Operation Mincemeat: how a corpse duped Hitler
As the Allies plotted to invade Sicily in 1943, two British intelligence officers concocted an elaborate deception operation involving a corpse, a submarine, and a briefcase stuffed with documents. What followed would alter the course of WW2 – and save thousands of lives. Jonny Wilkes reveals how the events unfolded
Adolf Clauss and Karl-Erich Kühlenthal could not believe the stroke of luck that had come their way. After a nervy few days of back and forth with the Spanish authorities, the agents – members of Germany’s military intelligence service, the Abwehr – had got their hands on a piece of information that could change the course of WW2: a top-secret letter between two British generals. It had been discovered, on 30 April 1943, among the possessions of a dead Royal Marine floating off the coast; the victim of a plane crash who must have been in the water for some time until a local fisherman spotted his remains.
The letter hinted at the planned Allied invasion of Greece and Sardinia in the next few months. With this, the Germans could halt the enemy’s attempts to get a foothold in Europe before it got going. The Abwehr put a copy of the letter on Hitler’s desk, and he quickly ordered infantry and panzer divisions, fighter squadrons, artillery and torpedo boats to defend Greece, Sardinia and the Balkans. Now, the invasion was doomed to fail – all thanks to the chance find of a dead British officer.
Meanwhile in London, in a dim, smoky and cramped basement room of the Admiralty, the men and women of Section 17M banged the tables and jumped up and down in celebration when they heard of the Germans’ preparations. And put in front of Winston Churchill was a telegram: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”
What was Operation Mincemeat?
Adolf Hitler had been duped. The body was not Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines, but a homeless man called Glyndwr Michael; the personal papers, keys, cigarettes, stamps, theatre tickets and loving mementoes from a fiancée in his pockets had been fabricated and planted; the fisherman found the body exactly where the British carefully planned it to be so that the Germans would know about it; and the top-secret letter was a hoax.
The whole thing was a brilliant, elaborate and macabre deception – codenamed Operation Mincemeat – to hoodwink the Germans from the real target of the invasion, Sicily.
By late 1942, success in the North African campaign had allowed the Allies to turn the attentions to the “soft underbelly” of German-held Europe. Sicily was the obvious launch point, since control of the island meant control of shipping in the Mediterranean. But that was the problem: it was too obvious. “Everyone but a bloody fool would know that it’s Sicily,” said Churchill.
That did not stop the Allies wanting to take Sicily, though, as a stepping stone to Italy. So they needed to pull off a spectacular act of misdirection to convince the Germans that they intended to go for Greece instead. To that end, the deception plan Operation Barclay set up a non-existent army, faked manoeuvres, and carried out real sabotages on infrastructure to divert the Axis powers and confirm Hitler’s paranoia that the biggest threat to Europe would surely come from the Balkans.
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Mincemeat would be the most ambitious, and successful, scheme of the lot. The genesis of the idea went back to the early days of the war with the 1939 ‘Trout Memo’, so named as the document compared deception of the enemy to fly-fishing for trout. Although issued by Britain’s director of naval intelligence, John Godfrey, the true author may well have been his assistant, Ian Fleming.
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Certainly, the dozens of ways to fool the enemy listed in the memo would have not looked out of place in one of Fleming’s later James Bond novels. Around halfway down, the 28th idea had the enigmatic title “A suggestion (not a very nice one)”. That suggestion: “A corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.”
Nothing may have ever come of this, but to deceive the Axis about Sicily required the upmost limits of what Churchill dubbed “corkscrew thinking” – imaginative problem solving beyond the linear approach – and Number 28 was resurrected in 1943. The corkscrew thinkers responsible were Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, both experienced with double agents, counter-espionage, counter-intelligence and misinformation with their work for the secret XX Committee.
Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumley’) was the bespectacled, moustachioed, adventure-seeking eccentric of the pair, seconded from the Royal Air Force having never flown. The pipe-smoking Montagu had been an eminent barrister before the war before signing up with naval intelligence. They led a team, Section 17M, in a basement room underneath the Admiralty, where around a dozen people squeezed into a space fit for six, the air thick with smoke and its fluorescent lighting making everyone look blue.
Who were William Martin and Glyndwr Michael in Operation Mincemeat?
From Room 13, the first issue that Cholmondeley and Montagu had to solve for Mincemeat was acquiring the right body. It could not have injuries that contradicted the story of a plane crash, and there had to be no chance of family showing up asking questions. They consulted the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury and secured the services of London coroner Bentley Purchase, who came across the ideal cadaver in January 1943.
A jobless and homeless Welshman named Glyndwr Michael ended his life, aged 34, by ingesting rat poison during that cold winter. Found in a warehouse near King’s Cross and taken to Purchase, his death report described him as a “lunatic”. To Montagu, he was nothing more than “a bit of a ne’er-do-well… the only worthwhile thing that he ever did he did after his death”. In fact, so unimportant was the man Michael used to be, that if not for a chance discovery by an amateur historian in the 1990s, the identity of the Mincemeat body may have remained a mystery.
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With Michael kept in a mortuary refrigerator, Cholmondeley and Montagu got to work on the details they were certain would make the hoax more believable to the Germans. They gave their fake officer an exhaustive identity and backstory, beginning with the name William Martin, a common surname in the Royal Marines, and the rank of Captain (Acting Major), which they deemed high enough to carry top-secret documents, but not so important that the enemy would know him.
Photographing the corpse for the ID card proved ineffective as well as morbid, so they had to scout for someone who looked like Michael and eventually discovered a striking resemblance in MI5’s Ronnie Reed. Then came the ‘pocket litter’: everyday items anyone would have on them. In Martin’s case, this meant keys, stamps, cigarettes, matches, a St Christopher’s medallion, theatre ticket stubs, a receipt for a new shirt, a letter from his father, and even an overdraft notice from Lloyd’s Bank. These had to be written in special ink so as not to run while in the water.
A masterstroke was to invent a fiancée for Martin. So included in his effects was a photo of ‘Pam’ – actually an MI5 clerk, Jean Leslie – a receipt for an engagement ring, and a couple of beautifully poignant love letters to “Bill darling”. “That lovely golden day we spent together – oh!
I know it has been said before, but if only time could sometimes stand still just for a minute – But that line of thought is too pointless. Pull your socks up Pam and don’t be a silly little fool,” one read. “Don’t please let them send you off into the blue the horrible way they do nowadays – now that we’ve found each other out of the whole world, I don’t think I could bear it.”
Cholmondeley and Montagu clearly enjoyed creating this character to fool the Nazis. They got ‘Martin’s’ underwear, for example, from the wardrobe of recently deceased historian and politician Herbert Fisher. Cholmondeley wore the uniform to give it wear and tear, while Montagu, truly living the role, had a strange romance with Jean Leslie pretending to be Bill and calling her Pam. This worried his wife enough that she rushed back from the United States.
By mid-April, with the invasion of Sicily nearing, it was time to get Mincemeat underway. Cholmondeley and Montagu prepared the body and loaded it into a container filled with dry ice for the journey to Scotland (driven by a pre-war motor racing champion, no less) where the submarine HMS Seraph was waiting. It took 10 days and two enemy bombings to reach the drop-off point, all the while the crew unaware of the purpose of their mission. Once the officers lowered Martin into the water, the engines revved so that the wash would push it towards the Spanish shore.
Early on 30 April, a sardine fisherman came across the supposedly drowned British officer near Huelva. Assumed to be a casualty of war, the local authorities ordered an autopsy, which risked giving away the con were it not for the British vice-consul, working with the Mincemeat team, suggesting the pathologists go for an early lunch. The Spanish then buried Martin with full military honours.
What secrets were on the body?
The dead man had been found with a black briefcase chained to his trench coat, inside which was a letter marked “Personal and Most Secret”. This was the lynchpin of Mincemeat; a communication from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff – who did actually write it for Cholmondeley and Montagu to ensure complete authenticity – to General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the 18th Army Group in North Africa.
Among the rambling paragraphs about the Guards Brigade and US service medals, Nye referred to the imminent invasion, Operation Husky. “We have had recent information that the Boche [the Germans] have been reinforcing and strengthening their defences in Greece and Crete, and CIGS [Chief of the Imperial General Staff] felt that our forces for the assault were insufficient,” it read. “It was agreed by the Chiefs of Staff that the 5th Division should be reinforced by one Brigade Group for the assault on the beach south of Cape Araxos and that a similar reinforcement should be made for the 56th Division at Kalamata.”
Nye even mentioned Sicily as having been dismissed as a potential location for the invasion. Instead it would be used for Operation Brimstone, a double-bluff to fool the Germans: “We stand a very good chance of making him [the Boche] think we will go for Sicily – it is an obvious objective and one about which he must be nervous.”
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German agents quickly heard about the dead British officer with top-secret documents. While Spain was neutral, the government cooperated with the Nazis and so Cholmondeley and Montagu knew the letter would reach the Abwehr. That had been why they selected the Huelva area, where the tides were sure to carry Martin to one well-connected agent in particular, Adolf Clauss.
Then when they sent a telegram, intending it to be intercepted, apparently showing the British making concerted efforts to get the briefcase back unopened, Clauss knew he had something important. “Secret papers probably in black briefcase, earliest possible information required, it should be recovered at once, care should be taken that it does not get into undesirable hands,” it read. Of course, the letter was meant to get to undesirable hands. Cholmondeley and Montagu had planted an eyelash in the envelope so they would know it had been opened when the Spanish inevitably returned the briefcase.
Did Operation Mincemeat work?
For some reason, though, the Spanish refused to hand anything over to the Germans. It needed the intervention of the most senior Abwehr agent in the country, Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, to get the letter finally opened and photographed after more than a week. Before long, back in Britain, decryptions of German High Command messages at Bletchley Park proved the contents of the letter had made it to Hitler’s desk.
It was still an anxious wait in Room 13 to find out whether Hitler had been fooled, but when the news started arriving it was everything Cholmondeley and Montagu had hoped. An entire panzer division redeployed from France to Greece, troop numbers swelled in the Balkans, and aircraft, artillery and torpedo boats were actually transferred from Sicily to defend against the invasion.
Hitler had been so convinced by the “discovered British order” that even when the real Operation Husky on Sicily began on 10 July, he thought it to be a feint from the real target. Within 38 days, the Allied forces had captured the island with far fewer casualties and ship losses than projected. Italy followed, resulting in the downfall of Benito Mussolini’s regime, and Hitler had to cancel an offensive against the Soviets in order to move troops to fight on this new front in Europe. The course of the war had been changed, but not in the way the Germans thought when they read that letter found on the body of, as Montagu titled his account of Operation Mincemeat, “the man who never was”.
This content first appeared in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.