A story on the BBC today caught my eye. Seems a document has been unearthed at Bletchley Park that shows that Germany bought into a fake story put out by a double agent about the true location of D-Day landings. Using a Spanish agent whom the Germans thought was one of theirs but was actually working for the British, they were tricked into thinking D-Day landings would take place at Pas de Calais.
The story claims a bit breathlessly that this had “global impact” and saved “countless lives.” Of course that’s speculation. What we do know is that the famous Enigma machine was involved, and since it had been cracked at the Park, the Allies were able to get unusual confirmation of their ruse.
Reminds me a bit of the recent retelling of Operation Mincemeat when a dead tramp’s body was used to trick the Germans that a landing in 1943 would take place in Greece rather than Sicily. In this case Hitler moved 90,000 troops into the wrong position. (This story has been known since the 1950s.) A new book on it was published last year. Two intelligence officers were behind the operation.
But in today’s story, there’s another part worth highlighting. Bletchley Park has been putting (or will put) documents online and the intercept recently found was unearthed by a volunteer going through old archival material. In a story which will hit those of us who use archives right between the eyes:
The intercepted document – in its original, freshly-released, German language version – is all the more extraordinary for having been found by volunteers digging through Bletchley Park’s archives.
One of them, retired civil servant Peter Wescombe, 79, recalls the excitement of realising its significance for the first time.
“It was like turning up a crock of gold,” he remembers. “It was absolutely wonderful.”
A crock of gold, needle in a haystack, call it what you will. If we’re lucky we find one of these when we’re in the archives, sifting through document after document. I’ve found say one or two where I was able to see something I knew to be of significance but that’s over the course of years of visiting archives (it was the involvement of someone previously unknown–a leading eugenicist–in the work of the WWI Inquiry).
From the amount of detail already available about this document I’d have to guess that the story is not newly unearthed, just the actual document. There’s even an operational code-name, Operation Fortitude. Presumably the Spanish double-agent (“Pujol”) is also well known now.
The other point I was going to mention is how making these documents publicly available in digital form they can be searched:
Many of the records at the centre have not been touched for years, and the charity hopes that by putting them online in a searchable format they can “crowdsource” the expertise of historians and amateurs alike.
This is essentially similar isn’t it to the case of WikiLeaks? OK, that covers more recent documents, but the newspapers publishing the cables have redacted names. There’s also nothing in there that’s marked Top Secret. If there’s a case for the Bletchley Park documents, there’s also a case for WikiLeaks.