The officers of HMS Seraph, the submarine selected for the operation, on board in December 1943

Allied intelligence in the Second World War: James Bond and then some

From dead bodies to spies, code-breakers to gadgetry 'Allied intelligence' in the Second World War came in many forms.

Operation Mincemeat was a brilliantly unorthodox example of Allied strategic deception in the Second World War, the purpose of which was to misdirect the attention of the German Armed Forces as to Allied plans to land on the island of Sicily in 1943. 

Anglo-American seapower was so flexible and powerful that the Germans had to face the prospect of landings at almost any point on the coast of their European Empire. That imposed enormous strains on the German Armed Forces. A battalion or a squadron covering a potential landing site in France or the Mediterranean in 1943-44 was not available to help the hard-pressed German armies on the Eastern Front, or to defend the Reich from Allied heavy bombers.

From 1942 onwards the Allies routinely employed strategic misdirection to assist their operations. Operation Mincemeat was unusual in its methods and it would be eclipsed in scale by Operation Fortitude launched in the Spring of 1944 to provide cover for Operation Overlord, the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944.

In this case, the misdirection was achieved by reports from Allied controlled double agents, and by a network of radios belonging to fictitious British and American units in Scotland (Fortitude North) and East Anglia (Fortitude South). 

Collectively they suggested that Norway or the Pas de Calais region in France (anywhere other than Normandy) were the likely sites for the planned Allied landing. 

Strategic deception was, however, only one weapon in the armoury of the Allied intelligence services.

The true spy story that changed the course of the Second World War

Operation Mincemeat was a successful deception operation to support the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. British intelligence obtained the body of Glyndwr Michael, a vagrant who died from eating rat poison, and dressed him as a Royal Marines Officer with personal items identifying him as the fictitious Captain (Acting Major) William Martin. The British dropped the body into the sea off the coast of Spain, in the hope the Spanish would pass on the ‘confidential’ documents in his possession to the Germans.

Sicily was the next Allied target after the end of the campaign in Tunisia. The seizure of Sicily would have secured the sea routes through the Mediterranean, and given the Allies good air fields to attack mainland Italy. However, as it was the obvious next target, the operation's aim was to convince the Germans the real Allied target was Greece, with diversionary attacks into Sardinia and Corsica.

Submarine HMS Seraph
HMS Seraph – a submarine used almost exclusively on intelligence and special operations in WWII, including Operation Mincemeat
Rear Admiral John Godfrey, in whose name the Trout memo was circulated
Rear Admiral John Godfrey, in whose name the Trout memo was circulated
Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu on 17 April 1943, transporting the body to Scotland
Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu transporting the body to Scotland
The pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who assisted with the operation
The pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who assisted with the operation
Photograph of the fictitious girlfriend Pam, carried by Martin
Photograph of the fictitious girlfriend Pam, carried by Martin

The idea behind Operation Mincemeat was taken from the Trout Memo, written in 1939. This document compared the deception of an enemy in wartime with fly fishing and was issued under the name of Admiral John Godfrey, Britain's director of naval intelligence. Although according to the historian Ben Macintyre it carried the hallmarks of having been written by Godfrey's assistant, Ian Fleming.

The memo reads, in part: 

“The Trout Fisher casts patiently all day. He frequently changes his venue and his lures. If he has frightened a fish he may 'give the water a rest for half-an-hour,' but his main endeavour, viz. to attract fish by something he sends out from his boat, is incessant.”

The memo lists 54 ways that the enemy, like trout, may be fooled or lured in.

"Major Martin" ID Card
“Major Martin's” ID card

Codebreaking and a scientific approach

Many will be familiar with the story of Alan Turing and the German Enigma coding system, considered unbreakable by the German Armed Forces until Turing and the codebreakers at Bletchley Park did exactly that. The ability to read the coded messages of the German Armed Forces, despite some delays and periods of blackout, gave Allied Forces a considerable advantage over the Germans. 

According to one distinguished historian breaking the Enigma system may have shortened the war by two years, thereby saving tens of thousands of lives.

Listening in on the German Armed Forces could be done in other forms from picking up Very High Frequency (VHF) radio messages between German ships at sea, and between German night fighter aircraft and their radar handlers on the ground. Such intercepts could give Allied forces real-time intelligence in the middle of operations and facilitate interventions with warnings given to Allied ships and misleading information sent to German pilots.

Science was the basis for other Allied interventions in the field of intelligence. 

High frequency direction finding, by which the source of signals could be triangulated to a particular position between several base stations, and the development of radar in the air and at sea, gave Allied forces an invisible reach in the intelligence war that could be supplemented with high and low altitude aerial reconnaissance missions. During the war Allied photo reconnaissance aircraft took thousands of images to establish the impact of bombing raids, to investigate German programmes such as those that resulted in the V1 and V2 rockets, and to spot enemy tanks massing before an offensive.

Raiding operations to seize enemy technologies, and the capture of documents from prisoners of war, provided a further level of intelligence material. 

Indeed, the British set up a specialist unit, 30 Assault Unit, under the command of Ian Fleming (who would later create the character of James Bond), to target headquarters and potential intelligence sites to recover information that could be of tactical and strategic use. 

Spying and intelligence

Spying represented one of the oldest forms of intelligence gathering, and they were employed to good measure in the Second World War, especially in the form of German agents captured by the British and persuaded to work for the Allies by channelling back misleading information. 
Allied escapers from occupied Europe also brought with them useful information about conditions on the continent and morale. A specialist unit MI9 was set up in 1939 and one of its principal roles was to help Allied personnel escape and to debrief them on their return for the purposes of gathering information. 
Similarly, the interrogation of German prisoners of war and, in some cases, the bugging of the accommodation of high-ranking German officer prisoners, resulted in detailed insights into German units, their commanders, the conduct of the war, existing military and industrial technologies and the introduction of new ones.
Physically derived intelligence from the wrecks of German aircraft shot down over Britain, from material recovered from German ships lost at sea, through to samples of the beaches on which Allied forces were intending to land, proved an invaluable means to understand German capabilities and the challenges of operating in particular areas. 
Lastly, and often ignored in terms of its importance, was open-source intelligence: information which could be derived from material not considered secret. 
Books, including travel guides, newspapers and newsreels were routinely utilised to form background briefing papers (indeed a whole series of books called the Admiralty Geographic Guides) for the benefit of commanders preparing to operate in certain areas. They may not have been at the James Bond level of excitement in terms of intelligence value, but they were never-the-less useful, in helping commanders understand something of the human and physical geography of the battlefields that they would have to operate on.
While history may have singled out particular episodes like Operation Mincemeat, or figures like Alan Turing who played a key role in breaking the Enigma system, in reality 'Allied intelligence' came in many forms resulting in a complex web of information with multiple sources validating or challenging each other to support different aspects of the wider war effort.
Operation Mincemeat – the feature film – is an upcoming British war drama film directed by John Madden and will be released on 15 April 2022. The film is based upon Ben Macintyre's book on Operation Mincemeat and stars Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu.

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