This Day in Jewish History

1901: Mastermind Behind One of the Greatest Wartime Deceptions Born

Ewen Montagu devised Operation Mincemeat, which tricked the Germans into believing that allied troops would be launching an invasion of southern Europe from Sardinia, not Sicily.

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March 19, 1901, is the birthdate of Ewen Montagu, the Jewish-English barrister and judge, and the naval intelligence officer who masterminded Operation Mincemeat, one of the great military deceptions of World War II.

Ewen Edward Samuel Montagu was the second son of Louis Montagu, the 2nd Baron Swaythling, and the former Gladys Helen Rachel Goldsmid. Louis Montagu was a merchant banker and nonobservant Jew whose anti-Zionist sentiments were inherited by his second son.

Ewen, born in London, was educated at Westminster public school and spent a year at Harvard University before attending Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied economics and law. He and his brother Ivor – attending university at the same time – helped to invent the rules of table tennis and established a cheese-eaters club (“Our great ambition was to get whale’s milk cheese,” Ewen wrote).

Ivor, a committed Communist, later served as a Soviet agent during World War II, something his spymaster brother was unaware of. In 1923, Montagu married Iris Solomon, daughter of the painter Solomon Joseph Solomon, and in 1924 was certified as an attorney.

Anticipating war, and wanting to serve, Montagu – an experienced yachtsman – enlisted with the naval reserve in 1938. The next year he became a kings counselor, shortly before being called up; it was not long before he was assigned to the naval intelligence base in Hull (in northeastern England).

Imaginative and skilled from his years as a criminal attorney in strategy and psychological brinkmanship, Montagu was a natural for counterintelligence work. Operation Mincemeat, which he devised together with Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumly”) in 1943 – and based on an idea proposed by another creative spy named Ian Fleming – involved convincing the Germans that a widely anticipated Allied invasion of southern Europe (Operation Husky) would begin with an attack on Sardinia and Greece, rather than Sicily, the natural target.

To accomplish the subterfuge, the British dropped at sea a body outfitted with “top secret” papers outlining the plan of attack. The body was dressed in the uniform of a British airman, and carried various other papers that identified it as one “Maj. William Martin,” a made-up character for which Montagu and colleagues created a virtual life (this included having an MI5 secretary, Jean Leslie, posing in a bathing suit for a photo as Martin’s girlfriend, “Pam”).

“Maj. Martin’s” body was placed so it would wash up in April 1943 onto the shores of neutral Spain, where the British consul in Madrid made an effort to recover the documents before German agents got to them. Those efforts, of course, failed. The intelligence gleaned from the papers reached the desk of Adolf Hitler, who, though initially dubious, was finally convinced that the Allies planned to attack the Italian island of Sardinia.

On July 9 the Allies invaded Sicily, to the surprise of the Germans. Montagu later wrote that this constituted the “Joy of joys to anyone, and particularly a Jew, the satisfaction of knowing that they had directly and specifically fooled that monster.”

After the war, Montagu become the judge advocate of the navy (in charge of court martials), as well as a civilian judge in Hampshire and Middlesex. He also wrote a popular account of Operation Mincemeat in 1953, called “The Man Who Never Was.” It was made into a movie in 1956, in which Montagu himself had a small cameo role alongside Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame.

Montagu also was active in the Jewish Fellowship (an anti-Zionist organization) until 1948, when he accepted the establishment of the State of Israel, and he served from 1954 to 1962 as president of the United Synagogue, the organization of the U.K.’s Orthodox congregations. Montagu, who was completely secular in practice, resigned after the chief rabbi, Israel Brodie, refused the right of Rabbi Louis Jacobs to hold the pulpit at a London synagogue because Jacobs had expressed some theological opinions that did not reflect the fundamentalist standards of Brodie.

Montagu was, by all accounts, a loyal, good-humored man whose straight talk – particularly as a judge – sometimes offended people, but he was always quick to apologize. He died on July 19, 1985.

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