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Bill Thayer

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Author's Note
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Man Who Never Was

by Ewen Montagu

published by J. B. Lippincott Company
Philadelphia and New York,
1954

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 2

 p17  1  The Birth of an Idea

In the graveyard of the Spanish town of Huelva there lies a British subject. As he died, alone, in the foggy damp of England in the late autumn of 1942, he little thought that he would lie forever under the sunny skies of Spain after a funeral with full military honours, nor that he would, after death, render a service to the Allies that saved many hundreds of British and American lives. In life he had done little for his country; but in death he did more than most could achieve by a lifetime of service.

* * * * *

It all really started through a wild idea of George's. He and I were members of small inter-Service and inter‑departmental committee which used to meet weekly to deal with questions of the security of intended operations. We exchanged and discussed information that had been obtained from all kinds of sources — from our own Services and other sources at  p18 home as well as from neutral countries, together with Intelligence reports from enemy countries. With all this and the latest information as to Allied "intentions" — not only immediate and probable, but also "long-term possible" — we had to try to detect any leakages that might have occurred and any "intelligent anticipation" that the enemy might already have made, and also to guard against such leaks and anticipations in the future.

It was not an easy task, but the committee was a good one: it comprised not only Regular officers of considerable knowledge and experience, but also temporary officers and civilians with most varied backgrounds; we were a mixed lot, and between us we could view any item of information as it would strike observers from any walk of life; we had a thoroughly variegated fund of knowledge and there were few spheres of activity with which we had no contacts.

George produced his idea during a discussion over a report with which we had been supplied from occupied Europe; as happened from time to time, we were puzzled whether it was genuine or had been planted by the Germans for transmission to the Allies.

George had one of those subtle and ingenious minds which is forever throwing up fantastic ideas — mostly so ingenious as either to be impossible of implementation or so intricate as to render their efficacy problematical, but every now and again quite brilliant  p19 in their simplicity. As we puzzled whether this percent report was genuine, or whether the Germans had captured the agent concerned and were sending reports through him or for him, George remembered a recent warning that had been issued reminding officers that it was forbidden for secret documents to be carried in aircraft lest they should be shot down in enemy territory.

Starting from that, George suddenly suggested that as a check on such reports we should try to get the Germans to plant something on us that we knew was planted, so that we could see what their line was and how they put it over: if we could drop a resistance workers' wireless set into France (he suggested) and it started working it would be difficult to tell whether the Germans or a friendly Frenchman was working it, but if it dropped accompanied by a dead body attached to a badly opened parachute, the task of checking might be easier. A Frenchman would probably tell us what had occurred, whereas the Germans would be more likely to conceal what had happened and work the set as if the agent was still alive. It would not be certain, but it did not involve much effort and might be worth trying. "Does anyone know whether we can get a body?" asked George.

This was not one of his better inspirations, and we rapidly demolished it; agents did not carry their codes or their routine and system for sending messages with  p20 them for anyone to find, so how would the Germans transmit messages?

Also, if a parachute failed, whatever was hanging from it would be bound to hit the ground with a considerable bump; if it was a body, this would almost certainly result in a broken limb as well as grazes and scratches, and injuries inflicted after death can always be detected. There was therefore no hope of dropping a dead body attached to a partially opened parachute without the finder being able to tell that the body had been dead for some time before it hit the ground. Besides, even if we could get a dead body (and no one knew whether we could), our field of choice would indeed be limited if it had to be that of someone who had died through falling from a height! No; this was one of George's failures, and we quickly turned back to our report: was it genuine or not? But some months later George's wild idea produced results.

By the summer of 1942 our little committee was in the midst of its first big job. "Operation Torch," the invasion of North Africa, was being mounted, and the experience that we had gained in trying to guard the security of small-scale operations, involving relatively few units, was receiving its first full test.

In spite of all that could be done in the way of security, it was obviously impossible to prevent the enemy knowing that something was brewing. In  p21 the first place, it was apparent to everyone that the Allies would not just sit back indefinitely: there must be an invasion somewhere. Secondly, there could be no restriction on foreign diplomats: they moved around the country and they met and spoke to people, not only people in the know, but also some of the thousands who were bound to see the congregation of ships or of troops before they left this country; and whatever view had to be taken officially, none of us had any illusions as to the neutrality of a number of diplomats. Besides, even a pro‑British diplomat had a job to do: he had to report to his Government what was going on over here, and once the report got to his country there could be no doubt that there would be at least one official or minister over there who was either paid, or at any rate ideologically ready to pass the information on to the Germans. Thirdly, there were neutral business‑men and sailors travelling between this country and the Continent.

Therefore we could not hope to prevent the Germans knowing that there was an operation afoot. What we could hope to do was to prevent the vital information of "When?" and "Where?" leaking.

Until the invasion of North Africa had taken place the Allies had no presumptive foothold on the continent of Europe, and the war in North Africa consisted of a campaign in which we were pushing from east to west with our armies based on the Suez Canal Zone. As a  p22 result of this situation there was no reason why the Allies should not make an attack at almost any point. As far as the Germans knew, we might land in Norway, in the Low Countries or in France, or try to push up through Spain; we might seize the Canaries or the Azores to help in the war against U‑boats; or we might land in Libya to attack Rommel's army in its rear. Except in Egypt, we were wholly uncommitted, and any place in German-held Europe or neutral countries was open to assault.

In these circumstances all that it was necessary for our committee to try to ensure, when we attacked Dieppe or the Lofoten Islands or planned any other assault, was that the actual target and date did not get over to the enemy. That involved nothing more than leaking a false target to the troops concerned, perhaps backing such leaks up with papers about an issue of sun helmets — if they were in fact going to the Lofoten Islands — or something of that kind, and then working really hard to reduce, as much as possible, the bits of information which would inevitably get out of this country. In other words, our principle was to try to make security as complete as possible, and then try to prevent any leakage that did get by our precautions being such as would give away the true target.

When "Operation Torch" was being launched against North Africa we could still operate on this basis and, as we studied our Intelligence reports and learned of  p23 the movements that the Germans made, we realised that this system had worked as the potential targets were so many that the Germans could not get a definite idea even of where we would strike.

But our problem would be entirely different after "Operation Torch" had been completed. At that stage of the war the Allies would have command of the whole of North African coast and would be poised to strike at what the Prime Minister called "the soft under-belly of Europe." Our committee was kept in touch with the strategic thinking of our Chiefs of Staff and also with that of the Americans. We knew that there were some differences of opinion, but there was a definite probability that we would strike there, and our committee had to be prepared to play our part when the Allies attacked.

With the whole North African coast in Allied hands it was pretty obvious that we would not turn round and transport all those troops back to England for an invasion of France across the Channel, and at least some of them were bound to be used across the Mediterranean. They could form part of an army for the conquest of Italy or they could be used for landing in the South of France or in Greece. Any one of these campaigns was a possibility, and our committee had to be prepared to deal with whatever might eventually be decided upon. We might perhaps have been able to cope with this task on the system which had  p24 worked so well up till then had that been the whole story, but there was one feature of the strategic situation which created a new problem.

Sicily lay in the middle of the Mediterranean like a football at the toe of Italy, and until it had been captured the passing of a convoy through the Mediterranean was a major operation attended by enormous losses, and this situation would remain even when the airfields in North Africa were finally in our hands. It was made clear to our committee that the reduction of Sicily would almost certainly have to be undertaken before any of the other operations could take place. As we always had to make our preparations long before an operation was launched, we were considering this next job, the security of the invasion of Sicily, even before "Torch" was finally mounted.

And here we foresaw trouble. If Sicily was a clear probability to us, once North Africa was in Allied hands, it would be just as clear a probability to the Germans. Indeed, as the Prime Minister eventually said, when approving this operation of ours, it did not matter taking some risk of revealing Sicily as the target, as "anybody but a damn' fool would know it is Sicily." How would we be able, when the time came, to prevent the Germans from reinforcing the defences of Sicily to a dangerous extent as the result of the same strategic reasoning which had caused the Allies to attack it?

 p25  As we were puzzling over this problem, the penny suddenly dropped, and George's fantastic idea of some time before justified itself. "Why," I said, "shouldn't we get a body, disguise it as a staff officer, and give him really high-level papers which will show clearly that we are going to attack somewhere else. We won't have to drop him on land, as the aircraft might have come down in the sea on the way round to the Med. He would float ashore with the papers either in France or in Spain; it won't matter which. Probably Spain would be best, as the Germans wouldn't have as much chance to examine the body there as if they got it into their own hands, while it's certain that they will get the documents, or at least copies." So the idea was born. Excitedly, we discussed its potentialities. We would have to check on a number of points: What sort of condition would a body be in after an aircraft crash in the sea? What were the usual causes of death in such cases? What would a post mortem reveal? Could we get a suitable body — indeed, could we get any body? Such were the first questions to which we would have to get answers. If those were satisfactory the plan was worth studying with care, for we none of us doubted that, given the chance, the Spaniards would play the part for which we had cast them, and then what a chance we would have given ourselves!


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