During World War II there was a man, with important documents. Major William Martin he was; also he was dead. April 30, 1943 his body was found well decomposed in the waters off of Huelva in southwest Spain. He was clothed in a black trench coat, uniform and boots. Then there was a most important item indeed, a black attaché case chained to his waist, its contents unknown.
The Spanish fisherman who found his body reported it to the authorities, and so began a most complex series of events. The black attaché case you see, contained secrets which would greatly affect the outcome of that global conflict. Firstly the authorities scanned his wallet, finding that he was indeed the deceased Briton, Major William Martin. In his pockets they found odds and ends such as a picture of his fiancé and the bill for the diamond ring. Also he had what was reported to be high quality woolen underwear as was afforded to those of high rank – high quality underwear being in short supply during times of rationing.
A pathologist investigated the body and confirmed that he had died of a combination of hypothermia and drowning. Then the British got involved. The British vice-consul was a Francis Haselden. In his presence the case was opened revealing the contents to be military envelopes of great importance with the necessary seals.
Haselden was offered the body and the contents of the case but he oddly declined the Spanish offer, insisting that he must go through the official channels for the handover to take place. Even odder in retrospect was that Spain was receiving messages daily from London, urgently demanding the location of and, if possible, the contents of the attaché case. At this point the news had spread, a dead man of high military standing with important documents had washed ashore. German intelligence agents were intrigued and pursued the case. Spain was a neutral country but a great deal of its military was pro-German so it was arranged that the Germans would get the case before the official orders reached Haselden.
Using a thin metal rod the documents were rolled up and extracted without damaging the envelope’s seals. Inside were the documents which pertained to something of extreme importance. Major Martin had been acting as a courier for Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff. The document was a personally handwritten letter to General Harold Alexander, a senior British officer acting under Eisenhower in Tunisia. the contents of the letter however were vital. American and British forces would move from North African positions and cross the Mediterranean. The aim, to attack the German-held Greece and Sardinia.
Immediately the Germans leapt into action, relaying the message throughout the ranks. a Panzer division was relocated from France and the following message was sent (although in German) to the head of the region’s forces:
“The measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others.”
Then the documents were replaced carefully in the envelope and returned to the British vice-consul with the assurance that ‘everything was there’. The case was sent as quickly as possible to London.
July 10 1943 one hundred and sixty thousand Allied British and American troops invaded Sicily whilst the Germans milled around Greece, waiting for an attack which would never come. Across in London the returned envelope was examined and found to have been opened, albeit very sneakily indeed. Then a message was sent to Churchill and to the United States. ‘Mincemeat swallowed whole’ – Mincemeat was a name for a most secret operation, a trick and a trap. As the Germans soon realised, they had been duped by one of the most audacious and plain bizarre ploys ever employed during a major conflict.
Major William Martin was fiction and so was the envelope and even the high quality underwear were all part of the plan – Operation Mincemeat. As previously stated Major William Martin never existed, he was actually a mentally ill Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh homeless alcoholic who died after the ingestion of some potent rat poison. After being reinstated and then killed as the fictional Mr Martin he was given a hero’s grave.
Many figures involved in the scheme were highly awarded for this storybook tale of international intrigue. In fact Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, came up with the concept, borrowing it from a 1930’s detective novel. In fact he took experiences and people from his involvement into the operation and formed some of the most important characters based on those with whom he worked.
The taking of Sicily was an important victory for allied troops and had greater connotations later in the war. In 2 cases very secret documentation was left, one set 2 days after D-Day on an abandoned lander and another set talking about an aerial invasion was found on a transport glider. In both cases the Germans feared a repeat of Operation Mincemeat and ignored the two very important sets of documents. Another result of the operation was the production of a film in the 1950s, entitled ‘The Man who Never Was.’
In this case life was not exactly stranger than fiction, in fact this time it copied it.
- Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Fooled the Nazis and assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre
- New Yorker – Operation Mincemeat