The Magazine

Bodyguard of Lies

A trilogy on military deception.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The centerpiece of the effort has been known since the early 1950s as “the man who never was,” a Welshman named Glyndr Michael who, friendless and obscure, died of rat poison in a probable suicide in wartime London. Michael’s corpse was obtained, with some legal corner-cutting, and was dressed as a Royal Marines major and courier for eminent military correspondents. “Major Martin” was supplied with a believable history and personality and was transported by submarine from western Scotland. He was preserved with dry ice in a custom-made canister, and was launched, with a strapped-on briefcase, off the Spanish coast. He washed shoreward, as hoped, and was found by a fisherman. Eventually, the clues and indications contained in the “secret” letters he carried (including a reference to “sardines”) made their way to the heart of German intelligence—to the attention of Hitler himself. The designers of the hoax supposed, correctly, that the Spaniards, notwithstanding their neutrality, would share the find with the Germans. 

It was a fabulous success and saved many days of fighting, and many lives. One effect of Mincemeat was that Erwin Rommel was dispatched to Greece to arrange for the defense of the Peloponnesus.

Finally, there is Double Cross, Macintyre’s narrative of the Twenty Committee’s multiple deceptions calculated to divert or weaken German defenses in Normandy in 1944. The book is rich in evocations of the colorful, sometimes high-living double agents, with names like “Tricycle” (so called, allegedly, because of his fondness for ménage-à-trois trysts), although, as a story, the book lacks the focus and intensity of Zigzag and Mincemeat. One diverting example of the pre-D-Day hoaxes was the enlistment of an Australian actor, serving in a humdrum capacity in the British Army, as a look-alike impersonator of Montgomery. His role was to visit Gibraltar and Algiers, conspicuously and noisily, on the eve of the Normandy invasion. If the ground commander of the Allied invasion force was traipsing about far from the scene, surely the invasion (then days away) could hardly be imminent!

The greedy reader of these deadly but amusing tales will constantly ask himself not only why these deceptions so often worked so well, but what it was (or is) in the English character and culture that made them so good at deceiving. German susceptibility—conditioned by fearfulness and deadly rivalries and also, as one Twenty Committee eminence remarked, by “wishmanism” and “yesmanship”—can hardly be discounted. A willing seller needs a willing buyer. But it is familiar lore that beneath their pose of stiff lips and understatement, the English inhabit a hidden world of drama and gamesmanship. Protected as their small island is by John of Gaunt’s “moat,” they allow themselves uncommon space for eccentricity and imagination. 

It is hardly surprising to read that Ewen Montagu, one of the eminent masters of counterintelligence, was the brother of a known Communist and a connoisseur of exotic cheeses. Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumly”), pictured here in full Bedouin kit, was a postwar bug-hunter and devotee of plagues of locusts in the Near East; it was he who came up with the Trojan horse idea that bore the body of “Major Martin” into Nazidom. It didn’t hurt that many of the Double Cross masters had been classically educated.

Perhaps, after all, we have known the inner secret of the Double Cross since at least the time of Shakespeare: All the world’s a stage, and the English are hereditarily accomplished players in the often ironic comedies of human folly and illusion. Certainly, as I read these three marvelous books, I thought back to those Oxford scenes of the 1950s, and my clueless brushes with this cast of characters, and marveled at the steely self-discipline that kept their wartime secrets so well-corked for so long. 

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure