Operation Fathead

'Fathead' was a British deception designed to persuade the Japanese in Burma that they could open a deception channel to the British (July 1943/June 1944).

The thinking behind this concept was the desire to support the 'Cudgel' offensive that the British planned to launch in the Arakan western coastal region of Burma during December 1943, and was inspired in part by the 'Mincemeat' operation in the Mediterranean theatre and an abortive scheme by the Special Operations Executive to distract the Japanese from the trail of a British officer working deep behind their lines by parachuting in a corpse which members of the local population would identify as that of the real agent. The thinking of the plan’s primary originator, Peter Fleming who headed the 'D' Division deception apparatus in the Far East, was that the Japanese should find, somewhere on the Japanese side of the front line, the body of an Indian spy whose had died when his para­chute failed to open, together with his radio equipment together with the associated cipher, as well as some evidence that he had a Burmese associate. Fleming reasoned that the Japanese would see in this the unmissable opportunity to open a deception channel back to the British.

This 'Fathead' project had its origins in July 1943, and the task of locating a suitable corpse should have been easy as Bengal was deep in the throes of a major famine, which was causing huge numbers of deaths. No suitable body could be found, however, for the body of an emaciated Bengali who had died of starvation would be wholly unsuitable as the basis of an 'agent'. There followed a series of delays continuing right into the autumn of 1943, and during this time it was decided that the least suspicious way to show that the parachute had failed to open would be to have a broken clip attached to the static line. Apart from the availability of a suitable body, the entire undertaking was ready but time was running short as the date scheduled for 'Cudgel' was fast approaching and the full moon, which was the only plausible time for such a drop, was near.

On 11 November, Fleming ordered an officer to travel to Calcutta, find a body, carry out the operation and not to return until he had done so. For five days this South African officer searched famine-struck Calcutta for a suitable corpse, eventually locating in the army hospital at Fort William the body of a Bengali Hindu, which was taken to a garage in Alipore and there washed and dressed in Indian clothes in whose pockets were planted a number of everyday items. The dressed body was then placed in an overall and had a helmet placed over its head, and was then strapped into a misfolded parachute.

At 04.00 on 17 November, the aeroplane carrying the corpse and two contain­ers packed with the radio and other 'agent' equipment departed Dum Dum airfield and headed for the drop zone, some 30 miles (48 km) to the south of Akyab. Reaching this, the aeroplane descended to 800 ft (245 m) and the crew unloaded its 'cargo' and watched as the containers' parachutes opened and the body fell.

The Japanese found the body and looked for the imaginary Burmese comrade. However, the Japanese made no effort to use the radio, and a back-up transmitter with a duplicate set of instructions was dropped by parachuted in case the first had been damaged in the original drop. For six months, 'Fathead' control in Calcutta called and listened on the appropriate frequencies, but nothing was ever heard.