This was a British deception plan designed to convince the Germans that the Allies were planning to launch an invasion from North Africa directed not at Sicily, which was their real target in ‘Husky’ (i), but rather the island of Sardinia to the west of Italy and/or a location in the Balkan peninsula to the east of Italy (May/July 1943).
The success of the undertaking was posited on persuading the Germans to believe that they had, by accident, intercepted highly classified documents detailing future Allied war plans.
As the North African campaign was drawing to a close in the spring of 1943, Allied planners turned their attention to mainland Europe, and here Sicily’s location made it a primary strategic objective. As well as providing a springboard for the invasion of the continent, in Allied hands the island would help safeguard Allied shipping in the Mediterranean. The strategic importance of the island was not lost on the Germans, however, for it was the springboard for Luftwaffe air attacks against the British stronghold of Malta. Furthermore, as the massive Allied build-up for the ‘Husky’ (i) invasion of Sicily would surely be detected as a sign of an impending operation, the Allies had to deceive the Germans into a dispersion of their forces to the extent that the German and Italian forces left in Sicily would be incapable of repulsing an Allied invasion.
A few months before, Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley of Section B1(a) of MI5 had developed the notion of having a wireless radio dropped in France by means of a dead man attached to a badly-opened parachute, thereby giving the Allies the opportunity to feed misinformation to the Germans. This concept was dismissed as impractical and unworkable, but the core of this idea was taken up a few months later by Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, a naval intelligence officer and a member of the Twenty Committee (otherwise the XX or Double Cross System), who saw possibilities in the idea and quickly went over the details of the ruse. The deception team first thought that the documents would have to be found by the Germans on the body of a man who had died as a result of the failure of his parachute to open, as Cholmondeley had proposed. However, since the Germans knew that it was Allied policy never to send sensitive documents over enemy territory, they decided to make the man a victim of an aeroplane crash at sea. That would explain the fact that the man would have been dead for several days if found floating in the sea, and so solve the problem with presence of the documents.
With a macabre sense of humour, Montagu gave the operation the codename ‘Mincemeat’ (ii). The idea of using a corpse with documents was nothing new. Two incidents that Montagu would have been aware of illustrated this. The first incident happened in August 1942 when a deception plan was executed before the Battle of Alam Halfa by using a corpse with a planted map. The body was placed in a blown-up scout car for the Germans to find, in a minefield facing Generalleutnant Carl-Hans Lungershausen’s (from 10 August Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann’s) 90th Afrikadivision just to the south of Quaret el Abd. The map included the locations of non-existent Allied minefields. The Germans fell for the ruse, and diverted some of their armoured strength to areas of soft sand, where they became bogged down. The second incident was not a deception at all, but rather a close call. In September 1942 a Consolidated Catalina flying boat crashed off Cadiz carrying a courier, Paymaster Lieutenant James Hadden Turner of the Royal Navy. When his body was washed up on the beach near Talifa and recovered by the Spanish authorities he was found to be carrying a letter, from Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark to the governor of Gibraltar, which named French agents in North Africa and gave the date of the ‘Torch’ landings as 4 November, although the actual landings happened on 8 November. When the body was returned, the letter was still in its possession, and when the letter was examined it was determined that it had not been opened. Of course, the Germans had the means to read the letter without opening the envelope, but, if they had, they apparently dismissed the information as bogus, regarding it as a ‘plant’, and therefore not acted upon it.
With the aid of a renowned pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury, Montagu and his team were able to determine what kind of body they should use for their purpose. Through the most discreet inquiries they were able to secure the body of a 34-year old man who recently died of chemically induced pneumonia as the result of ingesting rat poison. They briefed the man’s next of kin of the operation and swore them to secrecy. The man’s family agreed, on the condition that the man’s real identity would never be revealed. Since the man had died of pneumonia, the fluid in his lungs would be consistent with that of a man who had been at sea for an extended period.
The next step was creating a ‘legend’, or false identity, for the man as Major Martin of the Royal Marines: William Martin, a temporary captain and acting major, born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1907, and assigned to Combined Operations Headquarters. This rank was assigned because a man with too junior a rank would not be entrusted with sensitive documents, but his age would have been a problem. Making Martin an acting major would solve both problems and would give the impression that the man was a very responsible officer and thus had been trusted.
To give credence to this cover identity, Major Martin was supplied with a fiancée named Pam (actually a woman clerk from MI5), complete with photograph and love letters. They also provided for a set of keys, theatre stubs for a recent performance, a statement from his club for lodging in London, and so forth. To make him even more believable, Montagu and his team decided to insinuate his careless nature such as overdue bills, a replacement identification card to replace one he had lost, an expired pass to Combined Operations Headquarters that he had forgotten to renew, and an irate missive from a bank manager from Lloyds Bank for an overdraft of £17 19s 11d. This last touch, although ingenious, carried an element of risk as the possibility existed that the Abwehr (German counter-intelligence service) would be suspicious of entrusting a careless man with sensitive documents. However, if Montagu was aware of the Catalina incident, he was also counting on the Germans' frustration with what could have been an intelligence coup to take the documents seriously. But it was also necessary to imply carelessness because they had to find way to ensure that both the body and the briefcase with the documents would be recovered together. The solution that they hit upon was that Major Martin would be wearing a chain looped around his trench coat, thereby conveying the impression of a man who wanted to be comfortable during a long flight but wanted to have the case with him at all times, indicating a highly responsible, if somewhat careless officer.
While the cover identity was being created by Montagu and his team, the documents needed to make the ruse work were being created, since they needed to deceive the Germans that the invasion would be taking place somewhere other than Sicily: hence the scenario of attacking Sardinia first as a staging area for an invasion of southern France, to be followed by a second major thrust against Greece through the Balkans. Rather than state the obvious through official documents, the war plans would be suggested through a personal letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, to General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander, the British commander in North Africa. It would reveal in an ‘off the record’ manner that there were to be two operations: Alexander would attack Sardinia and Corsica, while General Sir Henry Wilson’s Middle East forces would take on the Greek landing in an operation named as ‘Husky’, the real name of the Sicily invasion.
Furthermore, in a masterly stroke of reverse psychology, the letter disclosed that deception plans were being drawn up to convince the Germans that the Allies intended to invade Sicily. This would actually give the impression to the Germans that they were dealing with a force strong enough for two separate operations that would take place far from the intended target, causing them to effectively disperse their forces to meet the perceived threat.
To emphasise the letter’s sensitive nature as well as to establish Major Martin’s qualifications for travel to North Africa, Montagu also included another letter from Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean. In the letter, Mountbatten extolled Major Martin’s expertise in amphibious operations and, more importantly, added that Major Martin was carrying a letter too important to be sent through normal channels, hence the need for Martin to fly out. The letter further intimated that Sardinia was to be invasion target.
Major Martin, preserved in dry ice and dressed in his Royal Marines uniform, was placed in a sealed steel canister, and Cholmondeley and Montagu hired a car to deliver it to Holy Loch in Scotland to be placed on board the British submarine Seraph. Montagu had made the arrangement through Rear Admiral C. B. Barry, the flag officer submarines. Barry suggested Seraph, which was a fortuitous choice as the boat’s commanding officer, Lieutenant N. L. A. Jewell, and his crew had previous special operations experience such as ‘Minerva’. On 19 April 1943 Seraph departed Holy Loch for a position about 1 mile (1.6 km) off Huelva on the coast of Spain. This location was decided because the operation’s planners knew that Spain, despite being officially neutral, was sympathetic to the Axis cause and liberally supplied with Abwehr agents, allowing for easy discovery. And it was known that there was a very active German agent stationed in Huelva with excellent contacts with Spanish officials.
At 04.30 on 30 April Jewell ordered the canister to be brought up on deck of the surfaced submarine. He had previously told his crew that a top secret meteorological device was being deployed and ordered everyone below deck. He gathered his officers, briefed them on the details of the operation and swore them to secrecy. They then opened the canister, fitted Major Martin with a life jacket, secured his briefcase with the papers, and the 39th Psalm was read as the body was pushed into the sea at a point from which the tide would bring it ashore.
The body was discovered at about 07.30 by a Spanish fisherman, who brought it to port. A report of the discovery was made to the local Abwehr, which was represented in the town by a German agricultural technician, Adolf Clauss. Three days later, the organising team received a cable from the naval attaché with a report of the news of the body’s discovery. After the body had been handed over to the British vice-consul, Martin was buried with full military honours on 4 May in Huelva. The vice-consul arranged for a pathologist, Eduardo Del Torno, to carry out a post-mortem report at the mortuary next to the cemetery. The pathologist reported that the man had fallen into the sea while still alive and had no bruises, death was the result of drowning, and that the body had been in the sea between three and five days. A more comprehensive examination was not made because the pathologist took him for a Roman Catholic as a result of the fact that a silver crucifix hung from his neck.
Meanwhile, Montagu decided to include Martin’s name in the next British casualty list and a month later it was published in The Times, Montagu knowing that the Germans would be bound to read this to help confirm Martin’s bona fides. (By coincidence, the names of two other officers who actually died when their aeroplane was lost at sea en route to Gibraltar were also published that same day, giving more credence to the Martin story.) To continue the ruse still further, a series of urgent messages was made by the Admiralty to the naval attaché demanding the return of the documents found with the body at all costs due to their sensitive nature, and at same time to make the inquiry as low key as possible so as to alert the Spanish authorities of their importance.
The papers were returned on 13 May with the assurance that ‘everything was there’. By this time the Germans had got wind of the discovery, and the local Abwehr agent with some difficulty was able to obtain the documents. The briefcase was carefully opened by the Germans and photographed, the papers carefully returned, and then given to the British by Spanish officials. The photographs were rushed to Berlin where they were evaluated by German intelligence. When Martin’s body was returned and the papers were examined, the British were able to determine that the papers had indeed been read, carefully refolded, and returned to the briefcase, which had then been resealed.
The care which Montagu and his team had lavished on establishing Martin’s identity paid off, for they were to learn much later that the Germans even noted the date on the theatre stubs (22 April 1943) and confirmed that they were genuine. As a result Adolf Hitler was so convinced of the veracity of the bogus documents that he disagreed with Benito Mussolini that Sicily would be the most likely invasion point, insisting that any incursion against the island should be regarded as a diversionary feint and the main attack would be elsewhere. Hitler therefore ordered the reinforcement of Sardinia and Corsica, and sent Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel to Athens to form an army group. Even patrol boats, minesweepers and minelayers marked for the defence of Sicily were diverted. Perhaps the most critical move of all was the diversion of two Panzer divisions to Greece from the Eastern Front, where they were most sorely needed and therefore missed, especially when the Germans were preparing to engage the Soviets in the Kursk salient at that time.
‘Husky’(i) began on 9 July, and even then the effect of ‘Mincemeat’ (ii) was still being felt, for the Germans remained convinced for two more weeks that the main attacks would still fall on Sardinia and Greece.