On April 30, 1943, a Spanish fisherman came across the floating body of Major William Martin of the Royal Marines. Handcuffed to the corpse was a satchel with top-secret plans for the Allied invasions of Greece and Sardinia.
With the information gathered from this intelligence, the Germans moved their troops into position to counter the planned landing.
…and Allies couldn’t have been happier.
Learn more about Operation Mincemeat, one of the greatest intelligence operations of World War II, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
This episode is sponsored by Audible.com
My audiobook recommendation today is Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre.
If you want a more in-depth account of Operation Mincemeat, Macintyre offers a broad explanation of the background surrounding the operation and the invasion of Sicily. It is a fascinating story that I’ll only be able to touch on briefly in this episode.
You can get a free one month trial to Audible and 2 free audiobooks by going to audibletrial.com/EverythingEverywhere or clicking on the link in the show notes.
By 1943, the Allies had driven the Germans out of North Africa but had yet to set foot on the soil of mainland Europe.
The Allies knew they had to make a landing somewhere, and the Germans knew they would try to land somewhere. This guessing game became a pivotal point in the war.
The Allies plan was to land in Sicily. The problem was, it was almost too obvious. Sicily would give them control of the entire Mediterranean and it would also give them easy access to the Italian peninsula. The invasion of Sicily was dubbed Operation Husky.
They needed to throw the Germans off the scent. To this end, they created Operation Barclay, which was the overall disinformation campaign to convince the Germans that they weren’t going to invade Sicily.
The goal of Barclay was to make the Germans think that the Allies would be invading Greece and Sardinia. This confirmed Hitler’s personal belief that the Allies would invade Greece and try to enter Europe through the Balkans, to try and link up with the Russians.
The key to Operation Barclay was a smaller operation called Mincemeat.
Mincemeat was the brainchild of a 1939 pre-war document called the Trout Memo, written by Admiral John Godfrey, the director of British Naval Intelligence. In the Trout Memo, he discusses various ideas for deception and disinformation in warfare, comparing it to trout fishing. One of the ideas in the Trout Memo was the inspiration for Operation Mincemeat.
The idea, in a nutshell, is this. You take a dead body and on it plant fake secret messages. You then drop the body in a place where it would be found by the enemy. The enemy, thinking they made an intelligence coup, would then act on that information.
It sounds really simple on paper.
However, pulling it off was far more complicated. You couldn’t just drop a dead body somewhere where the Germans could find it. It might be far too obvious that it was a ruse. Also, you had to find a body, and then give that body a very convincing backstory to fool any possible inquiries into that person’s past.
The first part was finding the body. You’d think that in the middle of war this would be easy to do, but not really. The operation involved abandoning a body in such a way that it wasn’t really a burial at sea. It wasn’t really treating the body of the deceased with respect.
In January 1943, the London coroner contacted MI6 to tell them that he had found a body.
The deceased was Glyndwr Michael, a Welshman who died from consuming rat poison. He was a drifter and there was no family that they could find. They put the body in a refrigerator and they had a three-month window where they could use the corpse before they would have to find a new one.
With the corpse in hand, they next had to work on creating a backstory for the body.
The fictitious name give was Major William Martin of the Royal Marines. The name was chosen because it was a common name used by many men in the Royal Navy. Also, by putting him in the marines, they could ensure that any inquiries were kept within the navy who was running the operation.
The next thing was to bring Major William Martin to life. They needed to put objects on him which would make him seem believable. They created fictional finance named Pam and put photos of her in his wallet. The photos were of a secretary working in MI5 named Jean Leslie.
They created two love letters from her which he carried with him, and also had him carrying some ticket stubs, a receipt for an engagement ring, a letter from his father, and even an overdraft notice from his bank.
Much of this was also to establish that he was in London on certain dates, which would help corroborate his location for having received the secret documents.
For his ID card, they tried to take a photo of the corpse, but it looked like a corpse. They eventually found someone who sort of looked like the deceased and dressed them up in a marine uniform for a photo. One of the operatives then spent weeks carrying the ID around in his pocket to make it look worn.
The key to the operation would be the false, secret document that he would be carrying. They couldn’t be too obvious. Detailed top-secret battle plans wouldn’t be transferred by a major on an airplane. It needed to be something that referenced the plans, but something which could be transferred informally.
The main document was a fictitious letter between two very real people: Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, vice chief of the Imperial General Staff who was located in London, and General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Anglo-American 18th Army Group in Algeria and Tunisia.
They couldn’t quite write a letter which sounded natural, so they just recruited General Nye to write the letter himself. In addition to subtle references to the invasion of Greece, there were also other personnel issues addressed in the letter, and a joke at the end about sardines, which was a reference to Sardinia.
One concern was if the letter would be found on the body. To ensure that the documents would be found, a leather satchel was attached to the body. Normally, the satchel for a courier would be attached via a handcuff to their wrist, however, they figured that on a plane flight that would be uncomfortable, so it was attached to their belt.
The biggest issue was where the body was to be deposited. They couldn’t make it look too obvious. If a British officer with secret documents were to wash up on the shore in Germany it might be seen as being too good to be true.
The year before, there was a plane flight from England to Gibraltar which crashed off the shore of Cadiz, Spain. All aboard the flight were killed, but there was evidence that one of the books carried by a Frenchman on the flight was copied by the Germans. Even though Spain was technically neutral in WWII, under Francisco Franco, they leaned towards Germany and would often share intelligence with them.
They figured the best bet for getting the Germans to believe the story would be to have the body found off the coast of Spain, make it look like a plane crash, and have the Spanish deliver the documents to the German.
The biggest risk in the entire plan was that the Spanish might not give German agents access to the body of the documents, but rather return it immediately to the British.
As a final insurance policy, they placed a single black eyelash in the fold of the letter inside the envelope. If the documents were returned, they could check to see if the eyelash was still there. If it was missing, they would know that the envelope had been opened.
The body was packed into a metal drum and loaded onboard a submarine, the HMS Seraph. The container and the idea to put dry ice in it to fill it with CO2 was the idea of one Charles Fraser-Smith. More on him in a moment.
The plan was to put the body out about a mile offshore of the village of Huelva, west of Gibraltar, and close to the border of Portugal.
When the submarine was in position, it surfaced, the metal drum was brought up top, and everyone beyond a few officers was ordered below deck. The body was dumped into the ocean at approximately 4:30 am, on April 30.
It only took about 5 hours for the body to be found by a fisherman. Given the location they picked, they knew the body should float slowly towards the shore.
At that point, it was game on.
The fisherman contacted local authorities, who then contacted the Spanish Navy. The Spanish contacted the British and notified them of the body of Major Martin.
This set off a series of pre-written exchanges between the British consulate in Huelva and London. The British knew that the Germans were intercepting their communications and that they had broken their code. The messages sent from London were adamant to the head of the British Consulate that they had to retrieve the satchel that was attached to the body.
While communications were going back and forth, the satchel was sent to Madrid where it was accessed by agents from the German intelligence service. They carefully removed the documents, dried them, photographed them, then soaked them in saltwater again before returning them to the envelope and satchel.
By May 11th, the satchel and body were returned to the British. Upon inspection back in London, it was found that the eyelash was missing.
They now knew that the Germans had opened the letter.
On May 14th they had confirmation. They had intercepted and decrypted a German communique which indicated they thought the invasion was going to happen in Greece.
A message was then sent to Winston Churchill, who was visiting the United States at the time, which read “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker by the right people and from the best information they look like acting on it.”
The Germans did believe it and set about moving forces out of Italy and reinforced Greece and Sardinia.
German Naval Commander Karl Donetz noted at the time:
“The Führer does not agree with … [Mussolini] that the most likely invasion point is Sicily. Furthermore, he believes that the discovered Anglo-Saxon order confirms the assumption that the planned attacks will be directed mainly against Sardinia and the Peloponnesus.”
After the ruse was complete, they continued with the deception by listing Major Martin on the list of war dead.
On July 25, the invasion of Sicily commenced and it was a great success, and spoiler alert, the Allies won the war.
Major William Martin was buried in Huelva and after the war, his gravestone was edited to note the real name of the man buried there, Glyndwr Michael.
The original Trout Memo, despite being written under the name of Admiral John Godfrey, was actually written by a young officer by the name of Ian Flemming, who went on to create the character, James Bond. Charles Fraser-Smith, who helped pack the body and create other espionage tools during the war, was the inspiration for the Bond character Q, who build all of Bond’s gadgets.
The story of Operation Mincemeat became the basis of the movie “The Man Who Never Was”, which was released in 1956 and it was also the basis for a musical which was performed in Wales.
Operation Mincemeat was believed to be the most successful espionage operation of World War II. It is estimated to have shortened the Sicilian campaign by as much as two months and saved tens of thousands of allied soldiers’ lives.
Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is James Makkala.
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