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Operation Mincemeat: The man who never was


On 30 April 1943, at half-past four in the morning, the dead body of a man in his early thirties was slipped overboard from His Majesty’s Submarine Seraph, 1,600 yards off the south-west coast of Spain. Picked up a few hours later by a fisherman, it was easily identified by the local authorities as that of Major William Martin, Royal Marines. At noon on the following day it was interred, with full military honours and in the presence of the British Vice-Consul, in the cemetery at Huelva. There the grave can still be seen, having been tended by a local Anglo-Spanish lady for the past sixty years.

What the Vice-Consul was not told was that there had also been found, chained to the body through the belt of its trench-coat, a locked leather briefcase. Now Spain, as a technically neutral country, had a clear duty to return this case unopened to the British Embassy in Madrid; and when after urgent representations by the Naval Attaché it was duly delivered to him nearly a fortnight later, it showed no sign of having been tampered with. Subsequent events, however, proved that in fact it had, and that within a week of its first discovery translations of the two principal letters it contained were being studied with some care by the German Intelligence Service in Berlin.

The first of these letters, addressed to General Sir Harold Alexander, in Tunisia, was signed by the Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Archibald Nye. The second was from Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations in London, to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean. Both letters were genuine; it was only the information they contained that was not – for, read together, they made it clear that the Allies were planning two simultaneous attacks on Europe, one through Sardinia and the other through southern Greece, to cover which they intended to try to deceive the enemy into thinking that the real target for their attack was Sicily.

Since Sicily was indeed the target, this was a perfect double-bluff; and, thanks to the ingenuity with which it was planned and the meticulous care with which it was carried out, it worked superbly. Those responsible for it in London had counted on the strong pro-Axis sympathies of Franco’s Spain to ensure that the planted documents found their way into German hands, and on German efficiency to do the rest. As a result, the Allied invasion of Sicily on 10 July – just ten weeks after the finding of ‘Major Martin’s’ body – caught the Germans utterly unprepared, with the defence forces that had been intended for the island diverted at the last moment to Corsica, Sardinia and the Balkans. Even after the invasion was in full swing, the German High Command insisted on looking upon it as a feint; and as late as 23 July we find the Führer himself – always notoriously slow to change his mind once an idea had become fixed in it – appointing his most trusted general, Erwin Rommel, to the defence of Greece.

Such, briefly and baldly, is the story of ‘Operation Mincemeat’ – as the scheme was named, with a nice sense of the macabre, by its principal begetters, planners and executors, a team led by Lieutenant-Commander Ewen Montagu RNVR. A decade later Mr Montagu – no longer a lieutenant- commander but Judge Advocate of the Fleet – was to write the true story of the operation in a book which he called The Man Who Never Was; and it is that book which occupies the second half of the present volume.

It was an apt and admirable title, which was very wisely retained for the most successful film that followed; but it was also in one sense something of a misnomer. ‘Major Martin’, to be sure, never existed. His name, like the whole persona with which he was brilliantly and imaginatively endowed – by means of keys, photographs, an invitation to a nightclub, theatre-ticket stubs, a tailor’s bill (paid, somewhat improbably), letters from father and fiancée, a bank and a solicitor – was an invention of Lt-Cdr Montagu’s.

But the body which was slipped from the Seraph that spring night – that, surely, was real enough. And if it was not William Martin’s, whose was it? Who was this man, obscure and nondescript as he must have been, whose single moment of glory occurred after his death, and whose dead body achieved more than most men achieve in their lives? Speculation continues to this day. In 1996 previously secret papers became available in which it was suggested that the body was actually that of a Welsh tramp named Glyndwr Michael, who had died in January 1943 after drinking rat poison. Some doubts, however, still persisted: what if the Spaniards had carried out a post mortem and found traces of the poison? Such a discovery would have rendered the entire operation useless; would those who planned it really have taken such a risk? The book, The Secrets of HMS Dasher by John and Noreen Steele, claims that when that ship – an aircraft carrier – blew up in mysterious circumstances in the Clyde in 1943 with the loss of 379 lives, the number of recovered bodies officially listed was greater than that of those buried by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; they believe that ‘Major Martin’ was one of the former, possibly that of Sub-Lieutenant John McFarlane, whose father’s request for his son’s body for private burial was refused. In support of this theory they point out that according to Admiral Norman Jewell, who as a young lieutenant had commanded the Seraph, he had received last-minute orders to sail to Holy Loch, only eight miles from where Dasher went down.

At the time of writing, the most recent evidence to have come to light takes the form of a letter to the Daily Telegraph published on 13 August 2002. In it Mr Ivor Leverton, proprietor of a well-known firm of undertakers, tells of how some sixty years ago he had been instructed by the St Pancras coroner – secretly, and at 1 a.m. – to transfer a corpse from the local mortuary to that of Hackney. He adds that the body measured six foot four inches. But was it ‘Major Martin’? Would a body so unusually tall have been selected for such a mission? All these questions remain unanswered; but let me quote Mr Montagu:

“At last, when we had begun to feel that it would have either to be a ‘Burke and Hare’ after all or we would have to extend our enquiries so widely as to risk suspicion of our motives turning into gossip, we heard of someone who had just died from pneumonia after exposure: pathologically speaking, it looked as if he might answer our requirements. We made feverish enquiries into his past and about his relatives; we were soon satisfied that these would not talk or pass on such information as we could give them. But there was still the crucial question: could we get permission to use the body without saying what we proposed to do with it and why? All we could possibly tell anyone was that we could guarantee that the purpose would be a really worthwhile one, as anything that was done would be with approval on the highest level, and that the remains would eventually receive proper burial, though under a false name. Permission, for which our indebtedness is great, was obtained on condition that I should never let it be known whose corpse it was.”

Nor did he; and, as we have seen, historians have been speculating ever since. Even if we discount the rat poison and accept the facts as he gives them – as surely we must – we are still no nearer to the truth. Welsh tramps can easily die of ‘pneumonia after exposure’; so can young naval officers after disasters such as that suffered by the Dasher; so – given the right circumstances – can almost anybody. When Mr Montagu died in July 1985 he took the secret with him; and I for one am very glad that he did.

Extracted from The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu

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