not enough, one of the ruse’s early progenitors was a young naval officer named Ian Fleming.
Although dabbling in literature was a common pursuit among the class that made up Britain’s military elite, the novelistic character of Operation Mincemeat is not a coincidence. The men were tasked with a novelistic mission: to conjure up a narrative inside a narrative, both the false intelligence and its bearer. Macintyre sets down to his with similar delight. As we watch the bizarre plan become reality, the book slows to a highly pleasurable crawl. With help from Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the senior pathologist of the Home Office and a fallen star of forensics who had sent dozens of innocent people to the hangman, Montagu and Cholmondeley acquire the corpse of a young man who died of rat poison. Fearing scrutiny by Nazi experts, they apply extraordinary effort to make him look like a drowning victim. (“The Soviets,” I couldn’t help scribbling in the margins, “would have simply drowned a guy”.) They write the letter itself, ostensibly from General Nye to General Alexander, and rewrite it a half dozen times until somebody suggests a brilliant solution: to let General Nye write it. They come up with “the world’s first underwater corpse transporter” that fits into a sub’s torpedo bay, and hire the land’s most famous racing driver to deliver the corpse to a submarine base in Scotland before warm weather gets to it.
Soon enough, the personality of “Bill Martin”—a.k.a. Agent Mincemeat—begins to emerge from the ether, through planted clues and allusions. He is accident-prone, which explains his brand new ID card (he lost the old one). He owes money to Lloyd’s, as evidenced by a stern letter. He has a kindly father, a prissy aunt, and a fiancée named Pam who is wilting away in Wiltshire. The plotting of Major Martin’s pre-air-crash biography, writes Macintyre, is “thumpingly melodramatic”: it is even festooned with some cheap foreshadowing of the disaster. It is also precisely the “story that a German might believe to be British.”
The plot thickens in both worlds when Montagu’s secretary, Jean Leslie, offers up a mildly risque bathing-suit photo of herself—the kind a Navy officer would carry in his wallet. The married Montagu in return develops a real infatuation with Leslie, and soon they are going on real dates and exchanging gifts in full character. (“Bill’s” last missive to “Pam” suggests that, should anything happen to him, she has his blessing to take up with his friend Ewen Montagu.) The two may or may not have carried their affair to its logical conclusion, but they did call each other Bill and Pam, in one of the world’s most intimate in-jokes, for the rest of their lives.
This is all getting almost inedibly rich with literary truffles—doppelgangers, obsession, transgression, self-fashioning, and so on. What began as Weekend at Bernie’s is inching toward Pale Fire. But there are simpler thrills here, too. It is hard to overstate how cinematic this story really was: men and women brainstorming under sickly fluorescent lights; a pulse-pounding cross-country ride in a modified truck with a corpse in the back (and a pit stop for “some cheese sandwiches and a thermos of hot tea”); weeks of catatonic suspense after the lure has been cast. My one hope is when this story of suspense and courage is inevitably filmed again, it gets a director who know how to lighten up in a heavy tale. Keep it away from Eastwood or Bigelow.
The plan, meanwhile, works like a charm. Agent Mincemeat washes up on the right beach. (Some comedy ensues when the papers end up with one of Spain’s few uncorrupted officials; the British authorities in Madrid are then put in the position of demanding their return but not too vigorously). In the second half, the story droops a little as Macintyre traces Mincemeat’s progress down the German military-intellgience gullet. It is not as exciting as the mad caper atmosphere of the first half, but it lends the book an almost formalist symmetry: one by one, we get to meet the Nazi mirror images of the people we have come to know. Chief among those is Lieutenant Colonel Alexis Baron von Roenne, Hitler’s trusted military intelligence advisor, who provides the plot with one last galvanizing shock. It feels ridiculous to say this about a popular historical work centered on an infamous historical event, but I think I’ll withhold it. Let’s just say that the MI5 may have unwittingly found in Roenne a fellow man of letters.
In the end, the triumph of whimsy over brutality delivers the book’s most obvious thrill, but it also suggests a philosophical credo. All those half-crazed Englishmen with their rare mice, their table tennis, their complaints about post-Blitz sherry shortages, add up to something like a worldview. It is a portrait of civilization itself—dotty and preposterous, but the only one we’ve got—standing up to an unimaginable assault with just the right mix of haughty wit and low farce. This is democracy defending itself at its finest. In its odd way, Operation Mincemeat is the most uplifting book I’ll read this year.
Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up.