The Jewish Gatsby who hood­winked Hitler

Back­story

The Canadian Jewish News (Montreal) - - Parshah - EROL ARAF

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.

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