Operation Mincemeat was one of the most audacious, and bizarre, deception operations mounted by the British during the Second World War. It was so successful that it is claimed to have saved the lives of thousands of Allied servicemen during Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. Like any historical story, there is a whole cast of characters that played their part in the real life drama of Mincemeat, including its chief planners: Lieutenant-Commander Ewen Montagu and Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley. However, the principal protagonist was Glyndwr Michael, a thirty-four year old Welshman who had struggled through life as a loner before ending up living a homeless existence on the streets of London. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Michael’s involvement in the deception was the fact he had actually died months before the operation was put into motion, and being dead was the very reason he was selected for the part.
Before describing the planning and execution of Operation Mincemeat, it is perhaps useful to consider the two men who were responsible for its inception. The first was the aforementioned Ewen Montagu, an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) and member of the Naval Intelligence Division (NID). Born in 1901, Montagu had been educated at Cambridge and Harvard Universities, after which he became a lawyer in 1924. However, with war looming, he joined the RNVR in 1938 and – due to his considerable intellectual capacity – he was selected for intelligence work, a role in which he would remain throughout the war. By 1943 he had risen to the rank of lieutenant-commander and was the naval representative at the XX Committee (pronounced ‘Twenty-Committee’), the body responsible for the now famous Double Cross System.
The other chief architect of Mincemeat was Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumly’), a particularly tall, eccentric gentleman who had a strong sense of adventure. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, he joined the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve (RAFVR) and was commissioned as a pilot officer. However, due to poor eyesight and his six foot three inch stature, he was unable to train as a pilot, which proved to be a terrible blow for the enthusiastic Cholmondeley. Despite this set back, he had risen to the rank of flight-lieutenant by 1942 and secured a position in the RAF’s Intelligence and Security Department, from where he would be seconded to the Security Service (MI5). Like Montagu, Cholmondeley would sit on the XX Committee.
With the Allied successes in North Africa, the Germans were well aware that the Allies would next attempt an invasion of southern Europe, and it was believed that this attack would likely come through Italy. In such an event, Sicily would need to be secured first, since it would allow the Allies virtually unrestricted access to the Mediterranean sea lanes for their merchant ships. The Allies knew the Germans would rigorously defend the island, and, therefore, they needed a ploy that would make the Germans think the main thrust of the invasion would actually take place elsewhere, thus forcing them to redeploy some of their military resources away from Sicily. The problem was, just exactly how could this deception be achieved?
The plan for Operation Mincemeat was born out of an idea that Cholmondeley had put forward previously, which had subsequently been dismissed as ‘unworkable’. This plan had included the parachuting of an already dead man – perhaps disguised as an agent – into German occupied France with a radio, although the parachute would be rigged to malfunction once the body left the aircraft. The Germans would find the dead man, who they would presume died in the fall, and the radio, through which the Allies would transmit false information. The plan then relied on the fact that the Germans would pretend to be members of the French resistance and thus keep the flow of misinformation going. Although shelved, Montagu later picked up on this idea, albeit with a number of key modifications.
Eventually, the plan would develop into the dropping into the sea off the coast of Spain a cadaver dressed as an officer in the Royal Marines, who was supposed to be enroute for somewhere in North Africa. However, the aircraft in which he was travelling would – either due to accident or being shot down – crash into the sea, with the body washing up on shore. Planted on the body would be a number of official documents and private letters, which would hint at the fact that the Allied invasion would not in fact come through Sicily but elsewhere – such as Greece – with the coming attack on Sicily being nothing more than a diversion. Although Spain was neutral it was a fascist country with sympathies for Germany, thus any documents found on the body would likely end up in German hands before being passed on to the British authorities. It was a bold plan fraught with problems, and if it went wrong it would confirm to the Germans that Sicily was indeed the main target of the Allies.
With the basis of the deception formulated, the next task was to find a body. Despite the fact it was wartime – during which dead bodies are sadly so numerous – finding a suitable corpse was not easy. Firstly, the deceased had to have died in such a way that would be consistent with the story of an aircraft having crashed into the sea, such as a man who appeared to have died of hypothermia. Secondly, most bodies belonged to someone, and relatives of the dead were usually unwilling to let go of their loved ones for reasons that could not be explained to them due to the need for absolute secrecy. Montagu would spend considerable time searching for corpses, most of which turned out to be totally unsuitable for the ruse.
Fortunately for the intelligence officers, Bentley Purchase, the coroner for St. Pancras in London, found a body that he believed would be right for the job. The deceased in question was Glyndwr Michael, who had been born in Aberbargoed in Wales but who had more recently travelled to London. The story of Michael is a sad one. His father had been a poor coal miner, who, after experiencing hard times, committed suicide when his son was only fifteen. Michael’s mother also later died when he was thirty-one, an event which triggered his decision to leave his native Wales and journey to the capital. Life, however, did not improve and he would find himself living homeless on the streets. It was during this time that he was found alone in a warehouse near King’s Cross seriously ill and taken to St. Pancras Hospital; within forty-eight hours he was dead. The cause of death was the digestion of rat poison containing phosphorus, although there remains some debate as to whether he committed suicide or ate it by mistake – it was common at the time to spread the poison on bread for the rats to eat, and some believe Michael, who would have been hungry looking for food, ate it out of desperation. Whatever the truth, Monatgu now had his body and no immediate relatives to ask permission to use it.
With a body secured, the next task was to devise a new identity for Michael. The name chosen would be Captain (acting-Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines, who, like Michael, would be born in Wales in 1907. Being a marine, he would come under the authority of the Admiralty, and any subsequent enquiries into his death made by the Germans would be easier to detect by the NID. In addition to an appropriate uniform, Major Martin would be given a whole host of fake personal items to help convince his finders that he was genuine. Such documents included, amongst others: a receipt for a set of shirts from Gieves in London, several love letters and a bill for an engagement ring for his fictions girlfriend called Pam, as well as a photograph of her. The woman chosen to pose for the photograph was in fact Nancy Leslie, a secretary who worked for MI5. Attention to detail went right down to his underwear, with Montagu and Cholmondeley ensuring he was correctly fitted out for a man of his rank.
Most importantly were the documents that would suggest to the Germans that Sicily was not the main Allied objective. Perhaps the most important of these was a private letter written by Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Nye to General Sir Harold Alexander, who were both aware of the deception plan. The letter contained various bits of information that had little to do with the forthcoming Allied operation, but also comments on the fake plans to invade Greece using Allied troops currently in Egypt and Libya. The letter went on to state that the coming assault on Sicily would be nothing more than a diversion from the main attack. It was hoped that the Germans would assume that, because of its private nature, the letter was being delivered by the hand of Major Martin rather than transmitted through the usual channels. It was a plausible story, but the risk that the Germans would see straight through the deception – indeed if they acquired the documents at all – was a huge one.
It was decided that the body would be carried by submarine to within a short distance of the coast of Huelva, from where it would be set adrift in the water. A special canister was designed by Charles Fraser-Smith – the designer of ‘Q’ devices and inspiration for the character Q in James Bond – for the transport of the corpse, which was packed in dry ice in order to preserve it during the trip. The vessel chosen was HMS Seraph, which was due to leave its current location in Scotland for the Mediterranean under the command of Lieutenant Bill Jewell. To keep the contents of the canister a secret, Jewell told his men that it contained a secret new weather device. The submarine set sail on 19 April 1943, arriving off the coast of Huelva on the 30th, setting adrift its special passenger before submerging again to continue its journey. Glyndwr Michael was now engaged in his only military operation of the war.
The body would be found by a local Spanish fisherman by the name of José Antonio Rey Maria, who hauled it into his little boat and rowed back to the shore, where he handed it over to the local police in Huelva. News of the finding of the dead officer soon reached the ear of Adolf Clauss, the local German intelligence agent, and eventually copies of the fake documents were secured by the Germans for examination. The body was later handed over to the British vice-consul and buried in the Nuestra Señora de la Soledad cemetery in Huelva itself. News of all this, of course, reached Montagu, who now could only sit back and hope the fake story of Major William Martin and his documents would be believed in Berlin.
All the documents planted on Michael’s body would be returned to the British by the Spanish, on 13 May, after which they were carefully examined back in Britain; the examiners confirming they had been expertly opened and resealed. Finally, an Ultra intercept suggested that the Germans had bought the story and a signal was sent to Winston Churchill, who was at that time in the USA, stating that ‘Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker’. Next followed the redeployment of German military forces from Sicily to Greece as well as to Sardinia and Corsica. The way was now paved for the Operation Husky, which commenced on 9 July, an invasion which ultimately proved successful and a pivotal moment in the history of the Second World War.
Details of Operation Mincemeat would be released to the British public after the war, in the form of the book ‘The Man Who Never Was’ written by Montagu himself in 1953. The former intelligence officer received official permission to write the story but, due to the fact that a number of those involved in the operation were still in service, a number of names had to be substituted to keep their identities secret. Montagu also changed some of the details, possibly to make the use of a dead body more acceptable for his audience. The book was later made into a movie (in which Montagu had a cameo role) of the same name, starring Clifton Webb, Gloria Grahame and Robert Flemyng, which was released in cinemas in 1956. Both the book and the movie remain widely available today, although those wishing to learn more should treat both with care, since, for obvious reasons, there are a number of important inaccuracies. However, more recent – and more accurate – works can be found in the books ‘Operation Mincemeat’ by Ben Macintyre and ‘Deathly Deception: The Real Story of Operation Mincemeat’ by Denis Smyth, both published in 2010.
It is perhaps fitting to end this short article with a final mention of the real hero of the Mincemeat story, Glyndwr Michael. Although he never knew it, he, in death, almost certainly saved the lives of many Allied servicemen who faced a reduced number of German troops when they carried out their invasion of Sicily in July 1943. Had it not been for the deception, the Germans would most likely had been better prepared for the attack and, with the additional forces at their disposal, would have been able to better resist the Allies. It is to him, therefore, who this article is dedicated, and should the reader ever find him or herself in Huelva in Spain, please do visit his grave – which now bears both the names William Martin and Glyndwr Michael – to pay your respects to The Man Who Never Was.
Thank you to Mark for speaking with us about a truly riveting piece of Britain’s Secret Service history during the Second World War.
You can also read other WWII Nation articles written by Mark Simner, that focus on a few of the other remarkable episodes of British espionage in WWII:
Photo Credits: Commander Ewen Montagu | Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley | Rommel, Bayerlein & Kesselring 1943 | Franco with Himmler in October 1940 | William Martin’s Naval Identity Card | ‘Pam Photo’ Martin’s wallet litter | HMS Seraph | Allied Invasion of Sicily