A Corpse an Audacious WWII Plan to Score a Major Victory for the Allies
Winston Churchill once wrote “In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Throughout the Second World War, the subtle art of deception proved time and time again to be among the Allies’ most formidable weapons. Prior to the 1942 Battle of El Alamein, the British disguised their tanks as ordinary trucks in order to move them up to the front line unnoticed, while in the buildup to D-Day, through a combination of phony radio traffic, captured German agents, and fields of wooden planes and inflatable tanks, Allied intelligence managed to conjure an entire army division out of thin air and convince the German that the invasion force would land not in Normandy but the Pas-de-Calais. But perhaps the most audacious and bizarre deception of the war was Operation Mincemeat, a macabre undertaking centred around the drowned corpse of one Major William Martin, a man who never existed.
By the end of 1942 the Allied had pushed the Germans and Italians out of North Africa and were pondering their next move. Winston Churchill favoured an invasion of Italy, which he saw as the “soft underbelly” of the Axis. And the obvious stepping-stone for such an invasion was the island of Sicily. There was only one problem: this route would also be obvious to the Germans, and the mountainous terrain of Sicily strongly favoured the defenders. But another possibility was to invade Sardinia and Greece, which would place Allied forces within striking distance of vital Axis oil facilities in the Balkans. If the Germans could somehow be convinced that the Allies were actually landing in Greece, the invasion of Sicily might have a greater chance of succeeding.
The task of fooling the Germans fell to naval intelligence officer Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu and Squadron Leader Sir Archibald Cholmondley (“Chum-lee”) of the Twenty Committee, an inter-service intelligence organization so-named because “twenty” in Roman numerals is “XX”, or “Double-Cross.” The bizarre deception plan Montagu and Cholmondley cooked up was inspired by a document known as the “Trout Memo” which had been circulated among Allied intelligence personnel in 1939. While attributed to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, it is now believed that the memo was actually written by his assistant Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. In the memo, Fleming compared military deception to fly-fishing, and listed 51 potential deception plans which could be used against the enemy. Deception number 28, which Fleming described as “not a very nice suggestion” involved planting false documents on a corpse and dropping it over enemy territory. This, in turn, had been inspired by the 1937 novel The Milliner’s Hat Mystery by former police chief and spy catcher Basil Thompson. Montagu and Cholmondeley believed that a suitably disguised corpse would be an ideal vehicle for leaking falsified intelligence to the enemy, and soon began working on an elaborate scheme codenamed Operation Mincemeat.
The task facing Montagu and Cholmondley was formidable, with many intricate details needing to be worked out. At first they considered dropping a corpse into enemy territory on a half-opened parachute, but this was quickly abandoned for a number of reasons. First, no Allied airman would be carrying the highly-secret documents the pair wished to leak. Second, military couriers were not permitted to fly over enemy territory lest they be shot down; and third, any corpse the pair were likely to obtain would be several days old and could never be made to look freshly-deceased. Instead, Montagu and Cholmondley decided to drop the corpse from a submarine off an enemy-held coast, making it look like the body of a man who had crashed at sea and drowned. The pair quickly ruled out disguising the corpse as a naval officer, as this would require a custom-tailored uniform, and instead chose to make him an officer of the Royal Marines, allowing him to be dressed in standard off-the-rack battle dress. Spain was chosen as the insertion point as while the country was nominally neutral, it had pro-German leanings and hosted a well-established network of German spies.
The next order of business was to actually find a suitable corpse. While Britain in WWII had no shortage of bodies, nearly all were already spoken for, and making indiscreet inquiries would have raised undue suspicion. According to Montagu’s 1953 memoir The Man Who Never Was, he and Cholmondley had nearly given up when they happened upon a young man who had died of pneumonia, and convinced the family to release his body on the condition his identity never be revealed. The body was ideal for their purposes, as its fluid-filled lungs would closely resemble those of a man who had drowned at sea. However, in 1996 amateur historian Roger Morgan determined that the corpse actually belonged to one Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welshman who died in an abandoned London warehouse after accidentally eating rat poison. As Michael had no next of kin, Montagu had no trouble convincing Bentley Purchase, coroner of St. Pancras District, to turn over the body and store it in the morgue until needed. Yet still other historians such as Ben Macintyre and Anna Pukas doubt that the corpse could have been Michael’s, arguing that his unhealthy and emaciated body would have been a poor match for a young and fit Marine officer. Instead, they suggest that the corpse belonged to John Melville, a sailor aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Dasher which exploded and sank in the Clyde River on March 27, 1943. However, Montagu dismissed the need for a perfect physical resemblance, stating:
“He doesn’t need to look like an officer – only a staff officer.”
With a body secured, Montagu and Cholmondley set about crafting an identity for their fictitious officer. Time was of the essence, for the body could only be kept refrigerated for three months, after which it would be too decomposed to be convincing. Glyndwr Michael soon became Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines, the surname “Martin” being chosen as it was among the most common on the Naval register. This meant that the report of his death could be easily mistaken for that of another, real Major Martin. The rank of Acting Major was also carefully chosen as it high enough to justify him carrying of top-secret documents but not high enough that anyone important would be expected to know him. The documents Major Martin was to carry included a fake letter written by Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff, to General Harold Alexander in Tunisia, outlining the Allies’ intent to invade Sardinia and Greece. In an inspired bit of subtle spycraft, the letter did not explicitly spell out the Allied plan but rather spoke around it in such a way that the true meaning could not be missed. And in a classic double-feint, the document written to imply that the attack on Sicily – the preparations for which the Germans could hardly have missed – was actually a diversion for the actual invasion. To corroborate this letter, Major Martin also carried a letter from Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of Combined Operations, to Admiral Andrew Cunningham, introducing Martin as an expert in landing craft being loaned to Cunningham’s staff. The letter even contained a joke about sardines being rationed in Britain, a pun so stereotypically British Montagu and Cholmondley believed the Germans would swallow it hook, line, and sinker.
In order to look the part, the corpse was dressed in a standard uniform, a trench coat, and a life preserver. Fearing that the largely Catholic Spaniards would be hesitant to rifle through the corpse’s pockets, Montagu and Cholmondley instead placed the documents in a locked leather briefcase with a chain of the type used by bank couriers, the chain being wrapped through the belt loops of Major Martin’s trench coat to prevent it from floating away.
However, it would take more than just a name and a briefcase of documents to fool German intelligence; For the deception to work, Major Martin had to appear like a formerly living, breathing human being complete with personal interests, relationships, and foibles. And in this Montagu and Cholmondley overlooked no detail, carefully crafting a complete identity through various pieces of litter placed in the corpse’s pockets. Major Martin was made to appear somewhat careless in his personal affairs via angry letters from his creditors, unpaid bills, an overdraft statement from his bank, and a stern letter from his Father regarding his finances. Even his identity card was a temporary replacement for one previously lost. Martin was also given an imaginary girlfriend named Pam, whose photograph – actually of Montagu’s secretary Jean Leslie – he carried in his pocket. Other secretaries also contributed love letters from Pam for added authenticity. The effect was completed by the addition of a St. Christopher’s medal, a matchbook, cigarettes, a bill from Martin’s tailor, a receipt for an engagement ring, keys, theatre ticket stubs, and other odds and ends, all carefully coordinated paint a realistic picture of Major Martin’s last days in London. For his identity card, Montagu and Chomondley first tried to photograph the corpse, but this proved unconvincing and they instead used a picture of MI5 Captain Ronnie Reed, who bore a passing resemblance to the body.
Major Martin was placed in a specially-designed canister filled with dry ice and carried aboard the Royal Navy submarine HMS Seraph, which departed Britain on May 19, 1943. For security reasons the crew were told that the canister contained an experimental meteorological device, with only the boat’s Captain, Lt. Norman Jewell, and a handful of senior officers being informed of the mission’s true nature. After being accidentally attacked twice en route by British aircraft, on April 29 HMS Seraph surfaced off the coast of Huelva, Spain. In the early hours of the next morning Major Martin’s body was brought on deck, and after a brief ceremony where Lt. Jewell read from the 39th Psalm, was placed in the water, the wash from the submarine’s propellers being used to push him towards the shore. At around 9AM a Spanish fisherman picked up the body and carried it to shore, where it was handed over to the Spanish Admiralty. The game was now afoot.
The Spanish authorities immediately contacted Francis Haselden, the local British consul, and offered to hand over Major Martin’s effects. Strangely, Haselden refused, insisting that the items be submitted through official channels. A frantic exchange of diplomatic cables between Haselden and London ensued, with London urging Haselden to obtain the items as quickly as possible. Of course, this had all been meticulously planned beforehand to convince the Germans of the documents’ authenticity, the British knowing that their diplomatic codes had been broken. Thus the existence of the body and its briefcase came to the attention of two German agents stationed in Spain, Karl-Erich Kühlenthal and Adolf Clauss, who on the instructions of German intelligence chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris attempted to intercept the secret documents. Despite pressure from the Germans the Spanish refused to hand over the briefcase and instead sent it to the naval headquarters at San Fernando. Here the contents were photographed but the letters were not opened. It was not until the briefcase reached Madrid that the Spanish finally acceded to German demands, with a thin metal rod being used to roll up the still-damp letters so they could be removed through the envelope flap without breaking the seal. The letters were then dried, photographed, and re-soaked in salt water before being re-inserted into the envelopes. On May 8 the photographs were passed to Kühlenthal, while on May 11 the briefcase and its contents were returned to Haselden, who forwarded it to London in the diplomatic bag. Meanwhile, Major Martin’s body had been given a cursory autopsy by a Spanish coroner, confirmed to have died of drowning and exposure, and buried in a Huelva cemetery with full military honours.
When the briefcase finally arrived back in London, an examination of the envelopes confirmed that they had been opened by the Germans. Not only did the letters curl up into a cylinder when removed, but an eyelash placed in the envelope by Montagu was conveniently missing. Indeed, Kühlenthal believed the intelligence to be so important that he personally carried it to Berlin, where German intelligence confirmed its authenticity to the High Command. On May 12, Adolf Hitler issued an order declaring:
“Measures regarding Sardinia and the Peloponnese take precedence over everything else.”
Confirmation that the Germans had taken the bait came two days later, when codebreakers at Bletchley Park decoded a German signal indicating that an entire panzer division of 90,000 men had been moved from Sicily to Greece. Montagu sent an urgent telegram to Churchill, then in Washington D.C. for the Trident Conference, reading:
“Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker by the right people and from the best information they look like acting on it.”
The Allied invasion of Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky, began on July 10, 1943. By August 17 the armies of General George S. Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had taken the island at a loss of only 5,500 killed and 14,000 wounded – far less than Allied planners had feared. The capture of Sicily lead to the collapse of the government of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and provided a springboard for the subsequent Allied invasion of the Italian mainland – and all largely thanks to the valiant actions of a dead man.
What is perhaps most impressive about Operation Mincemeat is how easily the whole thing could have gone wrong. For example, had Major Martin’s corpse been examined by a more experienced coroner, it would have been realized that it was missing many of the hallmarks of a body which had been floating at sea for days, such as crab and fish bites and dull, brittle hair. Fortunately, the Germans were prevented from examining the matter too closely by the need to appear as though they were unaware of the corpse’s existence, and they were thus forced to take the Spanish at their word regarding its authenticity. Also fortuitous for the Allies were the specific German agents involved in the case. Kühlenthal, due to his Jewish ancestry, was overly eager to please the German High Command and had a long history of passing on bad intelligence. The intelligence analyst tasked with examining the documents in Berlin, Alexis Baron von Roenne, also hated Hitler and did everything in his power to sabotage the Nazi war effort. Even Admiral Canaris, head of German Military Intelligence, actively worked against the Nazi regime, meaning it is possible that most involved in the case did not actually believe the ruse at all. But the Mincemeat documents confirmed what Hitler already believed, and whether or not they influenced his decision to move his troops from to Greece, that decision was instrumental in the fall of Sicily.
In life he was Glyndwr Michael, a homeless drifter who died a horrible death alone and forgotten, while in death he became Major William Martin, a war hero who helped secure a vital Allied victory in the Mediterranean. He still lies buried under that name in Nuestra Señora cemetery in Huelva, while on the Welsh war memorial in Aberbargoed he is listed as “Y Dyn Na Fu Erioed”: “The Man Who Never Was”.
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Dead Man Floating: World War II’s Oddest Operation, NPR, June 12, 2010, https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127742365
Re: The Man Who Never Was – Operation Mincemeat, Wikileaks, February 19, 2013, https://wikileaks.org/gifiles/docs/12/1233808_re-the-man-who-never-was-operation-mincemeat-.html
Lane, Megan, Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Tramp Fooled Hitler, December 3, 2010, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-11887115
Zabecki, David, This Man Pulled off one of the Greatest Deceptions in Military History – After His Death, HistoryNet, November 1995, https://www.historynet.com/this-man-pulled-off-one-of-the-greatest-deceptions-in-military-history-after-his-death.htm
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