Operation Mincemeat – The Amazing Tale of ‘Billy Martin’

The Andalusian Coastline, Spain.

April 30th, 1943. 9:30am.

A local fisherman  walking along the surf, spots something in the waves. It’s waterlogged, soaked through, and is being steadily washed up onto the beach by the breaking waves. Once the fisherman gets close enough to the water, he recognises this bit of ‘driftwood’, as a human body.

The body is dressed in British military attire. There is a life-vest around the body, and handcuffed to its wrist, an official-looking briefcase, locked, and no-doubt, crammed full of all kinds of military intelligence!

Officially, Spain is neutral during the Second World War. But that doesn’t stop them from passing on intelligence to the Nazis when the situation suited them. And right now, it seemed to suit them very well.

The dead body of the English seaman was brought ashore and the contents of the pockets scrutinized. According to his identification papers, the corpse was that of the late Maj. William Martin, of the Royal Marines. He had apparently drowned, or frozen to death in the cold Atlantic waters and his body had been washed ashore. With a wealth of British military intelligence literally chained to his wrist.

The Germans had struck on a bonanza of information! Now, they knew that the Allies planned to invade Italy! They knew how many people there would be, how many tanks, air-planes, troops, and even where the landing-beaches would be! It was a gold-mine, a jackpot! A triumph!

…and it was all FAKE.

This is the true story of “Operation Mincemeat”, an audacious and ludicrous plan dreamt up British espionage and propaganda men in London during the middle of the Second World War. A plan to deceive the Germans so utterly that they would never know their true intentions! It was a plan that seemed insane and impossible! A plan that went off without a hitch…

What was Mincemeat?

In 1943, the tide of the Second World War is beginning to turn in the Allies’ favour. It’s turning alright, but it’s taking its sweet time about it.

To hurry things along, the Allies plan an invasion of Italy, to destroy Mussolini and the Italian fascists, and render the Italians a negligible force, and a useless ally to the Germans. Or better yet, to get the Italians to join the Allies in their struggle against German and Japanese tyranny!

But to invade Italy, the Allies need to keep the German code-breakers and spies busy and distracted, by feeding them nice, fat, juicy chunks of misinformation. Lies and deceits that would keep them guessing and uncertain, right up until the very day of the invasion!

With the North African theater of the war going so well throughout 1942, the Allies were planning their next step in the war: The invasion of Europe. To go through France was foolhardy, impossible, and stupid. For the time-being, at least, that would have to wait. But Italy, on the other hand, might be an easier, and more viable option.

Critical to the invasion of Italy was the invasion of Sicily, the island famous for its long connections to the Italian Mafia. Whoever controlled the island of Sicily would have a naval base in the region, and would therefore be able to control the rest of (or a vast majority of) the Mediterranean Sea.

The problem with invading Sicily was that the Germans knew that the English knew that invading Sicily was the wise thing to do. So to throw the Germans off the scent, the English began one of the biggest and most outlandish deception-plots in the history of the Second World War: Operation Mincemeat.

How did ‘Mincemeat’ work?

The best way to get the Germans to think that the Allies were going to invade Italy via every other possible part of the Italian coastline, apart from the island of Sicily, was to do it in writing. But obviously, para-dropping a letter over the Reichstag in Berlin wasn’t going to work. This deception had to be more dramatic than that. The British had to make the Germans think that they’d stumbled across a huge gold-mine of information, purely by chance. Something that would look like such a huge blunder to the British, and such a huge intelligence win to the Germans, that it couldn’t possibly just be a set-up, could it?

The idea for ‘Mincemeat’ was dreamed up by two men: Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu, and Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley. For those trying to untangle their tongues after that, it’s spelt: “Cholmondeley”…but is actually pronounced: “Chumley”.

Originally, Cholmondeley had suggested dropping a dead body over France with a radio-set and a busted parachute. The Germans would pick up the radio-set, and the British could transmit lies to them, live over the airwaves. This idea was shelved for being too unworkable. How would the radio-set survive a drop from an airplane which was supposed to kill a man, with a parachute that didn’t work properly? It sounded interesting, but was far too impractical. But Cholmondeley wasn’t going to give up. He was sure the idea could work…it just needed a bit of tweaking.

He’d gotten the idea for the dead-body ruse from a man who would eventually become one of the greatest writers in the history of British literature…Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming. James Bond Ian Fleming. Fleming supposedly, got the idea from another author…strange how no idea can ever be truly considered original, is it?

Regardless of who dreamt up the idea in the first place, Cholmondeley kept it in his brain until he could figure out how he could use it effectively in the war-effort.

The problem was that planting documents on dead bodies had been used for years. It happened in the Great War, it happened twice in 1942 alone! The British were perhaps fearful that if they used this trick too often, the Germans might get wise to their schemes. So it had to be deployed with delicacy.

And the upcoming invasion of Sicily was just such an event where this scheme might work.

Preparing the Bait

For Operation Mincemeat to work, Cholmondeley and Montagu required the following ingredients:

– One dead body. Male. Average size and appearance.
– British field battle dress.
– A background and biography of the dead body.
– Delicious, juicy papers and intelligence documents that would make the Germans drool with delight.

The first step was the hardest: Finding the body.

This being the middle of WWII, you’d think that finding a dead body would be easy. Dead soldiers, sailors, airmen, civilians, government types, and so-forth, must be all over London. But not just any body would do. For the plan to work, it had to look as if the body had died by drowning or exposure. As such, the actual cause of death of the body had to be hard to detect. It couldn’t be something obvious like a heart-attack, a gunshot, a stroke, or from some sort of infectious disease.

And on top of that, they had to find the body, never mind what it died of! The days of body-snatchers were long-gone, and everything had to be done through official channels, full of white paper and red tape. The body, when found and selected, couldn’t be one after which relations or friends were likely to come calling. There had to be no next-of-kin wondering what happened to Uncle Bertie or Cousin Jonathan, there had to be no living relations, no friends, no family, nothing whatever. The body had to be completely unattached.

As tricky as this was, they did eventually find a body.

To aid the duo in their scheme, they enlisted the help of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a renowned pathologist. He explained how a body decomposes, and what kinds of traces various manners of death leave behind. This allowed Montagu and Cholmondeley to narrow their field of search.

The body that they finally selected was that of Glyndwr Michael. Mr. Michael, a Welshman, was a derelict, a drifter, a homeless illiterate and a man with a sad past. His father had committed suicide, and his mother was dead. He had, so far as the research uncovered, no living relations. And he’d committed suicide by swallowing rat-poison. His body had been found in the streets in London and taken to the mortuary. Because evidence of the poison was miniscule, post mortem, it was almost impossible to tell what the man had died of. So he could have died of almost anything!…

…such as drowning at sea.

Mr. Michael was perfect! The body was bought and paid for, and the plan was in action!

You Only Die Twice

The body was found. It was suitable in every respect. Size, weight, age, gender, manner of death and general overall appearance. Now, it had to be kitted out as a dead naval officer.

To do this, Mr. Michael was renamed Major William Martin, Royal Marines. And to enforce this falsehood to anyone who dared to ask, a library of phoney documents were run off the printing-press to certify this.

The body was outfitted with standard brown British Battle-Dress. An actual naval uniform was considered too hard to obtain in wartime…they were all handmade by Gieves and Hawkes of Savile Row! They wanted to give the fictitious ‘Maj. Martin’ a sendoff to support his king and country, but they didn’t want the funeral to be that expensive!

Besides, could you imagine asking a Savile Row tailor to measure up a corpse for a naval dress-uniform? He’d probably kick you out of his shop.

With the attire sorted, now came the documentation.

‘Maj. Martin’ was given I.D. papers that said he was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1907. His surname was ‘Martin’ because it seemed to be a really common surname in the Royal Marines in the 1940s, a convenient coincidence. Nobody was likely to ask questions.

Along with stuff like a wallet with his I.D. cards in it, his pockets were stuffed with everything from train-tickets, theater-stubs, love-letters from his phoney fiancee, a receipt from an exclusive London jeweler for an engagement-ring that cost and arm, a leg and his right nut, a photograph of his fiancee (in reality, a photograph of an office-secretary, who posed for the shot), bank-papers, cards, business-letters, money…even a letter from the London tailor Gieves and Hawkes…Not to say that his naval dress-uniform was ready, but to say that they were waiting for payment for a shirt he’d supposedly asked them to make for him!

With the personal papers complete, it was now necessary to prepare the false military documents. Among other things, letters and maps were planted inside the official briefcase. These papers would ensure that the Germans thought the British would invade Greece before invading Italy. This was fake, of course. It was a ruse to get the Germans to position their troops where they would be completely useless, while the Allies invaded Sicily. All the documents were printed or typed on official War Office stationery, with all the right stamps, seals and signatures.

But it wasn’t just necessary to deceive the Germans…but the British as well! Just in case anyone who wasn’t in on the plot should come asking questions, more fake documents were prepared, to protect the mission. As Churchill said: The truth must always be protected by a bodyguard of lies. And they lied alright! Even the coroner who had secured the body for the operation typed up fake documents. He claimed that permission had been given by the corpse’s next of kin (in this case, parents) that the body might be used for military purposes.

Again, this was fake. Mr. Michael, the corpse, had no parents! They’d died years ago! But it was all part of the deception…

Preparing the Drop

The body was prepared, dresed, kitted, fitted and stuffed with papers. Now all that remained was to cast the bait into the sea, and wait for the Germans to bite.

The only problem with this was that the bait was a dead body. And bodies rot.

to combat this unsightly issue, the men in charge of ‘Mincemeat’ engaged the services of the original ‘Q’…Charles Fraser-Smith. A genius scientist, who was literally the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s ‘Q’ character in the James Bond series, Fraser-Smith devised a metal canister in which the corpse could be stored. To prevent decomposition, the canister was filled with dry ice, and then sealed shut. Dry ice is carbon-dioxide in solid form. Once the ice melted and vaporised, the entire inside of the canister would be filled with Co2, driving out the oxygen and preventing further decay of the corpse.

This canister, along with all the other necessary bits and pieces for the deception, were loaded onboard a submarine, H.M.S. Seraph. The Seraph and its crew sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Once the Seraph had reached the waters off the coast of Spain, it’s C.O., Capt. Norman Jewell, ordered the submarine to surface. The canister with the corpse inside was brought up on deck, and opened. The briefcase with the papers were shackled to its wrist and a life-jacket strapped around its torso. Now, the operation could begin.

The body was prepared for burial at sea. Capt. Jewell read out the 39th Psalm, although this wasn’t specified in his orders, and then the corpse was lowered into the sea.

To make the deception just that little bit more realistic, the crew of the Seraph even launched an inflatable life-raft, to drift off with the body. Then, they sailed off, letting the currents take the body away towards Spain. The specially-designed canister that carried the corpse was dumped into the sea and riddled with machine-gun fire to make it sink. The Seraph sent a radio message back to London to say that the mission had been a success.

After the Drop

Just dropping the corpse into the ocean and sailing off was not enough to ensure ‘Mincemeat’s success. Once the corpse was found by the Spanish and its contents were passed onto the Germans, the British carried on with their ruse. Maj. Martin’s name appeared in a list of the dead and missing, which was published in the New York Times a week later. You can read it here:

You can see Martin’s name at the bottom of the list of officers. He’s mentioned as “ROYAL MARINES. – T/Capt (A/Major) W. Martin“.

To further impress on the Germans and their Spanish collaborators the ‘importance’ of these phoney documents, the British started making inquiries about what had happened to the ficticious Maj. Martin and his precious cargo. After a while, the Spanish Government, still pretending to be ‘neutral’ during the War, sent the papers contained in the locked briefcase back to England. Although the Spanish had assured the British Government that the contents of the case had been untouched, the British could see that the Spanish and Germans had gone over the documents in minute detail, and they must’ve believed their contents, because they went to extraordinary pains to make it look like they hadn’t been tampered with, to prove how ‘uninterested’ they had been. But there were telltale signs, such as envelopes being re-sealed and papers being replaced into their packets in the incorrect order and so-forth.

The message sent to the War Office and to the United States Government, was “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole”, to indicate that the ruse had been a success.

And boy, was it ever!

The Effect and Importance of Mincemeat

Mincemeat was an intelligence success because through this deception, the Germans relocated their troops from Italy, to Greece, where the British wanted them to think the Allies would make their invasion of southern Europe. Greece was one of the last Allied strongholds in Europe to fall to the Germans, so it must’ve seen reasonable to the Germans that it would be the first place that the Allies would want to reclaim.

This relocation of troops to Greece meant that only a skeleton force was left in Sicily to defend the island. Even after the invasion of Sicily, German agents working in England, who worked with the British Government against the Nazis, in the famous Double Cross System (usually just marked as “XX”), would feed the German Government false information, saying that their ‘spying’ in Britain revealed that the invasion of Sicily was a blind, a distraction for the Germans, while the Allies prepared for their main invasion of the Greek islands.

This falsehood also paid off. The Germans, convinced that Greece was to be invaded, refused to move their troops. By the time they realised how they’d been tricked, and relocated their men to Italy, the Allies had attained a firm hold on the island of Sicily and was preparing for the big push to the Italian mainland.

Less than a year later, in September, 1943, with the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini beginning to wane in power (and with Mussolini himself becoming increasingly unpopular in the eyes of the Italian population for failing to defend Italy and allying himself with Hitler), the Italian Royalists, under King Victor Emmanuel III, signed an armistice with the Allies, and switched sides, from Axis to Allied.

The Italian Royalists and most regular Italians, now free from the scourge of Mussolini, fought against the Germans and the remaining fascists elements in Italy. Despite allying himself with with the winning side, King Victor, a once popular and respected monarch, was suffering from increasingly waning popularity. When the Italian capital of Rome was bombed by Allied planes, his popularity took a real nosedive.

Operation Mincemeat secured several wins for the Allies and changed the course of the war in many ways…Although it did little to secure the Italian king’s popularity, and in 1946, the monarchy was abolished.

More Info?

“Operation Mincemeat” – BBC History

“Operation Mincemeat” – BBC Documentary