In the early hours of the morning of April 30th 1943, a British submarine surfaced off the coast of Spain near the port of Huelva. It carried a very unusual cargo – a sealed canister containing the body of a deceased officer. Attached to his belt was a briefcase containing a letter that, were it to fall into the wrong hands, would reveal the Allies’ plans for an imminent invasion of the Balkans.
But all was not as it seemed. The submarine was not transporting the body back to Blighty. It was instead preparing to lower it into the water and float it towards the Spanish mainland. Why? Because this wasn’t a dead British officer at all. It was the ‘Man Who Never Was’ - a homeless drifter called Glyndwr Michael, and the letter his corpse carried was an elaborate fake.
This was 'Operation Mincemeat', later described by the historian Michael Howard as ‘perhaps the most successful single deception operation of the entire war'.
So, how did this bizarre operation come about?
Following on from the Allies’ successful North Africa campaign, Churchill was determined to attack what he described as ‘Europe’s soft under-belly’ – the Italian island of Sicily.
'Operation Mincemeat (was) perhaps the most successful single deception operation of the entire war.'
However, the Allies had a problem. Hitler and his generals would see this attack coming a mile off as Sicily was the most obvious target. What was needed was a plan to throw the Führer off the scent. It was decided that a disinformation campaign (later named Operation Barclay) would be deployed to try and trick the Germans into thinking the attack would be on the Balkans, not Sicily.
Multiple deception operations were mounted to throw the Axis off the scent. These included the building up of a fake army in the eastern Mediterranean, the broadcast of deceptive radio chatter, the buying up of large quantities of Greek maps and the hiring of Greek translators. All helped convince the enemy that an attack was imminent on the Balkans, but what really sealed the deal was Operation Mincemeat.
Mincemeat was first floated as an idea back in 1939 by none other than Ian Fleming - the man who would later gain worldwide fame as the creator of James Bond. Fleming had been asked to come up with a series of deception schemes at the start of the war, and one of his ideas was dropping a dead body loaded with fake documents behind enemy lines.
Fleming’s idea sounded just the ticket for Operation Barclay. If the Allies could get a letter giving away their plans into the hands of an Abwehr (German intelligence) operative in Spain, it would soon be winging its way to Berlin.
The men tasked with bringing Fleming’s plan to life were Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumley’). They began to look into the feasibility of finding a corpse, dressing it up as a soldier and floating it off the cost of Spain where, they hoped, the supposedly-neutral country would recover the body and secretly pass the letter on to Nazi high command.
Montagu got in touch with the coroner for the Northern District of London - the magnificently-named Bentley Purchase - about securing a body. Purchase told Montagu that he would keep an eye out for a suitable corpse, though he expressed doubts he would find one as the majority of corpses were claimed by families.
Enter Glyndwr Michael. One night, his body was found slumped in a disused warehouse near King’s Cross Station in London. Tests revealed he had consumed bread laced with rat poison, whether intentionally or by mistake. Two days later, Michael succumbed to internal injuries and died at the age of thirty-four. After finding out Michael had no friends or family, Purchase was straight on the phone to Montagu. They had their man.
With a body secured, Montagu and Cholmondeley set about creating an elaborate back-story for their fictional soldier. He was named ‘William Martin’ and given the rank of Captain (Acting Major), a rank senior enough for him to be carrying sensitive documents, but not senior enough that the enemy would have heard of him.
So-called ‘pocket litter’ was created for Martin – various bits and bobs that would go inside the man’s jacket and wallet that would add flavour to his story and help convince the Spanish and the Germans that he was a real man.
Amongst the pocket litter was a stern letter from Martin’s father, a receipt from a jeweler’s shop in London for a diamond engagement ring, a letter from Lloyds Bank demanding repayment of a £79 19s 2d overdraft and a photograph of Martin’s fictional fiancée, ‘Pam’, alongside two love letters from her.
Next up, a set of documents were created, including a letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, the vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, to General Sir Harold Alexander, who at the time commanded the 18th Army Group in North Africa. This was the crucial document containing what the Allies hoped would fool the enemy. Nye wrote:
“We have recent information that the Bosche have been reinforcing and strengthening their defences in Greece and Crete and C.I.G.S. felt that our forces for the assault were insufficient. It was agreed by the Chiefs of Staff that the 5th Division should be reinforced by one Brigade Group for the assault on the beach south of CAPE ARAXOS and that a similar reinforcement should be made for the 56th division at KALAMATA.”
Amongst the pocket litter was a stern letter from Martin’s father, a receipt from a jeweler’s shop in London for a diamond engagement ring...and a photograph of Martin’s fictional fiancée, ‘Pam’.
Everything was now in place. The body of Glyndwr Michael was dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marines officer, his pockets and wallet were filled with the so-called ‘pocket litter’, and the briefcase containing the deceptive letter was attached to his belt. His body was placed in an airtight canister, loaded aboard the submarine HMS Seraph and the boat set sail for Spain.
And so it was that on the morning of April 30th 1943, the body of Glyndwr Michael was dragged aboard a Spanish sardine fisherman’s boat and was soon in the hands of the local authorities in the port of Huelva.
Of course, because Spain was a supposedly neutral country, what should have happened was the documents and personal effects of ‘Major Martin’ should have been returned to the British consulate immediately. Instead, everything found on the body was examined by the Spanish and an agent of the Abwehr and, most importantly, the letter from Nye was steamed open, the contents rolled out and copied. Once everything had been copied, the documents were soaked in seawater and returned to the British consulate. A single eyelash placed inside the envelope by the British was missing when it was returned - proof that the Spanish had indeed read the letter.
The ruse had worked. Soon, Nye’s letter was winging its way to Berlin where its contents were poured over by Hitler and his top brass. Thanks to the other actions in Operation Barclay, Hitler had already begun to suspect an Allied attack on the Balkans was imminent. Mincemeat sealed the deal. The documents and detritus found on Major Martin were so convincing that they persuaded Hitler to shift his attention to the Balkans.
In preparation for the expected invasion, Hitler ordered the highly-respected 1st Panzer Division to move from France to Salonika. Sardinia’s troop strength was doubled; torpedo boats moved from Sicily to Greece; two panzer divisions transferred from the Eastern Front to the Balkans, weakening the already depleted forces in the Russian theatre; seven German divisions were moved to Greece, and a further ten were sent to the Balkans. It was an enormous redistribution of German military strength for absolutely no reason whatsoever.
The Allies began their attack on Sicily on the 9th July 1943 against the vastly reduced opposition. Hitler remained convinced the main attack was still to come, even sending the mighty General Erwin Rommel to Salonika to oversee defences. Of course, there was to be no attack on Greece and the Balkans. By the time the Axis realized they’d been fooled, it was too late to do anything about it.
Sicily fell to the Allies on the 17th August. Once the smoke cleared, the number of casualties and loss of allied ships was a fraction of what had been expected, and the campaign had taken just thirty-eight days as opposed to the expected ninety. Many credited Operation Barclay - and in particular Operation Mincemeat - with bringing about this relatively easy victory.
And what of Glyndwr Michael - the drifter who had died unknown and unloved? His remains lay for decades beneath the soil of the Nuestra Señora cemetery in Huelva. His headstone read:
‘William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori, R.I.P.’
Operation Mincemeat was an extraordinary act of wartime deception. On paper, it looked almost too fantastical to succeed. That it did is a testament to the cunning of British intelligence and the imagination of Ian Fleming.
Michael’s name, it seemed, would be forgotten forever. However, in 1998 a postscript was added to the stone:
‘Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM’.
Finally, the ‘Man Who Never Was’ got the recognition he deserved.