Operation Mincemeat

The ruse “swallowed rod, line and sinker”

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HSM Seraph, the submarine used in Operation Mincemeat
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Battles are not won by courage, equipment and numbers alone; intelligence-gathering, and the deception aimed at foiling that, are just as important as tactics and supplies. One particular ruse that stands out from the web of World War II secret operations is Operation Mincemeat, the British ploy 80 years ago, in April 1943. Mincemeat, immortalized in several books and a 2021 film, used a dead man to mislead the Axis about the target of Operation Husky, the upcoming Allied invasion of Sicily. (Read our earlier article – The rivalry between Montgomery and Patton)

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A Liberty Ship exploding during the invasion of Sicily
(Photo: National Archives at College Park)

By late 1942, the North African campaign was winding down. Rommel’s Afrika Korps was stopped at the Second Battle of El Alamein, and the Allies were chasing Axis forces out of the continent. The Casablanca Conference (Read our earlier article – Planning World War II – Part 1) had already discussed Operation Husky as the next major step, but it was expected to be a tough fight, and Allied war planners wanted to deceive Germany and Italy about the target of the next major offensive. Hitler was known to be afraid of an Allied landing in the Balkans, since Germany sourced many industrial resources from there. The Allies decided to play on this fear and present a possible invasion of Greece, compounded with one of Sardinia, to distract the Führer from the real target: Sicily. Operation Barclay was launched to reinforce the idea of a Greek invasion: fake units and troop movements, the hiring of Greek interpreters and the stockpiling of Greek currency, and attacks on railways and roads were all calculated to instill the Germans with the notion that the Allies will attack Greece. Operation Mincemeat was a part of this wider web of deception.
In 1939, Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Director of British Naval Intelligence, circulated a document nicknamed the Trout Memo. The document likened deception operations to trout fishing: "The Trout Fisher casts patiently all day. He frequently changes his venue and his lures. If he has frightened a fish he may 'give the water a rest for half-an-hour,' but his main endeavour, viz. to attract fish by something he sends out from his boat, is incessant."

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Rear Admiral Godfrey
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Historians generally agree that the memo was not written by Godfrey, but rather his assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming – the same man who later became a spy novelist and created the character of James Bond. Most of the 54 ideas in the memo were about luring German ships and submarines into minefields, but number 28, titled “A Suggestion (not a very nice one)” read as thus: “The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that has failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.” (Thomson worked at the Scotland Yard during World War I and was considered to be Britain’s chief spy catcher in that war.)

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Ian Fleming, the man who most likely wrote the Trout Memo, in his wartime office
(Photo: Royal Navy)
Similar ruses had already been used in World War I and also earlier in World War II. In 1917, a haversack holding fake British plans was found by Ottoman troops, bringing about British victory in two battles. In August 1942, a corpse carrying a fake map of British minefields was placed in a blown-up scout car in Africa. Acting on the find, German tank forces avoided the “mined” areas only to veer into soft sand and get bogged down.
Life sometimes imitates art, and something very much like A Suggestion happened for real in September 1942. A British plane headed for Gibraltar crashed off the coast of Spain, and the body of a courier carrying correspondence between high-ranking officers was washed ashore. Spain, ostensibly neutral, returned the documents to the British authorities without opening them, but the notebook of a French agent who was also aboard was handed over to the Germans, who mistakenly dismissed it as a fake. This incident gave British military intelligence the idea that fake documents could be leaked to Germany via Spain.
Charles Cholmondeley, who first proposed to use the “Suggestion” in Spain (Photo: Royal Air Force)
Charles Cholmondeley, who first proposed to use the “Suggestion” in Spain
(Photo: Royal Air Force)

Operation Mincemeat, originally codenamed Trojan Horse, was concocted by Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, who was the secretary of the Twenty Committee, also known as Double Cross, the organization responsible for catching and turning German spies in Britain. He pitched the dead body ruse to the committee as a way of leaking false documents implying a Greek invasion. The idea was initially rejected, but the committee’s chairman, Sir John Cecil Masterman (who himself was a detective novelist) liked it enough that he assigned naval intelligence officer and lawyer-by-trade Ewen Montagu to help Cholmondeley develop it further.

Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, Cholmondeley’s primary helper (Photo: Royal Navy)
Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, Cholmondeley’s primary helper
(Photo: Royal Navy)

The two men worked hard to make every detail credible. They decided that the dead man should have the rank of captain, temporarily promoted to major. This made the figure senior enough to be carrying sensitive documents, but also obscure enough that the Germans wouldn’t be suspicious just because they’d never heard of him. He was originally meant to serve in the Royal Navy, but the planners realized that a navy officer of that rank would travel in made-to-measure dress uniform. Rather than have a civilian tailor take the measurements of a corpse, they changed the character to a Royal Marine major, who would wear a uniform made in standard sizes. “William Martin” was settled on as the man’s name, since there were several Martins of a similar rank in the Royal Marines.
Cholmondeley and Montagu then created “pocket littler,” a collection of small objects that would be placed inside “Martin’s” pockets to make the figure more believable. These items included two love letters and a photo from a fiancée named “Pam” (actually the photo of a clerk at MI5), a receipt for a diamond engagement ring, a letter from his father, a note from the family solicitor and a message from a bank about an overdraft, which was presumably how he bought the ring. Before the letters were written, different brands of ink were tested to see which would last longest in seawater. Martin was also given a silver cross and a St. Christopher medallion to imply he was Catholic, as the pathologist helping the operation believed that the Catholic Spanish had an aversion to performing post-mortems (and thus were less likely to find anything odd about the body). Additional innocuous items such as theater ticket stubs were also added to allow someone to reconstruct Martin’s fictional week spent in London before his fateful flight.

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Major Martin’s fictitious girlfriend
(Photo: The National Archives, United Kingdom)
The actual documents that would mislead the Germans also had to be planned and created carefully. The main one was an unofficial letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, the vice chief of Imperial General Staff, to General Sir Harold Alexander, the highest-ranking British officer in North Africa. After several failed attempts to write a convincing letter, the two planners asked Nye himself to write one in his own words and refer to how German reinforcements in Greece make it necessary to increase the size of the invasion force. Nye made the letter more believable by peppering it with references to other issues, such as American forces giving Purple Hearts to British troops serving alongside them.
General Sir Archibald Nye, who contributed a letter to the ruse (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
General Sir Archibald Nye, who contributed a letter to the ruse
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
A second letter was also written, ostensibly by Lord Mountbatten, the chief of Combined Operations (and Martin’s supposed commanding officer) and addressed to Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, the Allied naval commander in the Mediterranean. This document further sold Martin’s identity and his role in the upcoming Greek invasion, with Mountbatten introducing him as an expert in amphibious landings and asking for Martin to be transferred back to him after the assault.
The two letters could not be put in Martin’s pockets, since there was a chance the sea would just carry them away, rendering the entire operation pointless. They had to be placed inside a briefcase, but having only two letters and nothing else in it would have looked suspicious. Therefore, two proof copies of a pamphlet on combined operations were also put in there along with a fake letter from Mountbatten to General Eisenhower asking the latter to write the foreword. The briefcase would be attached to the dead man’s belt with a chain, the sort used by bank couriers to deter snatchers, to make sure it would not float away.
Some of “Major Martin’s” personal effects, including the chain used to secure the briefcase (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Some of “Major Martin’s” personal effects, including the chain used to secure the briefcase
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Of course, Mincemeat still needed a dead body, of the right age and without any injuries or changes that would reveal its true cause of death. Cholmondeley and Montagu found that while dead bodies were quite easy to find in wartime Britain, actually getting one legally and without leaving a paper trail was a difficult task. Eventually, they found a suitable corpse in late January 1943 with the help of a pathologist and a coroner. The body was placed in a refrigerator at 39°F (4°C), just above freezing temperature. This only slowed down decomposition rather than stop it altogether, but properly frozen storage would have left marks on the body after thawing which might have given away the ruse. The body was handed over on the condition that its identity would never be revealed. In 1996, however, an amateur historian uncovered evidence that the body was that of Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh vagrant who died after eating bread crust laced with rat poison.
Once a body was found, there was time to take a photo for the fake military ID papers. All the photos, however, clearly depicted a dead man, so an MI5 officer with generally similar facial features was photographed instead. The ID card was clearly too new for a major, so it was marked as a replacement for a lost one. Montagu spent weeks rubbing the card against his trousers to give it a used sheen, while Cholmondeley wore the uniform that would be used to give it some creases.
“Major Martin’s” ID card (Photo: Ewen Montagu)
“Major Martin’s” ID card
(Photo: Ewen Montagu)
The city of Huelva in southwest Spain was chosen as the location where the body should be found. The currents there were very likely to carry the body to shore. Additionally, Huelva hosted a German consulate with a very active Abwehr (German military intelligence) officer on site, who was certain to seize the opportunity. There was also a British vice-consul in the city, a reliable man who could participate in the deception.
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Cholmondeley and Montagu in front of the van transporting the body to HMS Seraph, photographed by the driver
(Photo: St John Horsfall)
On April 17, Michael’s body was placed in a canister full of carbon dioxide to prevent further decay, driven to Scotland overnight in a truck, and loaded onboard the submarine HMS Seraph. The Seraph was no stranger to covert operations; in fact, it was the very same submarine used by U.S. General Mark Clark to travel to North Africa before Operation Torch for secret talks with Vichy French officers. (Read our earlier article – General Mark Clark) Seraph set sail from Scotland on April 19.
The van’s driver, St John Horsfall, enjoying a cup of tea during a stop – sitting on the canister that holds Michael’s body (Photo: Ewen Montagu)
The van’s driver, St John Horsfall, enjoying a cup of tea during a stop – sitting on the canister that holds Michael’s body
(Photo: Ewen Montagu)
The submarine surfaced off the Spanish coast at Huelva in the early hours of April 30. The crew, who were told they were transporting secret meteorological equipment, were sent below decks, with only the officers staying above. They removed the corpse from its container, lowered the body into the water, and used the submarine’s screws to propel it toward the shore while the vessel’s commander, Lieutenant Bill Jewell, read Psalm 39 as a final farewell. The empty canister was taken 12 miles (19 km) further out, where it was ditched and first machine-gunned then blown up with explosives to make sure it would sink.
Officers of HMS Seraph, commanding officer Lt. Jewell is second from right (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Officers of HMS Seraph, commanding officer Lt. Jewell is second from right
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
“Martin” was found by a local fisherman a few hours later and taken to Huelva by Spanish soldiers; Francis Haselden, the local British vice-consul who was already in on the ruse, was notified. Haselden and his superiors in London exchanged a flurry of scripted messages, encoding them with a cypher they knew the Germans had already cracked. The messages, intended to be intercepted by the Germans, ordered Haselden to acquire the briefcase, as the contents were secret and important.
The entire operation almost hit a snag. It hinged on the idea that while Spain was ostensibly neutral in World War II, it was full of Nazi sympathizers who would leak the find to the Germans. Surprisingly, the Spanish officials involved in the handling of Major Martin’s case were far less friendly toward the Germans than expected, and the local German intelligence operative failed to secure their cooperation.  Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the German Abwehr, had to personally intercede to secure Spanish help. The Spanish authorities used a probe comprising thin metal rods to reach into the sealed envelope between its flap and body, and roll up and remove the letter inside without breaking the seal. The letter was then photographed, soaked in salt water again, and replaced before the suitcase was handed over to the British. Meanwhile, “Martin” was given a cursory autopsy: vice-consul Haselden was in attendance, and asked the doctors to make it short due to the midday heat and the smell of the deteriorating corpse. Michael was buried in a local cemetery with full military honors. In 1997, the year after his identity was discovered, his real name was added to his gravestone.
Glyndwr Michael’s grave with his real name added, in Huelva (Photo: smashing / Wikipedia)
Glyndwr Michael’s grave with his real name added, in Huelva
(Photo: smashing / Wikipedia)
Once the briefcase’s contents were returned to London, a forensic examination proved that the letter was removed and replaced: the rolling and unrolling left a detectable mark in the paper’s fabric. Additionally, a single black eyelash that was previously placed inside the envelope on purpose was missing, further proving the tampering. In mid-May, codebreakers at Bletchley Park learned that the Germans did, in fact, believe that the Balkans were the Allies’ next target. To quote the message the secretary of the Chiefs of Staff Committee sent to Winston Churchill, "Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker by the right people and from the best information they look like acting on it."
A copy of HMS Seraph’s message after having delivered “Major Martin” (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
A copy of HMS Seraph’s message after having delivered “Major Martin”
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Operation Mincemeat stands in our memory as an example of a deception operation that went right thanks to the creativity, dedication and attention to detail by its planners. It’s no surprise that the story has captured the public imagination. Duff Cooper, a British cabinet member who was aware of the operation, wrote a spy novel in 1950 which changed the names, but whose plot was so similar to the real events that the British government decided to publish the details of Mincemeat afterward. In 1953, Montagu wrote his memoir of the events in a single weekend, leaving out some details about Allied codebreaking efforts that were still classified. The memoir, titled The Man Who Never Was, also gave rise to a 1956 film adaptation. More recently, the events were turned into a British war drama in 2021, starring Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen as Montagu and Cholmondeley.
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(Trailer for the 2021 film Operation Mincemeat)

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Winston Churchill waves to crowds in Whitehall in London as they celebrate V-E Day, May 8, 1945.
(Photo: Imperial War Museum)
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