Operation Mincemeat was one of the most successful deceptions of the enemy by the British during World War II, when a dead body carrying faked secret documents was set adrift off the coast of Spain in May 1943. While the real landings were planned to take place in Sicily as Operation Husky, the documentation carried by the corpse contained plans which detailed landings in southern Europe. Thousands of Allied lives were spared when Germany diverted its forces from Sicily to defend Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balkans. Later estimates put the number of lives saved as being in the order of 30,000.
Operation Mincemeat formed part of a much larger deception plan, Operation Barclay, intended to divert the attention of enemy forces from Sicily.
Planning and preparation
In 1942, Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley proposed a deception plan based on the delivery of false war plans to the enemy by means of a dead body. Using a corpse for this purpose meant that an existing agent or double-agent could not be used, and that the courier could not be captured and tortured or forced to reveal the true nature of the mission. Cholmondeley brought Lieutenant Commander Ewan Montagu in to handle the detail of the operation, first codenamed Operation Trojan Horse, but later changed to Operation Mincemeat.
Montagu planned for the body to be that of an officer, apparently drowned when his aircraft crashed into sea somewhere off the coast of Spain. This was intended to cover any evidence which might suggest that the courier had perished in some other way, relying on the effects of exposure and sea water to mask any obvious anomalies through the decomposition that would take place in the water.
Major William Martin
The legend of the courier, Major William Martin, was prepared with great care and attention to detail. His wallet contained love letters and a photograph of his fiancée Pam wearing a swimsuit, all prepared and donated by secretaries in the Intelligence office. Cholmondeley carried these documents in his own wallet for several weeks, repeatedly folding and unfolding them to add to their authenticity. Further mundane items were also added: overdue bills, an irate letter from his bank manager demanding payment of his ovedraft, a stern letter from his father, a replacement military ID card, theatre tickets for a well known show, receipts, matchbooks, keys, and similar personal and domestic items. Clothing, and its labelling, was chosen to ensure its origin would show it to have come from sources and shops which the Major would have had access to.
The letter created by the team, supposedly from fiancée Pam to Major Bill Martin of the Royal Marinesm but really a fiction intended for German agents in Spain.
The Manor House,
Ogboume St George,
Telephone Ogbourne St George 242
I do think dearest that seeing people like you off at railway stations is one of the poorer forms of sport. A train going out can leave a howling great gap in one’s life and one has to try madly – and quite in vain – to fill it with all the things one used to enjoy a whole five weeks ago.
That lovely golden day we spent together – oh! I know it has been said before, but if only time could sometimes stand still just for a minute – But that line of thought is too pointless. Pull your socks up, Pam, and don’t be a silly little fool.
Your letter made me feel slightly better – but I shall get horribly conceited if you go on saying things like that about me. They’re utterly unlike ME, as I’m afraid you’ll soon find out.
Here I am for the weekend in this divine place with Mummy and Jane being too sweet and understanding the whole time, bored beyond words and panting for Monday so that I can get back to the old grindstone again. What an idiotic waste!
Bill darling, do let me know as soon as you get fixed and can make some more plans, and don’t please let them send you off into the blue the horrible way they do nowadays – now that we’ve found each other out of the whole world, I don’t think I could bear it.
All my love,
Identity card and body
Once Major Martin had been prepared, his remains were prepared for preservation in a specially constructed steel container packed with dry ice, and suitable for transportation by submarine.
An official image shows the body that was to be deposited in the sea off Spain, holding documents that it was hoped the Nazis would intercept and believe.
As the day approached for the final stage of the plan to be carried out, arrangements were put in place for the British submarine HMS Seraph to be assigned to the mission. None of the crew was made aware of the true nature of their assignment, which was described only as relating to the deployment of secret equipment.
In the early hours of April 30, 1943, HMS Seraph made her way to the waters off the Spanish port of Huelva. At the chosen location, the container, marked as meteorological equipment, was brought up on deck and the crew ordered below. Only at this point did the commander of the submarine, Lieutenant Commander NA "Bill" Jewell, receive his final orders. The body was removed from the container, a Mae West life jacket was fitted, and the briefcase containing the documents was attached using a chain. Lieutenant Commander Jewell recited the 39th Psalm, after which the body was slipped into the sea, followed by a rubber dinghy.
The message "Mincemeat completed" was sent.
Within days planting the body, Winston Churchill received a telegram saying, "Mincemeat swallowed whole".
Continuation and outcome
On April 30, 1943, a local fisherman found the body on the Spanish coast, near Huelva, and with the briefcase still attached, He notified the local authorities, and knowledge of the discovery soon reached the local Abwehr (German Intelligence) agent, as intended.
A basic post-mortem examination was carried out, sufficient to determine that the body had been in the sea for a period of between three and five days, and had been alive when when it entered the water, but had drowned, with no evidence of bruising. To reduce the likelihood of a full post-mortem examination being carried out, the body had been dressed with a crucifix hung around the neck, and a St Christopher in the wallet, which the pathologist took to mean the man was a Roman Catholic.
The body was identified as that of Major William Martin, a British Royal Marines courier, and was returned to the British Vice-Consul for burial. The funeral took place with full military honours in Huelva, on May 4, 1943. Following the ceremony, flowers were placed on the grave, sent by the Major's fiancée.
To reinforce the legend, the Major's name was included in the list of British casualties published in The Times of June 4, 1943, which the Germans would check, and a series of urgent signals was made from the Admiralty to the local Naval Attaché, to demand the return of the documents which accompanied Major Martin. The signals stressed the sensitive nature of the documents, and that enquires should be made discreetly to avoid alerting anyone of their importance.
The documents were returned on May 13, 1943, together with assurances that they were complete. Detailed examination of the documents confirmed they had been carefully opened, then refolded and resealed. This was taken to confirm that the Abwehr had obtained the documents, copied/photographed them, and despatched the information to Berlin.
It was widely believed that the next objective for the Allies after Tunisia was going to be the island of Sicily. Persuading them otherwise was the objective for Operation Mincemeat.
"Anyone but a bloody fool would know it was Sicily" - Winston Churchill.
But after the documents had been read by the Germans:
"You can forget about Sicily. We know it’s in Greece" - General Alfred Jodl, Head of the German supreme command operations staff.
The Germans swallowed the deception in total. On May 12, 1943, Adolf Hitler sent out an order, "Measures regarding Sardinia and the Peloponnese take precedence over everything else". He despatched a Panzer division to Greece from France, ordered two further Panzer divisions in Russia to prepare to move to Greece (just before the great tank battle at Kursk), and moved an extra Waffen SS brigade into the area. He thought he was well-prepared for the anticipated Allied landing.
The officers of HMS Seraph on her return to Portsmouth after operations in the Mediterranean, December 24, 1943. Seem in the middle of the group is Lieutenant NLA Jewell MBE RN, who had been the commanding officer during Operation Mincemeat, and had said prayers before the body was delivered into the sea.
The identity of Major Martin
Prior to events which took place in 2004, the following quotation is typical of accounts given when the identity of Major Martin was questioned:
For many years, the true identity of "Major Martin" remained a mystery. He was known only as a man who had died of pneumonia in the winter of 1943. According to some reports, his family had requested that his name be kept a secret when they gave permission for his body to be used in Operation Mincemeat. Then Roger Morgan, a British town planning officer and amateur historian, discovered evidence that "Martin" was actually a homeless Welsh alcoholic named Glyndwr Michael, who had either committed suicide by eating rat poison, or been accidentally poisoned while sleeping in a barn.
Two arguments support Morgan's theory. First, cyanide, a common ingredient in rat poison, causes pulmonary congestion, or chemical pneumonia. Second, when the British were constructing "Martin's" identity, they gave his place of birth as Cardiff, in Wales. It seems likely that "Major Martin" has indeed been identified.
The story formed the basis of the 1956 film, "The Man Who Never Was". Clifton Webb played Ewan Montagu in this film adaptation of the story, also starring Gloria Grahame, Robert Flemyng, Josephine Griffin and Stephen Boyd. Directed by Ronald Neame.
Reinforced by the film, and with the lack of any denials from official sources apparently taken as an endorsement, the identity of the corpse generally came to be accepted as being that of Glyndwr Michael, however, official events which have occurred subsequent to this, in 2004, suggest the story of Glyndwr Michael is yet one further part of the deception.
Although the original story has no official backing, and has been pointed out by others to be inconsistent, its years of repetition and portrayal in the film have given it credibility, and the events of 2004 have resulted in it becoming the source of further questions, based on the assumption that it is a factual account. In the film, the parents of the deceased give their consent to the use of their son's body on condition his role is never revealed. However, records show that they were already dead at the time this scene would have taken place.
John "Jack" Melville
In October 2004, a memorial service held in Cyprus is believed to have marked the first official recognition of the true identity of the body which played the central role in this operation. The service was dedicated to John "Jack" Melville, one of the casualties of the disaster which claimed the lives of 379 crew members when HMS Dasher was destroyed by a massive on-board explosion in March 1943.
The following text, dated 1943, found during searches for descriptions of the operation, is said to be Montagu's Operational Orders for the operation:
To cause a briefcase containing documents to drift ashore as near as possible to HUELVA in Spain in such circumstances that it will be thought to have been washed ashore from an aircraft which crashed at sea when the case was being taken by an officer from the U.K. to Allied Forces H.Q. in North Africa.
A dead body dressed in the battle-dress uniform of a Major, Royal Marines, and wearing a 'Mae West', will be taken out in a submarine, together with the briefcase and a rubber dingy.
The body will be packed fully clothed and ready (and wrapped in a blanket to prevent friction) in a tubular airtight container (which will be labelled as 'Optical Instruments').
The container is just under 6 feet 6 inches long and just under two feet in diameter and has no excrescences of any kind on the sides. The end which opens has a flush-fitting lid which is held tightly in position by a number of nuts and has fitted on its exterior in clips a box-spanner with a permanent tommy-bar which is chained to the lid.
Both ends are fitted with handles which fold down flat. It will be possible to lift the container by using both handles or even by using the handle in the lid alone, but it would be better not to take the whole weight on the handle at the other end, as the steel of which the container is made is of light gauge to keep the weight as low as possible. The approximate weight when the container is full will be 400 lb.
When the container is closed the body will be packed round with a certain amount of dry ice. The container should therefore be opened on deck, as the dry ice will give off carbon dioxide.
The body should be put into the water as close to the shore as prudently possible and as near to HUELVA as possible, preferably to the north-west of the river mouth.
According to the Hydrographic Department, the tides in that area run mainly up and down the coast, and every effort should therefore be made to choose a period with an onshore wind. South-westerly winds are, in fact, the prevailing winds in that area at this time of year.
The latest information about the tidal streams in that area, as obtained from the Superintendent of Tides, is attached.
4. Delivery of the Package
The package will be brought up to the port of departure by road on whatever day is desired, preferably as close to the sailing day as possible. The briefcase will be handed over at the same time to the Captain of the submarine. The rubber dingy will also be a separate parcel.
5. Disposal of the Body
When the body is removed from the container all that will be necessary will be to fasten the chain attached to the briefcase through the belt of the trenchcoat, which will be the outer garment on the body. The chain is of the type worn under the coat, round the chest and out through the sleeve. At the end is a 'dog-lead' type of clip for attaching to the handle of the briefcase and a similar clip for forming the the loop round the chest. It is this loop that should be made through the belt of the trenchcoat as if the officer had slipped the chain off for comfort in the aircraft, but has nevertheless kept it attached to him so that the bag should not either be forgotten or slide away from him in aircraft.
The body should then be deposited in the water, as should also be the rubber dingy. As this should drift at a different speed from the body, the exact position at which it is released is unimportant, but it should be near the body, but not too near if that is possible.
6. Those in the Know in Gibraltar
Steps have been taken to inform F.O.I.C.1 Gibraltar and his S.O.(I).2. No one else there will be in the picture.
If the operation is successfully carried out, a signal should be made 'MINCEMEAT completed'. If that is made from Gibraltar the S.O.(I). should be asked to send it addressed to D.N.I.3 (PERSONAL). If it can be made earlier it should be made in accordance with order from F.O.S.4.
If the operation has to be cancelled a signal will be made 'Cancel MINCEMEAT'. In that case the body and container should be sunk in deep water. As the container may have buoyancy, it may either have to be weighted or water may have to be allowed to enter. In the latter case care must be taken that the body does not escape. The briefcase should be handed to the S.O.(I) at Gibraltar, with instructions to burn the contents unopened, if there is no possibility of taking that course earlier. The rubber dingy should be handed to the S.O.(I) for disposal.
1. Flag Officer in Charge
2. Staff Officer, Intelligence
3. Director of Naval Intelligence
4. Flag Officer, Submarines (Admiral Barry)
If the operation has to be abandoned, a signal should be made 'MINCEMEAT abandoned' as soon as possible (see Para 7 above).
This is a matter for consideration. Until the operation actually takes place, it is thought that the labelling of the container 'Optical Instruments' will provide sufficient cover. It is suggested that the cover after the operation has been completed should be that it is hoped to trap a very active German agent in this neighbourhood, and it is hoped that sufficient evidence can be obtained by this means to get the Spaniards to eject him. The importance of dealing with this man should be impressed on the crew, together with the fact that any leakage that may ever take place will compromise our power to get the Spaniards to act in such cases; also that they will never learn whether we were successful in this objective, as the whole matter will have to be conducted in secrecy with the Spaniards or we won't be able to get them to act.
It is in fact most important that the Germans and Spaniards should accept these papers in accordance with Para I. If they should suspect that the papers are a 'plant', it might have far-reaching consequences of great magnitude.
(Signed) E.E.S. MONTAGU
18th April 1943: An English girl’s love letter for the Gestapo Retrieved May 19, 2013. The following are based on Glyndwr Michael
- The Man Who Never Was, film, 1956
- Spanish site of memorial
- The Man Who Never Was
- Operation Mincemeat
2004 acknowledgement of John Melville
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