It often seems that the battlefields World War II were littered with as many mysteries, unexplained events, and oddities as they were bodies. Here among all of the fighting, explosions, and suffering are numerous tales of the unexplained and the weird, as well as unsolved mysteries that continue to perplex us today. One of the great mysteries from the war is simultaneously firmly rooted in one of its oddest and most outrageous military operations. It was an operation based on an audacious idea like something from a movie, an operation like none other, which would go on to cement itself as one of the weirdest tales of the war and become the origin of one of its greatest ongoing mysteries.
It was 1943, and the Allies were preparing for an enormous push into the Mediterranean and to open up Mediterranean sea lanes to Allied merchant ships with the invasion of the highly strategic city of Sicily, a military operation that would go on to often be called “the D-Day of the Mediterranean” and was officially named Operation Husky. It was to be a major campaign involving vast numbers of both airborne and amphibious troops that would hopefully change the course of World War II, and so naturally the Allies had a lot riding on the whole thing being a success. In order to succeed in such a massive and crucial operation, a sophisticated campaign of disinformation was put into place designed to deceive and manipulate the Germans into thinking the invasion would come from elsewhere, specifically the Balkans, rather than from the north coast of Africa which was the plan and which the Germans fully expected. To this end, the Allies enacted Project Barclay, which entailed an elaborate campaign of deception involving the use of bogus radio transmissions, planted maps, and fake troop movements, as well as the fabrication of an entire fictitious army of 12 divisions located in the eastern Mediterranean and referred to as “The 12th Army.” It was all a very impressive display of obfuscation and deceit, yet one element of Project Barclay really stands out as particularly weird, not a little morbid, and which has gone on to become one of World War II’s greatest mysteries. It was an unusual plan which would be called Operation Mincemeat and was first proposed by Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, and Lieutenant Commander Ewan Montagu, who originally got the idea from a novel by Ian Fleming, best known for his James Bond series of books.
It already sounds somewhat absurd, but it gets better. The main goal of Operation Mincemeat was basically the same as the larger Project Barclay of which it was a part, which was to feed the Germans disinformation, in this case making them think that the Allied forces would invade Greece and Sardinia rather than the real intended target of Sicily. This would hopefully convince Germany to divert some or all of its considerable forces away to another area and allow the Allies to move into Sicily more or less unimpeded. The unique part of the operation was the way in which it was to be carried out. The plan basically involved taking a dead body, making it up to look like it was a spy, complete with fake top secret documents outlining an inevitable attack on Greece and Sardinia, and then drop it off somewhere where the Germans would find it and hopefully act on the fabricated information it carried.
It all seems simple enough, if rather ludicrous and macabre, but there was an incredible amount of meticulous planning and attention to detail involved in making the whole sham as convincing as possible. It was first proposed that the body be dropped by air where it would be found with a defective parachute, but it was ascertained that the Germans would know that the Allies would not risk transporting such important documents directly over enemy territory in this manner, so it was decided that the corpse would be allowed to wash ashore and made to appear that the “spy” had died from hypothermia after crashing out at sea. A body was acquired and put on ice for several days before the operation in order to create this effect and it was dressed in clothing that was planned to correspond to what someone of his rank would be able to afford and be expected to be wearing, right down to the underwear he had on.
The next step was to create a complete, bogus background for the corpse that would be believable and realistic, but not too detailed that it would appear someone had tried to make him a real person. The body became Acting Major William ‘Bill’ Martin of the Royal Marines, whose rank was carefully chosen because it would be plausible that the Allies would entrust sensitive documents with him, but not too high a rank that everyone would know who he was. The Royal Marines were chosen as his military branch in order to ensure that any subsequent inquiries into the event in the aftermath would go right to the Naval Intelligence Division where they could be more easily dealt with. “Martin” was set up with an impressively fleshed out background, born 1907, in Cardiff, Wales, and engaged to be married to the equally fictitious “Pam,” whose photo he carried with him in his pocket, a photo that was in reality a picture of a clerk in MI5 named Nancy Jean Leslie, who would later be known as Jean Gerard Leigh. There were even two fake love letters from “Pam” planted on the body, as well as an invoice for a diamond engagement ring. Adding further to the elaborate ruse were various other props, such as a two ticket stubs for a theater show, a used bus ticket, a receipt for a new shirt, a bill for four nights’ lodging at the Naval and Military Club, and even a letter from the bank demanding payment of an overdraft of £79.97, all of which were printed on genuine stationary and had dates that would work into and correspond with around when he would have been expected to have disappeared. There were even keys, a cross, and a book of stamps planted on the body. Another little touch was providing an ID that was a replacement for a lost one, adding the character dimension suggesting Martin was a tad careless and more fully fleshing him out as a real person. All in all months were spent carefully crafting the phantom marine spy.
Of course the key to the whole plan ultimately working was the “secret documents” to be found on the body by the Germans, and the Allies did not skimp on their exacting attention to detail here either. The documents came complete with authentic letters of introduction, official signatures, and a bunch of other very realistic superfluous information that pertained to sensitive topics not directly related to the invasion of Sicily and included as a sort of red herring. These documents were then placed in a briefcase because it was believed that a briefcase would be easily spotted, and to make it believable that Martin would be carrying the documents in this manner there were included two proof copies of the official pamphlet on Combined Operations and a letter to the senior Allied commander in Europe and the Mediterranean asking him to write a forward for the upcoming US edition. The briefcase was then attached to Major Martin’s wrist via a sturdy chain to ensure that it would not float off and would be recovered together with the body.
With the body of “William ‘Bill’ Martin” prepared and his bogus backstory fully created, it was time to put the operation into action. The location for where the body should be found was chosen as Spain, due to the fact that although it was an ostensibly neutral country, it was well known as a haunt for the Abwehr, which was the German intelligence division and so was crawling with Nazi spies, and additionally much of Spain’s military was actually pro-German. It was surmised that anything found by the Spanish authorities would invariably be shared with the Adwehr. The body was taken aboard the British submarine the HMS Seraph and brought offshore of the town of Huelva on the southern coast of Spain, where it was thought it would be examined by a German spy known to be operating there by the name of Adolf Clauss. The body was then fitted with a life jacket and dropped into the ocean about a mile offshore, and a rubber dinghy was thrown into the water to complete the illusion that Martin had indeed crashed. To add to the illusion there were even obituaries published in the papers in the following days announcing the passing of Major Martin. From there it was a matter of waiting to see what would happen.
Surely this was an incredibly complex plan that highly depended on many factors playing out just right and with much that could go wrong. It wasn’t known if the body would even be found at all, and even if it was there was no guarantee that whoever found it would ever notify the authorities or if those authorities would in fact tell the Germans. Even if the Germans did by some stroke of luck get a hold of the body, there was no way of knowing if they would bite, see right through the ruse, or if it would even make matters worse. So many variables were at play for the plan to work that surely there were many who watched the body float away into the distance and never truly expected much to come of it. The body was eventually found by fishermen on April 30th, 1943, and after nearly a week of what must have been tense times for the ringleaders of Operation Mincemeat, the fabricated documents made their way all the way to the top of German command, who throughly believed every thing about the body.
News was learned through decrypted messages that the project had worked. Hitler and his High Command became convinced Greece was the target and moved 90,000 reinforcement troops, including three full panzer divisions, to Greece, Sardinia and Corsica in order to counter an Allied strike that would never come, even though many of the German commanders and even the Italian leader Mussolini himself were skeptical, insisting that Sicily was the more likely target even in light of the findings. Nevertheless, Hitler was adamant that the retrieved secret documents were legitimate. The Italian Navy also moved most of its forces to the coast of Greece to thwart the bogus invasion force and Sicily was left only lightly defended. In the meantime, the body of Major Martin was determined by a coroner to be a death by drowning and was buried in the Nuestra Señora de la Soledad cemetery in Huelva along with full military honors. A message was sent to Winston Churchill declaring the success of the operation, which famously stated:
Mincemeat swallowed, rod, line and sinker.
The operation would pave the way for the Allies to roll into Sicily against weak resistance on 9 July 1943, and even after the invasion force struck the Germans remained in Sardinia and Greece for a further two weeks, convinced that the attack on Sicily was just a feint for the real force that was coming. In the aftermath of the successful invasion, Mussolini fell from power, the Germans were forced to abort a planned attack on Russia, and the unbalanced German military machine fell on the defensive to the inexorable charge of the Red Army. In short, falling for Operation Mincemeat had cost the Germans dearly, and the loss of Sicily was devastating for them. It was one of the weirdest yet most spectacularly successful deceptions in military history. Operation Mincemeat was so successful, in fact, that the once bitten, twice shy Germans would go on to find other secret documents that were actually genuine yet chose to ignore them and act contradictory to them since they were convinced they were just another mincemeat-style trick. Perhaps the biggest blunder on the Germans’ part in this regard occurred during a large scale Allied airborne operation in the Netherlands in September of 1943 which was called Operation Market Garden. During this operation, the Allies really messed up when complete detailed plans for the attack, including charts and maps, were accidentally left on the battlefield in a transport glider. The Germans found the plans and basically they had in their hands everything the Allied forces would do and where they would do it, yet they were so suspicious and sure that it was another deception that they failed to act on any of it, even acting in direct contradiction to the information. Operation Mincemeat was so famously successful that one of the think tanks behind the project, Montagu himself, would in 1953 write a best-selling book about it called The Man Who Never Was, which would subsequently go on to be made into a popular movie.
While Operation Mincemeat was no doubt one of the most insane, strangest, and certainly most audacious operations carried out during the war, it also has left a good amount of mystery in its wake, and has become one of the most discussed puzzles of World War II. The mystery revolves around the true identity of who Major William ‘Bill’ Martin really was, and rampant speculation and theories have swirled around this for years. The most likely candidate is that it was a destitute and homeless Welsh vagrant by the name of Glyndwr Michael, who was found in an abandoned warehouse in King’s Cross, London, and had been critically sickened from ingesting rat poison in an apparent suicide attempt. It took two days for Michael to die a slow, excruciating death from the slow acting poison. The body was then allegedly obtained through rather unscrupulous means when the coroner, Bentley Purchase, informed those in charge of Operation Mincemeat that he had found a suitable corpse for their project, and went about forging papers saying that Michael’s parents had given consent and that he had died of pneumonia. None of this was true, as both of his parents were already dead at the time, Michael had succumbed to rat poison, and indeed the deception casts doubt on how the homeless man had really died in the first place.
The theory that Major Martin was in fact Glyndwr Michael has been bolstered by information released by the Public Record Office stating that the body was Michael’s, as well as an array of evidence uncovered by amateur historian Roger Morgan in 1996 and research done by historian Christopher Andrew, which was published in his book on the history of the Secret Service entitled The Defence of the Realm. In 1998, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission even commissioned an inscription on Major Martin’s grave in Huelva which reads “Glyndwr Michael served as Major William Martin.” Further supporting these claims is the research of Professor Denis Smyth, a historian at Toronto University who wrote the book Operation Mincemeat: Death, Deception and the Mediterranean D-Day, who uncovered secret memos written by Commander Montagu expressing concern over whether the enemy would be able to detect traces of rat poison in the body. Smyth concludes that this is proof that the body was in fact that of Glyndwr Michael.
This may all seem very convincing on the face of it, but it does not seem that the identity of Martin is so neatly clear cut, and there are others who disagree with the conclusion that he was Michael. The argument is that it would be difficult to take a homeless tramp and make him up as an impeccably well-manicured British military officer, and that Glyndwr Michael’s reputation as an alcoholic would have made his corpse unsuitable for the purposes of the operation. This is especially emphasized by researcher John Steele in his book The Secrets of HMS Dasher, where he argues that the operation would not have risked failure by sending the corpse of an unkept vagrant, that the autopsy would not have held water, that the Germans would have never bought it, and therefore it would not have been the body of Michael that was ultimately sent. Steele said:
I’ve received a comprehensive report from a top dental expert regarding the teeth of Glyndwr Michael, what he would expect to find. There is no comparison whatsoever between the body of an alcoholic tramp and that of a Royal Marine. I can tell you Montagu pinched a body. There’s no way a brilliant barrister such as Montagu would take one slight risk that this operation would go haywire. Montagu was meticulous and would never have sent the body of a tramp.
Additionally, a postmortem examination conducted by the Germans clearly stated that the man had died of drowning, with no mention of any rat poison found. Although Smyth writes in his book that the main active ingredient of rat poison, phosphorus, is not readily detectable after long periods of time, why would the Allies risk the chance of having their whole operation blown if they could just use the body of a real drowning victim? This has led to speculation that the body of Michael was in the end deemed unsuitable and switched with another at the last minute, but that still leaves the question of whose body it was. Bill Jewel, the commander of the submarine the Seraph, which had carried the body of “Major Martin” to the coast of Spain, agreed that a homeless man would have been an unlikely candidate, later claiming that Montagu had never intended to use Michael’s body at all and that it was all a ruse within a ruse for the purpose of fooling not only the German’s, but also the British military so that the public would not become aware that the corpse of a Royal Navy sailor had been basically stolen and used for a military operation. But even if this is all true, it still leaves the elusive question of just whose body it was.
One popular and persistent alternative theory is that Major Martin was the body of a sailor aboard the American built Royal Navy escort carrier the HMS Dasher, on which a horrific explosion had occurred off the Scottish coast on March 27 1943, sinking the ship and sending 379 crew members to a watery grave. This incident was already cast into the shadows of secrecy when the British authorities tried to keep a lid on it so that the public would not know of the potential defective American ship construction, and the dead were originally all secretly buried in one mass unmarked grave. It is thought that one of these bodies may have been secretly procured for the purpose of Operation Mincemeat, but even in this case mystery surrounds the actual identity of the body. Former police officer Colin Gibbon spent 14 years researching Operation Mincemeat and has come to the conclusion that the body used for the operation was that of a sailor killed aboard the carrier by the name of Tom Martin, while others claim it was the corpse of another sailor aboard the vessel named John Melville. The argument that it was Melville is bolstered by a mention during a memorial service aboard the current HMS Dasher, in which Lieutenant Commander Mark Hill named Melville as the real Major Martin. During the service, Hill announced:
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.
This assertion was further reinforced when Melville’s own daughter, Isobel Mackay, expressed pride in her brother in an article for The Scotsman newspaper, in which she said “I feel very honoured if my father saved 30,000 Allied lives.” So was the body of Major Martin the body of an HMS Dasher sailor whose corpse was then swapped with that of Glyndwr Michael at the last second? This theory is somewhat weakened by the Naval Historical Branch, which in a response to a Freedom of Information request in 2010 stated:
As far as both the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence are concerned, the body used in Operation Mincemeat was that of Glyndwr Michael as described in the files now in The National Archive at Kew. With regard to the memorial service held on board the current HMS DASHER in October 2004, it should be stressed that, despite media emphasis on a possible ‘Man Who Never Was’ connection, this was a perfectly proper memorial for those lost in the previous ship of that name. It had been cleared through both HQ British Force Cyprus and the Permanent Joint Head Quarters at Northwood. The statements… as accurately reported in The Scotsman, arose through information that they had been given locally, and which they believed in good faith. Unfortunately, the statements had not been referred to this office for an opinion.
What do we make of all this? Does this mean that the body used was in fact that of Glyndwr Michael after all? Or is this statement merely indicative of more secrecy and obfuscation on the part of authorities? Is it even perhaps evidence that Montagu’s secret switching of the bodies and deception was so complete that the authorities still believe that the body was that of Glyndwr Michael even though it wasn’t? If the body was indeed that of a crew member aboard the HMS Dasher, then what did the puppet masters behind Operation Mincemeat end up doing with the body of Michael? Indeed, who exactly was Glyndwr Michael and how did he really die? The case still leaves so many questions which remain frustratingly satisfactorily unanswered, and even now it cannot be said with absolute certainty who even in death was responsible for changing the tide of the war and saving countless lives. The true identity of Major Martin, the Man Who Never Was, remains one of the most intriguing mysteries of World War II in an operation that was surely one of its strangest and most insane.