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The amazing ruse of Operation Mincemeat.

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In the winter of 1942-1943, the British Army pushed steadily across north Africa, determined to oust Field Marshall General Irwin Rommel and the German Afrika Korps.  As part of this campaign a ruse was carried out whereby the corpse of a dead serviceman was placed in a blown-up scout car in a minefield facing the German 90th Light Division near Qaret el Abd.  The body had papers on it giving false locations of British minefields.  Rommel fell for it and his panzer divisions were lured into areas of soft sound where they were bogged down and had to abandoned.

With Rommel on the run, British High Command were already planning an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe from the south.  The obvious objective would be to cross the Mediterranean Sea and take Sicily, and thence onto mainland Italy.  The trouble with that plan was it would also be obvious to the Italians and the Germans.  Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley and Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, members of a top secret security committee came up with the idea for an even more daring ruse.

Named Operation Mincemeat, the plan was to have a body washed up on a shore, disguised as a British Army Officer, carrying faked documents showing a planned Allied invasion of Sardinia and Greece, in the hope that the Axis powers would take the bait and leave Sicily largely unguarded.  The chosen location for the drop was off the coast of Spain.  Spain was neutral at the time but the ruling Falange Party were sympathetic to and close allies with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  It was therefore more than likely that they would share any intelligence with the axis powers.

A fake identity was prepared for this officer of Major William Martin. This was not as easy at it appears.  Nazi intelligence were aware of the identity of the higher-ranking British officers, so they could not make the fake appear to high ranking, yet the Nazis were unlikely to believe a low ranking officer would be privy to and carrying such sensitive information.  Major Montagu came up with the idea of making the fake Major Martin an expert on landing craft on the staff of Combined Operations Chief Lord Mountbatten.  The rank was changed to Captain-acting-major and the impression was to be given that he was on his way to head a training camp in Algiers.

The briefcase attached to the body by handcuffs contained a letter from Lord Mountbatten to Andrew Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, asking that Major Martin be sent back to London as soon as possible, containing the reference “bring some sardines with you”, hoping that the Nazis would see this as a coded message about an invasion of Sardinia.  All however rested on one key document; a letter from Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Archibald Nye, to the Commander in Tunisia, General Harold Alexander, giving up-to-minute information about the planned invasions of Sardinia and Greece.  These faked orders indicated there would indeed be an attack upon Sicily, but purely to create a diversion from the main objectives of Operation Husky – the fake name given to the Sardinia/Greece invasion. Nye’s letter stated there was a good chance of making the Nazis “think we will go for Sicily – it is an obvious target and one about which they must be nervous.”  The briefcase also contained London theatre ticket stubs, a letter about an overdrawn bank account, a picture of his fianceé, love letters, a party invitation and a letter from an “uncle” complaining about rationing.

Now all they needed was a body, but not just any body.  They wished to make it look as if the Major had been the victim of an air-crash at sea.  A pathologist was consulted who suggested a victim of pneumonia and exposure, the fluid-filled lungs of whom would look like drowning and damage to body tissues caused by cold would be consistent with long exposure in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  They eventually did find such a body but attempts to photograph it and alter the photograph to make it look pre-exposure proved impossible.  It was then a stroke of luck took place.  Montagu spotted an officer who bore an uncanny resemblance to the dead man and, without exposing the purpose, convinced him to pose for a photograph to add to the identity papers of “Major Martin”.

With the Nazis finally vanquished in north Africa, on 30 April 1943, the British Submarine HMS Seraph surfaced under cover of darkness 1600 yards off the northern coast of Spain.  They unstowed a the container, filled with dry ice to preserve the body, now clad in an officers uniform, life vest and with the briefcase attached by handcuffs, removed him and slipped him into the waters.  Now all counted on the body being washed up or otherwise found by the Spanish authorities.

On 3 May 1943 London received a communique from the British Naval attaché in Madrid that the body of a Major William Martin had been found by Spanish fishermen off the coast of the town of Huelva, apparently the victim of a plane crash into the ocean.  This attaché knew nothing of the top secret Operation Mincemeat and merely reported that major had been given a military funeral after Spanish authorities had carried out and autopsy and other “legal formalities”.  There was cause for tentative celebration.  Given that the body had been in the hands of the Spanish authorities, it was more than likely that the briefcase had been opened and the contents shared with Nazi intelligence in Spain.  The only hope now is that they would fall for it.  Within a few weeks of the funeral, the personal effects were returned to London, where British Intelligence examined the briefcase and orders and ascertained that they had indeed been opened.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill was sent the simple message, “Mincemeat swallowed whole.”

On 10 July 1943 Allied forces stormed onto Sicily and were met with only token resistance, enabling them to very quickly take the entire island.  Intelligence reports back to London indicated that Operation Mincemeat was a complete success.  The Axis powers had bolstered their defences in Sardinia and Greece, leaving Sicily almost wide open and giving the Allies an open door into Italy.  It was not long before the end for the Axis powers were in sight.

It was only after World War II that it became apparent just how successful Operation Mincemeat had been.  A memo from the German Naval Commander Admiral Dönitz stated “The genuineness of the captured documents are above suspicion”.  He also recorded in his diary however that not everyone was convinced.  An entry states “The Führer (Hitler) does not agree with the Duce (Mussolini) that Sicily is the most likely invasion point.  He believes that the discovered British orders confirm that the planned invasion will be launched mainly against Sardinia.”  Mussolini had seen through the ruse but Adolf Hitler obviously had not, and being unwilling to listen as he was, had taken the bait hook, line and sinker.

As to just whom “Major Martin” was has been open to speculation ever since Operation Mincemeat.  The official line, which has been restated in a Freedom of Information request in 2010, was that he was Glyndwr Michael, an alcoholic vagrant from Aberbargoed, Wales, who apparently died after ingesting rat poison.  Further support for this comes in the fact that this unlisted, homeless man is named on the village war memorial.

However, in The Secrets of HMS Dasher, John and Noreen Steele pointed out that HMS Dasher, a US-built escort carrier, exploded in the Firth of Clyde on 27 March 1943, which they attribute to the accidental discharge of a torpedo from a British submarine.  In this work they state that the submarine which carried out Operation Mincemeat, HMS Seraph, was berthed in Blyth, Northumberland, at the time but after the sinking of HMS Dasher, was quickly dispatched right round the northern coast of Scotland to the Holy Loch, which is entered from the Firth of Clyde.  They further claim that the body of the Welshman would have been too badly decomposed for use and a fresh body was obtained from the 379 dead from HMS Dasher.  They identify this man as 37 year old sailor John “Jack” Melville.  In 2004 a memorial service for Jack Melville in which Lt. Cmdr. Mark Hill, CO of the naval squadron in Cyprus, referring to a movie about Operation Mincemeat stated, “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.”

The Ministry of Defence of course maintain that Major Martin was indeed Glyndwr Michael, but if this were the case, why take HMS Seraph all the way to the Holy Loch, where the official line is that was where the body was prepared for its final journey?  Anything else apart, if John and Noreen Steele are correct, taking a submarine up the North Sea and around the north of Scotland was taking an extreme chance during World War II.  This Scottish connection have led to another unconfirmed claim that Major Martin may have actually been an unknown vagrant from Aberdeen.

Vagrant or serving sailor, we shall never know.  All we do know for certain is that a dead man played a vital part in defeating one of the most dangerous regimes in human history, and for that the UK, Europe and the world owe him an enormous debt.

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