Countdown to Husky: Operation Mincemeat

Photograph of Cholmondeley and Montagu in uniform, standing in front of a lorry

Charles Cholmondeley (left) and Ewen Montagu with the van taking the body of Glyndwr Michael to Scotland on 17 April 1943

At 0415 on Friday 30 April 1943, the body of Glyndwr Michael was taken out of a sealed container on the deck of the Royal Navy submarine HMS Seraph which had surfaced off Huelva on Spain’s Atlantic coast.

Michael was dressed as a Royal Marine officer identified as Captain (Acting Major) William Martin. Attached to his body was a briefcase containing documents saying the Allies planned to land in Sardinia and Greece and not Sicily.

Seraph had left Greenock in the west of Scotland on 19 April. All the crew but its officers were told the mission was to deliver a meteorological device off the Spanish coast. Seraph’s commander Lt Bill Jewell had spent the previous day reconnoitering the coastline.

Michael’s body was lowered into the sea. Jewell read Psalm 39 and ordered the submarine’s engines full astern. The wash pushed the corpse toward the shore.

Seraphim submerged, travelled 12 miles and resurfaced. The container was pushed into the water and destroyed with plastic explosives. Jewell sent a message to the Admiralty to say “Mincemeat completed” and headed for Gibraltar.

This was the climax of what is often described as the most complex Allied deception exercise of the Second World War. It began in September 1939 with a memorandum written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division, and his personal assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, the future creator of the James Bond novels.

It listed 56 ways to deceive opponents including the idea of planting misleading papers on a corpse that would be found by the enemy.

In September 1942, an aircraft flying from Britain crashed off Cádiz. All aboard were killed, including Paymaster-Lieutenant James Turner – a courier carrying top secret documents – and a French agent. Turner’s documents included a letter saying that General Eisenhower would arrive in Gibraltar ahead of Operation Torch‘s “target date” of 4 November.

Turner’s body washed up on the beach near Tarifa and was recovered by the Spanish authorities. Technicians determined the letter had not been opened. But the notebook carried by the French agent had been copied by the Germans though they rejected it as disinformation.

A month later, British intelligence officer Charles Cholmondeley outlined his own variation of the 1939 memo plan.

A body is obtained from one of the London hospitals … The lungs are filled with water and documents are disposed in an inside pocket. The body is then dropped by a Coastal Command aircraft … On being found, the supposition in the enemy’s mind may well be that one of our aircraft has either been shot or forced down and that this is one of their passengers.

Cholmondeley’s plan was considered unworkable but had potential. Ewen Montagu, a naval intelligence officer, was assigned to work with Cholmondeley to develop the plan further.

The Casablanca conference in January 1943 approved the invasion of Sicily. There was concern that the island was an obvious choice. UK Prime Minister Churchill is reputed to have said: “Everyone but a bloody fool would know that it’s Sicily” .

On 28 January, Montagu was contacted with news that a suitable body had been located. It is now known to have been that of Glyndwr Michael, a tramp who died from eating rat poison. The body was kept in a mortuary refrigerator at a temperature of 4 °C. Flesh freezes at lower temperatures and this would be obvious after Michael’s body defrosted.

On 4 February, Montagu and Cholmondeley submitted their plan for Operation Mincemeat. The fake name and rank chosen was Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines who had been assigned to Combined Operations Headquarters. The name Martin was selected because there were several with that name of about that rank in the Marines who also wore battledress, which was easily obtainable. The rank made him senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents but not so prominent that he would be known.

Details to be carried on Michael’s included a photograph of an invented fiancée named Pam (see left). Two love letters were included as was a receipt for a diamond engagement ring from a Bond Street jewellers. To ensure that the letters would remain legible after immersion, Montagu asked MI5 scientists to conduct tests on different inks to see which would last longest in the water.

Captain Ronnie Reed of British intelligence was photographed wearing a Royal Marine uniform for the identity card.

Montagu provided three criteria for the document that contained the details of the falsified plans to land in the Balkans.

  • The target should be casually but clearly identified
  • It should name Sicily and another location as cover, and
  • It should be in an unofficial correspondence that would not normally be sent by diplomatic courier or in an encoded signal.

The main document was a personal letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, the Vice chief of the Imperial General Staff, to General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Anglo-American 18th Army Group in Algeria and Tunisia. The letter covered several purportedly sensitive subjects, such as the (unwanted) award of Purple Heart medals by US forces to British servicemen serving with them and the appointment of a new commander of the Brigade of Guards.

The letter went on to mention named possible landing sites in Greece. It identified Sicily and the Dodecanese as “cover targets”.

The placing of Michael’s body in the sea on 30 April was the final element of Operation Mincemeat. The rest of the deception depended upon the Spanish authorities and German agents in Spain.

Michael’s body was found by fishermen at 0930 on 30 April and handed over to a naval judge. The postmortem was completed by midday on 1 May in the presence of British vice-consul Francis Haselden. Michael’s body was buried with military honours in Huelva the next day.

The briefcase was retained by the Spanish navy and passed on 5 May to Spanish naval headquarters at San Fernando near Cadiz . Its contents were photographed by German sympathisers, but the letters were not opened.

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1979-013-43, Wilhelm Canaris.jpgThe briefcase was sent to Madrid where it attracted the attention of Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, one of the most senior Abwehr agents in Spain. He asked Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr (left), to persuade the Spanish to surrender the documents.

The still-damp paper was extracted by winding it around a probe into a cylindrical shape, and then pulling it out between the envelope flap – which was still closed by a wax seal – and the envelope body. The letters were dried and photographed, then soaked in salt water for 24 hours before being re-inserted into their envelopes. The information was passed to the Germans on 8 May.

On 14 May 1943 Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz met Hitler to discuss Dönitz’s recent visit to Italy, his meeting with the Italian leader Benito Mussolini and the progress of the war. The admiral, referring to the Mincemeat documents as the “Anglo-Saxon order”, recorded:

“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.

Hitler told Mussolini that Greece, Sardinia and Corsica must be defended “at all costs”, and that German troops would be best placed to do the job. He ordered that the transfer of the experienced 1st Panzer Division to Salonika in Greece from France. By the end of June, German troop strength on Sardinia had been doubled to 10,000, with fighter aircraft also based there as support. German torpedo boats were moved from Sicily to the Greek islands. Seven German divisions transferred to Greece and ten were posted to the Balkans.

The briefcase had been returned to Haselden on 11 May. He forwarded it to London where the documents were forensically examined and found to have been opened. On 14 May, a German communication was decrypted that warned the invasion was to be in the Balkans, with a feint to the Dodecanese.

Secretary of the Chiefs of Staff committee Brigadier Leslie Hollis sent a message to Churchill in the US that: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker by the right people and from the best information they look like acting on it.”

On 9/10 July, the Allies started landing in Sicily in Operation Husky. Even four hours after it began, 21 aircraft left Sicily to reinforce Sardinia. Hitler remained convinced that an attack on the Balkans was imminent. In late July, he sent General Erwin Rommel to Salonika to prepare the defence of the region.

Operation Mincemeat has been celebrated in films and books and a musical about it was successfully premiered in London’s West End in March 2023.

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