During World War II, the British government tightly controlled information about casualties. Providing such details—who died, when, and where—could provide the Nazis and the other Axis powers with information they’d not otherwise have, and risk British and Allied efforts around the globe. At the same time, the government felt obligated to communicate the war’s events to its citizenry. These two desires were in obvious tension, and the government found a happy medium by releasing death notices to the newspapers.
Although these death notices came with the risks noted above, they also offered opportunity. On June 4, 1943, the Times published the announcements of the death of three officers and that of actor Leslie Howard. One of the officers was a member of the Royal Marines, a Major William Martin, who drowned in late April of that year.
Kind of. Major Martin hadn’t actually died. He couldn’t have— because he never actually existed.
With the war in full swing at the end of 1942, seizing control of the Mediterranean was high on the Allies’ list of military objectives, and the eventual success in North Africa would make that even more likely. But capturing other locations could be an even larger boon. Sicily, for example, served as a key island; as Winston Churchill reportedly commented, “Everyone but a bloody fool would know” that Sicily had to be next on the Allies’ punch list.
So the UK decided to try and play Hitler for a bloody fool. The plan, called “Operation Mincemeat,” was developed in part from a memo written by future James Bond author Ian Fleming. Operation Mincemeat involved leveraging the Nazi intelligence department’s cozy relationship with Spain by planting some disinformation on the Spanish shore. The disinformation came in the form of a pair of dossiers outlining, among other things, the Allies’ plans to invade Greece, Sardinia, and Corsica, all while feigning an attack on Sicily. To deliver these dossiers into the hands of the Spanish and, ultimately, the Germans, British intelligence’s MI5 unit called the fictitious Major Martin into duty. Or, more accurately, they threw a corpse wearing his clothes—and holding the dossiers—into the sea.
In January 1943, a thirty-four-year-old homeless Welsh man named Glyndwr Michael died of liver failure caused, indirectly, by ingesting rat poison. Michael’s death was difficult to determine and his parents had already died, making him—his dead body, that is—a solid stand-in for the Royal Marine that British intelligence was about to create. Michael’s body was dressed in a manner suitable for Martin’s rank and stature, even down to the high-quality underwear. (Quality underwear was rationed at the time and difficult to obtain, but a major in the Royal Marines would certainly be wearing some.)
Intelligence created a backstory for him, including a fiancée named Pam, and gave him love letters, a receipt for an engagement ring from a London establishment (dated April 19, 1943), and a picture of her (really of a clerk in MI5). To finish the ruse, Major Martin was given ticket stubs to a London theater, dated April 24, and—to make him appear careless—an ID card marked “replacement.” All these items were placed in a briefcase, along with two copies of the Mediterranean war plans, one for British troops and one to be forwarded to U.S. commanders. The second copy was created simply to justify the use of a briefcase in the operation.
The body was taken aboard a British submarine, which surfaced on April 30. That day, the corpse was tossed into the waters, the briefcase tied around the loop of the fallen major’s trench coat. It washed up on shore as planned. The official cause of death by the Spanish medical inspector was “drowning” and, because Martin’s belongings suggested that he was a Roman Catholic, the examiner declined to perform an autopsy. The documents, after a few days, made their way into German hands—despite British “efforts” to recover them. On May 13, the Spanish returned the body to the British so that it could properly buried, and it was clear that the briefcase had been opened and its content analyzed.
The Germans bought into Martin’s persona, “determining” that he was on a flight from Britain to Gibraltar to deliver the sensitive documents—a belief strengthened by the June 4 death notice in the Times. German leadership shuffled their defenses to buttress their positions in Greece, Sardinia, and Corsica, leaving Sicily mostly unguarded. When Allied forces invaded Sicily on July 9, the Nazis thought it was a feint, as the documents suggested; by the time the Germans reinforced the island on July 12, it was too late. Roughly two weeks later, the Axis began their retreat from the island.
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Related: “Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory” by Ben Macintyre. 4.4 stars on 253 reviews.