The Man Who Never Was
Updated 2 December 2010
On 30 April, 1943, the body of a Royal Marines officer was found drifting off the coast of Huelva, Spain. Attached to his belt was a briefcase containing a number of classified letters, among them a top-secret letter from Sir Archibald Nye, then Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff in the War Office, to General Sir Harold Alexander, the British commander in North Africa under American General Dwight D Eisenhower, identifying Greece and Sardinia for invasion by the Allies.
Copies of these precious documents quickly made their way into German hands and by May 1943, Hitler had taken measures to defend both places, sending his troops to fortify their position in Sardinia, Corsica and Greece, and further ordering two additional panzer divisions to prepare to move from Russia to Greece. Two months later, the Allies stormed into Sicily with hardly any resistance from German and Italian defenders, whose eyes were turned northwards to Sardinia. The operation was a success – probably the greatest deception in the game of modern military strategy.
And all of this thanks to a man who never existed.
'You can forget about Sicily. We know it's in Greece!'
– General Jodl, head of the German supreme command operations staff.
'Anyone but a bloody fool would know it was Sicily.'
– Sir Winston Churchill.
The summer of 1942 saw Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. Before the invasion, the Nazis clearly had the upper hand in Europe, their reach extending from Luxembourg in the west to Norway in the north; the Allies barely had a foothold in the region. With the success of this operation, the Allies now had a strong position on the North African coast. It was obvious that the Allies, having gained control of North Africa, were not about to send their troops all the way back to England to invade France from across the channel; they were conveniently poised ready to strike at what Churchill called 'the soft underbelly of Europe'.
And it was pretty obvious to everybody where the Allies were likely to strike.
The island of Sicily lies in the middle of the Mediterranean, midway between Africa and Europe. It had been the base from which the Luftwaffe had assaulted Malta for many months, along with whatever troops strove to reach the island; now it offered the Allies a gateway into Hitler's Nazi-infested Europe.
Therein lay a problem. If it was clear to the Allies that they had to take control of Sicily if they were to move north into Europe, then it was equally clear to the Germans who controlled the area. When the time came, how were the Allies to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their defenses to the extent that any attack upon it would cost the Allies anything from heavy casualties to the grievous peril of failure?
An Idea Takes Flight
A few months earlier, Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley1 of Section B1A in MI5 and a member of a committee that dealt with questions of the security of intended operations, had come up with an idea that was fantastic both in its ingenuity and sheer impracticality – that a wireless be dropped in France by means of a dead body attached to a badly-opened parachute, thus manoeuvring the Germans to attempt to plant something on the Allies that they already knew was planted. The idea had been written off as unworkable; however at this crucial point in the war his counterpart Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu recalled Cholmondeley's bizarre idea, and suggested planting false Allied documents on a dead body and letting it fall into German hands. And so, a plan was born.
Obtaining a Body
'Bodies, bodies, everywhere, nor any one to take!'
– Ewen Montagu, Naval Intelligence.
The first issue the committee was faced with was: what kind of body would be suitable for the plant, and how were they to obtain it? It had been decided that the body would float ashore; what sort of condition was a body expected to be in following an aircraft crash in the sea, and what would be the likely cause of death? What would an autopsy reveal?
For this Montagu turned to Sir Bernard Spilsbury, who was not only renowned for his unrivalled experience in pathology but also for his ability to keep secrets in the strictest confidence, and furthermore, ask no questions beyond what was needed to solve a problem. Sir Bernard suggested that if they used a body floating in a 'Mae West' life jacket, then it would suffice to use the body of a man who had drowned or perished by one of a number of other natural causes; there were many ways a victim of an air crash could die; from exposure to trauma to shock.
Therefore, the search for a suitable body began.
Because of the sensitive nature of the operation, they could not very well ask all and sundry if they'd come across any bodies or knew anybody who'd died from drowning recently, let alone raise the delicate issue of borrowing a body. They managed to slip some very carefully guarded enquiries to trusty Service medical officers; however, in all of the cases they had the relatives' consent to worry about, or the possibility that somebody might talk. And all around them, bodies piled up – none of them suitable.
Finally, when the committee was beginning to consider resorting to grave robbery, they heard of a man who had recently succumbed to pneumonia brought on by ingesting rat poison. The pneumonia would help embellish the deception nicely – a man who had died floating around in the sea would be expected to have some liquid in his lungs; the difference between saltwater and freshwater would hardly be noticed in lungs that were decomposing, especially if the post-mortem were to be carried out by someone with the preconceived notion that death was caused by drowning. It would take an expert of Sir Bernard's calibre to tell that the man had not died at sea; Spain hadn't any.
The committee made inquiries into his past and about his relatives, and were satisfied that the parties involved could be trusted to keep the matter a secret. The man's relatives were guaranteed that his body would be used for a worthwhile purpose, approved at the highest level, and that the body would eventually receive an honourable burial, albeit under an assumed name; permission to use the body was granted on condition that the identity of the corpse was never disclosed. They now had a body. All that remained was just what to do with it.
Planning Operation Mincemeat
The operation needed a code name, if planning was to begin. Montagu combed through the list issued by the Service departments and various commands, and found one befitting his macabre sense of humour – Mincemeat2.
Selecting a location
There were two possible locations where the body could float ashore: Spain and France. Of the two, Spain was the better choice. In the first place, it was unlikely the Germans would have the opportunity to examine the body themselves; also, it was known that there was a very active German agent at Huelva, Spain, who had excellent contacts with certain Spanish officials, and who would almost certainly be given any papers or objects of importance pertaining to the war, should these arrive in Spanish hands. The extent of the Spanish-German cooperation was such that risk of the body and papers being handed right over to the British Vice-Consul before they could be intercepted was negligible; someone was bound to interfere.
Moreover, Huelva wasn't close enough to Gibraltar for the Spaniards to send for burial, which was a good thing because the arrival of an officer who did not exist would certainly have people talking, and the words would certainly reach German ears.
Consultations with the hydrographer revealed that the southwesterly wind, which would prevail throughout April, would be 'onshore'; the hydrographer was certain that a floating object would be swept towards the Spanish shore. Luck was on their side.
The body, along with the documents it was carrying, had to arrive in Spain by the beginning of May if it was to be of any use at all in the operation. It would take time to set the cogs in motion: the information would first have to reach the German Intelligence Service, which would have to be convinced of its authenticity before they would pass it on to the operational staff, who would then need time to redirect their forces to fortify the wrong places.
Mode of Transportation
Then there was the issue of how the body would be delivered to Huelva. Dropping the body into the sea was ruled out; the body might be injured or damaged. The committee decided that a submarine would be the ideal means of transportation, as it could get the furthest inshore without being detected.
Montagu, with permission from the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff, discussed the plans with Admiral Barry, the flag officer in command of the submarines, who decided that the body could be shipped by a submarine en route to Malta as these submarines frequently transported important, reasonably-sized objects to the island. The container, measuring about six feet six inches long and two feet in diameter, could be accommodated inside the pressure hull, thus removing the problem of having to get a pressure-proof container. The submarine they eventually decided on was the HM Submarine Seraph, as her departure for Malta could be delayed for a fortnight. The commander of the vessel was Lieutenant Bill Jewell, who along with his crew had previously participated in special operations in connection with Operation Torch3.
Further consultation with Sir Bernard convinced the committee that a giant thermos would not be necessary to protect the body from the forces of decay, if the body was cold enough when put into the container, and if they excluded as much oxygen as possible when packing in the corpse.
Because the container carrying the body would be placed inside the pressure hull of a submarine, it needed only to be airtight. Two skins of 22-gauge steel were welded together, with asbestos wool lining the inner layer. A similar lid bedded onto an airtight rubber gasket by sixteen nuts sealed the container4. As the container was estimated to weigh about 400 pounds once the body was inside, lifting handles were equipped at either end to facilitate moving.
Preparing the vital documents
This was what the entire operation centered upon – the vital document containing vital information so convincing in its deception that it would cause the Germans to act upon it, and effectively look the other way. The catch was that, because it had to convince the Germans of its authenticity, then this document would have to be a really high level one between two important military figures who had first-hand knowledge of what was being planned, and thus could not fall prey to a cover plan.
The deception was vital. It was clear that the Allies had to take Sicily if they were to advance into Europe; however, the Sicily landing, followed by an advance up the Italian peninsula, would drain the Allies of all its resources. They were already short on landing craft and escorts; the forces they had in Africa (General Alexander's, under Eisenhower's command in North Africa, and Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson's in Egypt) had to be used for a single operation for the operation to succeed.
Of course, there was no way for the Germans to know of these problems. For all they knew, the Allies could be hitting them from any of three directions: (1) General Eisenhower's army attacking the South of France, decimating Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, but risking Italy as an unconquered base for counterattacks; (2) the same army taking Italy from the Mediterranean, the first step of which would be to attack Sicily; and (3) Sir Henry's army in Egypt invading Greece by way of advance through the Balkans. Since the Allies' forces were concentrated in Africa, the Germans would never be deceived into believing that the Allies would take their forces through German airfields in Sicily to a target someplace further north. Whatever this vital document contained, it had to convince the Germans that the Allies would be taking options 1 and 3, when the conquest of Sicily was their real goal.
For this, Montagu aimed high, proposing the letter be composed by Sir Archibald Nye, the Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff to General Alexander at 18th Army Group Headquarters. Sir Archibald, intrigued by the plans, rose splendidly to the occasion, producing a letter in which was revealed in an 'off the record' manner that there were to be two operations: General Alexander's would be against Sardinia and perhaps Corsica; and Sir Henry's against Greece (which was given the name 'Operation Husky' – the real name for the Sicilian invasion). Furthermore, the letter disclosed that the committee in charge of the operations was striving to convince the Germans that they were going to invade Sicily.
There were reasons behind Montagu's incredibly high-level letter. Because the document had such an important role in turning the tides in their favour, they could not risk for it to be one of dubious authenticity. It couldn’t be an indiscretion or 'leak' from somebody lower down, who could be duped; a personal letter from one important figure to another, that would not go through the usual channel of postal bags but through a courier of some sort would strengthen the deception. In the event of a real information leak, this document would further serve to convince the Germans that the leak was only a part of the cover plan they'd found out about. Furthermore, it would serve to dupe the Germans into believing that the two armies were strong enough for two separate operations that would take place nowhere near the intended target, thus dispersing enemy forces more widely than if there were to be only one cover target.
The Making of Major Martin
Perhaps the most interesting part of planning Operation Mincemeat was building up a character for the man who would deliver the letter of deception into the laps of the Germans. If he was to carry out his mission successfully, this man would have to convince the Germans that he had a reason for carrying such a document about his person, and that he wasn't just some body planted on them – which of course he was.
The committee had long established that the dead man merely had to be a staff officer, not one who had been through mud and trenches. Given that the body they'd found wasn't in excellent physical shape, this was convenient. It would not do for him to be in the army – any telegram reporting the finding of a dead body on the Spanish coast would be distributed to a large number of people, which would complicate things and raise eyebrows; having him join the navy was a ghastly idea, given that naval uniforms were made to measure, and what horror it would be to have to bring the corpse in for fitting!
Eventually they settled for the man to be an officer in the Royal Marines. Montagu gave the man the name William Martin, and assigned him the rank of Major. They had decided that junior officers would be unlikely to be given the task of conveying vital documents, and yet the body they had in storage was too young for the man to be of senior rank, unless he was outstanding in his performance – in which case his fellow officers were certain to have noticed him.
Part of the reason for making Major Martin a Royal Marine despite the risks involved5 was to avoid the hassle of signals and reports and the uniforms issue. There was a fair number of Martins of about the same rank in the Royal Marines, and Montagu was banking on the fact the Marines would not know every single Martin in their corps in the event of a discussion about a Martin being found off the coast of Spain; also, the Germans were believed to be in possession of fairly recent copies of the Army list; however their Navy information (including their Marines list) was limited to the A-L volume, and so they would have no way of knowing that Major William Martin was non-existent.
Unfortunately, the committee was faced with a problem at this point – they had no photograph of Major Martin for his ID. This would not have been a problem, but for the fact that Royal Marine officers, as opposed to normal army officers, carried identity cards with them when going abroad.
They tried to get Major Martin's photograph the traditional way, namely aiming a camera at him and clicking the button. This of course resulted in disaster, as the only photograph they managed to obtain was that of a very obviously dead man. So of course they had to scramble to get a body double6 who would resemble Major Martin closely enough to pass for him in a photograph. They'd persuaded a young naval officer working in the Naval Intelligence Division to pose for the photograph, when luck sent a man who might have been the corpse's twin to a meeting that Montagu attended, thus putting an end to their troubles.
The committee knew that when the body of Major Martin was found, the questions that would arise would be: Why was he being flown to North Africa? And how was it that a letter of such high importance was to be found on him?
If a seaborne operation was being planned against a defended coast, they reasoned, then it would be conceivable that an expert would be called in to advise on the matter of landing craft and equipment. Montagu therefore drafted a letter for signature by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, addressed to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean. In the letter Mountbatten gave Martin his vote of confidence as a man highly able in his field of barges of equipment; more importantly Mountbatten told Cunningham that Major Martin was carrying a letter of high importance and urgency to be sent to General Alexander, that could not go by signal, thus adequately explaining the need for Martin to be flown out.
Now, with two important documents for Major Martin to courier, they now had to worry about whether the Germans would question why the dead man was carrying such vital papers in his briefcase instead of on his person; they were not about to risk the Spaniards failing to find the documents in Major Martin's jacket pocket before handing over the body! It was, therefore, convenient for them that at the time of planning Operation Mincemeat, Hilary Saunders's official pamphlet on the Commandos was about to see publication in Britain, and was to be accompanied by an American edition. They took the opportunity for Lord Mountbatten to 'write' to General Eisenhower for a foreword to the pamphlet, and made a small accompaniment packet containing the proofs of the pamphlet and the photographs that would be included – as well as a slyly inserted indication that Major Martin was a very responsible officer. This fully justified Major Martin putting all his official documents in a briefcase.
They had just cleared an obstacle; now another followed. How were they to ensure that both briefcase and body arrived on the coast of Huelva together? They could not risk placing the handle of the briefcase in Martin's hand; the tumult of the sea, along with other complications might break the rigor mortis, and there would go their plans. Ultimately they had to settle for the unappealing solution of using a banker's chain, reasoning that an officer carrying such important papers would think to attach the case to himself; they made a compromise by deciding that Martin would be wearing the chain looped around his trenchcoat belt in the manner of a man who wanted to be comfortable during a long flight but nevertheless did not want to risk leaving behind his case7. As they were planning to make Major Martin a highly responsible, yet somewhat careless man, this fit in nicely with the whole scheme.
If Major Martin was to come to life as a person, he had to have a personality and, inevitably, the traits of a normal human. All of this was going to have to be structured around whatever could be found in the normal man's pockets.
The idea to give Major Martin minor character imperfections came from Montagu, who had been endeavouring to make the dead man a convincingly worn identity card; having tired of trying to age the card, he decided that the major should have lost his original identity card and that the card he carried should be a replacement one8. They decided to do the same thing in obtaining Martin's special pass for the Combined Operations HQ by having him slip up and 'forget' to renew his pass (which expired on 31 March 1943), thereby reinforcing the image of a man who was a responsible officer, and at the same time a man who was somewhat careless in his personal affairs.
Major Martin had every right to be careless at this point in his life, however, because he was about to get married to a charming girl named Pam, whose letters he was carrying everywhere with him in the manner of a man utterly besotted9. The love letters were written by an unnamed girl recruited for the job by a girl in one of the offices; Pam's photograph was that of a War Office worker who had access to top secret papers. He had purchased a ring for her from SJ Phillips, the Bond Street jewelers10 - unpaid for, of course, because he had an overdraft problem with Lloyds Bank of London (and whose worrying letter issued by the Joint General Manager at Head Office he carried with him).
His money problem, no doubt, arose from his extravagance in properly having a good time – he had an invitation to a nightclub, had stayed at the Naval Military Club for five days while in London (and thus carried a receipted bill in his pocket), and had apparently brought somebody to the Prince of Wales theatre on the 2 April. His old-fashioned father was openly disapproving of his son's careless way with money and his war wedding, as he made no secret of in his letters, and had even insisted on his son making a will with McKenna and Company should Martin stubbornly choose to go on with this ridiculous plan. To avoid the risk that the Spaniards might perform an autopsy on the dead man and discover the real cause of death, Montagu's committee decided that Major Martin would be a Roman Catholic (as indicated on his dogtag), and equipped him with both a silver cross on a silver chain around his neck and a St Christopher plaque in his wallet.
Montagu and his company had lovingly planned each step of Major Martin's transformation from a document-bearing corpse to a man who had lived and loved and died, in the manner of old friends who had known him well. It later turned out that they had not overplanned this part of the operation after all – the Germans had even taken note of the dates on Major Martin's theatre stubs.
The Dead Man Goes to War
The vital documents had now been prepared; the corpse was waiting in cold storage. Now all that remained was to dress Major Martin and send him off to war.
And here was the only part in the entire planning of Operation Mincemeat that the committee had slipped up. As the Royal Marines did not have custom-fitted uniforms, a member of the committee of approximately the same build was selected to obtain a suitable battle-dress to which was added the appropriate Royal Marine and Commando flashes and major's crown. His trenchcoat (which bore his rank pips) and other garments were used clothing; however, the committee decided to buy him a shirt at Grieves and have Martin keep the bill; it was only realised belatedly that the officer who had purchased the shirt had paid cash for it – and Martin was the one with an overdraft problem! (The Germans never noticed this, but the slip-up was of utmost embarrassment to the committee nevertheless.)
The hilarity of the situation got even better when they had to prepare Major Martin's body for the mission. In spite of the fact that Martin had been lying stiff and cold in storage, they had managed to fully dress the body from the underwear up, although not without difficulty. Until they got to the boots, that is. Acutely embarrassed, they were forced to thaw out Martin's feet and ankles using an electric fire so that they could get the boots on11.
Having completed the unpleasant task of dressing the corpse, they packed him into the canister, wrapped in a blanket, and filled the canister with dry ice. A racing motorist named Jock Horsfall was borrowed to drive Cholmondeley, Montagu and the canister up north to the dock at Greenock on 18 April, where they were all ferried down to HMS Forth, the submarine depot ship lying in the Holy Loch12. There, on board the HMS Seraph, Cholmondeley and Montagu handed Major Martin over to Lieutenant Jewell along with the rubber dinghy he was to launch along with the body, and their part in the story ended.
Jewell had been instructed to tell his crew that the package they had supposedly been shipping to Malta was a secret weather-reporting buoy; if the crew was on deck, he would use the cover story that the 'equipment' being launched was to trap a very active German agent in the area, and manipulate the Spaniards to eject the said agent (thus complete secrecy was to be maintained lest it compromised their influence over the Spaniards). Following the launch of the body, he was to transmit one of three signals: in the happy event that the operation was carried out smoothly, he would transmit 'MINCEMEAT completed'; if, for some reason the operation had to be cancelled or abandoned, the signal would read 'Cancel MINCEMEAT' or 'MINCEMEAT abandoned', respectively.
The HMS Seraph set sail on 19 April, bringing with it a package that could turn the tides of war, while the committee sat through a period of anxiety, waiting for a signal to come through. They received it on 30 April, 1943. It read, 'MINCEMEAT completed'.
The Mechanism Set in Motion
At 04.30 hours on 30 April, 1943, the HMS Seraph sailed into Low Water Lisbon, and Major Martin was placed into the water about eight cables from the beach of Huelva. The wash of the submarine screws going full speed astern propelled the body and dinghy inshore; the canister - containing water, the blanket, tapes and dinghy container - were cast overboard at 36°37'30 N 07°18'00 West, and sunk with shots from a Vickers gun and .455 revolver.
Lieutenant Jewell had let his officers in on the secret once all the ratings had left the deck13. There they had removed Major Martin's body from the canister, inflated his Mae West, checked that the briefcase was securely attached – and in a moving detour from their instructions, held a burial service for the dead man, before casting him into the water.
Three days later the committee in London received a signal from the Naval Attaché14 in Madrid, informing them that the body of a Major Martin, Royal Marines had been picked up off the coast of Huelva by fishermen on 30 April. Following the handing over to the Vice-Consul, the body had been given a full military funeral15 at noon on 4 May, 1943. This was soon followed by the Admiralty bombarding the Naval Attaché with a series of increasingly pressing messages, urging him to get back all documents found with the body at all costs (having revealed to the Naval Attaché that the papers were of utmost secrecy and importance), and at the same time warning him that he must not let his anxiety show lest the Spaniards become alerted to the importance of the documents and conveniently 'lose' or open them. In the event that he recovered them, he was to signal to 'DNI – Personal' the names of the addressees and return the unopened documents to the DNI as quickly as possible.
The documents, which had supposedly passed through 'Naval channels' arrived at the Naval Attaché's office on 13 May via the Spanish Chief of Naval Staff, who had assured him that 'everything was there.' Two days later, the Minister of Marine confided to the Naval Attaché that, upon hearing about the papers, he had immediately given orders to the Chief of Naval Staff to return them at once lest somebody had an unauthorised look at them – which no doubt had happened, for a thorough examination of the documents revealed that they had been carefully opened.
Discreet inquiries in Huelva revealed that the body had been found by a fisherman, who had hailed a nearby launch and handed the body to an officer who was exercising a detachment of infantry there. A naval judicial officer had taken charge of all the documents and personal effects; the body had been sent to the local mortuary for examination by a doctor, who had certified that the man, having fallen into the sea alive, had died from asphyxiation brought on by immersion five to eight days before he was found. An American Air Force pilot who had crashed into the sea on 27 April had been brought in to identify the body; naturally he couldn't.
The chief German agent in Huelva, having learnt of the discovery of the body, had quickly moved to obtain the addresses on the envelopes, and had tried to lay hands on copies of all the documents; he failed in the latter as neither he nor his associates had contacts with the right departments.
Meanwhile, Montagu and his colleages had decided to place Major Martin's name for inclusion in the casualty lists published in The Times, deducing that the Germans (who would receive their copies of the paper in Lisbon) would be keeping an eye on such lists. The announcement was made on 4 June; serendipitously, the names of two other officers who had died when their aeroplane had been lost at sea made the list on the same day. They later regretted this move, however, when the Naval Wills Department hounded them about whether Major Martin had made out a will, and the Medical Director-General's Department wanted to know the details about Major Martin's death for inclusion in their statistics. This was, happily, the closest the operation ever came to being 'leaked'.
On 10 July, 1943, Allied troops surged onto the shores of Sicily and rapidly advanced into the island, virtually unchallenged by the Germans, who had shifted their defence to the western and northern regions of the city. The Italians had collapsed almost immediately; the Germans, under Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, had been forced to fall back to Messina, and by 17 August, General George S Patton and Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery had completely taken Sicily. Both Operation Mincemeat and Operation Husky had been an enormous success.
It was some months after VE Day that Montagu, slogging away in an ill-ventilated room in the Admiralty, received a phone call from the Deputy Director of Naval Intelligence. He'd been laughing so hard that he was incoherent; Montagu went up to his office and was presented a sheaf of documents – German-translated copies of the Mincemeat letters! It turned out that an officer in charge of sorting and translation of the German naval archives at Tambach (following its capture) had found the documents and, fearing there had been a horrific breach of security, had gone to the DDNI for instructions.
The DDNI (after recovering from his laughter) had subsequently mobilised his men to search for other documents bearing on the matter; they discovered that the German agents in Madrid had somehow managed to get their hands on copies of the documents after all, and had almost immediately telegraphed their contents (early in the first week of May) to the German Intelligence Service in Berlin. There they had examined the documents for authenticity; however, time was of the essence, and the Intelligence Service had clearly declared the details were genuine16, and discreetly forwarded them to Admiral Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. By 15 May, the German Intelligence Service had circulated another report detailing the items found on the body and in Major Martin's briefcase: their operatives had sneakily got around the British Consul's request for the documents to be handed to him on the pretext that all the recovered articles were to be presented to the local Spanish magistrate. The documents were then reproduced and returned to their original condition, giving the impression that they had been untouched. In a serendipitous twist of fate, the Germans had been mistakenly informed that Major Martin had had the briefcase clutched in his hand, thereby allaying the operation committee's concern that the briefcase chain would raise suspicion among the Germans17.
Mincemeat Swallowed Whole
The extent of Operation Mincemeat's success was only determined with the capture of the archives at Tambach. There they had found a copy of a message sent by the German High Command to their Tunisian army in February 1943, informing them that the Allies' next operation would be in the Mediterranean, and alerting them that it would most likely be in Sicily (followed by Crete, Sardinia and Corsica in order of probability). More importantly, the message warned the army that 'it is apparent that the enemy is practising deception on a larger scale'. The success of Mincemeat was fully appreciated with the finding of a document to the High Command stating that the target of the next Allied operation was the West coast of the Peloponnese in Greece, the code name of which was 'Husky', and warning that this discovery and the circulation of the information in the letter was to be maintained in complete secrecy.
By 14 May Hitler had been informed of these documents and had been convinced of their genuineness – an entry in Admiral Doenitz's journal revealed that the Fuehrer disagreed with the Duce that the most likely invasion point would be Sicily; the discovery of Major Martin's documents had convinced him that the attacks would be directed against Sardinia and the Peloponnesus. The General Staff of the Army had concluded Sardinia would be the target, with Sicily being the target of a possible diversionary attack.
What the German Army and the Luftwaffe may have done following the disclosure of these documents can only be deduced by the following evidence: that the First German Panzer Division had been sent all the way from France to Tripolis to command resistance against landings in West Peloponnesus. There were also records that the German Foreign Office had been asked to warn the Turkish Governments of the German troops and ships to be moved to Greece, without hostile intentions against Turkey. Three German minefields were laid off Greece; the German Admiral in command in the Ægean had been ordered to take control of minefields the Italians were laying off the western coast of Greece; German coastal-defence batteries were ordered to be set up in territory under Italian control. There were also orders for the establishment of R18-boat (German Motor Torpedo Boats) bases, command stations, naval sea patrol services and numerous other safeguards. A strong Panzer force, along with ancillaries and supplies, was sent to Corsica in June, by which time the emphasis was on fortifying defences at Sardinia and Corsica, and precautionary reinforcement of north Sicily taking second priority.
Perhaps even more damaging to the Germans was the relocation of an entire group of German R-boats from Sicily to the Ægean, and the fact that Hitler had ordered for two Panzer divisions to be moved from Russia to Greece just as the great tank battle at Kursk in Russia was approaching its climax.
In fact, just the day before the Allied troops landed on Sicily, General Keitel, Commander-in-Chief of the Supreme Command of the German Armed Forces, sent out a long appreciation said to be that of Doenitz. The appreciation noted the likelihood of all three islands, Corsica, Sardinia and Sicily being attacked (either together or one at a time) in conjunction with the Greek operation. The ramification of this assessment was that there were enough Allied troops in North Africa alone to provide for both operations and exploit the bridgehead formed in Greece. He further noted that the western assault forces were ready for mobilisation at any time; the forces in the east appeared to be still forming up!
Operation Mincemeat had been such a great success that even on the morning of the Sicilian invasion the Germans were still convinced that the assault was a diversionary one, and had instructed German agents on the shores of the Straits of Gibraltar to be on the look-out for convoys headed for Corsica and Sardinia. The belief weakened only two days into the assault, after Sicily had been pounded flat by the Allies. Meanwhile the German forces sat idle in Greece, waiting for an attack that would never arrive.
What Operation Mincemeat Achieved
The success of Operation Mincemeat lay not only in the complete deception of the Spaniards and the German Intelligence Services in both Spain and Berlin. It had also deceived the ones highest up in the hierarchy who would determine the course of war – Keitel, of course, and most importantly the Fuehrer himself, Adolf Hitler, who had continued to believe, two weeks into Operation Husky, that the main assault would still be on Greece19, and whose courses of action would cost the Germans dearly. This would be repeated in the near future – a year later, when Operation Overlord brought Allied troops surging onto the shores of Normandy, Hitler was convinced that the attack was to divert the attention from the real attack that would come from Pas de Calais20, and so kept important forces (including the 1st SS Panzer Division) out of the real battle during the most critical period of the attack. Whether or not Operation Mincemeat played a role in influencing Hitler during this time remains under speculation.
Most importantly, the success of Operation Mincemeat meant that a great many more Allied soldiers who were involved in Operation Husky could return to their families alive.
The Story of The Man Who Never Was
The amazing story of how Major Martin, a man who had never existed, had duped the Germans and saved thousands of lives might never have reached the public but for Duff Cooper's book Operation Heartbreak21 (1950), which relied heavily on the story of Mincemeat. Ian Colvin would have followed this publication with his own, but his researched account was suppressed by the Joint Intelligence Committee who decided that, if they couldn't stop the story from getting out, they might as well get the man who knew it best to write it. This resulted in the publication of Ewen Montagu's The Man Who Never Was in 1953.
Three years later a movie was made based on this story. The movie, also named The Man Who Never Was, featured Montagu in a small cameo as one of the critical senior officers at the meeting of the Double-Cross Committee22, was hailed for its imaginative yet responsible treatment of the story23.
Epilogue: Who was Major Martin?
There is a plain white marble tombstone in a graveyard in the Spanish town of Huelva bearing the name 'William Martin', beneath which rests the body of a man who helped save the lives of thousands and turned the tides of war. Fowers have been laid on this grave on a regular basis – the grave of a man whose identity, for over half a century, remained a mystery, protected by the committee who oversaw Operation Mincemeat.
Then in 1996, 53 years after Mincemeat, a British town planning officer and amateur historian by the name of Roger Morgan uncovered evidence that Major Martin had actually been a homeless Welsh alcoholic named Glyndwr Michael who had died through ingestion of rat poison (whether it was suicide or accidental poisoning was undetermined)24. This was supported by the fact that rat poison commonly contained cyanide which causes pulmonary congestion or chemical pneumonia; in addition, the place of birth Montagu's committee had given Martin was Cardiff in Wales.
And the flowers? It was revealed that they had been laid on the grave by British-born Isabel Naylor de Mendez (69), who had been tending the war graves at the cemetery. Her father had first started putting flowers on the grave in 1946; shortly before he died in 1966 he had instructed his daughter to carry on the tradition, saying that it was the grave of a man who had saved many lives in the war, and thus it was their duty to take care of his final resting place. Isabel Naylor de Mendez was awarded the MBE in 2002.
The tombstone now also bears Gwyndr Michael's real name, added by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission. He might have been a worthless, wretched vagrant who spent his final hours alone in a warehouse, but in death he served his nation in a way far greater than most would ever have in life.
Montagu, Ewen; The Man Who Never Was: World War II’s Boldest Counterintelligence Operation. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1953.
Mouland, Bill; 'Nearly 60 years on, a final chapter in the intriguing tale of The Man Who Never Was,' Daily Mail, 20 March, 2002.
Captured Enemy Document on Mediterranean Operations. Letter from the German Intelligence Service (Berlin) to Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Dooenitz, dated 14 May, 1943.
Copy of 1st Naval War Staff 1 Ops. 1942/43, Most Secret, SO only, of May 20.43.
- Captain Bill Jewell
- Operation Mincemeat: How a Corpse Saved Thousands of Lives in World War II
- The Man Who Never Was
- Seraph Monument