Operation Mincemeat images sourced from Wikimedia Commons
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.
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.
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.
Lastly, and often ignored in terms of its importance, was open-source intelligence: information which could be derived from material not considered secret.
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