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Book Review: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre

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A Spanish fisherman made a startling discovery on April 30, 1943: while rowing out into the Atlantic from the east coast of southwest Spain, looking for sardines, he came upon the floating body in an English uniform, a document laden briefcase attached. The contents of the briefcase were apparently secret military communications of the Allies, indicating the invasion plans for Southern Italy. That, at least, was what the Abwehr man in Spain thought, the first but not the last of men in a chain of intelligence officials who came across the incredible find. Perhaps it was all just a little too incredible. But could anybody inside the Reich intelligence apparatus tell? And did the most important analyst in the Reich really want to know the truth?

At the heart of the human experience is the problem of knowledge: how can we be sure that what is before us is actually the truth of something? Specifically, how can we uncover a deception? Indeed, how can we know anything? Philosophers have tackled this problem for ages and the area of philosophy is known as epistemology, but it offers no unequivocal solution to the ancient problem. While most of us never have to deal with the problem of knowledge in life or death terms – our lives, for the most part, revolve around habits of thought that work just well enough in our environments to get us what we want or need — intelligence experts face the problem of knowledge every day. The stakes, of course, are life and death. The dead English courier and his briefcase posed a problem of such proportions for the German intelligence analysts: should they trust in the find or was it an Allied hoax?

In January 1943 the Allies faced a problem. So did the Axis powers. After the success in North Africa, the Allies were contemplating their next move. Hitler was trying to figure out what that next move would be. At stake was the so-called soft underbelly of the Reich. Knowing where would the Allies invade was a central question, for it would allow Hitler to fortify the landing sites. To the Allied leadership, the target of invasion was obvious. So much so that Churchill, in his customary pithiness said, “Everyone but a bloody fool would know it was Sicily.” The Allied problem, then, assuming that the German leadership felt the same way as Churchill and believed that it would indeed be Sicily, was how to persuade the Axis into believing that the target of the coming invasion would lie elsewhere. Without an element of surprise, the Allied invasion would be met by an entrenched enemy and almost certainly fail or succeed only at too great a cost.

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory is a detailed account of the planning of the required diversion, part of a larger operation of deception called Operation Barclay, the goal of which was to convince the Axis powers that the coming invasion would not hit Sicily but Sardinia, Greece and Southern France. The deception had to be good enough to convince layers of intelligence analysts and then Hitler himself: It had to convince von Roenne, Hitler's trusted and famous intelligence genius, it had to convince the local Spanish physician, who would examine the body of the dead man. The potential audience was highly trained and the most humble detail could conceivably unravel the entire plot. At fist glance, the challenge seems too great, and it is incredible that the Mincemeat team has succeeded.

Ben Macintyre's (Macintyre is the author of earlier tale of cunning, bravery and skulduggery, Agent Zigzag) narrative of the events is an engrossing account that reads like an Ian Fleming thriller. Aside from meticulous research and journalistically detailed exposition of the procedural aspects the operation, Macintyre gives us insight into the characters involved, penning enchanting portraits of the British men who were behind the operation. These guys were brilliant and eccentric, and perhaps a bit mad, for their scheme certainly was. Not all loved England, of course. In an incredible threat to the operation, one of them was a Soviet mole.

The book in its first part relates the “hows” of the operation as the team members went about the deception, finding a suitable body and assembling all the elements of the story of the man who never was so as to make him and his documents believable. Then it turns into a real-life thriller as the body and the messages make their way through the layers of Abwehr bureaucracy and German intelligence, and how, almost miraculously, the deception succeeds.

In the end, as much as Operation Mincemeat is about the vagaries of human knowing and the problems of interpretation of equivocal information in the intelligence game, it is also a cautionary tale about the importance of moral character and of the quality of the men themselves.

In that sense, Mincemeat was perhaps a failure because the Nazi state was riddled with men who lost faith in the government and the society in which they existed. Had there have been true believers surrounding Hitler, they would have been more likely to spot the problems with the Mincemeat situation. There were indeed many indications that the body was part of an elaborate deception: the Spanish doctor who first examined the body found inconsistencies with it having been in the water for long: there were not telltale crab bites that always accompanied a drowned body washed ashore. The man's hair was not brittle, an indication that it had not been in the water for very long. The clothes themselves did not show having been long immersed in the ocean. A true believer would have spotted these “red flags.” One interesting question that the situation poses is what would happen if the sides were reversed? Would the British intelligence establishment fall for information fished out of the English Channel along with the alleged body of a German courier? Would the devoted men fighting the British war effort ignore obvious “red flags”?

But the men inside Hitler's land of horrors didn't spot "red flags" because they likely didn't want to. Von Roenne, the superb intelligence analyst, for example, suddenly “lost” his edge and passed the information along as genuine where his earlier self would likely have questioned it. Later, as the Allied invasion of France neared, he indiscriminately passed along every bit of nonsense as genuine. There were indications that he was actually working to sabotage the Nazi system. He was not alone. But he did so because the Nazi system could not be believed in because it held no moral high ground: Hitler and his henchmen were criminals and anyone, like Roenne, with half a brain, knew it. Few self-respecting men can long justify working for bandits. Certainly none can do so for long without becoming bandits themselves.

Britain, on the other hand, occupied a moral high ground and was a democracy where the rule of law, not the rule of violence prevailed. One could say that it was the English way of life, and the American way of life, that prevailed, that was ultimately the secret ingredient responsible for success of Mincemeat. If so, then Mincemeat teaches an important lesson – wars, indeed, any human endeavor, turns not just on the stuff and the technology but on the character of the men themselves. And human character is irreparably damaged by system of government that are undemocratic, where order is based on the unchecked and arbitrary exercise of violence.

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About A. Jurek

A. Jurek is one of the editors at Blogcritics. Contact me at: a.jurek@blogcritics.org