Book Club: Operation Mincemeat

11 Nov

Operation Mincemeat

By Ben Macintyre

In April 1943 the body of Major William Martin of the Royal Marines was found floating in the sea near Punta Umbria in Spain. On his person were letters from his fiancée, Pam, stubs from the tickets of a London show, a bill for Pam’s rather extravagant engagement ring, a letter from his bank manager re his overdraft and one from his father from a hotel in Wales (both, perhaps, prompted by Pam and the jeweller’s bill). Martin was 36-years-old when he died, probably in a plane crash, couriering a letter from General Nye to General Alexander. This letter was in a briefcase attached to Martin’s belt, found on the body, and contained details of an Allied invasion. It was top-secret information, not to be seen by the enemy.

Only William Martin never existed. Everything about him was entirely fictitious, All the papers – from the letters from his bank, to the invasion plans – were fakes. This was Operation Mincemeat.

As hoped, the invasion plans found on the body were seen by the Germans. The letter led them to believe that the Allies would be focusing their Mediterranean offensive on Greece and Sardinia, rather than the true target, Sicily. They moved their defences. The operation was a success.

Ben Macintyre’s book is utterly engrossing. There have been plenty of books based on the story, and even a film, but as well as detailing Operation Mincemeat, Macintyre talks about the people behind it, who are almost more interesting than the plan itself.

The star turns are Ewan Montagu and Charles Cholmondely (pronounced ‘Chumly’, obviously, because English likes to keep you on your toes), the men who invented Major Martin. Both of them are absolutely fascinating characters and, to sound like everyone’s granddad ever, they really don’t make them like that any more.

Cholmondely, my favourite, was six foot four and had a massive waxed moustache and, despite his milk-bottle glasses, was one of nature’s adventurers. During an expedition during his schooldays he discovered a new species of shrew when it died in his sleeping bag. Need I say more? I developed an enormous softspot for Charles Cholmondely during this book, and Macintyre seems to like him too. After the war he ran around the Middle East dressed as a Bedouin, chasing locusts. Naturally.

Whilst Operation Mincemeat is wonderfully gripping, it’s also terribly sad. Montagu and Cholmodely needed a body to pull the whole thing off. William Martin never existed, but Glyndwr Michael did. Having travelled to London from Aberbargoed in Wales, homeless Michael killed himself horribly by taking poison. He had no family and seemingly no friends, making his the perfect body to disappear and become a fictional Royal Marine. His grave in Spain is maintained by the German consulate, on behalf of Britain.

I keep threatening to lend this book to absolutely everyone. The fact the plot is true is mind-boggling stuff, but Ben Macintyre really does the story justice.

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One Response to “Book Club: Operation Mincemeat”

  1. mattdupuy April 12, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    There was a brilliant BBC documentary about this a while back, including interviews with a lot of the main protagonists, recreations and a visit to Michael/Martin’s grave. It was as fascinating and moving as the book clearly is, so I’d recommend looking it up. It might still be on iPlayer, as these sorts of things often hang around on there for months.

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