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Glyndwr Michael Martin:Glyndwr Michael as William Martin was buried in Huelva, Spain. In 1998, the inscription GLYNDWR MICHAEL; SERVED AS MAJOR WILLIAM MARTIN, RM was added to his grave-stone by the British government.

Glyndwr Michael:Glyndwr Michael as William Martin was buried in Huelva, Spain. In 1998, the inscription GLYNDWR MICHAEL; SERVED AS MAJOR WILLIAM MARTIN, RM was added to his grave-stone by the British government.

Operation Mincemeat

How a Corpse Fooled the Nazis

 In World War II, a secret department of British ‘corkscrew thinkers’ hatched a plan to use the cadaver of an unclaimed homeless man to turn the tide of the war in the Allies’ favour. It worked.

Ewen Montagu and his team of deceivers achieved in Operation MINCEMEAT what all deceivers endeavour to achieve upon commencing an operation: complete success. By adhering to the six principles of Military Deception (focus, objective, centralized control, security, timeliness, and integration), Montagu duped the Germans into altering their strategic plans; thereby enabling the Allies to achieve theirs.

“You can’t get bodies just for the asking, you know . . . each one has to be accounted for.”

—London coroner Bentley Purchase

Seventy three years ago, the mission of acting Major William Martin of the British Royal Marines was determined to have been a success. The top secret operational documents on the planned Allied invasion of the Balkans and Sardinia Martin had carried with him had been intercepted and transmitted all the way up to the highest levels of the German high command and even to Adolf Hitler himself.  This seemingly disastrous outcome was a positive for the Allies because the success of Martin’s mission, Operation:  Mincemeat, hinged upon the Germans discovering and believing the documents that he carried with him to be real when in fact they actually composed a part of one of WWII’s most ambitious and elaborate misinformation campaigns.  Nothing about the documents was real: not even their carrier.

In the run-up to the invasion of Sicily (Operation:  Husky), Allied intelligence sought to deceive German and Italian forces as to the identity of their next target in hopes of diverting Axis military strength away from the location of their true objectives.  One portion of this deception campaign, Operation:  Mincemeat, called for fake documents detailing plans for an Allied invasion through Greece and Sardinia – not Sicily – to be found on the corpse of a downed British pilot, Major William Martin.  However, in order for this plan to work, William Martin would need to be invented as he did not – in fact – exist.

After weeks of fruitless searching for a suitable candidate, the body that would serve as Martin was found in the person of a homeless Welshman, Glyndwr Michael, who had recently died in London.  Michael was put on ice – literally – to stave off decomposition while members of British Naval Intelligence Division – including future James Bond creator Ian Fleming – concocted Martin’s identity, including fake letters from family, tickets to a popular show, a receipt from a recent jewelry purchase and even an angry overdraft notice from a non-existent bank manager.

When Major Martin was ‘ready,’ he was attired in the battledress of a Royal Marine, attached by chain to the briefcase carrying his secret documents and transported by the submarine HMS Seraph to just off the coast of Huelva, in southern Spain:  a town in which German intelligence agents were known to operate.

Operation BARCLAY was the overall Allied deception plan conducted against the Germans to divert attention from the real target, Sicily (Operation HUSKY). The objective of BARCLAY was to gain the greatest surprise for HUSKY. To accomplish this task, Operation MINCEMEAT was devised. The premise of this operation was that the body of an officer (Major Martin), who had apparently perished in a plane crash at sea, would float onto Spanish shores, conspicuously bearing Allied documents that suggested (from very credible sources) the invasion of Sardinia and Greece.

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The best way to fake a top secret letter was to get a real general to write it.

On Sept. 29, 1939, British director of naval intelligence Adm. John Godfrey distributed to other intelligence chiefs the “Trout Memo.” Written by his assistant, Lt. Cmdr. Ian Fleming, James Bond’s creator, the Trout Memo contained fifty-one operations suggestions. Buried at number 28 was the following, inspired by Basil Tomson’s 1937 novel, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery:

A Suggestion (Not a very nice one)

The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with dispatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.”

On Sept. 25, a British Catalina crashed off the coast of Cádiz, Spain, killing all aboard. One of the passengers was a courier containing documents about Operation Torch. Despite neutral Spain being pro-Axis and Germany having an elaborate network, German agents didn’t touch the courier’s body. But this, and an earlier similar accident, caused British intelligence to explore how such an incident could be exploited.

On Oct. 31, 1942, RAF Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumly”), secretary of the top secret XX Committee led by John Masterman, presented his idea. Cholmondeley’s proposal, named “Trojan Horse,” was an expansion of Fleming’s suggestion. Masterman approved. With Ewen Montagu as his partner, Cholmondeley was ordered to proceed.

On the surface of things, having the agent be dead vastly simplified things — the body could only tell the story they wanted it to tell. Cholmondeley assumed that when the time came they would have little trouble finding a suitable cadaver. But their requirements (fresh, male, military age, no physical damage, cooperative relatives who asked no questions – or, better yet, no known relatives) made them highly customized buyers. To avoid arousing suspicion, they needed discreet help. Montagu approached Home Office senior pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury suggested Montagu contact a mutual friend – Bentley Purchase, the coroner of St. Pancras Hospital in northwest London.

An MI5 staff member pictured on the beach. This ordinary looking snapshot was taken and planted as part of a complex intelligence plan known as Operation Mincemeat. The intention was that this photograph would make other documents secreted with it seem more authentic. These documents, passed on to German agents after they were found on a body washed up on the coast of Spain (planted by British intelligence) suggested that the Allies were not planning an invasion of southern Europe via Sicily. This led to a weakening of German defense of Sicily, which assisted the eventual Allied attack. National Archives UK photo

An MI5 staff member pictured on the beach. This ordinary looking snapshot was taken and planted as part of a complex intelligence plan known as Operation Mincemeat. The intention was that this photograph would make other documents secreted with it seem more authentic. These documents, passed on to German agents after they were found on a body washed up on the coast of Spain (planted by British intelligence) suggested that the Allies were not planning an invasion of southern Europe via Sicily. This led to a weakening of German defense of Sicily, which assisted the eventual Allied attack. National Archives UK photo

Rat poison does not furnish the desperate with an easy death. But this was how Glyndwr Michael, jobless and homeless in the winter of 1943, ended his life.

Found in an abandoned warehouse in King’s Cross, London, one cold January night, his death certificate noted the cause of death as “phosphorus poisoning. He took rat poison – bid to kill himself while of unsound mind”.

He was not buried in the capital, or his hometown in south Wales. Instead, the coroner said he was to be “removed out of England” for burial.

Then, Glyndwr Michael died a second time – a death that helped change the course of World War II.

After three months on ice in Hackney Mortuary, his body was shipped off to the coast of southern Spain for an elaborate plot to fool the Nazis.

Intelligence officers Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu had painstakingly transformed the corpse into a soldier – the fictitious Major William Martin – for whom they had spent months creating a plausible backstory.

Into his pockets went an identity card, ticket stubs and mementos from a fiancee. Chained to his wrist was a briefcase containing a letter marked “PERSONAL AND MOST SECRET”, identifying Greece for invasion by Allied forces. Greece was a dummy target – the real plan was to invade Sicily.

When found floating near the port of Huelva, the corpse was assumed to be a British military courier who’d perished in a plane crash. The Spanish authorities agreed to a quick interment – due to the heat and stench of decomposition – and placed his belongings under lock and key.

And so the homeless Welsh alcoholic came to be buried with full military honours in a sunlit Spanish cemetery, under a headstone bearing the name William Martin, RM – for Royal Marines.

The coroner of St Pancras had been in on it, had supplied a suitable body with no visible injuries, and falsified documents to suggest his family had agreed to the plan. They had not – his parents were dead.

But why Spain? While ostensibly neutral, it was riddled with Nazi spies. The corpse was to be the bait for a meticulous, well-connected, yet unimaginative Nazi agent active in the area – Adolf Clauss.

The British hope was that the false documents carried by the fake officer would be convincing enough to be passed up the chain of command to Hitler himself.

At the time, the war hung in the balance with Germany still holding sway across swathes of Europe and Russia.

This was a period when there was a lot of spying and double-bluffing going on,

There were other deceptions, such as a magician dispatched to North Africa to create a fake army out of mirrors and blow-up tanks.

“But Mincemeat was exceptional as the biggest roll of the dice. It was an extraordinary operation in extraordinary times. Do it once and do it well was – and is – very much the ethos.”

And the British had an ace up their sleeves; they were, thanks to the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, essentially reading the Germans’ mail. They knew what Hitler was thinking on an hour-by-hour basis.

Enigma allowed an operator to type in a message, then scramble it by means of three to five notched wheels, which displayed different letters of the alphabet. The receiver needed to know the exact settings of these rotors in order to reconstitute the coded text. The Germans were convinced that Enigma output could not be broken, so they used it for all sorts of communications - on the battlefield, at sea, in the sky and, significantly, within its secret services. Photo BBC

Enigma allowed an operator to type in a message, then scramble it by means of three to five notched wheels, which displayed different letters of the alphabet. The receiver needed to know the exact settings of these rotors in order to reconstitute the coded text. The Germans were convinced that Enigma output could not be broken, so they used it for all sorts of communications – on the battlefield, at sea, in the sky and, significantly, within its secret services. Photo BBC

Thanks to the successful decryption of Germany’s Enigma cipher, Bletchley Park could read the top-secret communiques between Hitler and his forces. These intercepts provided Montagu and his team with insights into the key players, and allowed them to track the progress of their plan.

Would such a plan would be feasible today, even in wartime, Imagine the scandal if it was revealed that British agents had deliberately stolen a dead body. One of the reasons it worked so well was that the organisers were left alone to get on with it, almost without supervision.”

But Cholmondeley and Montagu had form in such matters.

Prior to Mincemeat, they had created a network of fictitious double agents to feed misinformation to the Nazis. These imaginary spies were, like Michael/Martin, given jobs, hobbies, family, lovers, and bank managers. The Germans thought they had an established spy network in the UK – in reality, they had none.

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. Imperial War Museum photo

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. Imperial War Museum photo

That this suggestion was in turn based on an idea used in a detective novel by Basil Thomson, an ex-policeman and former tutor to the King of Siam who made his name as a spy catcher in World War I, makes this story seem even more fantastic. First Fleming, an ardent bibliophile, dusted off this quaint literary ploy; then the trout-fishing admiral, who always appreciated a good yarn, had the cunning to know that “the best stories are also true,” and dispatched his team to turn fiction into reality. In many ways it was a very old story at that, as indicated by the operation’s first code name, “Trojan Horse.” A bit of gallows humor led to the plan’s name being changed to the rather tasteless Operation Mincemeat.

The unlikely hero of this wartime tale was Ewen Montagu, a shrewd criminal lawyer and workaholic with a prematurely receding hairline and a penchant for stinky cheese — proving once again that not all spies are dashing romantic figures. At 38, too old for active service, Montagu was recruited by Adm. John Godfrey, the director of Britain’s naval intelligence.

Montagu joined what Godfrey called his “brilliant band of dedicated war winners.” Just as he had relished the cut-and-thrust of the courtroom, Montagu delighted in matching wits with his new opponents: “the German saboteurs, spies, agents and spy masters whose daily wireless exchanges — intercepted, decoded and translated — poured into Section 17M.” The thumbnail sketches of Montagu and company are adroit, if at times dangerously close to being over the top.  They ignore Godfrey’s warning about the danger of “overcooking” an espionage ruse, and for the most part all the rich trimmings and flourishes make for great fun.

HMS Seraph

HMS Seraph

After the basic idea of using a dead body on which misleading official documents could be planted, and the odd codename, “Operation Mincemeat”, had been approved by various committees and individual military personnel, a plausible method of ‘delivery’ still needed to be arranged.

Montagu said that he asked the permission of the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff (Home) to consult with Admiral Barry, the Flag Officer commanding British submarines, and met soon after with him to discuss the finer details of the operation.

It was Admiral Barry who had first suggested using a submarine, and at a later meeting he decided that it should be “HMS Seraph”, whose departure to Malta he arranged to be delayed by two weeks to accommodate Montagu and Cholmondeley. This meant they could have the benefit of a moonless night at the end of April, 1943, which would allow the submarine to get as close to the shore as possible without being detected.

This appears to have delighted Montagu, as “HMS Seraph”was commanded by Lieutenant Norman Jewell, and under his command the crew of his submarine had already gained valuable experience in ‘special operations’ run along the North African coast.

At Admiral Barry’s suggestion, Montagu and Jewell met at the Flag Officer, Submarines Headquarters, where Montagu produced a copy of his tentative ‘operational orders’:

Operation Mincemeat

  1. Object
    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.
  2. Method
    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 fited on its exterior in clips a box-spanner with a permenant 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 guage to keep the weight as low as possible. The approximate weight when the container is full will be 400lb.
    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.
  3. Position
    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 Superindentant 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 simlar clip for forming the the loop round the chest. It is this loop that should be made throught 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.
  7. Signals
    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.
  8. Cancellation
    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.
  9. Flag Officer in Charge
    2. Staff Officer, Intelligence
    3. Director of Naval Intelligence
    4. Flag Officer, Submarines (Admiral Barry)
  10. Abandonment
    If the operation has to be abandoned, a signal should be made ‘MINCEMEAT abandoned’ as soon as possible (see Para 7 above).
  11. Cover
    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
Lt.-Cdr., R.N.V.R.
31.3.43.

"Glyndwr Michael served as Major William Martin, R.M." ... length of time between Glyndwr's death and the execution of Operation Mincemeat.

“Glyndwr Michael served as Major William Martin, R.M.” … length of time between Glyndwr’s death and the execution of Operation Mincemeat.

The body of the dead man was kept on ice in a London mortuary for an uncertain period of time, and then dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marines Major and given a false identity. It was then taken from London in the dead of night by the top Naval Intelligence officer in charge of “Operation Mincemeat”, Ewen Montagu, accompanied by Charles Cholmondeley of MI5, and was then delivered to the submarine, HMS Seraph, in Holy Loch, Scotland.

From there the submarine headed for the southern coast of Spain, where the body was placed into the sea just a short distance from the shore near the town of Huelva in the early hours of April 30th 1943. Attached to the body by the type of lock and chain device used by bank couriers at the time, was a briefcase containing several forged documents which the Allies hoped would quickly fall into the hands of a Nazi agent known by British Intelligence to have been working in the Huelva area at that time.

This agent was believed to have been on good terms with the local police and armed forces of the then fascist regime of dictator General Francisco Franco, and the great gamble of “Operation Mincemeat” was the hoped-for probability that both the briefcase and its contents (or at least copies of them) would fall quickly into his hands.

As anticipated, the body was soon discovered, and while some versions of events claim it was washed ashore, other versions maintain that it was picked up by a fishing boat before it had actually beached. Either way, the outcome was that both the body and the attached briefcase containing the misleading documents were taken into the custody of the local Spanish authorities – as would be normal practice.

Then began the long wait for the British Intelligence officers who had thought up the plan.

The "wallet litter" used to paint a picture of the man. Photo BBC

The “wallet litter” used to paint a picture of the man. National Archives UK photo

The identity card created for "Maj. William Martin" of the Royal Marines, whose body was found floating by Spanish fisherman as part of Operation Mincemeat. The photo actually depicts British intelligence officer Ronnie Reed. National Archives UK photo

The identity card created for “Maj. William Martin” of the Royal Marines, whose body was found floating by Spanish fisherman as part of Operation Mincemeat. The photo actually depicts British intelligence officer Ronnie Reed. National Archives UK photo

It did not take long for word of the downed officer to make its way to German intelligence agents in the region. Spain was a neutral country, but much of its military was pro-German, and the Nazis found an officer in the Spanish general staff who was willing to help. A thin metal rod was inserted into the envelope; the documents were then wound around it and slid out through a gap, without disturbing the envelope’s seals. What the officer discovered was astounding. Major Martin was a courier, carrying a personal letter from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff, in London, to General Harold Alexander, the senior British officer under Eisenhower in Tunisia. Nye’s letter spelled out what Allied intentions were in southern Europe. American and British forces planned to cross the Mediterranean from their positions in North Africa, and launch an attack on German-held Greece and Sardinia. Hitler transferred a Panzer division from France to the Peloponnese, in Greece, and the German military command sent an urgent message to the head of its forces in the region: “The measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others.”

The Germans did not realize—until it was too late—that “William Martin” was a fiction. The man they took to be a high-level courier was a mentally ill vagrant who had eaten rat poison; his body had been liberated from a London morgue and dressed up in officer’s clothing. The letter was a fake, and the frantic messages between London and Madrid a carefully choreographed act. When a hundred and sixty thousand Allied troops invaded Sicily on July 10, 1943, it became clear that the Germans had fallen victim to one of the most remarkable deceptions in modern military history.

In mid-May of 1943, when Winston Churchill was in Washington, D.C., for the Trident conference, he received a telegram from the code breakers back home, who had been monitoring German military transmissions: “mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.” It is instructive, though, to think about Mincemeat from the perspective of the spies who found the documents and forwarded them to their superiors. The things that spies do can help win battles that might otherwise have been lost. But they can also help lose battles that might otherwise have been won.

In early July, the Allies attacked Sicily. The island fell with but a fraction of the casualties and ship losses Britain had feared.

Mussolini was soon toppled from power, Forced to confront this Allied invasion from the south, Hitler called off a huge offensive against the Soviets. The Germans were now on the back foot. The Red Army did not stop until it reached Berlin.”

The tide of the war turned – thanks, in part, to the body of a tramp set adrift in the Atlantic.

The Man Who Never Was

Operation Mincemeat: The Tramp Who Fooled Hitler

Operation Mincemeat: The Story Behind “The Man Who Never Was” in Operation Husky

Case Study: Operation Mincemeat

What Was Operation Mincemeat?

BBC – History – Operation Mincemeat (pictures, video, facts & news)

‘Operation Mincemeat’: The Man Who Was – The New York Times

Who Was “The Man Who Never Was?” | Historic Mysteries

Operation Mincemeat: How a dead tramp fooled Hitler – BBC News

The Man Who Never Was – The True Story of Glyndwr Michael

Pandora’s Briefcase – The New Yorker

Operation Mincemeat: The Story Behind “The Man Who Never Was” in …


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