REALLY WEIRD HISTORY: Operation Mincemeat


April 30th, 1943
9:30am Just off the coast of Spain. A local sardine fisherman, going about his
day, spots something strange floating a ways off in the water. He takes a few minutes to investigate, as
any curious fisherman would, and soon realizes, to his horror, he’s happened upon a body. Not just any body, mind you, but the corpse
of a British soldier. A captain of the Royal Marines: the acting
Major William Martin. Looped around the belt of his trench coat
is a chained military briefcase. The local authorities are called, and the
body is sent to the city of Huelva, and placed into the possession of the Spanish military. Before long, the briefcase is cracked open,
and inside, the Spaniards find correspondence between two British generals which imply that
the Allies plan to invade Greece and Sardinia, using an invasion of Sicily as a diversion. The Spanish government is neutral in the war,
but are known to cooperate with the Germans. Copies of the briefcase contents are soon
shared with the German military, and the Nazi’s, stunned at their good fortune, shift their
forces away from Sicily and direct them to the two invasion targets, eager to have a
solid leg up on the British. A short time later, a message is sent by Brigadier
Leslie Hollis, the secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee to Winston Churchill. The communique reads, “Mincemeat swallowed
rod, line and sinker.” Churchill reads the message, and smiles. The Nazi’s had fallen for it. A year previously, the Allies, pleased with
their success in the North African Campaign, began brainstorming their next target. While it was quickly determined that an invasion
of France by Britain wouldn’t be possible until 1944, Churchill wanted to reallocate
forces from North Africa to attack Europe’s “soft underbelly”. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943,
Allied planners selected Sicily as the next target, with a timetable of no later than
July that year. The problem, from many in the Allied forces
point of view, was that Sicily was too obvious a choice – control of the island would open
the Mediterranean Sea to Allied shipping, and make it possible to invade continental
Europe through Italy. Many believed the build up of resources necessary
for the invasion would be quickly detected, and blunted by the Axis. With this in mind, the British began quietly
working on a secret operation that would confuse the Germans as to where the invasion would
take place. Time was of the essence. They had until July to craft, execute, and
complete to mission, or the invasion of Sicily would be short-lived. The operation would be overseen by the Twenty
Committee, which oversaw the Double-Cross System, a counter-espionage and deception
operation of the British Security Service. From this, two men – Ewan Montagu and Charles
Cholmondeley – were chosen to design and carry out the covert operation. The men took their inspiration from The Trout
Memo, a 1939 wartime document which detailed a list of ways that enemy forces could be
fooled, or, like trout, lured in. Number 28 on the list was titled: “A Suggestion
(not a very nice one)” The idea: plant misleading documents on a
corpse that would be found by the enemy. Cholmondeley’s spin on the idea was simple:
Obtain a body from a hospital in London, fill its lungs with water, and place fake documents
in an inside coat pocket. The body would then be airdropped near a shoreline,
and upon finding it, the enemy would believe they had stumbled upon important military
plans from a downed soldier who had drowned after crashing into the sea. The execution of this plan presented several
problems – the most obvious of which, was… how do you procure a body for such a mission? Montagu and Cholmondeley enlisted the help
of Sir Bernard Spilsbury, a famous British pathologist to determine what kind of body
they needed and what factors they would need to take into account to fool a hypothetical
Spanish pathologist into believing the cadaver to be genuine. Spilsbury informed the men that air crash
victims often died from shock, not drowning, so the body’s lungs would not necessarily
need to be filled with water. He further supposed that the Spaniard pathologists
would be Roman Catholics, and therefore reluctant to perform a full autopsy. This meant their options for a suitable corpse
were widened, and Spilsbury began searching London for an unwanted body that could meet
the qualifications. On January 28th, 1943, the body of Glyndwr
Michael, a Welsh homeless man, became available. Michael died in St. Pancras Hospital, seriously
ill from ingesting rat poison in an abandoned warehouse close to King’s Cross. He had no family, no friends, and, according
to Montagu several years later, “a bit of a ne’er-do-well, whose only worthwhile deed
was done after his death.” It was determined that the small amount of
rat poison in his system would not be detectable. There was one caveat, however: the body only
had a shelf life of three months, after which it would decompose past the point of usefulness. With the clock ticking, Montagu and Cholmondeley
launched “Operation Mincemeat”, and got to work creating the corpse’s undercover
identity. The name and rank chosen was Captain (Acting
Major) William Martin, of the Royal Marines assigned to Combined Operations Headquarters. Martin was a common last name among Royal
Marines with the rank – the hope was that, if an inquiry was made about the Captain’s
identity by the enemy, they would find several records from various different men in the
division, quelling any suspicion. But Montagu and Cholmondeley went even further,
crafting an entire background for William Martin, and filling his pockets with items
meant to support the legend, including a letter from his fictitious father, an overdraft notice
from Lloyd’s Bank, a receipt for a diamond engagement ring, and two letters from a fictitious
fiancee named Pam, accompanied by a photograph in which an Mi5 desk clerk name Jean Leslie
posed as a stand-in. Also included on the Captain’s person were
cigarettes, a pencil stub, some keys, theatre tickets, a hotel receipt, a book of stamps,
and a silver cross and medallion of St. Christopher, meant to convince the Spanish Pathologists
that he was a fellow Roman Catholic, and thus further discourage them from performing a
complete autopsy. Along with the pocket litter, the operation
crafted a thorough a timeline of Captain William Martin’s activity in London from April 18th
to the 24th. All these details combined illustrate a substantial
effort to establish as much evidence of authenticity as possible. But most important of all was the document
meant to mislead the Germans: A personal letter from Lieutenant General
Sir Archibald Nye, vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, to General Sir Harold Alexander,
commander of the Anglo-American 18th Army Group in Algeria and Tunisia under General
Eisenhower. This letter would make reference to an impending
attack on the Balkans. In the event the Spanish returned the Captain’s
body and the attached documents to the British, a single black eyelash was placed inside the
letter as a way to know whether it had been opened. Cholmondeley’s plan originally called for
the body to be air-dropped into the sea, but seaplanes were quickly determined to be too
loud and open to discovery. Simulating the air crash with an actual plane
was logistically impossible. The team eventually settled upon delivering
the body via covert submarine. On April 13th, with the plan finally in place,
the Chiefs of Staff met and agreed to give the go-ahead for the operation, pending Churchill’s
approval. Two days later, Colonel John Bevan, the head
of London Controlling Section, met with the prime minister to explain the plan. Taking great care to explain the drawbacks,
Bevan warned Churchill that any number of things could go wrong – including that the
Spanish might return the corpse to the British without even opening the letter. Laying in his bed, clothed in a dressing gown
and smoking a cigar, Churchill responded by quipping, “In that case, we shall have to
get the body back and give it another swim.” In the early hours of April 17th, the body
of Captain (Acting Major) William Martin, of the Royal Marines, was outfitted and placed
in a canister. The canister was loaded into a 1937 Fordson
van, driven by British Secret Service agent St. John “Jock” Horsfall, who, before
the war, had been a motor racing champion. Cholmondeley and Montagu travelled with the
canister in the back of the van. Agent Horsfall drove through the night to
Greenock, west Scotland, and, once there, the canister was taken on board the HMS Seraph,
an S-class submarine of the British Royal Navy. Seraph’s commander, Lt. Bill Jewell, who was
clued in on the op, told his men that the canister contained a top secret meteorological
device that was to be deployed near Span. On April 19th, Seraph set sail. During the ten day voyage, the vessel endured
two separate bombings, and after much uncertainty, finally arrived just off the coast of Huelva. At 4:15 the next morning, Seraph finally surfaced. Jewell had the canister brought up to the
deck, and then sent all men except the officers back inside the sub. The officers were quickly informed of the
actual purpose of the mission, and together, they opened the canister. As the body was lowered into the water, Lt.
Jewell read the 39th Psalm – A psalm of David – a Prayer for Wisdom and Forgiveness. As Seraph’s engines were fired up, the ship’s
propellers pushed the corpse toward the direction of the shore. A few minutes later, Seraph dove, and all
was quiet. The body of Captain (Acting Major) William
Martin, of the Royal Marines, drifted aimlessly for a few hours, until finally catching the
attention of a local sardine fisherman. After a quick examination by the Spanish,
the body was buried on May 2 in the San Marco section of Nuestra Señora cemetery in Huelva,
with full military honors. The grave remains there, to this day. On May 11, The Captain (Acting Major)’s
affects were finally returned to London. British secret service opened the briefcase,
and examined the letter. The eyelash was massing. Toward the end of June, the Nazis shifted
their forces to the Balkans, leaving Sicily wide open. In July, the Allies invaded. By mid-August, Sicily fell. 10 years to the day after Operation Mincemeat
was given the go ahead by the Chiefs of Staff, the author of the Trout Memo, which inspired
the operation, wrote another document – this time, a novel. The author was Ian Fleming, and the book was
Casino Royale – an espionage thriller which introduced the world to the fictional British
secret agent James Bond. This episode of Really Weird History is brought
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