A Tale of Three Books

by John MacBeath Watkins

In 1950, an author named Duff Cooper wrote a spy novel titled Operation Heartbeat. While it was greeted with a yawn in the literary world, in some circles it caused quite a stir. The echoes of that book are still reverberating.

Cooper had invented a plot device he thought rather ingenious, in which the British plant a body with certain documents on it that they want the Germans to find, and the Germans are taken in. What he didn't know was that this had actually happened. In 1943, a Spanish fisherman found a badly decomposing body dressed as a British officer floating off southwestern Spain. On that body was a courier case containing documents relating to where the Allied landing in southern Europe would be (Sardinia and Greece, rather than Sicily, where the actual landing took place.) The Spanish authorities offered to turn over the document case to the English vice-consul, who declined, saying the matter should go through the usual channels. There followed frantic cable from England, and efforts to get the documents back, but by this time, pro-German Spanish officers had copied the documents and sent them to Germany, causing the Axis to make the wrong decisions about troop deployment.

People who had been involved in the actual incident started to talk after Cooper's book came out. British intelligence was unable to conceal the operation any longer, and decided the best course to steer the narrative about its actions was to write their own book.

Ewan Montague, who had led the real operation (Operation Mincemeat) took a weekend off from his legal practice and wrote a slender volume describing the incident, and in the process making British Intelligence look like geniuses. The book, The Man Who Never Was, became a bestseller, which I read and enjoyed some years ago. A film made from it two years after the book was published partially fictionalized the incident, but maintained the narrative that Montague started.

Now a third book has come along, Operation Mincemeat, by Ben MacIntyre. This gives us some of the detail Montague left out. Major Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, head of German intelligence in Madrid, habitually exaggerated the importance of the intelligence he gathered, sometimes making stuff up to make it seem better. This may have had something to do with the fact that he was part Jewish, and was desperate to keep from being posted in Germany.

Not to worry, the Germans had a backup. An analyst named Alexis Baron von Roenne vetted the documents and pronounced them to be authentic. MacIntyre reports that von Roenne may not have believed the documents were authentic, and in fact seems to have done all he could to sabotage Hitler, who he despised.

This ties in with my theory that the more secret an organization is, the more incompetence it can conceal (for more on that, see Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner.) It also reveals what economists call the agency problem: Those who you commission to act as your agents often act instead on their own interest.

For the reader, there is a different agency problem. The Man Who Never Was, while a delightful read, left out the fact that the success of the operation owed much to the fact that intelligence services often don't work very well. Perhaps that was the part of the narrative British Intelligence was trying to control. After all, Ewan Montague's brother Ivor was acting as a spy for the Soviets during World War II.