How a Corpse Tricked the Nazis

Posted May 28, 2010 at 4:08pm

Fans of Ian Fleming and James Bond will find a lot to like in Ben Macintyre’s new World War II-era book, “Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory.”

Macintyre, an associate editor and writer-at-large at the Times of London, has developed an expertise on the side in British espionage. “Operation Mincemeat” follows naval intelligence agent Ewen Montagu, who was also a figure in Macintyre’s previous book, “Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman: Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy.”

Montagu is part of a vast network of spies (which includes Fleming) who develop an unusual plan to throw off their German counterparts as the Allies prepare to invade Sicily in the summer of 1943. Montagu wrote his own book about the ruse in 1953 and called it “The Man Who Never Was.” It was turned into a movie in 1956. Yet Macintyre said he found that Montagu’s book presented a “pretty sanitized” version of what happened, partially because he didn’t know all of the details and partially because some details had to remain secret in the 1950s.

In a truly character-driven story, Macintyre pauses to profile each new character as he or she is introduced. Though Montagu is the main character, each member of this ensemble cast gets a thorough description. The spies rally around a plan to drop the body of a man who was disguised as a deceased British officer on the shores of neutral Spain. A few fake letters on the body were designed to lead German spies to believe an attack on Sardinia was imminent, in hopes of drawing German troops away from Sicily.

Those supporting Operation Mincemeat included everyone from the prime minister down to the secretary who posed as the dead man’s fiancée and the coroner who spotted a body that could be used without raising suspicions. In an interview, Macintyre called them a “wildly eccentric” group of “inspired amateurs.” Even the Welshman who unwittingly lends his body to the operation, a homeless man who seems to have committed suicide, gets pages of colorful description in the book.

“At the age of thirty-four, Glyndwr Michael had simply slipped through the cracks of a wartime society with other concerns: a single man, illegitimate and probably illiterate, without money, friends, or family, he had died unloved and unlamented, but not unnoticed,” Macintyre summed it up.

Macintyre’s interest in World War II is nothing new. He wrote about Fleming’s background in intelligence in “For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond,” and he is already working on another story about spies in World War II. He said the memory of those who survived the war and the wealth of information left behind by those who have passed on makes research easier.

“In a way, it was the most literal war we’ve ever fought,” he said. “Everybody involved wrote diaries, everybody wrote letters, everybody has photographs.”

When he writes, Montagu researches meticulously. He said he only includes facts he can confirm and admits it when he can’t answer a question, a practice he said gains readers’ trust.

“On principle, I never write anything that I don’t know to be the case,” he explained. “If I say it was a sunny day, that’s because I know it was a sunny day.”

And it was a sunny day that made the difference. After waiting out a storm to complete their mission, British submariners draw perilously close to the shoreline and dawn nears. As a corpse crashes into the beach and a Spanish fisherman makes an odd discovery under the sun, a series of events is set off that will thrill any mystery lover.