Ian Garrick-Mason

The posthumous patriot

In the spring of 1943, Allied armies in North Africa prepared to attack the Axis powers on the continent of Europe. Dominating the central Mediterranean, Sicily was the obvious first target, and it was clear the German High Command would heavily reinforce the island. To counter this, British naval intelligence concocted a bold disinformation operation aimed at fooling the Germans into thinking the Allies’ real targets were Greece and Sardinia. Taking advantage of the well-known links between Franco’s government in Spain and Nazi Germany, the Navy dressed a cadaver in the uniform of a Royal Marine officer and set it afloat near Huelva, its hands clutching a briefcase containing General Staff letters that referred to upcoming operations in both the eastern and western Medit- erranean.

The plan worked astoundingly well. Spanish fishermen found the body and its briefcase, and gave them to the army; the letters were copied and passed to German military intelligence, who soon pronounced them ‘above suspicion’. Almost immediately, German units began to reinforce Sardinia, and an entire Panzer division was transported from France to Greece. Sicily’s defences were weakened, and the subsequent Allied invasion of Sicily succeeded at a cost in lives much lower than would otherwise have been the case. Rarely have so many owed so much to one corpse.

Despite the utter secrecy of the operation, its success soon made it famous, and it was inevitable that someone would turn it into a book. That person was former First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper, who in 1950 wrote a novel called Operation Heartbreak. Though he made no attempt to recount the details of the operation itself, Attlee’s government put pressure on Cooper to desist. When he didn’t, the government ordered Ewen Montagu, the former head of the operation, to write the official account.

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