The Jewish Gatsby who hoodwinked Hitler
When the Allies decided to strike at Europe’s “soft underbelly” in Italy toward the end of World War, II British naval intelligence spies devised one of the most extraordinary deceptions since the fall of Troy. The plan was to float a fake but meticulously prepared dead body of an English officer, off the coast of Spain, bearing fake top secret documents showing that the Allies were planning to land not in Sicily – as was their true intention – but in Greece and Sardinia. Ewen Montagu was a key player in the drama.
Montagu was the scion of a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking dynasty. Ben Macintyre, in his book about the British trick, Operation Mincemeat, described his home, a mansion located at 28 Kensington Court in London: “The hall was panelled in old Spanish leather; the ‘small dining room’ seated twenty-four; for larger gatherings there was the Louis XVI drawing room, with silk embroidered chairs, Art Deco moldings, and an exquisite chandelier of unfeasible size.”
Ewen travelled in the United States in a private train. He met titans of industry at the Hamptons, rubbed elbows with powerful politicians in Washington, partied in champagne-drenched private gatherings in Los Angeles and San Francisco, drove fast cars, sailed to tropical paradises and flew airplanes with his friend Howard Hughes. In short, he was a veritable Jewish Gatsby.
His eldest brother, Stuart, could easily have stepped out the pages of Evelyn Waugh as a pompous and pedantic banking aristocrat who in rare moments of absent-mindedness would behave exactly like the British banker in Mary Poppins. His younger brother, Ivor, was the black sheep of the family, a communist spy and ping-pong enthusiast who collected mice. His disastrous bohemian marriage was the talk of London, prompting Queen Mary to commiserate with his mother, Lady Swaythling, in a quaint letter: “Dear Gladys, I feel for you. May.”
Ewen was sailing in Brittany when he heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war. He returned to London and, knowing what would happen to Jews in the event of Nazi invasion, sent his wife and children to America. Then, he volunteered to serve in naval intelligence alongside Cmdr. Ian Fleming, the progenitor of James Bond.
What happened next was a Bond story in and of itself, and a deception worthy of Homer.
The cast of characters assembled for designing and implementing the legerdemain were an unlikely crew. They were a novelist who dreamed the plot; a brilliant barrister, Ewen Montagu, who created the identity for the dead body so meticulously that German intelligence would have been convinced he indeed existed and that he was a high ranking courier entrusted with the most sensitive documents; a family of willing undertakers providing a suitable body and keeping it preserved for the long voyage in a special canister; a forensic pathologist who advised on changes that would happen to the body floating at sea for a number of days; a gold prospector; an inventor; a transvestite English spymaster; a rally driver who drove the body in a canister to the submarine base; and, a dashing submarine captain who sailed with the body.
The stakes were high: if the deception failed, it would have alerted Hitler that the real focus was Sicily, and he would have reinforced the defences and quite possibly succeed in repelling the invasion with incalculable consequences.
But the deception succeed for unforeseen reasons.
In truth, the moment Lt.-col. Alexis Baron von Roenne, chief of German intelligence analysts, whom Hitler trusted implicitly, laid eyes on the file, he knew it was a ruse. But as a secret member of the anti-nazi resistance, a group called the Black Orchestra, he convinced Hitler that the Allies were indeed preparing to land in Sardinia and Greece, not Sicily. Von Roenne, however, would eventually pay with his life. After the success of the operation, he was caught and hung on meat hooks in Hitler’s kingdom of perpetual night.
What happened next was a Bond story … and a deception worthy of Homer.