In the opening days of World War II, the Germans enjoyed significant advantages over the Allies in almost every category you can think of. They had more soldiers, better officers, and more of just about any materiel an army would need. So when the war started, the Allies were almost powerless to stop the Nazi machine.
Almost. While the Brits couldn’t keep up with the Germans on the battlefield, they were more than a match for them behind the scenes. Instead of “fighting harder”, the British “fought smarter”. So while the Germans were deploying tanks and troops, the Brits were busy deploying code breakers, spies and helping resistance movements wherever possible. Their experience at “dirty tricks” would come in handy throughout the war – especially when it came time to invade Italy. And that’s where “Operation Mincemeat” comes in.
As the Allies saw it, their first task was to kick the Germans out of North Africa… which is exactly what they did. Their next target was Italy, but this presented a problem. The Allies knew the most logical place to invade Italy was Sicily. But so did the Germans. In fact, everyone in the world knew that Sicily was the Allies’ next target. Churchill himself even said that “[a]nyone but a fool would realize it’s Sicily”. So the question was… how to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies would land somewhere else?
How about taking a corpse, dressing it up as a military officer, handcuffing a briefcase full of “top secret documents” to it and shoving the whole mess into the sea where the Germans were sure to find it?
If that sounds like the plot of a third-rate spy novel… well, yeah. It does. And even though many of his superiors were certain that the plan would fail, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu was sure that it would work.
The plan wasn’t originally Montagu’s. A few months earlier, Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley developed the idea of dropping a corpse into France with a wireless radio strapped to it. The Germans would hopefully find the corpse and think they’d scored a huge intelligence coup… and all the while the Brits would feed them misinformation. The idea was eventually dropped as being unworkable, but Montagu filed it away for future use.
Montagu was what we’d call a “details man” today. He was convinced the plan would work if all the little details were worked out. For example, in Cholmondeley’s original plan, the corpse would be dropped from a plane and his “death” would allegedly come from the failure of the parachute to open. But the Germans knew that the Allies never sent sensitive information over enemy territory (this was the main objection to Cholmondeley’s plan). So Montagu instead opted for the corpse to wash up on the coast of Spain; with any luck, the Spanish would turn the body over to their German allies.
But there was more to the plan than just the location of the body. The corpse had to appear to have drowned, so Montagu’s men were dispatched to morgues all across Britain to look for a drowning victim. Sadly, none were available, so Montagu’s team instead opted for the unclaimed body of a 34 year-old vagrant who had died from chemically-induced pneumonia as a result of drinking rat poison. The man’s lungs were filled with liquid, and to German examiners it would appear that the man died from drowning.
Montagu knew that picking the proper location and having the proper cause of death wouldn’t be enough, though. His team went to work creating an entire life story for the corpse, who was now known to the team under his false identity – Major William Martin. An entire collection of ephemera was gathered: a set of keys, packs of matches from London nightclubs, ticket stubs from recent plays, a half-consumed pack of chewing gum… and all those other things people of the day carried on their persons.
Montagu still didn’t think it was enough, so he got a female clerk from MI-5 to write Major Martin some love letters and give “the major” a photograph of herself. Montagu still wasn’t convinced, so he added some overdue bills, a “temporary” military ID card to replace one that the major had “lost”, and even an irate letter from a manager of Lloyd’s of London about a £17 overdraft. To complete the illusion, the briefcase wouldn’t be handcuffed to Major Martin… rather it’d be connected by a loose chain around his waist – something Martin might have opted for on a long plane flight.
The illusion was almost complete. There was one final thing that the major needed… a photograph for his ID card. Montagu and his team repeatedly took the corpse out of the freezer and tried every trick they could think of to make the body look more lifelike: putting lots of make up on the corpse, different camera models, different types of film, lighting and angles… but nothing worked. According to Montagu, in every photo, the body looked “hopelessly dead”. As time for the operation came near, the team was in a panic. In a stroke of luck, a member of Montagu’s team saw a soldier that closely resembled the corpse. He was quickly put in a Royal Marines uniform and the camera was put slightly out of focus. The picture was “close enough”, and with any luck the Germans would buy it.
Finally Major Martin’s day came. He was dressed in his uniform, packed in dry ice, put inside a sealed steel canister and driven to Holy Loch, Scotland. There he was placed aboard the submarine HMS Seraph. On April 19th, the Seraph left Scotland for the area around Huelva, Spain.
Despite being officially neutral in the war, Spain was crawling with German agents, and British intelligence knew that there was an agent in Huelva. At 4:30 in the morning of April 30th, 1943, the submarine surfaced, the canister was brought on deck, the 39th Psalm was read and Major Martin was heaved over the side. At 9:30 that same morning, the body was discovered by local fisherman José Antonio Rey Maria. Shortly thereafter Adolf Clauss, the German agent in Huelva, was notified about the find.
Again, Montagu’s knack for getting the small details right paid off. He had a death notice for Major Martin sent to The Times newspaper, in case the Germans double-checked on it. As “luck” would have it, the same issue of the newspaper reported on the deaths of two other high-ranking officers who had gone down in a plane crash, giving the major’s accident even more credibility. At Montagu’s insistence, the Admiralty also sent frantic messages to their naval attache in Spain, indicating that some important papers had been lost, and that no expense should be spared in finding them… just in case the Nazis or Spaniards were listening in on the Allies’ radio transmissions.
Back in Spain, a local pathologist named Eduardo Del Tomo carried out the autopsy on Major Martin. His report stated that the man died by falling into the sea whilst still alive, and that he had been dead in the ocean for 3-5 days. Montagu’s attention to detail again paid off: because Major Martin was wearing a silver crucifix and had a St. Christopher card in his wallet, the examiner thought the major was Roman Catholic and ordered his immediate release to British authorities in the area. This kept the more thorough eyes of German medical examiners away from the body.
All the while, Clauss was busy pouring over the documents in Martin’s briefcase. Photographs of the documents were taken and immediately sent to Berlin… where the Germans swallowed them whole, mainly on account of Montagu’s attention to details. Montagu would later find out that the Germans even went to the trouble of checking the date on the theatre ticket stubs to make sure that not only was the play actually showing at that theatre, but that the theatre was actually open that night (German bombing of London often closed theatres on short notice). Mussolini remained convinced that the Allies would invade Italy via Sicily, but Hitler was so convinced by the fake documents that reinforcements were sent to Sardinia and Corsica, where the fake documents said the Allies would land.
The Allied invasion of Sicily began on July 9th, 1943. Due to Montagu’s dirty tricks, the Allies met little resistance. The Germans were so convinced that Sicily was a diversion that they hardly paid attention to the Sicily invasion for almost two weeks. By August 9th, the Allies had Sicily under their control.
In a priceless postscript to this story, over a year later an Allied airman carelessly left a folder in a gilder used to transport troops silently. That folder contained the complete details of Operation Market Garden, the Allies’ plan to invade the Netherlands… which wasn’t supposed to be on any Allied plane or gilder, or anywhere German troops might find it. However, the Germans were wary of falling for another Mincemeat-style fake, and they were convinced that this folder was a forgery. So they deployed their troops contrary to the recovered plans.
The only question that remains is… who was Major Martin? In 1996 an amateur historian named Roger Morgan found evidence that “Martin” was a vagrant Welsh alcoholic named Glyndwr Michael. The British government either can’t or won’t confirm the story, and the body of “Major William Martin” still rests in a grave in Huelva, Spain to this day.