16 Of History's Best Kept Secrets

Naval identity card of Major Martin (c. 1943). Wikimedia Commons.

14. “The Man Who Never Was” formed the centerpiece of an Allied deception during World War II, secretly planting false intelligence to disguise the invasion of Sicily

During the Second World War, intelligence and counter-intelligence subterfuges provided both the Allies and Axis factions significant tactical advantages. Among these secret deceptions was Operation Mincemeat, part of the wider Allied strategic misinformation campaign code-named Operation Barclay. The purpose of Operation Mincemeat was to ingeniously disguise the planned Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, known as Operation Husky, and redirect enemy forces elsewhere. To accomplish this conceit, British Intelligence acquired the body of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless person who had died from eating rat poison in an abandoned warehouse in London. They dressed up the deceased Glyndwr in the uniform of a Royal Marines officer and provided him with identifying credentials as Major William Martin, Glyndwr’s person was also given correspondence from within British military command indicating that maneuvers near Sicily were a feint and that the real target would instead be Greece.

Transporting the body by submarine to the southern coast of Spain, Glyndwr was deposited close to the shoreline whereupon he was discovered by fisherman the following morning. The neutral Spanish government under Franco sought to covertly share the recovered information with the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization. The messages had been read as secretly planned; concurrently, British decrypts of German communications verified the success of the fake intelligence. Consequently, due to the unknown sacrifice of Glyndwr, the liberation of Sicily proved far easier than anticipated and losses significantly lower.