Today in 1943, the British launched Operation Mincemeat, a disinformation plan that was possibly the most effective deception of the war. Because of one family’s sacrifice, thousands of lives were saved.
By early 1943, the Allies were in control of almost all of North Africa. The British and American strategic planners decided that the next invasion would be at Sicily, thereby giving their forces a toehold in southern Europe and a jumping off point for an invasion of Italy. Anyone looking at a map can see that the logic of this move, and that worried the Allied planners. After all, the German High Command was full of expert strategists and it was assumed, correctly as it turned out, that they would predict and prepare for an invasion of Sicily. Something needed to be done to divert German and Italian attention away from Sicily and towards another potential invasion spot.
The plan that was eventually agreed upon was both risky and more than a little macabre. A body dressed up as a Royal Marine would be dropped off the coast of Spain, close enough to ensure it would be found. While the Spanish were officially neutral, the government was pro-fascist and any information found on the man would find its way to Germany. This ruse had been used before, both earlier in this war and throughout history.
The first item of business was finding a suitable body, and not just any body would do. The man needed to have died of pneumonia, which guaranteed that there would be fluid in his lungs indicative of drowning and several days floating at sea. The man also had to be in his early to mid-30’s. If he were younger than that, he would not have attained the rank necessary to be entrusted with highly classified documents; if older than that, he would have to be given a senior rank and high-level officers were not used as messengers.
Quiet investigation turned up a 34-year old man who had died of chemically-induced pneumonia as a result of drinking rat poison. The man’s next of kin agreed to turn his body over to the British government on the condition that his real identity never be revealed. The mission planners agreed, and Major William Martin of the Royal Marines was born.
Early in the morning of April 30th, 1943, the submarine HMS Seraph surfaced about a mile from the coast of Spain near an area in which lived a known German agent. The canister containing Major Martin was carried to the deck and, while one of the officers read the 39th Psalm, his body was committed to the sea. A local fisherman recovered him three hours later. Within a day, the German High Command knew of the discovery.
The documents that were contained in the briefcase chained to Martin had been painstakingly created to leave no doubt as to their authenticity. In short, they set forth a plan for an invasion of Sardinia with a follow-up invasion of southern France. There would also be a second thrust towards Greece through the Balkans. The documents also mentioned that a deception campaign had begun which was supposed to make the Germans think that Sicily was going to invaded. It was a brilliant bit of reverse psychology.
The ruse worked. Sardinia and neighboring Corsica were reinforced with men and naval forces from Sicily while Hitler ordered Field Marshal Rommel to Athens to organize an Army Group. Some of the resources of that group came from the Eastern Front where they were badly needed.
Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, began on July 9, 1943. The Germans were so convinced of the authenticity of Major Martin’s messages that they let two weeks go by before realizing that the invasion was not a diversion. The Allies completely conquered the island in a month. That retaking of Sicily was one of the causes of a coup against Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that same year.
Major Martin was buried in Spain with full military honors. In 1996 an amateur historian named Roger Morgan proved that Martin was actually a Welshman named Glyndwr Michael. While some alternate theories still abound, Michael’s death, age and description are so close that his name is now inscribed alongside Major Martin’s on his tombstone.