Glyndwr Michael

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat was a very successful British deception plan during World War II. Mincemeat convinced the German high command that the Allies planned to invade Greece and Sardinia in 1943 instead of Sicily, the actual objective. This was accomplished by persuading the Germans that they had, by accident, intercepted "top secret" documents giving details of Allied war plans. The documents were attached to a corpse deliberately left to wash up on a beach in Spain. The story was revealed in the 1953 book The Man Who Never Was.

Planning the deception

In 1942, Operation Torch was imminent, and victory in the North African Campaign was expected. Allied planners considered the next step in the war. They decided to continue attacks in the Mediterranean theatre. Control of Sicily would open the Mediterranean to Allied shipping and allow invasion of continental Europe, making Sicily an obvious strategic objective. German planners saw this too, of course. (Winston Churchill commented "Everyone but a bloody fool would know that it's Sicily.") Furthermore, there would be a massive Allied buildup for the invasion (code-named Operation Husky) that would surely be detected. The Germans would know that some large attack was coming. But if the Allies could deceive the Germans about where that attack was going, the Germans might disperse or divert some significant part of their forces, which would help the invasion succeed.

Several months before, Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley of Section B1(a) of MI5, suggested dropping a dead man attached to a badly-opened parachute in France with a radio set for the Germans to find. The idea was for the Germans to think that the Allies did not know the set was captured, and pretend to be Allied agents operating it, thus allowing the Allies to feed them misinformation. This was dismissed as unworkable; however the idea was taken up later by the Twenty Committee, the small inter-service, inter-departmental intelligence team in charge of double agents. Cholmondeley was on the Twenty Committee, as was Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, a Royal Navy intelligence officer.

Montagu and Cholmondeley developed Cholmondeley's idea into a workable plan, using documents instead of a radio. The Committee thought of planting the documents on a body with a defective parachute. However, the Germans knew that it was Allied policy never to send sensitive documents over enemy territory, so they decided to make the man a victim of a plane crash at sea. That would explain how the man would be several days dead and how he could be carrying secret documents. The body would be floated ashore in Spain, where the nominally neutral government was known to cooperate with the Abwehr (German intelligence). The British were sure the Spanish authorities would search the body and allow German agents to examine anything found. Montagu gave the operation the code name of Mincemeat, just restored to the list of available names after its use for another successful mission.


The method of planting documents on a corpse was not new. Two incidents that Montagu would have been aware of illustrated this.

One was before the Battle of Alam Halfa, in North Africa in August 1942. A corpse was placed in a blown-up scout car, in a minefield facing the German 90th Light Division just south of Qaret el Abd. With the corpse was a map showing the locations of non-existent British minefields. The Germans fell for the ruse, and Rommel's panzers were routed to areas of soft sand where they bogged down.

The second incident was not a deception at all, but rather a close call. In September 1942, a PBY Catalina crashed off Cadiz carrying Paymaster-Lt. James Hadden Turner, a courier. He was carrying a letter from General Mark Clark to the Governor of Gibraltar, which named French agents in North Africa and gave the date of the Torch landings as November 4 (although the actual date was November 8). Turner's body washed up on the beach near Tarifa and was recovered by the Spanish authorities. When the body was returned to the British, the letter was still on it, and technicians determined that the letter was never opened. The Germans had the means to read the letter without opening the envelope, but if they did, they apparently decided the letter was "planted" and the information was bogus, and so ignored it.

Major William Martin, Royal Marines

With the help of the renowned pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Montagu and his team determined what kind of body they needed: a man who appeared to have died at sea by hypothermia and drowning, and then floated ashore after several days. However, finding a usable body seemed almost impossible, as indiscreet inquiries would cause talk, and it was impossible to tell a dead man's next of kin what the body was wanted for. However, under quiet pressure, Bentley Purchase, coroner of St. Pancras District in London, obtained the body of a 34-year old man, on the condition that the man's real identity would never be revealed. The man had died of chemically-induced pneumonia as the result of ingesting rat poison. So there was fluid in his lungs, which would be consistent with death at sea - except to a pathologist as able as Sir Bernard, who assured them there were none such in Spain.

The next step was creating a "legend": a synthetic identity for the dead man. He became "Captain (Acting Major) William Martin, Royal Marines", born 1907, in Cardiff, Wales, and assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations. As a Royal Marine, Major Martin came under Admiralty authority, and it would be easy to insure that all official inquiries and messages about his death would be routed to the Naval Intelligence Division. The Army's arrangements were different and much harder to control. Also, he could wear battledress rather than a naval uniform. (Uniforms were tailor-made by Gieves & Hawkes of Savile Row, and they couldn't have Gieves' tailor measure the corpse.) The rank of acting Major made him senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents, but not so prominent that anyone would expect to know him. The name "Martin" was chosen because there were several Martins of about that rank in the Royal Marines.

To build up the legend, they provided a fiancée named Pam. Major Martin carried a snapshot of "Pam" (actually a girl clerk at MI5), two love letters, and a jeweler's bill for an engagement ring. He also had a pompous letter from his father, a letter from the family solicitor, and a letter from Lloyds Bank demanding payment of an overdraft of £79 19s 2d. There were ticket stubs from a London theater, bus tickets, a bill for four nights' lodging at the Naval and Military Club, and a receipt from Gieves & Hawkes for a new shirt. (This last was an error: it was for cash, and officers never paid cash at Gieves. But the Germans did not catch it.) All these documents were on authentic stationery or billheads. The dates of the ticket stubs and lodging bill indicated that Major Martin had left London on 24 April. If his body washed ashore on 30 April, presumably after several days at sea, then he must have flown from Britain and crashed at sea.

To make the Major even more believable, Montagu and his team decided to suggest that he was a bit careless. His ID card was marked as a replacement for one that had been lost, and his pass to Combined Operations HQ had expired a few weeks before his departure and not been renewed. This last touch carried an element of risk, as the Abwehr might be suspicious of a careless man having been entrusted with sensitive documents.

The deceptive documents

While the cover identity was created by Montagu and his team, the false documents were also created. Montagu and his team insisted that these must be at the very highest level, so that there would be no question of the supposed senders being misinformed.

The main document was a personal letter from "Archie Nye" (Lt. Gen. Sir Archibald Nye, Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff) to "My dear Alex" (General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of 18th Army Group in Algeria and Tunisia). The letter covered several "sensitive" subjects, such as the (unwanted) award of Purple Heart medals by U.S. forces to British servicemen serving with them, and the appointment of a new commander of the Guards Brigade. This explained its being hand-carried rather than sent through regular channels. On the specific topic of Allied plans in the Mediterranean, the letter referred to Operation Husky as the invasion of Greece by troops from Egypt and Libya under General "Jumbo" Wilson. Two assault beaches and some of the assigned troops were named. (Husky was actually the invasion of Sicily.) The letter also mentioned a second planned attack, Operation Brimstone, for which the cover target was Sicily. This implied that Alexander's forces in Tunisia would invade Sardinia, that being the only other plausible target. "Archie" added that "we stand a very good chance of making [the Germans] think we are going for Sicily." The letter was composed by Sir Archibald himself.

There was also a letter of introduction for Major Martin, from "his" commanding officer, Admiral Mountbatten, to Admiral Cunningham, Allied naval commander in the Mediterranean. This letter included a clumsy joke about "sardines", which Montagu inserted in hopes the Germans would see it as a reference to a planned invasion of Sardinia.

The Germans (and their Spanish friends) had apparently missed the letter in Paymaster-Lt. Turner's pocket, so Montagu's team decided to put the documents in a briefcase which could not be overlooked. To justify carrying documents in a briefcase, "Major Martin" was given two copies of the official pamphlet on Combined Operations by Hilary Saunders, and a letter from Mountbatten to General Eisenhower, asking him to write a brief foreword for the pamphlet's U.S. edition.

It was also necessary to ensure that the body and the briefcase with the documents would be recovered together. The team first thought of having the handle clutched in the corpse's hand, held in place by rigor mortis. But the rigor would probably wear off and the briefcase would drift away. The team therefore equipped Major Martin with a leather-covered chain, such as was used by bank and jewelry couriers to secure their cases against snatching. The chain unobtrusively runs down a sleeve to the case. British officer couriers didn't use such chains, but the Germans might not know that, nor be certain that a real "Major Martin" wouldn't use one for this special job. It seemed unlikely that the Major would keep the bag at his wrist during the long flight from Britain, so the chain was looped around the belt of his trench coat.


Major Martin, in his Royal Marines battledress, was placed in a steel canister. The canister was filled with dry ice and sealed up. When the dry ice melted, it filled the canister with carbon dioxide and drove out any oxygen, thus preserving the body without refrigeration. Cholmondeley and Montagu delivered it to Holy Loch, Scotland where it was taken on board the British submarine HMS Seraph. Seraph's commander, (Lt. "Bill" Jewell) and crew had previous special operations experience. Jewell told his men that the canister contained top secret meteorological device to be deployed near Spain.

On 19 April, Seraph set sail. On 30 April, Seraph arrived at a point about a mile off the coast of Spain, near the town of Huelva. The British knew that there was an Abwehr agent in Huelva who was friendly with the Spanish officials there.

At 0430 on 30 April, Seraph surfaced. Lt. Jewell had the canister brought up on deck, then sent all his crew below except the officers. He briefed them on the details of the secret operation. They opened the canister, fitted Major Martin with a life jacket, and attached his briefcase with the papers. Jewell read the 39th Psalm, although the burial service was not specified in the orders, and the body was gently pushed into the sea where the tide would bring it ashore. Jewell afterwards sent a message to the Committee: "MINCEMEAT completed".

The body was found at around 9:30 AM by a local fisherman, Jose Antonio Rey Maria.

"Mincemeat swallowed whole"

Three days later, the British Naval Attaché in Spain reported the body's discovery, and the Committee was notified. The body was handed over to the British Vice-Consul F. K. Hazeldene, and Major Martin was buried in Huelva with full military honours on 4 May.

The Vice Consul arranged for a pathologist, Eduardo Del Torno, to perform a post-mortem examination. Del Torno reported that the man had fallen into the sea while still alive and had no bruises, death was due to drowning, and the body had been in the sea between 3 and 5 days. A more comprehensive examination was not made because the pathologist took him for a Roman Catholic due to a silver crucifix that hung from his neck and a Saint Christopher plaque in his wallet; these had been included specifically to discourage detailed examination of the corpse.

Montagu had Major Martin included in the published list of British casualties which appeared in The Times on 4 June, in case the Germans checked up there. By coincidence, the names of two other officers who had died when their plane was lost at sea were also published that day, giving credence to the Major Martin story. To further the ruse, the Admiralty sent several messages to the Naval Attaché about the papers which Major Martin had been carrying. The Attaché was urgently directed to locate the papers, and if they were in Spanish hands to recover them at all costs, but also to avoid alerting the Spanish to their importance. The briefcase and papers had been taken up by the Spanish Navy, and were returned to the Attaché by the Chief of Staff of the Navy on 13 May, with the assurance that "everything was there".

However, the British were confident that the papers had been examined by the Spanish, and that the contents would surely reach the Germans.

In fact the Germans themselves had seen the papers. When the body was found, it was reported to the Abwehr agent in Huelva, Adolf Clauss. He was the son of the German consul, and operated under the cover of an agriculture technician. He reported the addressees of the documents, but could not get at them himself. Later, the Spanish secretly opened the envelopes and photographed the documents. (The Germans inspected the resealed envelopes.) Copies were given to the Abwehr, which immediately radioed the text to Berlin, with the paper copies of the photos following a few days later. When the papers were examined after their return, the British could tell that the envelopes had been opened and resealed. Further confirmation from ULTRA prompted a message to Churchill, then in the United States: "Mincemeat Swallowed Whole."

The documents were indeed swallowed whole. After the war, the relevant Abwehr files were captured and examined by the British. The Abwehr had declared the documents authentic, and they were circulated through the German high command. The file copies bore the initials and endorsements of top officers, including Grand Admiral Dönitz and Hitler's chief of staff, Marshal Keitel. There were comments indicating that Hitler himself believed them, and disagreed with Mussolini's belief that Sicily would be attacked.

The result was that German defensive efforts were substantially redirected. Additional troops were sent to Sardinia and Corsica instead of Sicily, and to Greece. This included an entire panzer division moved all the way from France to Greece. Also, the Germans laid three additional minefields off Greece, and transferred a group of "R boats" from Sicily to Greece. The renowned general Rommel was sent to Greece to assume command. All this effort was either wasted or diverted, making the attack on Sicily that much easier.

The effort Montagu and his team made to build up Martin's identity paid off. The Germans noted and accepted all the personal details. They noted the date on the ticket stubs, and deduced that Martin must have been flying from Britain to Gibraltar. Ironically, their report gave a wrong date (27 April instead of 22 April), and they concluded that the crash had occurred on 28 April, even though the medical evidence "showed" that Martin had been dead in the water for several days by 30 May. But the Germans missed the contradiction, canceling their own error.

On 9 July, the Allies invaded Sicily in Operation Husky. Yet the Germans remained convinced for two more weeks that the main attacks would be in Sardinia and Greece, keeping forces out of action there till it was too late.

Ewen Montagu received the OBE for his part in Operation Mincemeat.

Impact on later operations

The success of Operation Mincemeat had the effect of causing the Germans to disregard later genuine document finds. Examples include:

  • Two days after the D-Day landings, the Germans discovered an abandoned landing craft washed up on the Vire estuary in Normandy, containing top secret documents detailing future military targets in the region. Hitler, believing this was a deception similar to Operation Mincemeat, ignored the documents, having already been convinced by numerous deceptions that the main invasion was still to come through the Pas de Calais.
  • During Operation Market-Garden, the drive into the Netherlands in September 1944, a complete operations order with maps and graphics for the airborne phase of the invasion, which was not supposed to be brought with the invading troops, was inadvertently left behind on a transport glider. The operations order fell into German hands, but the Germans, convinced that this was another attempt at Mincemeat-style deception, actually deployed their forces contrary to the information before them.

The Man Who Never Was

Duff Cooper was a diplomat who had held several top level posts during the war. In 1953, he published a spy novel, Operation Heartbreak. The key plot device was floating a corpse into Spain with false documents to deceive the Germans. Cooper had come up with the idea on his own, but naturally many of those concerned with Mincemeat (including Germans and Spaniards) became concerned and started talking. The 'flap' attracted the attention of the British press, and wild rumors began to circulate. At this point the British security services decided that the best response was to publish the true story. Ewen Montagu took a week-end off from his busy legal practice, and wrote the book The Man Who Never Was. It was an immediate best-seller and was made into a movie of the same name two years later. The movie added some fictitious elements for drama, such as a German agent in London, verifying "Major Martin"'s background, with Montagu and his colleagues one step ahead of him. The submarine used in the film wore pennant number P219, that of HMS Seraph, and she was indeed still in commission in 1954/55.

In 1977, Montagu published a second book, Beyond Top Secret ULTRA, in which he recounted his secret war work. It could not be revealed earlier, as it involved both ULTRA and the Double Cross System. In Chapter 13 he gives a short version of the Mincemeat story, including some details not in The Man Who Never Was.

Who was Major Martin?

The man known as Major Martin lies in the Cemetery of Solitude in Huelva. As Mincemeat became legend the question persisted: who was the man known as Major William Martin?

The first corpse

In 1996 Roger Morgan, an amateur historian, uncovered evidence that "Martin" was Glyndwr Michael, a vagrant Welsh alcoholic who died of ingesting rat poison, although how this happened is unknown.

HMS Dasher connection

In The Secrets of HMS Dasher, authors John and Noreen Steele suggest a different identity for the body. On 27 March 1943, there was an accidental explosion on HMS Dasher (a U.S-built escort carrier), which was then in the Firth of Clyde. Dasher sank, and 379 men were killed. The British authorities tried to keep the story quiet, rather than have the British public get upset over alleged defective American shipbuilding. (Britain ultimately employed almost 40 U.S.-built carriers, and had no further accidents.) The dead were originally buried in an unmarked mass grave. The Steeles claim that the Mincemeat body was John "Jack" Melville, 37, one of the dead sailors. They assert that Michael's corpse was acquired in January 1943, and and would have suffered excessive decomposition by April 30, even if refrigerated. They claim that freezing was not an option as it would have produced observable changes to the body, which contradicts Montagu's account. (Montagu mentions having to thaw the body's feet so that boots could be put on it.)

According to the Steeles, Seraph was berthed at Blyth, Northumberland, but she was moved all the way around Scotland to Holy Loch, which is on the Clyde, and much further from London, just before Montagu delivered the canister. The Steeles argue that this makes no sense unless the body originally designated to be "Major Martin" had decomposed and become unusable, and that a "fresh" body from the Dasher disaster was to be substituted. They say Montagu brought the canister from London, but it was empty.

The present HMS Dasher is a patrol boat operating around the British air base in Cyprus. On 8 October 2004, a memorial service was held in Melville's honour aboard Dasher, in which Melville's role as "Major Martin" was officially recognized by the Royal Navy. At the service, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Hill, CO of the naval squadron in Cyprus, said:

In his incarnation as Major Martin, John Melville’s memory lives on in the film, The Man Who Never Was. But we are gathered here today to remember John Melville as a man who most certainly was.


Operation Mincemeat inspired a similar plan in Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, in Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy, in Body of Lies by David Ignatius, in the film version of You Only Live Twice, and in the sci-fi series Space: Above and Beyond.


Additional reading

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