One thing seemed to me to be crystal clear: if the purpose of this document was to deceive the Germans so that they would act upon it, then it had to be on a really high level; no indiscretion or "leak" from an officer of normal rank would do. Even a security lapse from one brigadier, air commodore or rear-admiral to another would not be weighty enough.
If the German General Staff was to be persuaded, in face of all probabilities, to bank on our next target being somewhere other than Sicily, it would have to have before it a document which was passing between officers who must know what our real plans were, who could not possibly be mistaken and who could not themselves be the victims of a cover plan. If the operation was to be worthwhile, I had to have a document written by someone, and to someone, whom the Germans knew — and whom they knew to be "right in the know."
So I put up the proposal that General Sir Archibald p44 Nye, the Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, should write the letter — and that he should write it to General Alexander (who commanded an army in Tunisia, under General Eisenhower) at 18th Army Group Headquarters. The letter should be of what we junior officers called "the old boy type"; it should be on the lines of "Look here, old chap, I want you to understand that we realise your problems, but we have our difficulties too. The C. I. G. S.1 has had to turn down some of your requests, although you're pressing for them. There really are reasons why you can't have what you want just now, and here they are. . . ." and so on: the sort of friendly letter than can't be put into an official communication. That sort of letter, and that sort of letter only, could convey convincingly to the Germans the indication that our next target was not Sicily, and yet could be found in the possession of an officer and not in a bag full of the usual official documents going from home to our army abroad.
I was aiming high — and I had to. I expected something of an explosion — and I got it! For many of even the most able and efficient people failed to appreciate what was wanted for this sort of job; for to realise that needed a particular sort of approach and a peculiar sort of mind that could look at the same puzzle from several different angles at the same time.
p45 You are a British Intelligence officer; you have an opposite number in the enemy Intelligence, say (as in the last war), in Berlin; and above him is the German Operational Command. What you, a Briton with a British background, think can be deduced from a document does not matter. It is what your opposite number, with his German knowledge and background, will think that matters — what construction he will put on the document. Therefore, if you want him to think such-and‑such a thing, you must give him something which will make him (and not you) think it. But he may be suspicious and want confirmation; you must think out what enquiries will he make (not what enquiries would you make) and give him the answers to those enquiries so as to satisfy him. In other words, you must remember that a German does not think and react as an Englishman does, and you must put yourself into his mind.
But you must not forget the Operational Staff to whom he reports and whom he has to convince if you are to succeed in your plot. The German Operational Staff does not know all the Allied difficulties — for example, how short you are of, say, landing-craft — and they may be prepared to believe that an operation is possible which your own Operational Staff know is not on the cards at all; you have to remember that your plan has to deceive them, and not your own Staff. But it is not p46 everyone who can remember, and apply, those considerations.
And so we ran into difficulties. But before I record them I should say a word or two about "cover targets" and "cover plans." If you are to prevent there being a concentration at your target ready to meet your landing you must try to draw the enemy's defensive effort and forces elsewhere; if possible, he should be convinced that you won't attack your real target, but will attack somewhere else — that you will attack what we called the "cover target." As I have already mentioned, it is usually certain that there will be some leakage that an operation is intended, and the security measures designed to prevent such leakage giving away the real target may sometimes be adapted to fulfil a second purpose also — to help put over the cover target. For instance, if any leakage did occur about the operation which I have instanced against the Lofoten Islands and if sun helmets had been issued, the leakage might be such that the enemy would deduce that the target was somewhere tropical. If the ships which were to transport the troops received charts or other information which indicated the chosen cover target (let us say Dakar), the various leaks which reached the Germans from those and other factors might well be added together by the German Intelligence Service to make the picture that you wanted them to have.
The best possible cover target would be one so far p47 away from the real one that any sea, air or land defences that the enemy might prepare would be well clear of the real target. To give an exaggerated example: if you were going to invade North Africa and could persuade the enemy that you were going into Norway (oh, what a happy dream!), any extra defences that he put into Norway could not possibly interfere with your real operation.
But in actual war the cover target may have to be in the same general area as the real target, and then it is impossible to divert the whole of the enemy's defences. For instance, if at the time of our North Africa landings in 1942 we had put over a cover target of a landing in Rommel's rear at, say, Tobruk — and if we had succeeded in convincing the Germans — we might have succeeded in diverting some military forces and perhaps the Luftwaffe to that area, but the U‑boats would have been drawn to the Straits of Gibraltar through which the real convoys would have to pass for the genuine operation. Often, therefore, it is the case of a compromise between what would be a perfect cover target and what it is possible to get the enemy to believe.
When we came to relate this theory to the particular problem which faced our Intelligence team, our task was to try to convince the Germans that we were not going to attack Sicily — the target which must have been obvious to them — and to persuade them to move their p48 forces elsewhere and to use up time and effort in strengthening the defences of other places.
Looking at the stillness from the Allied angle, we had an army under General Eisenhower based on French North Africa at the western end of the Mediterranean and another army under Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson based on Egypt, together holding the whole North African coast. We knew that it was intended that both these great forces should be used for a single operation. There were many reasons for this decision which it would take too long to detail here, but I can summarize them in brief by saying that an assault on the defended coast of Sicily, followed by an advance up the peninsula of Italy, would need all the forces that we had available. Apart from the actual troops and aircraft engaged, there was a considerable shortage of landing-craft and the task of providing the shipping and escorts necessary to supply and maintain the campaign would preclude the conduct of two campaigns at once.
When we looked at the same problem from the German viewpoint, the picture was somewhat different. So far as they knew, the Allies could use General Eisenhower's army in the western Mediterranean to attack the South of France, although this would probably necessitate the reduction of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, and would be a risky operation with Italy as an unconquered base for counterattacks on the flank of our supply p49 lines. Equally, the same army or the army based in Egypt could be used for an attack on Italy, although, if the western army was to be used for this purpose, it would almost certainly necessitate the conquest of Sicily as a first step. Finally the eastern army could be used for an invasion of Greece and an advance through the Balkans.
There was no reason to believe that the Germans knew of our shortage of landing-craft, and it was quite plausible that they could be led to believe that we were going to mount two operations, one in the western Mediterranean with General Eisenhower's army and one in the eastern Mediterranean with Sir Henry Wilson's army.
When our team considered the deception that we wanted to convey by "Operation Mincemeat," we reasoned as follows: as the Allies had most of their forces in Tunisia, it was hopeless to try to persuade the Germans that we would take our convoys from there through the narrows past their airfields in Sicily. Therefore, any cover target would have to be somewhere west of Italy if the Germans were to believe that it represented the operation in which these troops were involved. Sardinia had already been chosen as the official cover target so as to pretend that we were going to by‑pass Sicily and take Sardinia and Corsica, thus opening the whole of the coast of Italy and southern France to attack.
p50 But it seemed to me that, as we would not have to rely on a series of leaks which might or might not reach the Germans, but could use a single document, there could be a second string to our bow. I felt that we could probably convince the Germans that Sir Henry Wilson's army under General Montgomery was not going to take part in the same operation as General Eisenhower's, and that it was going to conduct an invasion of Greece and an advance up the Balkans. There did not seem to be any reason why they should not be led to believe in a double operation with an assault at each end of the Mediterranean, and if we could succeed in convincing them of this we could get a much wider dispersal of their forces than if we based our deception only on the "official" cover target of Sardinia.
I therefore proposed that the letter to General Alexander should reveal that there were to be two operations: his, under General Eisenhower's command, against Sardinia and perhaps Corsica, with another under Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson against Greece. I suggested also that the letter should reveal that we were going to try to convince the Germans that we were going to invade Sicily! It seemed to me that the beauty of this was that if there were any actual leakage of our real plans, the Germans would think that what was in fact a leakage was only part of the cover that they had read about in the letter. If they swallowed our deception — that one letter — they would disbelieve p51 any genuine information that might leak through.
So the proposal was put up to the Chiefs of Staff — and then the trouble started! Not many people saw the proposal, for the "usual channels" were by‑passed; but even then, as the plan and the rough draft of the document went up and down to the Chiefs of Staff and back again, everyone who felt himself to be an expert, and to know the German mind, had bright ideas. It was too dangerous, they said, to try for high stakes, and the letter should be a low‑level one, merely putting over a false date; we would never get the Germans to swallow the story and we would be bound to pinpoint Sicily; we must not mention Sardinia as the supposed real target, as, if the Germans saw through the deception, that would pinpoint Sicily.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the whole operation was to persuade our masters that this was an opportunity that would never recur, and that if we were to achieve a real success we must aim high. I have little doubt, as I look back, that to deceive the German High Command was nothing like as difficult as it was to persuade their British opposite numbers that we could do that.
Fortunately, after a while, Sir Archibald Nye himself got really intrigued; he tried a letter, based on my draft, which he suggested might do. It had to be p52 pointed out that although it indicated the cover targets in just the right sort of way, it would be wholly unconvincing; it was the sort of straightforward letter which could and would go in an official bag and would never be given to an officer to carry in his pocket. This was a challenge to which Sir Archibald rose wonderfully, and he produced a truly magnificent letter. To help the deception, in case the Germans heard of "Husky" (the real code name for the invasion of Sicily), he used that as the code name for the eastern operations against Greece, and used "Brimstone," a fake code name, for the western operation against Sardinia. His draft ran as follows:
Telephone: Whitehall 9400.
Chief of the Imperial
April 23rd, 1943.
Personal and Most Secret
My dear Alex,
I am taking advantage of sending you a personal letter by hand of one of Mountbatten's officers, to give you the inside history of our recent exchange of cables about Mediterranean operations and their attendant cover plans. You may have felt our decisions were somewhat arbitrary, but I can assure you in fact that the C. O. S. Committee2 gave the most careful consideration both to your recommendation and also to Jumbo's.3
p53 We have had recent information that the Boche have been reinforcing and strengthening their defences in Greece and Crete and C. I. G. S. felt that our forces for the assault were insufficient. It was agreed by the Chiefs of Staff that the 5th Division should be reinforced by one Brigade Group for the assault on the beach south of Cape Araxos and that a similar reinforcement should be made for the 56th Division at Kalamata. We are earmarking the necessary forces and shipping.
Jumbo Wilson had proposed to select Sicily as cover target for "Husky"; but we have already chosen it as cover for operation "Brimstone." The C. O. S. Committee went into the whole question exhaustively again and came to the conclusion that in view of the preparations in Algeria, the amphibious training which will be taking place on the Tunisian coast and the heavy air bombardment which will be put down to neutralise the Sicilian airfields, we should stick to our plan of making it cover for "Brimstone" — indeed, we stand a very good chance of making him think we will go for Sicily — it is an obvious objective and one about which he must be nervous. On the other hand, they felt there wasn't much hope of persuading the Boche that the extensive preparations in the Eastern Mediterranean were also directed at Sicily. For this reason they have told Wilson his cover plan should be something nearer the spot, e.g. the Dodecanese. Since our relations with Turkey are now so obviously closer the Italians must be pretty apprehensive about these islands.
I imagine you will agree with these arguments. I know you will have your hands more than full at the moment and you haven't much chance of discussing future operations with Eisenhower. p54 But if by any chance you do want to support Wilson's proposal, I hope you will let us know soon, because we can't delay much longer.
I am very sorry we weren't able to meet your wishes about the new commander of the Guards Brigade. Your own nominee was down with a bad attack of 'flu and not likely to be really fit for another few weeks. No doubt, however, you know Forster personally; he has done extremely well in command of a brigade at home, and is, I think, the best fellow available.
You must be about as fed up as we are with the whole question of war medals and 'Purple Hearts'. We all agree with you that we don't want to offend our American friends, but there is a good deal more to it than that. If our troops who happen to be serving in one particular theatre are to get extra decorations merely because the Americans happen to be serving there too, we will be faced with a good deal of discontent among those troops fighting elsewhere perhaps just as bitterly — or more so. My own feeling is that we should thank the Americans for their kind offer, but say firmly it would cause too many anomalies and we are sorry we can't accept. But it is on the agenda for the next Military Members Meeting and I hope you will have a decision very soon.
Best of luck.
General the Hon. Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander,
G. C. B., C. S. I., D. S. O., M. C.,
18th Army Group.
Parts of the letter
Nothing could have been better; it carried out the scheme put up to him in a way that only someone who p55 was himself fully in the picture of the personal relationships among high officers could have devised. Quite by inference, and so accidentally as to prevent the Germans thinking it a plant, it makes it clear that there will be an eastern Mediterranean operation with a landing in Greece, and it also makes it clear that we want the Germans to think that the western Mediterranean operation will be in Sicily (so that obviously can't be the real target); it does all that in an "off the record" atmosphere which, together with the very personal matters in the rest of the letter, makes it natural that it should not go through an official channel.
I had only two regrets. The first was that, knowing my Germans, I wanted to make certain that they had an absolutely definite target on which to fix as our western objective; but the Chiefs of Staff refused to sanction any mention of Sardinia in the letter; they thought that it would pinpoint Sicily too clearly if the Germans saw through our operation. However, after the Prime Minister's completely realistic appreciation of the situation, which I have already mentioned, I managed to get a joking reference to Sardinia inserted into another letter that we eventually drafted for Lord Louis Mountbatten to sign — and that, as will be seen, was of considerable value.
My second regret was less serious. I had wanted to include in the letter something which would appeal to mind of the German reader as being consistent p56 with thoughts that he already had. I felt that the average mind is readier to believe in the accuracy of a document if some part of it contains what he already knows. I had thought that the best way of getting an innocuous reference of this kind into the letter was to suggest a leg‑pull of General Montgomery which might well coincide with the rather heavy-footed German humour. I therefore suggested that Sir should ask General Alexander, "What's gone wrong with Monty? He hasn't issued an Order of the Day for at least a week." Not long before this time General Montgomery had been issuing a number of Orders of the Day to encourage the troops, and a certain amount of ribaldry had resulted in various quarters. However, for some reason that I have never wholly fathomed, the Chiefs of Staff firmly banned my joke. I admit that it was a poor one, and its loss was not important, although I felt sure that the Germans would study and appreciate any joke of that kind.
Sir Archibald's letter was typed on his notepaper, addressed "My Dear Alex" and signed by him, and then enclosed and sealed in the usual double envelopes. The vital document was ready, and it was a pleasing touch that it happened to bear the date of St. George's Day.
1 Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
2 Chiefs of Staff Committee.
3 Nickname of Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, Commander-in‑Chief, Middle East.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
Many thanks to my friend
The Man Who Never Was
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 27 May 19