On April 30, 1943, José Antonio Rey María rowed out into the Atlantic off the coast of Andalusia, in southwest Spain. Despite a world war raging around him, this small corner of the world had been left relatively untouched. As author Ben Macintyre writes, María was simply out looking for sardines.
It was on this overcast morning that María found much more than some scant sardines––he chanced upon a uniformed body floating face down. As other local fisherman gathered around the badly decomposing corpse, no one was willing to touch it, let alone get too close, leaving María with the task of hauling the body to shore in his little skiff, Ana.
From his wallet, the Spanish authorities identified the corpse as Major William Martin, of the British Royal Marines. On his person was a photograph of Martin’s fiancée, a receipt for an engagement ring, a theater ticket stub, and, more importantly, documents marked “secret.”
Despite the nation’s neutrality, Nazi sympathizers abounded in Spain and the documents were quickly passed along to German intelligence officers in the country. The papers were, according to the Imperial War Museums, “purported to reveal the targets for the forthcoming invasion would be Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily only intended as a feint.”
Incredibly, the Germans believed it. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz recorded on May 14, 1943 that, “The Führer does not agree with…[Mussolini] that the most likely invasion point is Sicily. Furthermore, he believes that the discovered Anglo-Saxon order confirms the assumption that the planned attacks will be directed mainly against Sardinia and the Peloponnesus.” What the Germans did not realize at the time was that they had been duped, perfectly so, by the man who, after the war, would go on to write the James Bond series. His name was Fleming, Ian Fleming.
The idea itself was very simple: find a dead body, plant false papers on the corpse, and then drop it where the Germans would inevitably find it. Yet to pull off the ruse would require ingenuity to overcome a complicated series of hurdles, namely finding the appropriate body that looked like it had died in an air crash at sea and floated ashore.
While the idea originally came from Fleming, who admitted he had lifted the idea from a detective novel, British counter-intelligence agents Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu were the masterminds behind what they dubbed, rather tongue-in-cheek, OPERATION MINCEMEAT.
“They’d assumed that this would be very easy in the midst of the bloodiest war that’s ever been fought,” said Macintyre –who wrote a book on Operation Mincemeat–in an interview with NPR. “But actually finding the right sort of dead body was proving particularly difficult, because the body had to look as if it had died in an air crash. That was the center of the ruse. The body would be floated ashore at a particular point, wearing a life jacket, but it had to look as if it had died at sea.”
The British eventually found their man in Glyndwr Michael, a vagrant who had recently died in London after swallowing rat poison. With no family to claim him, Michael’s body was put on ice as Cholmondeley and Montagu set about creating “Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines.”
Cholmondeley and Montagu were working under a tight timeline–Michael’s body had to be used within three months or his body would decompose past the point of usefulness.
Working within that timeline, the fictitious background story quickly took shape, with no detail too small. From Captain Martin’s love life–he was engaged to a fake woman named Pam (who happened to be MI5 clerk, Jean Leslie); to his clothing–Cholmondeley wore Martin’s battledress for weeks to make sure the uniform didn’t look too new; finally, attached to Michael’s body was a briefcase that contained a series subterfuge documents designed to draw the Germans away from the Allies’ main target, Sicily.
On April 30, 1943, “Captain Martin” was launched into the ocean from the British submarine HMS Seraph and left to drift. From then on it was a wait-and-see game. Macintyre told The New Yorker that the Germans had to “believe that they had gained access to the documents undetected; they should be made to assume that the British believed the Spaniards had returned the documents unopened and unread.”
Indeed, they did. After taking the bait, the Germans rapidly doubled the number of troops being sent to Sardinia, while Hitler sent an additional panzer division from France to Greece. British code breakers sent the telegram, “MINCEMEAT SWALLOWED ROD, LINE, AND SINKER” to Winston Churchill in mid-May of 1943.
And as 160,000 Allied troops stormed Sicily on July 10 it became clear from the scanty German resistance that the British dupe was effective. The successful six-week campaign to retake Sicily brought Mussolini to his knees, helped to initiate the Italian land campaign, and forced Hitler to divert nearly a fifth of the entire German army fighting on the Eastern Front to help prop up Italy. Countless Allied lives were saved due to this one cadaver.
Michael, a homeless man who died alone in an abandoned warehouse in London, was buried with full military honors in Spain under the name Major William Martin. On his headstone reads the Latin phrase:
It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
After the British government revealed Michael’s true identity in 1998, a new inscription was added:
Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM
To read more about this incredible story, check out Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory