Operation Mincemeat: How A Dead Body Helped Win WWII
Operation Mincemeat: The Corpse that Fooled Hitler

Operation Mincemeat: The Corpse that Fooled Hitler

Wyatt Redd - September 29, 2017

According to Sun Tzu, “all warfare is based on deception.” By keeping the enemy guessing about your intentions or capabilities, you can gain a serious strategic advantage. And the Allies in World War II knew this lesson as well as anyone. The history of the conflict is full of examples of war planners using daring and innovative methods of deception to trick the enemy. The Allies, in particular, often turned to unconventional techniques to counter the German war machine. And perhaps no operation demonstrates the lengths that the Allies were willing to go to when it came to deception as Operation Mincemeat.

The basis of Mincemeat was a plan to deceive the Nazis into thinking that the Allies were about to invade Greece when they were actually about to invade Sicily. The Allies knew that it would be impossible to hide the fact that they were about to invade Southern Europe. So the planners of Mincemeat hoped instead to deflect attention away from the real target and thus divert Axis troops. But what set Mincemeat apart from other examples of wartime deception was that it was, by its own author’s admission, sort of ghoulish. And to understand just how unusual this plan was, consider what step one was: find a corpse.

Operation Mincemeat: The Corpse that Fooled Hitler
Newspaper Clipping About Operation Mincemeat. croxleygreenhistory

Mincemeat was the brainchild of Ian Fleming, British spy and later author of the James Bond novels, and Rear Admiral John Godfrey, director of Naval Intelligence. Their plan was basically to find a dead body somewhere in England, one that no one would ask any questions about, and stuff its pockets with documents detailing the upcoming (and completely fictional) invasion of Greece. Then they would drop it into the sea near the coast of German-occupied Europe and hope that the Germans took the bait. The only problem was the obvious one: where do you get a freshly deceased body without raising any suspicions? Luckily, the planners would soon get a break thanks to a man named Glyndwr Michael.

Glyndwr was the son of a coal miner from South Wales and had spent most of his life drifting from place to place. Finally, in 1942, he ended up in King’s Cross, an industrial part of London. Michael began living in an abandoned warehouse, where, one winter night, either fed up with everything or perhaps just desperately hungry, he ate a piece of bread smeared with a fatal dose of rat poison. The next morning, his body was picked up and sent to the local morgue where the director, doctor Bentley Purchase, realized he had finally found the body he was looking for.

British Naval Intelligence officer Ewen Montagu had approached Purchase a few months before with the plan for Mincemeat and asked if Purchase could help find a body to use. Once Michael, a man who was recently deceased with no relatives to ask questions, turned up in his morgue, Purchase called Montagu who came by to inspect the body. Despite some reservations about the condition of Michael’s body, Montagu agreed that he was a suitable candidate and the corpse was soon tucked away and frozen to keep it fresh while Montagu started creating its new identity.

Operation Mincemeat: The Corpse that Fooled Hitler
The Fake Identity Document. telegraph.co.uk

The trick was that a corpse with no identification and a bunch of maps of Greece would seem like a fairly obvious trap to German intelligence and quickly dismissed as misinformation. For Mincemeat to work, it had to seem real. It had to seem like a military courier with important documents had crashed into the ocean and drowned. Montagu and the other Naval Intelligence officers knew that, so they spared no effort in making Captain William Martin, the identity they chose for their fake officer, seemed completely believable.

To begin with, they picked the name William Martin because there were several men in the Royal Marines with the same name and rank, which they hoped would make it difficult for the Germans to sort out whether or not all the Will Martins were alive at the time the body was found. Then, Montagu carefully constructed a fake life for their fake officer. They included a photo in the body’s pockets of a fake fiancée named Pam along with some love letters, a receipt from a local jeweler for a diamond engagement ring, and even a statement from a bank saying that Martin’s account was overdrawn.

And along with the fake love story Montagu created, he even went so far as to pay attention to the most mundane details. To make it seem like Martin was a real person, Montagu stuffed the body’s pockets with the sort of things that everyone has in their pockets but no one ever thinks about like a set of keys, a pencil, cigarettes, and even a receipt from a new shirt. Finally, Montagu created a fake identity document using a photo of an MI6 agent who bore a resemblance to Michael, who then spent weeks carefully rubbing the document against his pants to give it a worn-down appearance.

With the identity of William Martin established, MI6 then needed to find a way to trick the Germans into thinking that Martin had some inside information about Allied invasion plans. Again, this sort of espionage required a great deal of subtlety. So, rather than have Martin carry any official military documents, the planners of Mincemeat decided that he should be carrying an informal letter between General Archibald Nye and General Harold Alexander, two British commanders involved in planning the invasion.

The letter was purposely vague, making only off-hand remarks about German moves in Greece that threatened “the assault” and British attempts to reinforce their troops in the region to counter them. The value of this sort of letter is that it wasn’t direct enough to make the planned invasion look obvious. Instead, it was the kind of letter two generals and friends might send each other with just enough information about a planned assault to make the Germans feel confident that they had scored an intelligence coup. And with the perfect letter in hand, the only step left was to figure out how to get it to the Germans.

Operation Mincemeat: The Corpse that Fooled Hitler
Allied Invasion of Sicily. operationmincemeat.weebly.com

The planners of Mincemeat knew that the most convincing way to get the letter to the Germans was to make it look like Martin had been involved in an accident at sea, preferably a plane crash. These kinds of military plane crashes were frequent events during the war and just a year before, one near the coast of Spain resulted in the deaths of several British soldiers along with a French agent. The Spanish authorities turned the bodies back over to the British. But the Axis-friendly government of Francisco Franco had also turned over the intelligence they collected from the dead soldiers to the Germans.

In addition, Spain had another feature that made it attractive, which was that the Roman Catholic population was generally against performing autopsies. This made it unlikely that the authorities would be able to tell that Michael’s body had been dead for several weeks by the time they found it. So, British intelligence then had to decide where the best place in Spain to drop the body would be. They decided on the small city of Huelva, where the tidal patterns, large German intelligence network, and sympathetic local officials meant the operation would have the largest possibility of success.

On the night of April 17, 1943, Michael’s body was carefully dressed and packed in dry ice inside a steel canister. The canister was then slipped onto a British submarine and released near the Spanish coast. It was then breached with plastic explosives, leaving Michael/Martin’s body floating in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Thirteen days later, a Spanish fisherman found the floating corpse and turned it over to the local authorities. Noting the smell of the body, the local doctors didn’t bother to perform much an autopsy.

By now, Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, the most senior German intelligence agent in Spain, had caught wind of the fact that a British soldier with important documents had washed ashore. He moved quickly, traveling to Madrid and convincing Spanish agents to turn over the information they had collected from the body. And once Kühlenthal saw the letter implying that the invasion was to be in Greece, he immediately took the bait. Kühlenthal was so convinced the letter was genuine that he personally delivered it to his superiors in Berlin.

Once Hitler heard of the letter, he too was fooled, and immediately transferred ten thousand elite troops to Greece along with two Panzer divisions from the Eastern Front, which was already rapidly beginning to collapse. On July 9th, the Allies launched Operation Husky and invading Sicily. The weakened and unprepared Axis defenses completely collapsed and within two weeks, Italy was forced to withdrawal from the war and Mussolini imprisoned.

There’s little doubt that Operation Mincemeat played a major role in the Allied victory, which has led historians to describe it as “the most successful intelligence operation of the war.” And as for Glyndwr Michael, the man whose death made it all possible, he remains buried in Spain in a military cemetery, along with a plaque honoring his contribution to the war.