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Operation Mincemeat: Britain's campaign of deception in WWII
In the early hours of 30th April 1943, a small Spanish fishing boat happened upon the body of British Officer Major Martin floating just off the coast. Cuffed to the Major’s hand was a briefcase containing top secret documents vital to the Allied war efforts. Detailing how the Allies intended to invade Greece and Sardinia rather than the more advantageous Sicily, if the documents were to fall into the wrong hands, it could spell major disaster for British and Allied forces.
That is, of course, if Major Martin was even a real person.
What was Operation Mincemeat?
Operation Mincemeat was a British deception operation designed to draw enemy forces away from an intended point of invasion. Two British intelligence officers, Charles Cholmondeley and Ewan Montague were tasked with the elaborate operation that had to be convincing enough to fool German Command into moving vital resources away from Sicily. This would allow the Allied forces to successfully take the island and gain an all-important foothold in the south of Europe.
What was the point of Operation Mincemeat?
The Allies often utilised deception operations to try and trick the Germans into unintentionally weakening their defences or leaving major footholds relatively unguarded. Having successfully fought off the occupying forces in North Africa, Churchill turned his eyes to the soft underbelly of Hitler’s occupation. There were two options for suitable invasion points that would have given Allied powers a stronger foothold in the Mediterranean: Sicily and Greece.
With Greece, Sardinia, and the Balkans a riskier choice for the Allied powers, it was obvious that Sicily would have been a greater tactical point of interest for the Allies. As such, it was heavily defended, and any attempt at invasion would have likely ended in disaster. Meanwhile, any attempt at attacking Greece and the Balkans would have taken time and considerable manoeuvring of assets, leaving Hitler with the advantage.
Operation Mincemeat was designed to try and convince Hitler that the Allies were going to feint an attack on Sicily to distract away from the real targets - Greece and Sardinia. This served the twofold purpose of not only drawing Hitler’s forces away from Sicily but also making any gathering of resources ready for the attack on Sicily look like deception operations themselves.
How was James Bond involved in Operation Mincemeat?
Operation Mincemeat was the macabre brain-child of a British Intelligence officer who produced a list of 54 ideas for deception operations called the Trout Memo.
Idea number 28 (later named Operation Mincemeat) was inspired by a novel by Basil Thompson. It was a basic outline whereby an airman would be drowned at sea and equipped with false papers.
The author of the Trout Memo, outlining the 54 possible opportunities for deception, was penned by none other than Ian Flemming - the creator of James Bond.
Why was it called Operation Mincemeat?
The operation’s title was a tongue-in-cheek nod to the fact that the entire plan hinged on using a dead body.
Where did they find the body for Operation Mincemeat?
A large part of Operation Mincemeat centred around finding the right kind of dead body to create the fictional Major Martin. Roadblocks to finding the right corpse included:
- The method of death: Any body used would have to stand up to the scrutiny of an autopsy. They needed it to appear as though Major Martin died at sea when his parachute failed to deploy. Bodies of men who had died from injuries or ill health would have risked the entire operation.
- The right build for a marine: With most men of a fighting age off fighting in the war, finding the body of someone of the right age and the health of a soldier was difficult.
- Finding someone that wouldn’t be missed: They would need to find the corpse of someone with no family to claim the body to minimise any risk of discovery.
Who was Major Martin in Operation Mincemeat?
Unfortunately, Cholmondeley and Montague held little respect for the life of Glyndwr Michael, the man whose body they transformed into Major Martin. Assuming him to have been some ne’er do well from the streets, Montagu and Cholmondley never intended for the identity of Glyndwr to be discovered.
Buried with full military honours, very little investigation had been made into Michael’s history or whether he had remaining friends or family who might have mourned him. The uncomfortable truth is that his body was stolen, with his contribution to the war effort only attributed to him in 1997 when a post-script was added to the grave epitaph of Major William Martin - a man who never existed.
Was Operation Mincemeat successful?
Operation Mincemeat was, perhaps surprisingly, an incredibly successful operation. It was touch and go as to whether German intelligence would take the bait left by Cholmondeley and Montague. After all, Major Martin had never existed.
Whether it was down to the excruciating detail that had gone into transforming Glyndwr Michael into the recently deceased Major Martin or down to the desperation of German intelligence to get a win, the letter was believed to be real and quickly found its way to Hitler’s desk.
Deeming the information in the letter to be credible, Hitler ordered infantry and panzer divisions along with artillery, torpedo boats, and fighter squadrons to be quickly relocated to defend Greece and Sardinia, leaving Sicily underdefended.
How did a dead body fool Hitler?
Cholmondeley and Montague’s efforts to create the ultimate deception extended beyond finding the perfect body. Details as small as Major Martin’s underwear to the leaf litter contained in his pockets were considered to create the effect of a whole human who lived a life both in and out of the military.
Everything from love letters to the receipt for an engagement ring was included, along with keys, stamps, and stubs from tickets to the theatre. They even included an overdraft notice from the bank.
Given the level of detail that MI5 created around the life of Major Martin, it would have been very difficult not to have been convinced that he wasn’t a real person.