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An 80-year-old deception operation has lessons for today
Eighty years ago, a dead British naval officer named Bill Martin washed up on a Spanish beach. He was a landing craft expert with a fiancée named Pam. They’d gone to the theater in London a few days before his plane crashed in the Atlantic with no survivors.
Based on the letters in a briefcase tethered to his waist, Martin had been carrying secret orders to a British general in North Africa.
The letters wound up in the hands of supposedly neutral Spanish authorities who shared them with representatives of Hitler’s Nazi government. Photographs of the letters were rushed to Berlin.
In this way, Hitler learned that the Allies planned to attack via Greece and the Balkans, with a false feint at Sicily and a minor diversion in Sardinia. Reports from other sources soon trickled in, verifying the Allied plan for Greece.
In response, Hitler fortified forces there rather than Sicily.
Bill Martin never existed.
He wasn’t a naval officer. He didn’t have a fiancée named Pam. He never went to the theater in London.
The body that washed ashore in Spain with top secret information was the product of Operation Mincemeat, an intelligence operation designed to trick Germany into diverting military forces away from Sicily before the Allied invasion of the Italian island in July 1943.
The ruse worked.
Thousands of lives were saved when US and UK forces landed on the beaches of the Mediterranean island. Although the remaining German troops fought hard, the Allies successfully took Sicily and drove north up the boot of Italy. The Germans conducted a running retreat but the Italian army collapsed, taking Mussolini and the Pact of Steel between Rome and Berlin with it.
The body that became Bill Martin was that of Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh vagrant who’d died of accidental phosphorus poisoning. Michael’s body was preserved in a morgue, then dressed in a naval uniform, carried in a special capsule aboard a British submarine, and deposited on the Spanish coast at Huelva.
It was a daring and tricky concept that took months of painstaking research and preparation. The questions the planners faced were daunting.
For example, what if a good Spanish pathologist correctly determined the body had been dead for far longer than the date on the theater ticket stub? What if the operation was leaked and Hitler knew to expect a ruse? What if German spies inside Britain discovered that Bill Martin was a fake? If the letters were labelled as fake because London didn’t seem worried they were missing?
And so on.
How did they carry off such a stunning deception?
Attention to detail
Knowing that the Germans had eyes everywhere, Operation Mincemeat planners created and backstopped Bill Martin’s entire life. From birth certificate to Pam’s engagement ring, every detail had to hold up to the most diligent scrutiny. It was the ultimate CYA effort.
One unsupported fact and everything about Bill Martin, including the letters, would be suspect.
The more a lie is repeated by trusted voices, the more believable it becomes.
A key British double agent known as Agent Garbo was highly regarded by Berlin. Planners there thought he was running a network in spies inside England but each spy was a complete fiction; another amazing World War II deception.
His British handler instructed Garbo to inform his German handler that a plane with an important courier had gone down and that London was panicking. Garbo’s authoritative voice created a self-reinforcing echo chamber that “verified” the fake battle plan.
Know your audience
Thanks to ULTRA intercepts of German communications, the British had a significant amount of information on both Spanish and German officials in Spain. In part, this prompted the port of Huelva to be the drop zone, because the German representative there could be counted upon to take prompt action.
Bill Martin’s details could be primed to cater to these officials. For example, the names dropped in the letters had to be recognized in Berlin.
From Spain’s rocky status as a neutral, to the German High Command’s reluctance to challenge Hitler’s war planning, it was essential to understand how different actors would perceive the situation and cater to their motivations.
The lesson for us
Besides being a brilliant World War II deception that saved lives, Operation Mincemeat, is a universal lesson in what makes deception “stick.”
This includes getting the details right, reinforcing the lie with authoritative voices, and catering to the intended recipient’s weaknesses, vanities, vulnerabilities, beliefs and habits.
As in Operation Mincemeat, deception is often intended to make you take action.
Look around. These “best practices” in fomenting and perpetuating deception are still in use today.
This post is the first in my new #deception101 series in which I take a 360 look at deception, from the perspective of being both a mystery author a an ex-CIA intel officer.
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For more, get OPERATION MINCEMEAT by Ben Macintyre