Deception in the Mediterranean

Following the defeat of the German Afrika Corps the leading Allied powers looked ahead to the invasion of occupied Europe and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the decision was made that the move would be against Italy.  It was hoped that an Allied invasion of Italy would deliver three objectives:  First, to remove the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini from the war: second, to secure the central Mediterranean; and finally, to divert German divisions from the northwest coast of France. 

The assault on Italy provided Allied planners with considerable challenges.  Sicily was the obvious next step following the success of the North African campaign.  However, it was obvious not only to the Allies, but also to the Germans and Italians. 

The Germans had strengthened their forces in Sicily.  German and Italian air bases on the island endangered Mediterranean shipping lanes and threatened any ability that the Allies would have to deploy a large invasion fleet.  The Allies relied heavily on the small island colony of Malta to dominate the shipping lanes from a base for their single-engine fighters.  Control of Sicily by the Axis had almost resulted in the fall of Malta in 1942.  

There were alternatives launch points available to the Allies. Sardinia was also close to the shipping lanes and no further from the Allied bases in Tunisia. An invasion of Sardinia and then Corsica would give the Allies a base for a potential attack straight at Rome, or even further north with immediate access to the south of France. Further east, an invasion of Greece might convince the Turks to enter the war on the Allied side and could allow the Allies to cooperate directly with the Soviets in the Balkans. 

Operation Barclay

In the end, Sicily was selected as the starting point for the liberation of Europe.  However, to accomplish this a credible deception plan was required.  Allied planners came up with a scheme, code named Operation Barclay, based around an implied invasion of the Balkans through Greece that would be carried out by the fictitious British Twelfth Army.  In this scenario, the Turks would join the war and together the British and Turks would advance into Bulgaria and join up with the Soviets. To promote this operation, western Crete would be the focus of the landings.

Sicily, in red, adjacent to Italian mainland and North Africa.

To further influence German and Italian commanders, there would also be a series of diversionary attacks, including raids on the south of France carried out by British and French troops and an invasion of Sardinia and Corsica carried out by US troops.  Some real operations were carried out to support this story.  A number of beach raids were conducted, and calls were put out for Greek translators and French fishermen familiar with the south of France. 

The French supported the deception operation with one of their best double agents, code named ‘Gilbert’, a former Abwehr agent who had volunteered for a ‘stay behind’ mission in North Africa in order to escape from German control. He became operational on 10 June 1943, and successfully convinced the Germans that the invasion fleet was being formed at Bizerte, Tunisia. As a result, the port was bombed by the Germans, leaving the real fleet, 150 km away at Sousse intact. 

However, the Allied planners still needed to convince the Germans that the obvious assault location, Sicily, was not the planned site.  To do this, the planners devised an operation that relied on “the man who never was”.

Operation Mincemeat

The most famous and most incredible deception component of Operation Barclay was Operation Mincemeat.  Operation Mincemeat relied on an intricate plan that saw a dead Welsh vagrant dressed in the uniform of a fictious Royal Marine, Acting Major William Martin.  His body was to be placed in the sea off the Spanish coast to simulate that he had died in a plane crash.  In a briefcase handcuffed to him, he carried persuasive personal items and letters as well as “confidential” documents relating to upcoming plans.  Included was a letter between two British generals that suggested that the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia.  In this plan, assaults on Sicily were merely misdirection.  

“Martin’s” body went ashore and was found by the Spanish.  As anticipated, copies of the documents were passed to the Germans.  These documents helped convince the Germans that the Allies were likely to attack the south of France as a diversion, however the main thrust of the assault would occur in Greece. 

When the operation succeeded, confirmation was sent to British PM Winston Churchill: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”

Interestingly, Op Mincemeat was inspired by the Trout memo.  Written in 1939, the Trout memo compared the deception of an enemy in wartime with fly fishing.  Issued under the name of Admiral John Godfrey, Britain’s director of naval intelligence, it bore the hallmarks of having been written by Godfrey’s assistant, future spy author, Ian Fleming,

The extraordinary events and success of Operation Mincemeat prompted the publication of a book by Ben Macintyre in 2001. A British war drama film directed by John Madden and based upon Ben Macintyre’s book was released in 2021. It was released in Canada and the US on Netflix in 2022.

Op Barclay was successful.  German forces in Sicily were redeployed to the Balkans to increasing their strength from 8 to 18 divisions and the Italian fleet was diverted to the Adriatic Sea.  The Allied invasion of Sicily achieved total surprise.

Honour the Fallen; Help the Living

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