Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Major Fallacy: Nazis Deceived by Nonexistent Man With Qualities

Major William Martin
(Image from New York Times)

Jennet Conant, in "The Man Who Never Was," written for the New York Times (May 6, 2010), reviews Ben Macintyre's true story of the fictional Major William Martin, a British military man who didn't exist but who fooled the German high command by a clever ruse. The invented "Major Martin" was a corpse disguised as a fake courier carrying on his body papers outlining the real plan of invasion by way of Sicily disguised as a false plan and a false plan of invasion by way of Greece diguised as the real plan. This corpse, "who would wash up on the Spanish coast, was a complete fraud, but the lies he would carry from Room 13 of the British Admiralty all the way to Hitler's desk would help win the war."

The story is stranger than fiction because it began as fiction but grew to reality, initiated by an idea listed in a now-famous "Trout Fisher" memo, a document attributed at the time to Director of Naval Intelligence John Henry Godfrey but now known to have been written by another fellow working for British intelligence. This memo appeared early on, in September 1939, merely three weeks into the war:
"The Trout Fisher," said the memo, in that peculiarly sporting style that only the English can pull off, "casts patiently all day. He frequently changes his venue and his lures." Although issued under Godfrey's name, it was most likely the work of Ian Fleming, whose gift for intelligence planning and elaborate plots, most of which were too far-fetched to ever implement, later served him so well in his James Bond series. The memo was "a masterpiece of corkscrew thinking," Mac­intyre writes, laying out 51 schemes for deceiving the Germans at sea, including one to drop soccer balls coated with phosphorus to attract submarines, and another to set adrift tins of booby-trapped treats. Far down on the list of suggestions, No. 28 -- "not a very nice one," the author(s) conceded -- proposed using a corpse, dressed as an airman, carrying spurious secret documents.

That this suggestion was in turn based on an idea used in a detective novel by Basil Thomson, an ex-policeman and former tutor to the King of Siam who made his name as a spy catcher in World War I, only adds to the fantastic quality of Macintyre's entertaining tale. First Fleming, an ardent bibliophile, dusted off this quaint literary ploy; then the trout-fishing admiral, who always appreciated a good yarn, had the cunning to know that "the best stories are also true," and dispatched his team to turn fiction into reality. In many ways it was a very old story at that, as indicated by the operation's first code name, "Trojan Horse." A bit of gallows humor led to the plan's name being changed to the rather tasteless Operation Mincemeat.
The double-bluff worked. The Germans fell for it. But the story is even more fascinating, incorporating one Ewen Montagu, and his younger brother, Ivor, brilliant scions of a Jewish banking dynasty who attended Cambridge and there not only invented the rules for table tennis but also founded the Cheese Eaters League . . . though Ivor also became a Communist and Soviet spy who kept a watchful eye on his older brother as the M15 kept their watchful eyes on him. Unaware of Ivor's scrutiny as Soviet spy, which perhaps posed little danger anyway, Ewen took the bones of the corpse idea laid out in Fleming's "Trout Fisher" and put 'mincemeat' upon those bones, for he gave the ruse its name, "Operation Mincemeat," and helped work out the realistic details of Major Martin's fictional life. Ewen later wrote a book in 1953 on the successful operation, The Man Who Never Was, which was dramatized as a movie in 1956.

Truly a story thus even stranger than stranger than fiction . . .

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