The Haversack Trick
Richard Meinertzhagen wrote 8 books, over 50 technical articles concerning ornithology, and a controversial 76-volume diary (published under different names)[i] that has been the source for numerous biographies of Meinertzhagen as well as understandings and misunderstandings of his friend T. E. Lawrence. During Meinertzhagen’s long career as a British soldier, spy, and government liaison, his friends and acquaintances included General Allenby, T.E. Lawrence, and Adolf Hitler. Great Britain Prime Minister David Lloyd George wryly wrote of Meinertzhagen, “I met him during the Peace Conference and he struck me as being one of the ablest and most successful brains I had met in any army. That was quite sufficient to make suspect and to hinder his promotion to the higher ranks of his profession.”[ii] Meinertzhagen did rise to the rank of colonel but his most famous endeavor with the military occurred as an intelligence operative during the Palestine campaign in October 1917 when he was a major.
Meinertzhagen wrote a set of false papers with a fictitious staff officer, a deception that would be acknowledged as one of the most successful pieces of tactical military deception of the twentieth century: the Haversack Trick. He intended on placing the papers in the right hands: the Turks and the Germans. The papers would lead them to believe that a British attack would be at Gaza; the attack at Beersheba would only be a minor assault designed to appear as the main assault. Attempts to plan the false documents by two British and Australian officers met with no success, so Meinertzhagen took the responsibility of delivering the information himself. As biographer Mark Cocker wrote, it was “the most celebrated piece of wartime trickery that his fertile imagination could conjure up.”[iii]
In 1916, the British defeated the Turks at Romani and pushed them into the Sinai desert into a defensive position at Beersheba. On October 10, 1917 Meinertzhagen mounted a horse and rode into a desolate area northwest of Beersheba. When he spotted a Turkish guard he turned and let him take chase. A small group of Turks took after him when he found his pistol. When they had taken chase in earnest Meinertzhagen feigned being hit by a bullet and let loose his haversack field glasses, water bottle, and a rifle previously smeared with horse’s blood to give an impression than he had been injured by the Turks’ fire. The Turks recovered the haversack and reviewed faked documents concerning the confirmation of a British offensive at Gaza, a telegram authorizing reconnaissance in the area where the haversack had been dropped, and letters from a staff officer criticizing a Beersheba attack. Meinertzhagen added a letter from the imaginary wife that he had his sister Mary write. The letter included twenty pounds cash to aid in the air of validity. The letter ended with “Goodbye, my darling! Nurse says I must not tire myself by writing too much . . . your loving wife, Mary. Baby sends a kiss to Daddy!”[iv]
The false information placed in the proper hands was a ruse that Meinertzhagen had worked before. In the summer of 1917 he had designs on foiling an Arab spy in Beersheba. He did so by sending the spy a letter of “thanks” for information; he included a hefty sum of Turkish currency. The letter was sent so it would fall into the right hands and led to the spy’s execution. T.E. Lawrence wrote, “After the Meinertzhagen success, deceptions, which for the ordinary general were just witty hors d’oeuvres before battle, became for Allenby a main point of strategy.”[v]
Meinertzhagen wrote that the enemy’s resistance during the Gaza attack was feeble and that a captured document showed the “enemy believed our camouflage, and the dummy notebook was a great success, for the enemy had all his reserves in the wrong place.” Then Meinertzhagen, the modern-day Crusader, harked back to the medieval Crusaders who attacked the Holy Land in an effort to free it from heretics: “. . . we enter on this the Seventh Crusade, once and for all to evict the Turk from the sacred places of Christianity.”[vi]
The Franks Deceit – A Greek Bearing Gifts
Meinertzhagen wrote of an “extraordinary and tragic experience” that personified his talent for military deception and use of misinformation in intelligence matters. In the spring of 1917 the British were being visited by a German “bogey agent” known only as “Franks” who penetrated their lines under the disguise of an Australian. Meinertzhagen created a “dummy description” of Franks that was issued to the troops. The British troops became so vigilant in trying to find the agent that arrests of anyone suspicious were executed numerous times, one arrest being Meinertzhagen himself. Meinertzhagen’s ruse went well, nobody knowing about the deceit “we were practicing on the troops.”
On June 25, Meinertzhagen was asked to meet with a Greek prisoner in Alexandria who had deserted from the Turkish Army. During the interview Meinertzhagen learned about the desertion and was surprised to hear that the Greek had worked with Franks. The Greek promised to help Meinertzhagen capture Franks if he would arrange his release from the POW camp.
A few days later a meeting with the Greek was arranged in a remote area when Franks was to be coming back from one of his behind-the-lines escapades. The Greek told Meinertzhagen to shoot Franks as soon as he saw him. Eventually a horseman approached dressed in an Australian uniform. The Greek told Meinertzhagen that it was Franks’s orderly. The orderly met with the Greek as Meinertzhagen watched from a distance. The orderly spoke in German and passed along some papers to the Greek. The Greek came back to Meinertzhagen and told him the orderly was traveling alone and Franks was taking another route back to the Turkish lines. Meinertzhagen insisted that he arrest the orderly and the Greek agreed. Before he realized what had happened the Greek and orderly were firing at Meinertzhagen with Meinertzhagen returning fire. The orderly was hit in the neck, the Greek escaped, and when Meinertzhagen looked closely at the wounded orderly he realized he had shot a woman. “I had been badly tricked,” wrote Meinertzhagen who was doubly shamed that he had been tricked and then shot a woman, who quickly died.
Only in December of 1917 did Meinertzhagen learn the full truth of the mysterious Greek and phantom Franks when he located Franks’s house and found a photograph of him. “To my horror I then realized that my Greek was Franks himself who must have been originally arrested as a Greek refuge.” His ruse to get released from the POW camp was clever and his intimate knowledge of Greece and the Greek language enabled him to act his part. “It fills me with dismay to think that I harboured that German agent in my office . . . I further discovered that the woman whom I had shot was Franks’s wife, to whom he was devoted.”[vii]
Meinertzhagen and T.E. Lawrence
In T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, A Triumph, he wrote about his friend, Meinertzhagen. He recognized Richard as a “student of migrating birds drifted into soldiering . . . whose hot immoral hatred of the enemy expressed itself as readily in trickery as in violence . . . he knew no half measures . . . he was logical, an idealist of the deepest; and so possessed by his convictions that the was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good . . . who took as blithe as pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest.”[viii] Meinertzhagen was a “strategist, a geographer . . . instincts abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain . . .” Some biographers have noted that Meinertzhagen was appalled by Lawrence’s language, requesting that Lawrence remove his description. Nevertheless, Lawrence didn’t consider the comments pejorative; he was describing Meinertzhagen as he saw him. In a January 1928 letter to George Bernard Shaw’s wife, Charlotte, Lawrence wrote, “Meinertzhagen saw his description, and laughed over it, not in any way annoyed. There is an astonishing power in that man.”[ix]
Considering Meinertzhagen’s extensive comments concerning Lawrence, he may well have taken umbrage to Lawrence’s description of Meinertzhagen’s character. In his Middle East Diary, published in 1959, Meinertzhagen alternates between praise bordering on adoration and belittling descriptions of Lawrence’s behavior as a person and soldier. In 16 pages there are 12 entries on Lawrence dating from 1917-55. He constantly describes Lawrence as a “little man” and shy show-off with little to show but a very complex and interesting man. Meinertzhagen refers to Lawrence’s Arabian compatriots as a “poor lot, splendid looters, and with miserable courage.” Meinertzhagen’s pro-Zionist attitudes may have played into his comment when he asserted that Lawrence’s Arabs had their exploits exaggerated and that the Turk would “always be a ten-to-one better man than the Bedouin.” He called Lawrence’s alliance with the Arabs a “side-show (he did not like ‘side-show,’ though I eventually persuaded him that it was).” Meinertzhagen wrote that he liked “the little man” who had great charm, a pleasant voice, and an impish sense of humor.
Lawrence was concerned about a book he was writing about his life, wrote Meinertzhagen on August 4, 1919, and “he has overdone it and is now terrified lest he is found out and deflated.” As the two men attended the Paris Peace Conference, Meinertzhagen claims that Lawrence showed him parts of his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Meinertzhagen wrote that he begged Lawrence to remove the material on him claiming that Lawrence admitted that little of the book was strict truth but based on fact.[x] Lawrence’s authorized biographer, Jeremy Wilson, wrote, “Meinertzhagen’s diaries are demonstrably incorrect on many points . . . much of the comment is pure fantasy.”[xi]
Meinertzhagen was, even by Lawrence’s admission, one of the few people that read any part of the first draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lawrence, by his own account, lost the first manuscript on a train trip from London to Oxford, though this story has never been fully believed by some biographers. The handwritten manuscript and notes were in a bank messenger’s bag, when it was lost. Lawrence went on to rewrite the book in 1921-22 in an apartment lent to him in the shadows of Parliament. Upon Lawrence’s death Meinertzhagen wrote, “I have lost an inspiration, an example which it will be impossible to replace.”[xii]
Not only does biographer Jeremy Wilson question the validity of Meinertzhagen’s comments concerning Lawrence, biographer John Mack also wrote, “the validity of portions of Meinertzhagen’s diary as a contemporaneous record must . . . be questioned.” Author J.N. Lockman carefully studied Meinertzhagen’s diaries and found that the colonel was likely guilty of deceiving his readers concerning Lawrence. In his study Meinertzhagen’s Diary Ruse – False Entries on T.E. Lawrence,[xiii] Lockman contends that much of the Middle East Diary was rewritten after the fact for publication. Meinertzhagen’s entries concerning Lawrence, writes Lockman, ” . . . are almost complete fantasies . . .” Lockman contends that Meinertzhagen’s writings have led biographers, especially Aldington who likely influenced filmmaker Lean, to falsely believe that Lawrence exaggerated his exploits and was little more than a paper hero created by Lawrence’s own imagination and the hero-worshipping writings of Lowell Thomas.[xiv]
Meinertzhagen and Hitler
Meinertzhagen wrote that he had three interviews with Hitler and Nazi Foreign Minister Ribbentrop between 1934 and 1939. In October 1934 he was working in a Berlin museum when he was called upon by Joachim von Ribbentrop to meet with Hitler. As the German ambassador to Britain, Ribbentrop had acquired distaste for England. “So unpopular was this ill-mannered upstart,” wrote Meinertzhagen concerning Ribbentrop, “that the Governors of Eton refused to allow his son entry to the school . . . from then on he devoted himself to poisoning Hitler’s mind against Britain.” Author William Shirer wrote of Ribbentrop that he was vain, pompous, and incredibly stupid.
Hitler met Meinertzhagen after a lunch with Ribbentrop. When the door to the Chancellor’s room was open Meinertzhagen was shocked by the huge size. As they walked toward each other Meinertzhagen noticed Hitler’s famous penetrating gaze. When they met Hitler threw up his arm and exclaimed “Heil Hitler!” “I thought it rather odd that he should ‘heil’ himself, so I raised my hand and said ‘Heil Meinertzhagen,'” wrote Meinertzhagen. Neither of the Germans was amused. As they sat at a table and Ribbentrop acted as an interpreter. Hitler spoke of his hatred of war and interest in returning her “colonies” but only with Britain’s acceptance. Being a pro-Zionist, Meinertzhagen was unhappy to hear Hitler’s fanatical view toward Jews in Germany. He blamed Jews for organizing the German Communist Party, over running Government Departments, and imposing their culture on seventy million Germans. Hitler convinced Meinertzhagen that “only Jews of communist tendencies have been shut up or expelled.” Meinertzhagen seemed to be enchanted with Hitler, a man he described “as a magnetic personality, very sincere and absolutely truthful. This latter character struck me most.” Eventually Meinertzhagen would realize he had been hoodwinked concerning Hitler’s ethics.[xv]
On June 28, 1939 while Meinertzhagen was visiting his cousin he was called once again to visit Hitler. By now Meinertzhagen had acquired distaste for Herr Hitler and was not interested in seeing him. What followed was an incident that Meinertzhagen claimed he was “thoroughly ashamed of” and was unable to explain. Realizing Hitler was a danger to not only Zionism but world peace, Meinertzhagen went to the Chancellery with a loaded automatic pistol in his pocket so he “could prove ‘opportunity’ to kill the man. Since I saw him last, my opinion of him had altered. He means to have his war; he means to kill millions to satisfy his lust for power; his war will involve the whole world and whoever wins will lose.”[xvi] With Ribbentrop interpreting, Hitler launched into a forty-minute diatribe against Britain and “encirclement.” Finally, Meinertzhagen rose silently, held out his hand, and left the room without comment or knowing why he had been called to Hitler’s office. “I had ample opportunity to kill both Hitler and Ribbentrop,” Meinertzhagen wrote in his Middle East Diary, “. . . and am seriously troubled about it. If this war breaks out, as I feel sure it will, then I shall feel very much to blame for not killing these two.”[xvii]
Meinertzhagen died in 1967 at the age of 89. He spent his last years as a scientist studying birds, a love he had fostered his entire life. In 1994 New Scientist reported that Meinertzhagen had apparently mislabeled some of the birds he had shot and altered the time and place of their death. He was also accused of stealing prize specimens from the world’s leading museums and relabeling them. The motive for this bizarre deception is unclear but New Scientist speculated that he might have turned to fraud to enhance the value of his collection or to shore up his pet theories.[xviii]
[i] The diaries have been published under the titles of Army Diaries, Diary of a Black Sheep, Middle East Diary.
[ii] Cocker, Mark. Richard Meinertzhagen, Soldier, Scientist and Spy, Mandarin Paperbacks, London, 1990, p. 268.
[iii] Ibid, p. 103.
[iv] Lord, John. Duty, Honor, Empire – The Life and Times of Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, Random House, New York, 1970, pp. 331-32.
[v] Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom – A Triumph, Random House, New York, 1991, p. 537.
[vi] Gardner, Brian. Allenby of Arabia, Coward-McCann, New York, 1966, p. 150.
[vii] Meinertzhagen, Richard. Army Diary, 1899-1926, Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh, 1960, pp. 216-219.
[viii] Lawrence, T. E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom – A Triumph, Random House, New York, 1991, p. 384.
[ix] Lawrence, T.E. Letters of T. E. Lawrence, Doubleday and Co., Norton, New York, 1989, p. 220. In a letter dated December 31, 1922, Mrs. Shaw praised the book by wondering “. . . is it conceivable, imaginable that a man who could write the Seven Pillars can have any doubts about it?” She encouraged him to publish the book as a whole but wrote that “such things as your scarifying account of Meinertzhagen (splendid, that is) might be toned down (not left out) . . .” Weintraub, Stanley. Private Shaw and Public Shaw – A Duel Portrait of Lawrence of Arabia and G.B.S., George Brazillier, New York, 1963, pp. 24-5.
[x] Meinertzhagen, Richard. Middle East Diary, Cresset Press, London, 1959, p. 27.
[xi] Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia, Atheneum, New York, 1990, p. 1112. Wilson writes that the diaries were very extensively written up for publication years after the events concerned. The original diaries have been destroyed.
[xii] Meinertzhagen, Richard. Middle East Diary, Cresset Press, London, 1959, p. 34.
[xiii] For a review of Lockman’s study see Allen, M.D. “Meinertzhagen’s Diary Ruse: False Entries on T.E. Lawrence,” Arab Studies Quarterly, v. 18, June 1, 1996, p. 94.
[xiv] Lockman, J. N. Meinertzhagen’s Diary Ruse – False Entries on T.E. Lawrence, Cornerstone Publications Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.
[xv] Meinertzhagen, Richard. Middle East Diary, Cresset Press, London, 1959, p. 150.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 159.
[xvii] Ibid, p. 160.
[xviii] “Bird World in a Flap About Species Fraud,” New Scientist, May 7, 1994, p. 10.