Operation Mincemeat: The Imaginary Man

Major Martin Identity card
One of the identity cards on Major Martins body when it was found.

The 1st of May 1943, the height of the second world war. Early in the morning on a spanish beach, a fisherman found a waterlogged corpse. Not an uncommon thing to find at this time it looked like he had washed ashore during the night. The dead body was a man dressed in British military uniform wearing a life jacket and suspiciously he had a briefcase chained to his arm. Reported as a casualty of an airplane accident at sea the body was moved to a local port where Nazi officials in the city of Huelva took possession of it. From the items on the body they identified him as Major William Martin, a temporary captain acting major in the British Royal Marines. The German intelligence organisation (the Abwehr) decided to break open the briefcase to examine the contents, but did contemplate letting it go on intercepted. Along with personal effects they found personal correspondence between Lt. Gen. Sir Archibald Nye, vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Sit General Harold Alexander, the British commander of North Africa. The letters described key details of plans to invade Nazi Held territory. It seemed like Germany now had the upper hand, but all was not as it seemed. All part of the British Operation Mincemeat, this is not a christmas story.

Within days the news of the body being found in Spain got to the British military. The body was returned and buried with full military honours in Huelva. The spanish took longer to return the documents though. The British admiralty demanded their return, with emphasis on discretion due to their sensitive nature. The Spanish government had to respond as they were technically a neutral party, but they were sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Eventually the documents were returned to the British military, but not before the German Abwehr agents had teased open the sealed letters, photographed the entire contents of the briefcase, and then resealed the envelopes. The photographs made their was to Berlin to be carefully analysed. The German intelligence were wary of a ruse, and examined the other effects in great detail. His possessions included many normal items like a photograph and love letters from his fiance, a set of keys, recently used stubs for the theatre and a hotel bill. After the close inspection they believed the items were likely genuine. This indicated the letters he was transporting were also authentic. There was another letter from the Chief of Combined Operations to the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean that indicated that Major Martin was carrying a letter too sensitive to be sent through normal channels. This was the apparently reason that he was flying, acting as a courier. An image of his body can be found here.

Major Martin's fiancee, but really an MI5 officer.
The image of Major Martin’s fiancee found in the briefcase.

By all appearances the Axis powers had stumbled upon some extremely valuable intelligence, and they thought that the Allies were unaware. This, a letter indicating the exact beaches that the Allies were planning to use to invade, beaches the Axis powers could divert troops and reinforcements. The plan in the letters was described as “Operation Husky”, a secret plan to invade Nazi controlled Europe via Sardinia, Corsica and Greece. It also described a false attack upon Sicily, to draw German forces away from the “true” invasion site. Up to this point the Germans expected the Allies would invade via Sicily. Upon learning of the letter, Adolf Hitler took action. On May 12th he sent an order: “Measures regarding Sardinia and the Peloponnese take precedence over everything else.” This order diverted significant defences away from Sicily to the landing points indicated in the letter. These defences included an extra Waffen SS brigade, several Panzer divisions, patrol boats, minesweepers and minelayers. The thing is, the attacks never came to Sardinia, Corsica or Greece. The German intelligence had been duped by an elaborate deception designed to draw the Nazi defences away from the true target: Sicily. Major Martin, the dead man with the briefcase never existed.

Adm. John Godfrey
Adm. John Godfrey, the British director of naval intelligence, crafted the idea for Operation Mincemeat with the help of Lt. Cmdr. Ian Fleming. When Fleming went on to create the world of James Bond, it was rumored that the character M was based off of Godfrey. Credit: Imperial War Museum

The idea to plant false military documents on a dead man, who then fell into German hands was conceived by Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu at British Naval Intelligence. He had built on an earlier idea proposed by Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley of the counter-intelligence service MI5. The original plan was to place a wireless radio on a dead soldier whose parachute was rigged to look like it had failed. The radio would then be a channel to provide disinformation to the enemy. This plan was deemed impractical, so the death at sea ruse conceived by Montagu was used instead, dubbed operation mincemeat. The Montagu team quietly procured the body of a 34 year old homeless man who had recently died of pneumonia. As his lungs already contained fluid like a drowned man’s would, it was perfect. As the body was waiting in storage his new identity was fabricated. MI5 had an operation known as the Twenty Committee, who had expertise in counter espionage. They were known as the XX, witch is the roman numeral for 20, but also refers to “double cross”. They gave the corpse identification, keys, personal letters, and other possessions. They attempted to show that Major Martin was an absent minded yet responsible chap, so as to explain the fact he had chained himself to the briefcase. They planted evidence such as overdue bills, and a replacement ID card to achieve this.

transporting Major Martin
Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu on 17 April 1943, allegedly transporting the body to Scotland.

On April 2th 1943, the new Major Martin was placed on the submarine HMS Seraph in a special steel canister packed with dry ice. The crew set of the coast of Spain, where a citizen of the Axis-aligned country would locate the body and report it to the authorities. After two days at sea the sub surfaced about a mile off the coast of Spain at 4:30 in the morning. The plan was so secret that the crew of the submarine believed the canister contained meteorological equipment, carrying it on deck. Then everyone went below, apart from the officers. There in the dark, Lt. Norman L.A. (Bill) Jewell, the commander of Seraph explained the plan, and the contents of the canister, swearing the men to secrecy. They then removed Major Martin from the canister, onto the deck. They then fitted a life jacket and chained the briefcase to him. They read the 39th Psalm and committed the body to the sea, where the tide could take him to shore. When discovered, the British requesting the swift return of the briefcase helped the illusion that the contents were important. To complete the illusion, Major Martin was even mentioned in the British Casualty list in the Times. When the British got the documents back they found tell tale signs that the letters were opened. They also intercepted German transmissions indicating the Nazi’s were moving forces towards Greece and Corsica. The news prompted a brief cable to Winston Churchill with the words “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole”.

Officers of HMS Seraph
The officers of HMS Seraph, the submarine selected for the operation, on board in December 1943. Credit: Royal Navy

On July 9th 1943 the Allied forces launched the real attack, Operation Husky. The plan struck the southern tip of Sicily, and the swiftly conquered the island. For the following two weeks the Germans still anticipated the landings in Sardinia and Greece, but they never came. By the time they realised of the trick, there was no time to regroup, so the forces retreated to Messina. It took a month to take control of the entire island. In the years afterwards there have been speculation of the true identity of Major William Martin. In 1996 an amateur historian, Roger Morgan wrote the book the Man Who Never Was. The book theorised that the body was of Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh vagrant. His official cause of death was of chemical pneumonia due to ingesting rat poison. The markings at his burial place in Heuva have been updated to show Glyndwr’s name on the tombstone. That being said, not everyone is convinced, as some pieces of the story don’t fit such as the time between his official death and the execution of Operation Mincemeat. Also the HMS seraph took a long detour before heading to the Spanish coast, which leads to the possibility the body was picked up elsewhere. There are theories that it could be a victim of an accident onboard the HMS Dasher. Due to the nature of the operation, and the efforts to protect the true identity it is unlikely we will ever find out who Major Martin was.

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or any other sort of history. Alternatively follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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