One of the more bizarre and successful military deception operations took place on April 30, 1943, during World War II by the British. Operation Mincemeat took place off the Spanish coast and convinced the Germans that the upcoming Allied invasion of Sicily was headed instead for Greece and Sardinia. This caused the Germans to funnel large amounts of men, material, and aircraft to the wrong location. Thereby saving possibly thousands of lives in the process.
And how the British sold the Germans that they were indeed heading for Greece? By jettisoning a dead body from a submarine off the coast of Spain. This “Man Who Never Was” had been dressed in a military uniform and ostensibly died in a plane crash. He was supposed to have died in a plane crash while acting as a courier carrying secret invasion plans chained to his body. He was, however, a homeless alcoholic who committed suicide by ingesting rat poison.
Deception in wartime has been ongoing since our earliest recorded history. The famous “Trojan Horse” is one of the most famous. But the British had been considering using this tactic since the earliest days of the war. In 1939, the head of British Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Henry Godfrey disseminated thru the Intelligence community the “Trout Memo”, a series of actions designed to deceive the enemy in wartime, which was equated to fly-fishing.
While the memo bore the signature of Godfrey, most of the intelligence community knew the memo had the earmarks of Godfrey’s assistant all over it. That man was Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming who would go on to pen the novels of the most famous of British spies, James Bond in several novels.
Item number 28 of the 51 actions in the memo was “A Suggestion (not a very nice one)”; it was the idea to plant misleading papers on a corpse that would be found by the enemy.
Fleming later based M, the fictional head of MI6 and James Bond’s superior, on Godfrey which Godfrey complained that Fleming “turned me into that unsavory character, M”.
Operation Mincemeat was a part of the overall intelligence plan, Operation Barclay which was the overall plan to delude German intelligence on the Allied plan to invade Sicily was codenamed, “Husky”.
After the Allies pushed the Germans and Italians out of North Africa, their plans were to continue to invade Italy thru Sicily, the large island off the toe of Italy’s boot. The plan which was to attack “the soft underbelly of the Axis” according to Mr. Churchill was a large undertaking. While many German commanders believed Sicily was the next logical target, Hitler disagreed.
Hitler was worried about an invasion thru the Balkans, which the Germans had taken many of the raw materials there for their war industry. And a successful invasion of the Balkans could drive northward and create a wedge where the German army would be trapped between the Allies and the Soviets.
Operation Barclay was the plan to convince Hitler and the Germans that the invasion would go thru the Balkans. Operation Mincemeat was the brainchild of British Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu and Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley.
The British would utilize Memo #28 and fake a plane crash where a body would wash up on the Spanish shore where the Spanish authorities, who had clearly been cooperating with German intelligence, the Abwehr would find it. Spanish officials would certainly turn the material over to the Germans.
Finding the Right “Volunteer”
The British had a plan but now they needed a corpse. They found one in the person of the Welsh homeless and jobless man Glyndwr Michael, who committed suicide by ingesting rat poison in a London warehouse in late January 1943.
Montagu and Cholmondeley set about creating a fake identity for the dead man. He was renamed William Martin, an acting Major of the Royal Marine Commandos. They gave him a fake fiancee, named Pam with a picture of a British girl, Jean Leslie, who worked in MI5 headquarters. They had to find another officer who resembled “Martin” enough to take a photograph and produced identity papers that had the Major working at MI5.
They meticulously placed what is known in intelligence circles as pocket litter (receipts, ticket stubs, matches, etc) on the Major’s body. In his briefcase that was chained around his waist to keep it from floating away was the plans for the invasion of the Balkans, a letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, vice chief of the Imperial General Staff to General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Anglo-American 18th Army Group in Algeria and Tunisia that contained a poorly worded joke about sardines that would give the Germans the idea that Sardinia was also a target and his personal effects.
The body of “Major Martin” was placed in an airtight canister and driven to Scotland where it was placed on the submarine HMS Seraph commanded by Lt. Bill Jewell. The crew was told that the canister was to be delivered off the coast of Spain and contained a top-secret meteorological device to be deployed off the coast.
On the 30th of April at 0415, the Seraph surfaced off the coast of Spain. The crew brought the canister on deck. Jewell ordered the crew below, only the officers were aware of the true mission. They opened the canister and pushed Major Martin’s body over the side. Jewell then read Psalm 39 and ordered the engines full astern so that the propeller wash would push the body toward shore.
Spanish fishermen found the body at 0930 on April 30 and it was brought to the port city of Huelva where the Germans had an active and experienced Abwehr agent. The British government sent several cables to their Vice Consul in Huelva in a code they knew the Germans had broken to retrieve the briefcase because its contents were important.
The Spanish then buried ”Major Martin” with full military honors on May 2. The Germans, however, were interested in the contents of the briefcase and they were able to surreptitiously copy the documents and return them to their envelopes, apparently still sealed. The briefcase was returned to the British but unknown to the Germans, their code-breakers had cracked the German Enigma machines.
Hitler ordered the crack 1st Panzer Division from France to Salonika, then ordered two divisions from the Eastern Front which was involved in the Battle of Kursk to bolster the forces in the Balkans.
The resultant German shift of 90,000 men and resources away from Sicily greatly reduced the Allied casualties while taking the island. The Sicily campaign gave way to the Italian people deposing dictator Benito Mussolini and got Italy out of the war.
Montagu as he learned of the German actions, fired off a telegram to Prime Minister Churchill: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line, and sinker.”
The success of Operation Mincemeat can directly be attributed to the homeless man, Glyndwr Michael who became Major Martin. Not much was ever learned about this until 1954 when Montagu wrote his book, “The Man Who Never Was.”
Photos: British Archives