In January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that after the successful North Africa campaign, the next target would be Sicily. The island was the logical place from which to deliver the gut punch into what Churchill famously called the soft “underbelly of the Axis”. But if the strategic importance of Sicily was clear to the Allies, it was surely equally obvious to Italy and Germany. Churchill was blunt about the choice of target: “Everyone but a bloody fool would know it was Sicily.” This presented the intelligence chiefs with a conundrum: how to convince the enemy that the Allies were not going to do what anyone with an atlas could see they ought to do.
The result was “Operation Barclay”, a complex, many-layered deception plan to convince the Axis powers that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allies intended to invade Greece in the east, and the island of Sardinia, followed by southern France, in the west. The deception swung into action on a range of fronts, and Montagu and Cholmondeley went looking for a corpse.
The Second World War may have been responsible for the deaths of more people than any conflict in history, yet dead bodies of the right sort were surprisingly hard to find. What was needed was a discreet and helpful individual with legal access to plenty of fresh corpses.
Montagu knew just such a person: the coroner of St Pancras, who went by the delightfully Dickensian name of Bentley Purchase. For a man who spent his life with the dead, Purchase was the life and soul of every occasion. He found death not only fascinating, but extremely funny. When Montagu dropped him a note asking if they might meet to discuss a confidential matter, Purchase replied with directions, and a typically jovial postscript: “An alternative means of getting here is, of course, to get run over.”
Operation Mincemeatis a new book on a little known (i.e. I didn't know about it!) WWII incident, featuring a dead body with an assumed identity, deception, and even Ian Fleming himself as the inspiration behind it all (007 would be jealous). The extracts are from the Guardian (part 1, part 2).