During the month of April 1943 one of the most elaborate and successful operations of WWII was put into practice. A plan involving a dead man’s body and a brief case full of fake documents to fool the Nazis.
Winston Churchill knew Sicily was an obvious stepping stone for Allied forces to cross from North Africa into Italy. They had to find a way to fool the Nazis into thinking it was somewhere else and deploy their defenses elsewhere. RAF officer, Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, and Naval Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu were the brains behind ‘Operation Mincemeat’.
Cholmondeley and Montagu had the perfect minds to come up with an ingenious plan to fool the Nazis. Churchill referred to them as ‘corkscrew minds’. Montagu loved puzzles and mind games, and was a barrister before the war. Montagu and Cholmondeley were both members of the top secret ‘Twenty Committee’. They hatched a clever plan, where a dead body, carrying false, secret war plans would be found by the Spanish and get into German hands.
First they had to get hold of a suitable ‘dead body’ – one that showed signs of drowning. At last, a London coroner, Sir Bentley Purchase of St. Pancras acquired the body of, Glyndwr Michael – a vagrant who died after taking rat poison. It was not the poison that finally killed him however, but pneumonia, which was perfect, as the liquid in his lungs could be mistaken for sea water – swallowed by a drowning man.
The next step was to construct a completely fake but believable identity for the dead man. They named him, Major William Martin of the Royal Marines – a Welshman born in Cardiff. It would not be unusual for a Major to carry sensitive, secret documents and being part of the Naval Intelligence Division, any questions about him would be easier to monitor. The name, Martin was a considered choice too, as there were several acting Major’s called, Martin in the Royal Marines at that time.
To add depth to the deception, Major Martin was given fake identity papers. They also placed a photograph of his apparent fiancee they called, Pam. The actual person on the photo being, Nancy Jean Leslie – a clerk in M15. On his person was also planted two love letters, (well read to age them). Also a jewelers receipt for a diamond engagement ring from, S J Phillips of London, two ticket stubs for a London show (dated a few days before he went missing), a letter from a fake father, bus tickets and keys. But crucially, two personal made up letters. The first being, a letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye (Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff) to General Sir Harold Alexander (Commander of the 18th Army in North Africa). Archibald dictated the letter himself. As well as writing general chat, he also included vital clues as to the location of ‘Operation Husky’ – the invasion of Greece or Sardinia. (Husky was in reality the invasion of Sicily). And suggested the fake invasion of Sicily might divert the Germans from the real objective. The second letter was from, Vice-Admiral Louis Mountbatten (Chief of Operations) to Sir Andrew Cunningham (Admiral of the Fleet). At the end of the letter was a joke about sardines, which was hoped would be interpreted by the Germans as an ‘allusion to Sardinia’. This was the bait the whole of ‘Operation Mincemeat’ was dependable upon.
On 17th April 1943, the deceased’s body, now several weeks old and showing signs of decay, was dressed as a Royal Marine, together with a briefcase attached to his belt. It was thought it would be considered too uncomfortable to have it attached to his wrist during his journey, so being attached to the belt was perfect/feasible and also prevented the case from floating off into the sea. Major Martin was then sealed in a metal canister, filled with dry ice. The next stage of the operation sounds like a comedy sketch. Montagu and his driver, Jock Horsefall (the fastest motor racing driver of the time, who was now short-sighted – making his driving hair-raising) made their way in the darkness from London to Greenock, Scotland. Montagu and the round canister were toppled about in the back, while Horsefall sped 400 miles through the towns and villages. It took all night to reach their rendezvous point the next day, where the British submarine, HMS Seraph was waiting.
On 19th April 1943, HMS Seraph sailed for Spain with the body on board. On the 30th, at 04.30 Seraph surfaced a mile off the Spanish coast, near the port of Huelva. As this was top secret, all the crew were sent below, leaving only the officers. Major Martin was then set adrift, allowing the tide to carry him to his final destination.
The next morning at approximately 9.30am, Antonio Rey Maria, who was a local fishermen, found the body floating in the sea and dragged it ashore where he presented it to the local police and military in Huelva. This was all part of the plan. It was known to British Intelligence that a German spy named, Adolf Clauss, part of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) was active in this area and one of Germany’s most successful spies. They wanted him to find the briefcase.
In Huelva, Martin’s body was examined by two Spanish doctors, while his personal belongings were set aside to dry. The operation was a risk if the Spanish pathologists discovered Martin’s body was in a state of decay – not in keeping with someone who had recently died. Cholmondeley and Montagu had anticipated this, and the British Consul F.K. Hazeldene (who was in on the deception) witnessed the autopsy and suggested they finished ‘quick’ in the heat of the day. This worked and they concluded and signed the death certificate. The briefcase was left unopened and handed back to the Spanish navy.
The Spanish reported to the British Naval Attache in Spain three days later that Major Martin’s body had been retrieved from the sea and was buried with full military honours in the Nuestra Senora cemetery in Huelva. Montagu included Major Martin in the list of casualties in ‘The Times’ newspaper on 4th June.
Robert E. Towsie could have written what followed. Cholmondeley and Montagu were waiting on tender hooks in London for the German spy, Adolf Clauss to open the briefcase. Adolf Clauss was itching to get his hands on the briefcase, but the Spanish Navy would not let anyone have it.
Things needed to be encouraged along. British Intelligence knew their telegrams were intercepted by German spies and sent messages asking for a black briefcase, containing delicate papers, to be found and immediately returned unopened. This worked and Clauss set his spies to obtain the briefcase. Still, the Spanish would not give it up and sent the still ‘unopened’ case to Madrid, where it was placed in a safe and nearly forgotten about.
In the meantime, in Madrid, it was Hitler’s most trusted and feared spy, Major Karl-Erich Kuhlenthal, who managed to get one hour with the briefcase, which was enough time to photograph all the documents and place everything back as it was, or so he thought. Two weeks after Major Martin’s body was pulled from the sea of southern Spain, the fake letter landed on Hitler’s desk.
On 12th May 1943, the British code breakers at Bletchley Park used the Enigma machine to unscramble a message from the German high command. “All Mediterranean commanders to prepare for an Allied attack on Greece”.
A message was sent to Churchill, which read, “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole”.
The briefcase was returned to England one month after it had been washed up on the Spanish beach. On examination of the supposed ‘unopened briefcase’, Cholmonderley and Montagu knew their plan had worked. One of the letters had been folded only once, but now it had two fold marks, indicating it had been opened and not folded back in the exact same place.
Operation Mincemeat saved thousands of lives, and turned the tide of the war in the Allies favour. When the Allied forces invaded Sicily, instead of the whole German army waiting for them, only a small force was present, as Hitler sent his main force to defend Greece and Sardinia. There-after the Germans became almost paranoid about being fooled again. Even when they got their hands on genuine war plans by accident, they dismissed them as a hoax.
The plot continues…
A new theory has arisen about the identity of the dead man used in Operation Mincemeat. With the release of top secret documents, a Navel accident kept so secret that no one was told about until recently, was another source for a body that had drowned at sea.
HMS Dasher, an American built British Avenger class escort carrier, without warning exploded and sank on the 27th March 1943, while sailing up the Firth of Clyde. Out of a crew of 528 men, 379 of them died – most from drowning. The sinking was kept top secret. Not a word was to be spoken of it, by order from the highest command.
It poses the question, why did Montagu drive all the way from London to Greenock after the accident when HMS Seraph was docked at Blyth in the North east of England previously? Montagu arrived in Greenock on 18th April, close to where the bodies of the accident were kept. HMS Seraph arrived on the 19th.
It must have been on Montagu’s mind that Martin’s body was now three months old and decaying. Glyndwr Michael died on 22nd January and it was now April. Even deep freezing a body so long would leave tell-tail signs. Could Montagu risk such an important mission on a decaying corpse? For now, we may never know. Montagu took the secret to his grave when he passed away in 1985...
But allow me to let you into a secret…I, was the rehearsal, some months before hostilities commenced, before the unpleasantness, so to speak. I was the practice run for Operation Mincemeat: the upper class twit sent on a wild goose chase…read on – click on link below…
By, Andrew & Jacqui Copyright 2013
Operation Mincemeat – BBC2 by, Ben Macintye
The Man Who Hoodwinked Hilter – BBC history