The man who never was – Operation Mincemeat

Grave of William Martin

On a warm spring morning in April 1943, a sardine fisherman spotted the corpse of a British soldier floating in the sea off the coast of Spain and set in train a course of events that would change the course of the Second World War.

Operation Mincemeat was the most successful wartime deception ever attempted, and certainly the strangest. It hoodwinked the Nazi espionage chiefs, sent German troops hurtling in the wrong direction, and saved thousands of lives by deploying a secret agent who was different, in one crucial respect, from any other spy either before or since: he was dead. His mission: to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allied armies planned to invade Greece and possibly also Sardinia.

The brainchild of a brilliant barrister and an eccentric RAF officer, the great hoax involved an extraordinary cast of characters including a famous forensic pathologist, a gold-prospector, an inventor, a beautiful secret service secretary, a submarine captain, three novelists, a transvestite English spymaster, an irascible admiral who loved fly-fishing, and a dead Welsh tramp. Using fraud, imagination and seduction, Churchill’s team of spies spun a web of deceit so elaborate and so convincing that they began to believe it themselves. The deception started in a windowless basement beneath Whitehall. It travelled from London to Scotland to Spain to Germany…and ended up on Hitler’s desk.

The main 2 protagonists were Lieutenant Commander Ewan Montagu of the Royal Naval Reserve and Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, Royal Air Force, both at that time serving officers in the British Secret Service. Some years later in 1953 Montagu published his own version of events in a book titled, “The man who never was…” which also spawned a movie of the same name shortly after.

These two members of British Intelligence obtained the body of Glyndwr Michael, a vagrant who died from eating rat poison, dressed him as an officer of the Royal Marines and placed personal items on him identifying him as the fictitious Captain (Acting Major) William Martin. Correspondence between two British generals which suggested that the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily as merely the target of a feint, was also placed on the body.

Part of the wider Operation Barclay, Mincemeat was actually based on an earlier idea, written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division and his personal assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, who would of course go on later in his own life to create and author James Bond. With the approval of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and the military commander in the Mediterranean, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the plan began by transporting the body to the southern coast of Spain by submarine, HMS Seraph and releasing it close to shore, where it was picked up the following morning by a Spanish fisherman.

The nominally neutral Spanish government shared copies of the documents with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organisation, before returning the originals to the British. Forensic examination showed they had been read and Ultra decrypts of German messages showed that the Germans fell for the ruse. Reinforcements were shifted to Greece and Sardinia before and during the invasion of Sicily; Sicily received none.

The overall effect of Operation Mincemeat is of course open to speculation, although Sicily was liberated more quickly than anticipated, losses were lower than predicted and German military resources were tied up in the Balkans and southern Greece for the rest of the war, awaiting an invasion that never came!

In the context of World War 2 narratives, Operation Mincemeat is unique. It is a bizarre and seductive blend of high-level espionage and ingenious invention, where the stakes could hardly have been higher.

The man at the very centre of this epic, was buried with full military honours in the small town where his body washed ashore on that fateful April morning and for this lowly vagrant, his place in history was assured.

For those of you reading this and wanting far more detail, we would recommend the book by Ben Macintyre, entitled: “Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II”

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