A Little Bit of War Magic: Operation Mincemeat and the Man Who Never Was
In the early morning of April 30, 1943, a British submarine called Seraph glided through the night-dark waters off the coast of southwestern Spain. In addition to her regular crew, led by Lieutenant Commander N. A. “Bill” Jewell, Seraph carried a special messenger from British Intelligence — Captain (Acting Major) William Martin, of the Royal Marines. Martin was a quiet man, who kept to his own quarters, resting peacefully inside a specially built steel canister that slipped easily into the torpedo bay and nestled inside the pressure hull.
As dawn approached, Seraph slipped beneath the fishing fleet and rose to the surface just off the port of Huelva. Three crew members were summoned to slide a canister full of “optical instruments” out of the torpedo hatch. Once they had returned below, Lt. Cmdr. Jewell and his officers opened the canister. There was a breath of carbon dioxide, and a rather more visceral gust of rotting flesh — something the laconic Jewell described as “a little stink.” Despite the air-tight container and a blanket of dry ice, Major Martin hadn’t weathered his trip to Spain particularly well. Jewell noted that “The face was heavily tanned and the whole of the lower half from the eyes down covered with mould. The skin had started to break away on the nose and cheek bones. The body was very high.”
Jewell strapped Major Martin into his “Mae West” (an inflatable life jacket), recited as much as he could remember of Psalm 39 (“I will keep my mouth as if it were with a bridle…”), and surrendered the man into the arms of the sea. It was just past 4:15 a.m.
A few hours later, an Andalusian sardine fisherman named José Antonio Rey María dragged a rotting corpse out of the water near the tiny fishing village of Punta Umbria, across the river from Huelva. Seeing the man’s British uniform and the briefcase chained to his belt, he took the body back to the beach, where a succession of curiosity seekers and Spanish authorities came to examine it. One of them, Lieutenant Mariano Pascual del Pobil Bensusan, took the briefcase and sent word to the British consulate that a body had been found and would be sent to Huelva via motor launch. Vice-consul Francis Haselden, who had been expecting the call, was relieved to hear it.
When Martin arrived in Huelva, Haselden, Pascual del Pobil, and Huelva’s undertaker accompanied him to the morgue, where the mortuary attendant went through his pockets. In amongst the receipts and cigarettes, he found a key that unlocked the briefcase. The documents inside laid out the Allies’ plan for their impending invasion of Southern Europe. As intended, the Spanish authorities notified the Germans, who moved quickly to fortify the coastlines of Greece, Sardinia, and Corsica, leaving Sicily almost entirely undefended.
Major Martin, known to history as The Man Who Never Was, had played the key role in Operation Mincemeat, one of the greatest military hoaxes of World War II. It was, in effect, a magic trick — a bit of misdirection intended to divert the audience’s attention away from the magician’s real intent — and like all the best magic tricks, it allowed the audience to participate in its own deception.
The audience, in this case, was the German high command, whom the Allies knew were expecting an invasion of Sicily. The island’s strategic location made it an obvious target — so obvious, in fact, that Winston Churchill said “Everyone but a bloody fool would know it was Sicily.” Sicily’s mountainous terrain also meant it was far easier to defend than attack: there was no chance that the Germans could overlook the buildup of troops and equipment that would be necessary to claim it. They might, however, be convinced that the men and materiel piling up along the Mediterranean were destined for the rocky shores of Sardinia and Greece.
However, the Allies couldn’t simply present Adolf Hitler with a map of Greece marked “We’re Going To Land Here, See You Soon, XOXO.” They had to convince the Germans that they’d intercepted a secret communication. Inspired in part by a 1939 memo written by James Bond author Ian Fleming, Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley of the British Intelligence interservice Twenty Committee (XX for double-cross) suggested planting a set of false plans on a dead man, who would deliver them into the enemy’s hands. This removed any concern that the chosen spy would turn out to be a double agent, as well as ensuring that he wouldn’t break under torture and confess whatever he knew about the true nature of his mission.
One of Cholmondeley’s Twenty Committee colleagues, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu of Naval Intelligence, set out in search of the perfect corpse — a young man, fit for military duty, whose fatal injuries would let him pass as a courier whose plane had crashed off the coast of Spain. After a consultation with Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the world’s first celebrity pathologist, Montagu headed for the St. Pancras Coroner’s Court. The coroner, Bentley Purchase, was a veteran of the First World War and “an old friend from [Montagu’s] barrister days,” who was happy to lend a hand — or a corpse — to the war effort. There were no suitable bodies in the morgue that day, but that night, an indigent Welshman swallowed a dose of rat poison that soon transformed him into one.
Major Martin’s identity was a mystery for more than 60 years. 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 that Bill Martin had once been Glyndwr Michael, “a labourer of no fixed abode,” who died, aged 34, of “phosphorous poisoning. Took rat poison bid kill himself while of unsound mind.”
Michael/Martin was locked inside a St. Pancras freezer while the Twenty Committee set about constructing his new identity. He was given a fiancée, Pam, whose passionate love letters were the work of a rather terrifying intelligence secretary named Hester Leggett. Another secretary, Jean Leslie, donated a picture of herself in a swimsuit. Cholmondeley carried the letters in his wallet for several weeks, to give them an authentically worn appearance. The dead man’s personality was further enhanced by an irate letter from his bank manager, a stern letter from his father, a few overdue bills, a replacement military I.D. (bearing the image of a living MI5 officer who bore more than a passing resemblance to the dead man), matchbooks, theatre tickets, keys… All the personal detritus of a competent, likable, but somewhat careless young man — just the sort of officer who might be chosen for an important mission and end up face-down on a beach in Spain. The crucifix around his neck identified him as a Catholic, a small detail that would, the British hoped, discourage a proper autopsy. (In the end, the decomposing reek of the corpse and Haselden’s clear-headed assurance that he didn’t require a full autopsy may have done more to ensure a cursory examination of the body than the crucifix did.)
These items went into the dead man’s wallet, which went into the briefcase with the documents detailing the Allies’ plans to invade Sardinia. Operation Mincemeat was well under way, but the discovery of the body didn’t end the charade. The Allies were well aware that the Abwehr (German intelligence) would be watching them closely. Britain demanded that Spain return Martin’s briefcase (though the Vice-consul Haselden had been forced to insist that they keep it when Pascual del Pobil tried to give it to him in the morgue). After the requisite amount of diplomatic posturing, they did. It appeared to be untouched, but microscopic examination of the contents showed that they had been carefully studied. Martin himself was buried in Huelva, with full military honors. His grieving fiancee sent flowers to adorn his grave, and up until 1994, someone came regularly to lay red carnations there. On June 4, The Times included his name in the casualty lists — for extra verisimilitude, it was the same name as that of a Naval officer who had been on an aircraft carrier sunk by the Japanese in 1942.
The Germans were completely convinced. Within days of Martin’s appearance on the Spanish coast, Montagu telegraphed Winston Churchill to say “Mincemeat swallowed whole.”
On May 12, Adolph Hitler sent out an order: “Measures regarding Sardinia and the Peloponnese take precedence over everything else.” He sent a Panzer division to Greece from France, ordered two Panzer divisions in Russia to prepare to move to Greece as well (and this just before the great tank battle at Kursk), and moved an extra Waffen SS brigade into the area.
On July 9, 1943, the Allies moved. They concentrated their assault on the southern tip of Sicily, well away from the troops massed at the northern end, facing Sardinia. The Italian divisions collapsed. The Germans, under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, fell back to Messina, where they waited in vain for reinforcements. Hitler was so convinced that the real attack would be in Greece, that on July 23, he ordered Field Marshal Erwin Rommel to oversee the forces protecting Sardinia. By August 17, General George S. Patton and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery had taken Sicily, due in large part to the contributions of a man who was dead before his mission even began.
Note: This essay originally appeared at newsoftheodd.com (which was recently resurrected by an anonymous benefactor). Unfortunately, link rot has claimed most of my original sources, but Wikipedia has an excellent writeup on the operation, including links to scholarly and popular sources, which I used to double-check some details. Corrections to my original article and additional information were drawn from Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat, excerpted in The New York Times in 2010; a 2010 article in The Telegraph, “Historian claims to have finally identified wartime ‘Man Who Never Was’”; and Kevin’s Slavin’s March 2, 2015 guest lecture in the MIT Media Lab course Indistinguishable From… Magic as Interface, Technology, and Tradition.