Operation Mincemeat: Homeless Welshman Deceives Nazis
by Florian Sohnke
(Follow Florian on Twitter @floriansohnke.)
While most of the world’s attention was gripped to events unfolding in North Africa, Russia and in the South Pacific in early 1943, the war in the European Theater remained at a stalemate. Humiliated at Dieppe, the Allies’ disastrous August 1942 raid on the French coast, plans for the Allied assault on France remained well over one year away.
While invasion plans for a cross-Channel landing on the European continent were in early planning stages, of immediate importance was the planned invasion of Sicily. Devised for July, the invasion was in desperate need of a diversion to draw German attention from the island elsewhere. Inspired from Greek Mythology, British Intelligence concocted a plan similar to the myth of the Trojan Horse.
Dreamed up by RAF Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley and brought to the attention of British naval officer Ewan Montagu, an intelligence official who as head of XX Committee led counter-espionage operations tasked to outwit Nazis overlords in Europe, the plan called for a most unlikely bidder to complete the task: A dead man.
Montagu hatched his plan following the return of dead aircrew, including a French agent, in 1942, after a RAF aircraft crashed off the Spanish coast. Neutral at the time, but partial to Nazi Germany, British Intelligence determined Spanish authorities had allowed German agents in Spain access to documents recovered prior to returning the deceased man’s personal effects to the UK.
Enter Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welshman who had died in January 1943. Born in Wales in 1907, Michael was the son of a coal miner who died when Michael was 13; his mother had died in 1940 and he had no known living relatives. Discovered near death at an abandon warehouse blocks from the King’s Cross railway station, an autopsy determined Michael had succumbed to rat poison in a desperate search for food. Deemed to be an accidental death, Michael was the perfect prototype for the ploy: 34 at the time of his death, Michael was of perfect age to be considered serving in the British military. Kept in a freezer until late April, Michael would eventually perform an extraordinary service for the British Empire and Allied cause without even knowing.
Under Montagu’s plan, Michael’s body would be fitted with phony documents suggesting the Allies’ next intended military target for an amphibious landing was the Balkans, Greece preferably, but did not specifically name a country, and his corpse was to be secretly dropped into the ocean off the coast of Spain.
In order to strengthen the ruse, the British created a whole new identity: Michael was given the name William H.N. Martin, a commission in the Royal Marines, a rank and all relevant documentation to legitimize him as a member of the British military. So detailed were the British, they included personal documentation and inserted photographs, a bus ticket, a Saint Christopher medallion, a book of stamps, theater tickets, a bank statement, and a letter from his father, among other items, on his person.
Prepared to execute the hoax, Michael’s body was moved to Holy Loch, Scotland, on April 17, 1943, where the British submarine HMS Seraph would deliver him to the Spanish coast.
Departing on the 19th, Michael’s body was packed with 21 pounds of dry ice and carried in the submarine’s freezer. The crew was not informed of the mission, but told the extra cargo was a top secret weather device.
Following a 12-day journey, the Seraph arrived off the coast of southern Spain on the 29th and carefully monitored the coastline for 15 hours. At 4:15 a.m. on the morning of April 30, four crew members went topside where the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Bill Jewell, read the 39th Psalm and inserted Michael’s lifeless body into the sea, wearing a life jacket and with a confidential briefcase attached to his wrist.
Discovered hours later by local fishermen, Michael’s body was turned over to Spanish military officials, who carefully inspected Michael’s lifeless body. Photographing all documents, the Spanish dutifully turned over the images of Michael’s papers to German Abwehr (military intelligence). Shortly afterward, Spanish diplomats handed over Michael’s personal effects and the briefcase to British embassy officials in Madrid. Realizing the briefcase had been tampered with, British envoys sent a coded message indicating the Germans had taken the bait.
In the following weeks, Allied intelligence detected the Germans had transferred three Panzer divisions to Greece, two from Russia and one from France, to strengthen units for an expected attack. So successful was the tactic, Hitler is alleged to have engaged in a shouting match with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who remained convinced Sicily would be the target.
In July as planned, Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, began. Led by British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery and General George S. Patton, Allied forces faced a determined enemy, but far less in number due to the success of the British stunt. Allied leaders attribute the island being conquered in five weeks in large part to the Germans falling prey to British scheming.
Michael’s body was interred in Huelva, Spain. The British con job later inspired a film, The Man Who Never Was, which was brought to the big screen in 1956. Michael’s identity was revealed in 1996.