In early 1943, the Allied forces began gathering on the coast of North Africa with their eyes set on Europe. With Axis territory covering much of the continent and the Soviets doing all they could on the Eastern Front, a new front needed to be opened up soon. The Allies knew they needed to push into Europe from somewhere, but the Axis defenses were strong, well organized, and numerous. By July and August 1943, the Allied forces invaded Sicily in a six-week operation that suffered far fewer casualties than initially expected. So how did they manage to take over a once heavily defended island without major losses? A dead homeless guy and some clever thinking.
The Allied forces knew that an outright invasion attempt would be akin to walking into a buzzsaw—so they needed a diversion to draw Axis defenses away. To do this, Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley of the Royal Air Force and Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu of the Royal Navy hatched a plan to attach fake invasion plans to a dead body and allow that dead body to fall into German hands. Their plan managed to pull thousands of Axis troops away from Sicily and in turn saved thousands of Allied lives.
Charles Cholmondeley (top) and Ewen Montagu (bottom)
First, a body was needed. Obviously, telling families that their dead relative’s body was needed for a top secret plan to fool the Germans wouldn’t work, so they settled on the body of a 34-year old homeless Welsh man named Glyndwr Michael who had committed suicide weeks earlier by eating rat poison. Michael’s body had been on ice in a London morgue for weeks, so it was pretty clear that he didn’t have a lot of family interested in his disappearance or recovering his body. Cool, so we have a body.
The next step was to create a background story. Glyndwr Michael, dead homeless Welsh guy then became Acting Major William Martin of the Royal Marines, complete with letters from his fake father and fake fiancée, unpaid bills, keys, ticket stubs, and, of course, the fake invasion plans. The rank of Major was high enough to ensure that such an individual would be trusted with sensitive documents, but not so prominent that his identity would be widely known in the military hierarchy. The documents were placed in a briefcase that was literally chained to his body.
William Martin's fake naval identification document
The briefcase contained a letter from military authorities in London to a British officer in Tunisia, outlining plans to attack Greece and Sardinia. With the body and back story ready to go, “William Martin” was loaded onto a British submarine with all his documents, and set off for the Mediterranean. The target, according to the BBC, was a particularly gullible Nazi spy by the name of Adolf Clauss who was operating on the southern coast of Spain. The submarine released the body and the documents near Spain, where it was retrieved by a fishing boat and turned in to Spanish authorities.
Some of the items that accompanied the body (Courtesy of NPR)
While Spain was technically neutral during World War II, it had well-known Nazi sympathizers throughout the military and the government, and leaned close to Hitler. Once the body was turned over to the Spanish, the British pretended to desperately want to get the body back in order to maintain the idea that the documents it carried were extremely important. Despite their feigned attempts to recover the body, the body was turned over to the German authorities and the documents ended up on Hitler’s desk. The paperwork, documents, and story surrounding “William Martin” were so convincing that Hitler moved thousands of troops and tanks to Greece, allowing the Allies a relatively simple invasion of Sicily that led to a quick victory and ultimately the fall of Mussolini.
Sound like a movie plot? It is. One of the masterminds of Operation Mincemeat was the eventual James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, who served as assistant to the head of Naval Intelligence in the British Navy and admitted to taking the idea from a detective novel he had read previously. After the war, Ewen Montagu wrote a book about the plot, which was later turned into the 1950s movie, The Man Who Never Was. All in all, several creative minds and a well-constructed plan allowed a dead homeless man to fool Hitler into opening up a perfect route for the Allies to invade Europe and put the Axis powers on the back foot.