By Chet Yarbrough
By Ben Macintyre
Narrated by John Lee
Ben Macintyre (British historian, author, and columist for The Times newspaper)
“Operation Mincemeat” is an historical account of “The Man Who Never Was”. It is about the early days of the British Secret Service. It covers a specific operation to mislead the German Axis powers on the planned invasion of Italy in WWII.
Though this history is enlightening, Macintyre’s account makes the early British Secret Service look like an upper-class boy’s club. The master minds of early British Secret Service espionage, MI5, are pictured as aspiring novelists from privileged, wealthy English families playing a game of war.
The mission is to drop a dead body in the Mediterranean off the Spanish coast. The body is to carry false documents to mislead the Axis powers.
Ian Fleming (1908-1964, English author, former naval intelligence officer, creator of the James Bond series.
The idea came from a novel written in the 1930s. One of Mi5’s agents, Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond series) recalls the novel and suggests the idea to the “boys club” in 1939.
The details for execution of the plan are fascinating. The difficulty of acquiring a dead body, the creation of forged documents, the personal approval of Winston Churchill, and the bureaucratic arguments over minutiae before the plan could be executed beggar belief.
With all that preparation, it is surprising to hear of fundamental mistakes made on planted documents. The picture on the military ID to identify the dead body did not have the right hair line. One of the personal letters placed on the body incorrectly refers to a field commander as though he had knowledge of plans that he could not have had.
Ewen Montagu (1901-1985)
There are stories of patriotism and hard work by the British Secret Service but they are diminished by characterization of the early agents. An office dalliance between the prime mover of the Mincemeat operation, agent Montagu, and an office secretary seems tawdry. The book concludes with Montagu’s battle over government declassification of the operation and his fight for publishing rights to the story of the deception.
The author’s characterization of the early days of the British Secret Service is not heroic in the sense one gets from deciphering the enigma code by the Turing team. There are pictures of real heroes in this history but they are soldiers in a real war.
Much of MI5’s depiction in “Operation Mincemeat” is of upper-class rich boys playing war in blacked out offices near Piccadilly; while soldiers and civilians are losing their lives in England and the mainland.