"Operation Mincemeat"



THIS is a tale of the Mediterranean in the middle of those long grim years between the fall of France and the Battle ol El Alamein. At the eastern end of the Mediterranean, the Fleet under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham guarded the Suez Canal. At the western end Force H, under Admiral Sir James Somerville, guarded the Straits of Gibraltar. But all through the central Mediterranean, from Sardinia to Crete, the Italian Fleet and the German and Italian Air Forces had overwhelming superiority of numbers; and they dominated the waters of the Adriatic, the Riviera coast, and the Gulf of Genoa. No British ship, other than a submarine, could enter those waters without being reported from the air. Besides, the tragic attack on the French Fleet at Oran was only a year old, and we knew very little about what was going on in Toulon.

That was how things stood when Admiral Somerville conceived the idea that the fast mine-layer Manxman (she was one of a new class of mine-laying light cruisers, the fastest ships in the world) should disguise herself as a French cruiser, steam openly and alone along the Riviera coast in daylight, dash into the Gulf of Genoa by night, lay a mine field on the very doorstep of the great Italian port of Leghorn, and then somehow find her way back to Gibraltar.

This plan he called “Operation Mincemeat.” I’ve never discovered whether he meant that code name to indicate the intended condition of Italian shipping after the operation, or the certain condition of the mine-layer if this fearsome gamble should not come off.

On the fourteenth of August, 1941, H.M.S. Manxman, which I commanded, was lying in the Kyle of Lochalsh on the northwest coast of Scotland. Rear Admiral Robert Burnett, who commanded the Squadron based there, happened to be on board the ship that morning. We were talking in my cabin when my secretary came in and handed the Admiral a telegram from the Admiralty. This is what it said: “For her next operation it is desired that Manxman should resemble the French cruiser Leopard as far as is reasonably practicable.”

Admiral Burnett had been well known in his earlier years as a producer of naval theatricals, and this sort of thing from the Admiralty tickled his fancy. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know what their Lordships mean by ‘reasonably practicable,’ but I’ll give you just twenty-four hours to be the French cruiser Leopard. You can use the entire resources of this Squadron,” he said, “and of this Base. Do what you like and make any signals you like in my name, but I don’t want to see any of you again today. I’ll come on board you at 11.30 tomorrow morning and I’ll inspect you — as a Frenchman.” With that he departed.

Our only guide was the 1940 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships, and from the photographs there didn’t seem to be any resemblance at all between the Manxman and the Leopard except that they both had three funnels. However, by this time the histrionic talent which I always associate with a Chatham crew was fully aroused. Everyone had ideas, and there was labor in plenty, for we were boarded by 120 extras from the Squadron, each equipped with a paintpot and brush and more ideas.

We began by raking the masts and funnels — not actually, of course, but we gave them that appearance by the use of canvas, 40-foot spars, and black and white paint. Then our flush deck had to be given a false break, the upward trend of our forecastle had to be corrected, and characteristic French funnel tops had to be fashioned out of sheet iron. It would take too long to describe how all this was done in twenty-four hours without structural alteration to the ship, but by dark that night the general opinion was that so far it looked pretty good - from the stalls, so to speak, but less so from the gallery.

At midnight we started to change the shape of our bow and stern. Our stempiece was straight; but a false curved one, which had been made for us by the Base, was sent off in a lighter. It was a grand affair of steel plates, but nothing would induce it to fit properly over the paravane gear. So it was angrily thrown back into the lighter, and instead we made a substitute of shaped canvas, spread on wires between a bowsprit and heel fittings welded each side of the stem at the waterline. We had a false stern too, also of steel plates, but the darned thing fell off the first night out from Gibraltar and had to be replaced by a more durable structure of wood and canvas.

Then there was the little matter of French uniforms. This had not been specified in the Admiralty signal, but it seemed best to go the whole hog. It would have been unfortunate if our French appearance had attracted the close and friendly attention of French aircraft, only to find the upper deck thronged with British sailors. So a hundred uniforms were fabricated, consisting simply of white singlets, painted with blue horizontal stripes, and red bobbins to be pinned on top of blue caps. There were enough for everyone likely to be on the upper deck at any one time.

Punctually at 11.30 next morning the Admiral arrived. “Ah, mon Capitaine,” he said as he came over the side. “Ah, cher Admiral,” I replied, as I embraced him and invited him to inspect the extremely French guard which were fallen in on the quarterdeck. He was satisfied and reported to the Admiralty that their instructions had been complied with.

Then we unrigged the whole thing and laid it inboard. We had to do that, partly because we didn’t want anybody to see the disguise until we had to use it, and partly because it would not have stood up to the Atlantic weather on the passage to Gibraltar.

We left Kyle next day; and after loading mines at Milford Haven, we sailed for Gibraltar on the evening of August 17.

Our object now was to avoid being identified by friend or foe. We made a big detour out into the Atlantic, and whenever we sighted any other ship we altered course to keep our hull down. When we got Admiral Somerville’s outline plan by wireless, we were not surprised to find that his orders to us were to approach the Straits of Gibraltar after dark, and to make false identification signals when we arrived. Gibraltar was always a nest of spies. We were not to enter harbor or have any communications with the shore, but were to fuel from an oiler which had been anchored out in the Bay; and we were to deposit on board her all our secret books and ciphers to avoid the risk of carrying them into dangerous waters. Finally, we were to be away into the Mediterranean and out of sight of land before daylight.

While we were fueling in the darkness of Gibraltar Bay, we read the detailed operation orders which Admiral Somerville had left behind for us in the oiler. He had planned the operation to cover four days — Friday to Tuesday. It was now one o’clock on Friday morning and we were to lay the mine field at Leghorn in the early hours of Sunday morning. Admiral Somerville himself had just left Gibraltar with Force H — the Nelson and Ark Royal, the cruiser Hermione, and the destroyers Nestor, Encounter, Foresight, Fury, and Forester. His intention was to trail his coat to the southward of us and generally do all he could to distract the enemy’s attention from us, while we slipped along the Riviera coast and round the north end of Corsica.


WE SAILED accordingly, and next night, as we passed between the Balearic Islands and Spain, we rigged our French disguise and put on our French uniforms. And at sunrise on Saturday, being then fifty miles northwest of Minorca, we hoisted French colors. There we were, a French cruiser steaming north at moderate speed on the route between Oran and Toulon; correct — or so we hoped — in every detail, from the French pendant at the mainmast head to the washed clothing flapping on the quarterdeck. Even the ship’s cat was dolled up in a neat little tricolor jacket and cockade.

The really tense period of the operation now began. We were trusting entirely to our French disguise, and we were under no illusions about what would happen to us if it failed while we were quite alone up there in the northwestern Mediterranean. But there was no use doing the thing by halves, so it was arranged that if any aircraft — French, German, or Italian — zoomed down close to us we should just wave to them in a friendly way. If a bomb was dropped, the plan was to flash “Attention! Vichy!” on our biggest daylight signaling projector; but if the attack continued, then we should have to hoist the White Ensign and do our stuff.

Whether any of these ruses would have worked, I cannot tell. I was greatly relieved that they were not required. During the whole operation we sighted only two aircraft. The first was a Dornier and the second was probably French. Both passed quite dose, but they evidently took us at our face value; for they paid no attention to us. If either of them had made an enemy report, we should have had a hornet’s nest around us in an hour.

By teatime on Saturday we were within forty miles of Toulon, and the Riviera coast was well in sight, to the northward. So we turned east and steered as if for the French port of Ajaccio in Corsica. Never have I waited so impatiently for the sun to set.

At last, when it was quite dark, we dismantled our false bow, streamed the paravanes, and increased speed to 30 knots. Patches of mist made it difficult to get close round the north end of Corsica; but once east of it the weather cleared, and there was enough diffused starlight to let us see what we were doing all the time we were inshore.

We found the place all right and the lay began at 2.00 A.M. The sky was thickly overcast, but the sea was glassy calm. The blackout on the mainland of Italy was very good, but the land was plainly visible, and once we saw the masked headlights of a motorcar on the coast road just opposite us. It seemed so much closer than it was. The black cloud shadows on the water were disconcerting at times, but were in themselves a protection. In short, conditions were perfect. Once there was an explosion of some kind in the sky above Leghorn, twice flares were dropped over the land, and twice we thought we had been challenged by destroyers. But these alarms came to nothing and we completed the lay at 3.30.

I remember the next three quarters of an hour as being the most trying part of the whole performance, because we had to make our getaway past Gorgona Island, where we suspected the Italians of operating hydrophones. Since it was essential to reduce our propeller noise to the minimum when passing it, the first part of the retreat had to be done at 10 knots — with daylight getting nearer and with all the horsepower of the fastest ship in the Navy waiting to be unleashed.

But at 4.15 we were clear of Gorgona and then we could leap on to full speed. Soon afterwards we sighted three ships in line ahead, but it was easy to avoid them and we had no cause to suppose they had seen us. At daylight we reduced speed to 33 knots, so as to be sure of making no funnel smoke; and an hour later, when we were anxiously searching the sky astern of us, we ran into thick fog. We held that speed of 33 knots right through the fog which enveloped us, on and off, until we were west of Toulon six hours later. That really was the protecting hand of Providence, because fog in that part of the Mediterranean in August is very rare.

We thought, then that all our adventures would be over. But in the afternoon, as we were steaming down the Spanish coast, we sighted on the eastern horizon the masts and funnels of a ship which had every appearance of being a real French cruiser on passage from Oran to Toulon. There was nothing for it but to look the other way and step on the gas.

We had wonderful luck in that operation and we owed much to the diversion caused by Force H, whose aircraft from the Ark Royal made a night incendiary attack on the cork woods at Tempio in Sardinia, just as we were approaching Leghorn. The enemy could have eaten Force H if he had meant business, but he never came west of Sardinia.

That’s the end of the story. We got back to Gibraltar after dark on Monday night, oiled in the Bay as before, picked up our secret books, got clear away into the Atlantic before daylight, and so back to Kyle of Lochalsh. In due course the Admiralty learned that important Italian ships had been sunk in the mine field, but the enemy never knew what hit him.

The following signal was sent by Admiral Somerville to the author on completion of the operation: “Operation successfully completed — there is now enough burnt cork in Sardinia to provide every man in the German Army with a Hitler moustache.”