Vincent B. LoCoco – Author

The Man Who Never Was

While doing a little research for an idea for a novel that takes place during WWII, I came across the story of Operation Mincemeat. If you have never heard of this story be prepared for one amazing story.

After the Allies defeated the vaulted German Africa corps in WWII, they soon set their sites on Europe and in particular, Sicily. Control of Sicily would open the Mediterranean to Allied shipping and allow the invasion of continental Europe. Planning for Operation Husky and the invasion of Sicily began. The problem for the Allies was the belief that the Germans knew Sicily would be where the invasion would occur. As Churchill commented: “Everyone but a bloody fool would know that it’s Sicily.”

But, if the Allies could deceive the Germans and make them think the attack was actually going to take place in Greece, then the Germans might divert some significant part of their forces, which would help the invasion succeed. But how to create such a diversion.

Enter Ian Fleming.

Yes, that Ian Fleming. The man who would eventually write the James Bond novels. Ian Fleming, in the late 1930s, was a young assistant to the head of British Naval Intelligence. He came upon a mystery novel entitled, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (1937) by Sir Basil Thomson. Fleming was transfixed by the premise of novel. A body is found whose identity, reconstructed from his personal effects, turns out to be a complete fabrication. In 1939, Fleming was asked to suggest numerous devices to deceive the Germans, one of which included the Thomson’s premise: a corpse carrying fabricated documents would be dropped by parachute on a German-occupied coast.

When the British began to lay out a plan of deception, they remembered Ian Fleming’s idea. Two Brits in particular, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu and Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, came up with a plan. Instead of a parachuted corpse, they would use the ruse of an Officer who washes up on a beach following his death by drowning in a plane crash at sea, with fabricated papers alleging Greece as the invasion location. The hard part was now to find a body that could not only trick the Germans, but also would have no family members asking questions or looking for their loved one. A British pathologist advised them that the best chance of deceiving the Germans with a pre-deceased corpse lay in using one that had died of pneumonia, which would produce effects sufficiently consistent with death by drowning. Finding a suitable corpse proved almost insurmountable.

But then a Welsh, homeless tramp, Glyndwr Michael, died from ingesting rat poison, without any known relatives. The rat poison mirrored the effects of pneumonia. Montagu and Cholmondeley had their body.

Montage and Cholmondeley transporting the body

The body was quickly put on ice. The Brits knew they had three months to act before the body would decompose too badly to use. Now the story telling began. Like great novel witers, they began to create the life story of Major William Martin.

Gleyndwr Michael – or his corpse to be more correct – became a major in the Royal Marines named William Martin. An entire life was fabricated for Major Martin. Letters from his father, bank manager and girlfriend, theater ticket stubs, a wallet, outstanding bills, various forms of identification, and so on were all forged with great care and put on his person. He even had a picture of his girlfriend. “Pam” – who in reality was a young MI5 clerk. A death notice was put in the English paper to make it all look authentic.



“Fake Death Notice”

On top of the personal effects, came the whole reason for the deception. Fabricated letters written and signed by the Britsih high command addressed to senior allied commanders in North Africa, were placed in a briefcase attached by a chain to “Major Martin.” The letters discussed in detail an upcoming invasion of Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily being a decoy target.

On April 19, 1943, under the codename Operation Mincemeat, plans kicked into action. It was time to put Major Martin out ot sea to hopefully be found by the Germans. The body of Major William Martin was loaded on board the HMS Seraph, a British submarine. In the early morning of April 30th, she arrived at a point about a mile off the coast of Spain, near the town of Huelva. Seraph surfaced. The crew fitted “Major Martin” with a life jacket, and attached his briefcase with the papers.

“Major William Martin”

The Captain of the Seraph read Psalm 39, and then the body was gently pushed into the sea where the tide would bring it ashore.

Half a mile to the south, a rubber dinghy was thrown overboard to provide additional ‘evidence’ of a plane crash. The body was found at around 9:30 by a local fisherman, José Antonio Rey Maria, and was taken to Huelva and turned over to the local military, and as thought would happen by the Allies, who turned everything over to the Nazis in Spain.

The Nazis copied all the papers and then returned the original papers and the body back to Britain. With copies of the papers enroute to Berlin, the body of Major William Martin was buried, with full military honors, at a cemetery in Huelva, Spain.

Meanwhile, when the British received the original papers back, it was obvious they had been opened. A wire was sent to Churchill: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”

In possession of the copied papers, Adolf Hitler became convinced of the veracity of the bogus documents, and insisted that any attack against Sicily would be a feint, with the real invasion taken place in Greece. He ordered the majority of his troops to defend Greece, pulling his forces from Sicily. The renowned general Erwin Rommel was sent to Greece to assume overall command. Operation Mincemeat was an overwhelming success.

On July 9th, the Allies invaded Sicily in Operation Husky. The Allies stormed through Sicily, meeting only minimal resistance. Major William Martin had won the day.

It was not until 1953 that the story of Operation Mincemeat was finally revealed in the book called The Man Who Never Was.

A film of the same name was made in 1956.

The gravestone reads, “William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales.” The Latin phrase, Dulce et Decorum est pro  Patria Mori. RIP, translates as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

It was not until 1998 that the British Government revealed Michael’s true identity. At that point, the gravestone was amended to read, “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM.” The grave is a fitting tribute to Glyndwr Michael and his alternate identity; Major William Martin: the man who never was.

Chip LoCoco

Italian Historical Fiction Author