1943: A Time For Spies

May was flush with the most colorfully camouflaged spy networks in every government, and the Allied bombing of Sicily and Sardinia on May 19 and 20, as prelude to the invasion of Italy, punctuated one of the most celebrated espionage tricks of the war: Operation Mincemeat. As the brainchild of Admiral John Godfrey, director of British naval intelligence, it arranged for a corpse dressed as an airman and laden with bogus documents to be washed ashore in Spain. There followed an almost comic contest between Spanish naval officials and the German Abwehr in Madrid, teased along by the British consul. Intelligence agents working from London included Ewen Montagu, a barrister and son of the immensely wealthy Jewish peer Lord Louis Montagu and a benignly eccentric Oxford geographer; Charles Cholmondeley; and Commander Ian Fleming, codename 17F. After the war, Admiral Godfrey devoted himself to charities and founded the Chelsea Centre for Spastic Children, while muttering that Fleming had used him as the model for James Bond’s “unsavoury” superior “M” in the novels.

Copies of the forged documents eventually came to the desk of Hitler himself, whose skepticism was conquered by assurances of their authenticity by his intelligence advisor, Baron Alexis von Roenne. The aristocratic wounded war hero of the First World War was a devout Catholic, appalled at the invasion of Poland, and was in fact a counterspy by his own devices. The German decision a year later to expect an Allied invasion at Calais was also based on von Roenne’s disinformation. As a friend of the conspirator Claus von Stauffenberg, von Roenne was one of those left to die slowly on meat hooks in Berlin-Plotzensee Prison in 1944, all filmed for the Führer’s viewing delectation. His last letter to his wife read: “In a moment now I shall be going home to our Lord in complete calm and in the certainty of salvation.”

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There was muffled jubilation in the war intelligence rooms of London when intercepted dispatches showed that the hoax had succeeded: The Germans had decided that the Allies indeed were aiming for Sardinia and Greece in the Peloponnese rather than Sicily. Churchill, still in Washington on the code-named “Trident” conference, enjoyed the deception. Mussolini was suspicious, and so was Goebbels, but Hitler was persuaded and the Duce changed his own mind by May 20. He stepped up anti-Anglo Saxon propaganda, accusing the Allies of hiding anti-personnel devices in children’s chocolates and women’s cosmetics.

Having been made commander in chief of the German navy the previous January, Admiral Karl Donitz began a recall of U-boats in the Atlantic on May 24 because of heavy losses, his own son having died on one five days earlier. He too had been persuaded by Operation Mincemeat. Hitler trusted him and would in fact designate him his heir just before shooting himself. The foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was certain that the Allies intended to invade the Balkans by way of Greece, having been told so by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, the main security office cobbled together by Himmler when he combined the Security Service and the Gestapo.


Lord Robert Vansittart — the retired former chief diplomat advisor to the British government, though a member of the Privy Council since 1940 — had been Churchillian in his opposition to appeasement. His memoirs, Lessons of My Life, were being read widely in May. While respecting the anti-Nazism of Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber, he was of the opinion that Faulhaber’s predecessor, Franziskus Cardinal von Bettinger, had favored unrestricted submarine warfare, setting a precedent for the Nazis. One reviewer pointed out that the case was the opposite: The cardinal had persuaded the king of Bavaria to join the Emperor (and future Blessed) Karl of Austria and Pope Benedict XV in a protest to the Kaiser against such use of submarines. In the 1920s, Cardinal Faulhaber belonged to the International Catholic League against Antisemitism and Racism (Amici Israel) and helped write the German text of Pius XI’s encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, with its prescient warning about Nazi racial theories. In 1938 on Kristalnacht, Cardinal Faulhaber had lent a truck to the chief rabbi of Munich to help salvage objects from his synagogue. When the war was over, on a pleasant June day in 1951, in the cathedral of Freising, Cardinal Faulhaber ordained Joseph Ratzinger to the priesthood.

Reipublicae Christianae hostium orientali internece et clade Africana laetam in spem…” was some of the ornate Latinity inscribed on the paschal candle in the cathedral of Malines, rejoicing that, in the 1,943rd year of the Incarnation, in the reign of Pope Pius XII and the episcopate of Jozef-Ernest Cardinal van Roey, and in the reign of Leopold III, the Nazi and Communist enemies of Christianity were destroying each other in the East, and the African campaign was a sign of hope. Cardinal van Roey had revived an old custom of recording on the Easter candle the recent blessings of God. By May the Nazi papers quivered with rage, and in Ghent the Vooruit accused the cardinal of making common cause with Freemasonry and rejoicing in the “African disaster” and the death of troops along the Eastern front. “We will not tolerate this any longer. We are sick of the political wailings of the Cardinal and his clergy.”

In the same days, the Office of War Information in Washington published a summary of the petition from the German Catholic bishop to the Reich minister for Church affairs, the education minister, and the Church of the Reich chancellery, sent just before Christmas. In the name of all the German bishops, Adolf Cardinal Bertram, Archbishop of Breslau, protested against “measures of officials of the [Nazi] party and Government that are directed against the Church and against Christianity” and “violations of the free practice of the religion of Catholic Christians in the territories that recently have come to Germany.” These territories included Alsace-Lorraine, Luxembourg, Poland, and Yugoslavia. The bishops listed the expulsion of priests to concentration camps, dissolution of church organizations, confiscation of property, and the closing of monasteries. There was no official response, but Nazi authorities at Baden announced that the property of the St. Vincent de Paul Society “is to be confiscated, as the activities of this association are hostile to the people and the State.”

In reaction to the formation of the compulsory National-Socialist medical organization, “The Physicians Chamber,” 97 percent of the doctors in the Netherlands refused to join, according to the Svenska Dagbladet. The Nazis had tried to force enrollment by deducting a membership fee from the salaries paid by the State. The physicians went on strike, even removing the brass name plates from their offices. Soon the government capitulated. The two principle centers of Catholic education in Holland, Nijmegen University and Tilburg Commercial High School, were closed when students refused to sign a “declaration of loyalty” to the German Reich and military.

The Vatican Radio on May 12 broadcast a message to German listeners telling of the forced registration of Jews in Croatia and the subsequent protest in Zagreb by Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac against Dr. Ante Pavelić, the Poglavnik, or head, of the Croatian puppet state and of the Fascist party, the Ustase. The following Sunday, the archbishop preached: “No worldly power, no political organization, has the right to persecute a man on account of the race to which he belongs. Christian bishops oppose this, and will fight against such persecutions.”

Within a week, the official order for Jewish registration was rescinded, but it is estimated that during the course of the war, Croatia had the highest rate of genocide in proportion to population, of any European country: more than 200,000 Serbs, nearly 30,000 Jews, 26,000 Gypsies — including elderly men, women, and children — many hacked to death or burned alive. The Ustase were excessive even for the Nazi bestiary, and German General Edmund von Glaise-Horstenau wrote in a dispatch that they had “gone mad.” After the war, using forged credentials, Pavelić was hid by Jesuits in a monastery near Naples and fled to Argentina in 1948. Under a pseudonym, he became a security advisor to Juan Peron. In 1957 he was shot — the work of Yugoslavian intelligence — but he survived and was granted exile in Spain, where he died in 1959.


The Court Circular announced in London on May 14 that Francis D’Arcy Godolphin Osborne, as British minister to the Holy See, had been received by King George VI who conferred upon him a knighthood, the insignia of Knight Commander of St. Michael and St. George. Recently found correspondence documents that on November 7, 1944, Osborne had notified Franklin C. Gowen, an assistant to his U.S. counterpart at the Holy See, Myron Taylor, that the pope should be dissuaded from making what D’Arcy feared would be a radio appeal on behalf of the Jews in Hungary. It would have “very serious political repercussions,” as it would anger the Russians.

On May 16, Archbishop Francis Spellman arrived in Istanbul from Beirut, continuing his mysterious travels ostensibly to visit U.S. troops. This detour, he told the Turkish Press, was to visit his “old friend” the Archbishop of Mesembria, Msgr. Angelo Roncalli, who had been Apostolic Delegate to Turkey since 1934. When Roncalli eventually became pope, it was said that Spellman was decidedly unhappy with the election of his “old friend.” The New York prelate was received by the Turkish president in Ankara on May 18 and then returned to Syria, and from there he set off for India and China on unspecified business.

The day before his arrival in Istanbul, nine students at Downside, the Benedictine school in Somerset, were killed when an RAF airplane crashed on the cricket field. The monks of the abbey sang the Office of the Dead when the bodies of the boys were brought into the choir on the 18th; the abbot, the Rt. Rev. R. S. Trafford, sang the Pontifical Requiem Mass on the 19th. Sixty officers and men of the Fleet Air Arm provided a guard of honor as the bodies were buried in a common grave in the monks’ cemetery. Messages of sympathy were received from the apostolic delegate, Queen Mary, and the lords of the admiralty.

An obituary of Flying-Officer Charles Robert Cecil Augustus Allberry, killed in action at the age of 32 in Nederweert, Holland, spoke of one who was “daring and merry as well as kind.” The vice-master of Christ’s College, Cambridge, wrote in the Times that he had already attained, at the age of 27, front rank as a Coptic scholar by his edition of a Manichaean psalter, which led to his appointment as editor of the Journal of Egyptian Archeology. His Coptic dictionary was unfinished at his death. His friend C. P. Snow based a character on him in his novel The Light and the Dark. Allberry had been received into the Catholic Church in May 1941.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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