I’m always more than willing to take a detour into history. Happily for me there’s an indirect connection between this week’s subject and one of the weirdest, most macabre stories of World War II: Operation Mincemeat. Since we’re closing in on Halloween, the story — a tale of how a dead guy helped misdirect the Nazis during one of the most important Allied invasions of the war — seems appropriate.
Operation Mincemeat is all about a fellow by the name of Glyndwr Michael, a deeply unfortunate and mentally unstable Welshman who killed himself with rat poison in an abandoned London warehouse. Sad, broke and friendless, he had no way of knowing he’d go on to become a Major in the Royal Marines and play a key role in the winning of World War II.
For it was about the time of Michael’s suicide that British Intelligence was hatching a bizarre plot to feed the Nazis false information on the location of the upcoming Allied invasion of Southern Europe. It was a move that everyone — especially the Nazis — were expecting, as the allies had been in possession of North Africa for many months, following the Operation Torch invasion of 1942. The next logical step: leap over to Europe somewhere. But where? That’s what the Axis powers wanted to know.
Have a look at a map of the Mediterranean and you can see that there are several possible routes into Europe from the North Coast of Africa. Spain, the closest, was out since it was technically neutral. That left three other close landing points: Sardinia, Sicily and Greece.
Sardinia was a leading contender in the minds of the Germans since it was so close to Continental Europe. It would have made a perfect base for launching air strikes into southern Germany. On the down side it had a rocky coast with no beaches for a mass landing of troops and equipment. Sicily had the beaches. It practically touched Italy (hostile territory), and its taking had the potential to deal a huge psychological blow to the Italians, who (at least the Allies hoped) might then drop out of the war altogether. Greece was farther away but it was poorly defended — and just north of there lay the Balkans, a critical source of oil and metals for the Nazi war effort. Of those three choices, anyone with eyes to see would have predicted Sicily. Hitler thought the most likely target was Greece.
The Allies knew that. Their job: to reinforce Hitler’s erroneous assumption so the Nazis would divert men and materiel from the true target which was, of course, Sicily. To that end they looked to British Intelligence which had a stable of corkscrew thinkers (including the young Ian Fleming of James Bond fame) whose job it was to come up with twisted, turning schemes which, they believed, linear-thinking Germans would never anticipate.
Operation Mincemeat was one of those. Originally conceived as a mock-parachute accident, the idea was to fit a dead guy with a radio, drop him in occupied France and use the radio to feed false information to the Germans. That idea was dismissed as too crazy, so the plan was reworked as a fake plane crash at sea complete with a floating body chained to a suitcase of classified documents. Churchill loved it.
And so with roughly three months to go before the invasion of Sicily, MI5 got to work inventing an officer. They created a name, rank and serial number…but that wasn’t all. To make the ruse realistic a whole life had to be invented, since German moles in England would have easily busted a plot that rested on nothing more than a pseudonym. A wallet containing all sorts of creative “litter” was made up. It contained not only I.D. cards and bus tickets but letters from a made-up fiancé, a wedding ring receipt and an angry note from a bank demanding repayment of a nonexistent debt.
As for the body, not just any old body would do. It had to look plausible as a drowning victim, which meant none of London’s many blitz casualties qualified. Additionally the dead applicant couldn’t have any family or friends because, well…how would you explain to them what the body was for? Rumors would get around. Poor friendless Michael, who had no living family, was perfect for the role of Captain (Acting Major) William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines. Coroners were certain the phosphorous-producing poison he swallowed wouldn’t show up in an autopsy.
Michael/Martin was dressed in officer’s clothing right down to a pair of top-quality underpants seconded from the estate of the former Master of New College at Oxford who’d been hit by a truck the year before. (Good underwear was extremely hard to come by at the time). Michael/Martin was then outfitted with his wallet and a chain-on suitcase containing documents detailing allied plans to invade Greece and then Sardinia. His body was taken by submarine and dumped in the sea off the coast of Spain on April 30th. It was discovered by a local fisherman the next day.
So why Spain? Because the Allies knew Spain was crawling with German spies, one of whom, a man by the name of Adolf Clauss, they knew to be particularly gullible. Clauss was stationed in the small coastal town of Huelva, a stone’s throw from where Michael/Martin’s body was left floating. Following the discovery, British intelligence made a big show of trying to get the suitcase back. That whetted the appetite of the German Abwehr, which rapidly launched its own clandestine campaign to secure it. British intelligence made sure that they eventually succeeded.
The phony Mincemeat intel was “swallowed whole” as MI5 reported to Churchill. And indeed once the “classified” information made its way up through the Nazi command to Hitler himself, focus shifted away from Sicily to Greece and Sardinia, and a critical Panzer division was redeployed from France to the Greek peninsula. Operation Husky launched in early July. As expected it met with relatively light resistance. Operation Mincemeat was a success.
As for Captain Bill Martin, a.k.a. Glyndwr Michael, he was buried — some five months after he originally died — in a small cemetery outside Huelva with full military honors, having served his country, posthumously, with distinction.