Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

Operation Mincemeat: The Story Behind “The Man Who Never Was” in Operation Husky

On Sept. 29, 1939, British director of naval intelligence Adm. John Godfrey distributed to other intelligence chiefs the “Trout Memo.” Written by his assistant, Lt. Cmdr. Ian Fleming, James Bond’s creator, the Trout Memo contained fifty-one operations suggestions. Buried at number 28 was the following, inspired by Basil Tomson’s 1937 novel, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery:

A Suggestion (Not a very nice one)

The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.”

Adm. John Godfrey

Adm. John Godfrey, the British director of naval intelligence, crafted the idea for Operation Mincemeat with the help of Lt. Cmdr. Ian Fleming. When Fleming went on to create the world of James Bond, it was rumored that the character M was based off of Godfrey. Imperial War Museum photo

On Sept. 25, a British Catalina crashed off the coast of Cádiz, Spain, killing all aboard. One of the passengers was a courier containing documents about Operation Torch. Despite neutral Spain being pro-Axis and Germany having an elaborate network, German agents didn’t touch the courier’s body. But this, and an earlier similar accident, caused British intelligence to explore how such an incident could be exploited.

“You can’t get bodies just for the asking, you know . . . each one has to be accounted for.”

—London coroner Bentley Purchase

On Oct. 31, 1942, RAF Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumly”), secretary of the top secret XX Committee led by John Masterman, presented his idea. Cholmondeley’s proposal, named “Trojan Horse,” was an expansion of Fleming’s suggestion. Masterman approved. With Ewen Montagu as his partner, Cholmondeley was ordered to proceed.

On the surface of things, having the agent be dead vastly simplified things — the body could only tell the story they wanted it to tell. Cholmondeley assumed that when the time came they would have little trouble finding a suitable cadaver. But their requirements (fresh, male, military age, no physical damage, cooperative relatives who asked no questions – or, better yet, no known relatives) made them highly customized buyers. To avoid arousing suspicion, they needed discreet help. Montagu approached Home Office senior pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury suggested Montagu contact a mutual friend – Bentley Purchase, the coroner of St. Pancras Hospital in northwest London.

Now time was an imperative. Even under deep refrigeration, they had at most three months before decomposition rendered the corpse useless. On February 4, under the unfelicitous codename Operation Mincemeat, plans kicked into high gear. Recognizing that some information about Husky would reach the Axis, Mincemeat portrayed Sicily as the decoy target for a real amphibious landing elsewhere.

At their meeting, Montagu’s necessary circumspect explanation made Purchase initially reluctant, even after being told it was “of national importance.” Montagu’s follow-up (and truth-stretching) claim that the operation had the Prime Minister’s approval tickled the jovial Purchase’s imagination, and he agreed to assist, adding, with an almost mischievous air, that coroners were allowed “absolute discretion” regarding record keeping and disposal of bodies.

The Casablanca Conference ended on Jan. 24, 1943, with the green light for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, in July. For Trojan Horse to assist Husky, XX Committee needed a suitable corpse within days or the plan would be canceled.

Within a week, it had one.

Welshman Glyndwr Michael was born in 1909, son of a coal miner who died when Glyn was sixteen. Further impoverished by the Great Depression, he, his mother, and two sisters struggled to survive. Glyn was not drafted, suggesting unfitness for military service. When Glyn’s mother died in 1940, Glyn moved to London. On Jan. 26, 1943, in an abandoned warehouse near King’s Cross, whether by accident or intent Glyn ate some rat poison. He was found and taken to St. Pancras. Two days later, thirty-four-year-old Glyndwr Michael died.

Purchase notified Montagu and began filling out the paperwork. When Montagu arrived, Purchase said the fatal phosphorous in the rat poison posed little problem. It naturally occurs in the body, is not readily traceable after a certain amount of time, and though ultimately fatal, the amount Glyn ingested would only be detected if poisoning was the suspected cause of death.

Operation Mincemeat

An MI5 staff member pictured on the beach. This ordinary looking snapshot was taken and planted as part of a complex intelligence plan known as Operation Mincemeat. The intention was that this photograph would make other documents secreted with it seem more authentic. These documents, passed on to German agents after they were found on a body washed up on the coast of Spain (planted by British intelligence) suggested that the Allies were not planning an invasion of southern Europe via Sicily. This led to a weakening of German defense of Sicily, which assisted the eventual Allied attack. National Archives UK photo

Now time was an imperative. Even under deep refrigeration, they had at most three months before decomposition rendered the corpse useless. On February 4, under the unfelicitous codename Operation Mincemeat, plans kicked into high gear. Recognizing that some information about Husky would reach the Axis, Mincemeat portrayed Sicily as the decoy target for a real amphibious landing elsewhere.

In the book Operation Mincemeat author Ben Macintyre compellingly recounts the elaborate efforts used to transform Glyndwr Michael into “the man who never was” – Maj. William Martin.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon received a telegram stating: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”

On April 30, 1943, off the coast of Andalusia, a Spanish fisherman discovered the floating body of a British officer, an attaché case handcuffed to his wrist. By the time “Major Martin’s” body was handed over to British diplomats, German intelligence agents had secretly copied the attaché case’s information. Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon received a telegram stating: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”

For more than 50 years the tombstone on grave number 1886 in Nuestra Señora de la Soledad cemetery in Huelva, Spain, bore only the name of William Martin. Then, in 1997, the British government added the following carved postscript:

Glyndwr Michael

served as

Major William Martin, RM

By

DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...