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August 3rd, 2023

I doubt you will have ever heard of Ewen Edward Samuel Montagu. He was born in 1901 into an illustrious British Jewish family, as the second son of Louis Montagu, 2nd Baron Swaythling (1869-1927).

Ewen’s grandfather, Samuel Montagu, the 1st Baron Swaythling (1832-1911), was a prominent banker, philanthropist, and politician – but he is best remembered as a devout Orthodox Jew who nevertheless rose through the ranks of British society, and established himself as an influential figure in the world of international finance and politics.

He was deeply involved in Jewish community affairs, and was particularly passionate about helping Jewish immigrants – a role that saw him found the Federation of Synagogues, an organization that built and maintained synagogues and associated religious services for Jewish immigrants in London.

His grandson, Ewen, was cut from a different cloth. Educated at Westminster School in London, and Trinity College, Cambridge, he pursued a career in law, becoming a barrister in 1924 – and was elevated to the rank of King’s Counsel in 1935.

But Ewen really came into his own during World War II, serving in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, where he worked in the Naval Intelligence Division. His keen intellect and boundless creativity proved critical; it was in this role that Ewen developed and executed one of the most effective deceptions of the war, known as Operation Mincemeat.

Ewen later described this audacious operation in his 1953 book The Man Who Never Was; and Operation Mincemeat has also inspired two blockbuster movies, the most recent in 2021 starring Colin Firth and Jason Isaacs.

The strategy Ewen came up with involved deceiving the Nazis into thinking the Allies were planning to invade Southern Europe through Greece and Sardinia, rather than Sicily, which was the actual point of invasion. The plan was carried out by dressing up a corpse in the uniform of a British army officer and releasing the body off the coast of Spain in late April 1943, where it would inevitably be discovered.

Ewen and his colleagues concocted an entire backstory for the corpse, down to the most trivial details, so that the ruse would be believed. The dead man was supposedly Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines who had drowned in the Mediterranean, but in reality, the corpse was Glyndwr Michael, a homeless man from London who had died after eating rat poison.

And along with the elaborate range of personal effects that Ewen’s team had planted on the body, the dead man also possessed false operational plans for the invasion of Southern Europe, information that was later passed onto the Germans by Nazi sympathizers, until it made its way up the chain of command, ultimately reaching Hitler himself.

This story is truly stranger than fiction, particularly when you realize it was the tiny details that convinced the Nazis and their collaborators that Captain Martin was real – a photograph of his fiancée Pam, love letters, the receipt for a diamond engagement ring from a West End jeweler, letters from his father, small change in coins, and an overdraft repayment demand from his bank. To guarantee that the letters and the documents would still be readable after exposure to seawater, Ewen enlisted the help of MI5 scientists, tasking them with conducting experiments on various inks to determine which would withstand submersion in water the longest.

Operation Mincemeat worked like a dream. Hitler informed Mussolini that Greece, Sardinia, and Corsica had to be defended “at all costs,” asserting that German troops were best suited for the task. By the end of June 1943, the number of German soldiers stationed on Sardinia had surged to 10,000, along with dozens of fighter planes and naval vessels – German torpedo boats were shifted from Sicily to the Greek islands as part of the preparations.

On July 9th the Allies initiated Operation Husky and invaded Sicily. The deceit had been so effective that even after the Allies troops had invaded, the Nazi leadership paid them little attention and twenty-one German aircraft were dispatched from Sicily to bolster Sardinia’s defenses.

For a significant period after the Allies had landed in Sicily, Hitler remained convinced that Sardinia was the real point of invasion, and in late July he dispatched General Rommel to Salonika to take command and fortify the area. And by the time that German high command recognized their miscalculation, it was already too late to alter the course of events.

I read Ewen Montagu’s book many years ago – long before I was aware of his connection with his illustrious grandfather. What struck me then, as I read through Ewen’s account of Operation Mincemeat, was how important it was for the operations team to think through, and address, every detail of the persona they were creating, so that the false information they planted on the corpse would never be doubted by those who found him. Even the smallest mistake would have scuttled the entire plan – and Ewen was acutely aware of this throughout the planning. Interestingly, this idea of little details being important is central to the Jewish faith – as exemplified by a Midrash on the word that gives Parshat Eikev its name – “eikev.”

The word “eikev” is translated into English as “if” or “because.” The first verse of the portion reads: וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִשְמְעוּן אֵת הַמִשְפָטִים הָאֵלֶה – “And it will be, if/because you listen to these laws, and keep them and do them, that God will keep the covenant for you.”

But “eikev” is an odd word to use in this context; the usual word for “if” or “because” in Hebrew is “im.” Midrash Tanchuma explains that the word “eikev” is used here instead of “im” because it has the same root as the word in Hebrew meaning heel, like the heel of your foot – alluding to the kinds of Jewish faith obligations people might ignore or minimize, such as things you would crush underfoot because you consider them inconsequential.

But little details are not inconsequential at all. Observing seemingly minor mitzvot makes all the difference, and ignoring them may be the worst mistake you can make. Just as in Operation Mincemeat, where seemingly minor elements played such a significant role, those who take their faith seriously have to realize that observing so-called lesser mitzvot could make all the difference between maintaining or breaking their covenant with God. For Ewen Montagu and his team, the minor details were instrumental in selling the deception to the enemy, and for us the minor details are instrumental in convincing God that we take our relationship with him seriously.

Reflecting now, so many years after first encountering the Operation Mincemeat story, I wonder whether Ewen Montagu was cognizant of this Midrash when he meticulously attended to the minutest details of the dead Captain Martin deception – channeling the concept that it is exactly those details one would ordinarily disregard which are the linchpin of success. And we can also learn this lesson, namely that taking seriously those aspects of our faith we tend to overlook or underappreciate could be the critical key to a meaningful relationship with God, marking the difference between failure and success.

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