Major William Martin was a complete invention, right down to his love letters and the frosty note from his bank manager. But when his body floated into the Spanish seaport of Huelva, clutching a locked briefcase, the Nazi spies were completely fooled. The hoax succeeded in altering the course of World War Two… and left an unsolved riddle. For “Major William Martin” must have been somebody!
Major William Martin was going to war for the first and last time. As His Majesty’s submarine, the HMS Seraph, slipped away to seaward, his dead body, supported by a ‘Mae West’, drifted slowly inshore with the tide. The first light of dawn revealed the small fleet of fishing boats working in the bay off the Spanish port of Huelva.
He wore the full battledress uniform and badges of a major in the Royal Marines and his right hand, rigid in death, clutched a black official briefcase with the royal cipher, attached by a chain to his waist.
It was April 30, 1943 and Major William Martin was soon to be buried with full military honors in the town’s cemetery. Yet in death, and in the next few hours, he was to achieve more than most people would do for their country in a lifetime of service, by saving the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Allied troops who were to take part in the invasion of Sicily.
For Major William Martin was the bait in one of the mos audacious and bizarre espionage plots of word war two. He was the creation of British Naval Intelligence, the ‘Man Who Never Was’, whose true identity is a mystery to this day and will remain so in deference to the express wishes of his family.
The body that the enemy agent in Huelva, his masters in German Intelligence and finally, and crucially, the German High Command, were hoaxed into accepting as being that of a courier carrying secret dispatches, who had freshly drowned in an aircraft crash at sea was, in fact, that of a young man who had died in a London hospital of pneumonia in the damp English fall of the previous year. It had been kept in cold storage until Operation Mincemeat, as the plan was named with macabre humor, was put into operation.
By the beginning of 1943 the Allies were in command of the whole of the North African coast and ready to strike at what Churchill called the ‘soft underbelly of Europe’.
It was clear to the Germans that the Allied armies in Africa were bound to be used in the Mediterranean, possibly to invade Italy or the South of France, or to land in Greece. But before any of these campaigns could be mounted one major obstacle had to be eliminated — Sicily, the malignant key to the whole Mediterranean battle arena. From their airfields on the island German bombers could make the passage of any convoy a deadly hazard. At all costs Sicily had to be taken out of the war.
If Sicily was the obvious Allied target it was equally so to the Germans. As Churchill said: “Anybody but a damn fool would know it is Sicily.” How could they be thrown off the scent?
It was Ewen Montagu, a young lieutenant commander in the Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division, who came up with a solution. How would it be, he suggested, if a body, ostensibly that of a British staff officer, was floated ashore in neutral Spain — and he was carrying top-level papers showing clearly that the Allies were going to attack elsewhere? He was confident that the documents would be seen by German agents and that there was a good chance they would be deceived into thinking them genuine.
Mantagu and his team began a discreet search for a body, one that the Germans could accept as being that of the victim of an air-crash at sea. Eventually they were told of a young man, in his early thirties, who had just died from pneumonia following exposure. After being assured that he would receive a proper burial but under a false name and that the body would be used for a really worthwhile purpose, his relatives gave their permission.
The unknown young man was to be ‘reborn’ as Major William Martin, Royal Marines, on the staff of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations.
Ewan Montagu knew that if the German High Command was to be deceived in thinking, against all probabilities, that Sicily was not to be the target, then there had to be deception on a grand scale. The security leak must come from someone at the very highest level.
He persuaded General Sir Archibald Nye, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to write a personal letter of General Alexander, commanding the 18th Army group in Tunisia, making it clear that an army under Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson was to land in Greece. ‘Operation Brimstone’ was also to be launched in the Western Mediterranean but not against Sicily, the cover target. In his letter Nye suggested that the Allies had a very good chance of persuading the Germans that they were going for Sicily.
This was the vital document that was to go into Major William Martin’s briefcase. Ewan Montagu believed that it was the sort of ‘old boy’ type letter which high-ranking officers would write to each other and, because of its personal nature, would not be sent through official channels but by messenger.
Major William Martin was to carry one other personal message, from Lord Mountbatten to Admiral for the Fleet Sir Andrew Cunningham, and Mantagu, who drafted it, found a plausible reason why a Royal Marines officer should be flying to North Africa and why he should be acting as a courier. He decided that Major William Martin should be an expert in the use of landing craft on his way to the Mediterranean to advise on training for a seaborne operation. Mountbatten wrote that he had promised Nye that Martin would pass on the letter to General Alexander… “It is very urgent and very ‘hot’ and as there are some remarks in it that could not be seen by others in the War Office, it could not go by signal.”
The letter ended with a calculated indiscretion… “Let me have him (William Martin) back as soon as the assault is over. He might bring some sardines with him– they are ‘on points’ here!” Ewen Montagu banked on the Teutonic sense of humor. He hoped that the Mountbatten joke would appeal to the Germans and convince them that Sardinia was the proposed target in the Western Mediterranean.
Naval Intelligence had the fake documents which they had to get into German hands. They now had to ensure that the body of Major William Martin would be accepted for what it appeared to be, a staff officer carrying highly secret dispatches who had drowned at sea following a plane crash.
Montagu had decided that a rank of captain (acting major) would be appropriate for an officer trusted with such a mission and a check on the Naval List showed that there were several Martins of about that rank in the Marines. He reasoned that if the death of a Major Martin was discussed in a wardroom those present cold no know all the Royal Marine officers of that name.
The greatest difficulty in establishing Major William Martin’s credibility was in obtaining a picture for his naval identity card. It proved impossible to take a realistic photograph from the dead body and a frantic search took place for a reasonable double. By good fortune, Montagu found a young man who could have been the twin of the corpse and the problem was solved. It was decided that the major should at some time have lost his identity card and that he should be issued with a new on dated February 2, 1943. He was also provided with a special pass from Combined Operations Headquarters for use in the Mediterranean war zones.
To complete his military identity, a battledress was obtained to which Royal Marine and Commando flashes were added and a major’s crown. Then came boots and webbing gaiters and, as a finishing touch, a shirt was purchased from Gieves. The bill was crumpled up and placed in a pocket of the trench coat.
They now had a body which would pass as that of a staff officer. Now they had to create a personality around that body, a character which — through the possessions in his pockets — they could convey to the Germans. He must be seen to have been a man as other men, with human frailty as well as being a talented and trusted officer.
Carefully and artistically, an image of Major William Martin was built up through the letters and effects which were to be placed in his uniform. He was provided with a sweetheart; a rather stuffy Edwardian father; a club and a penchant for light theatrical entertainment. And to show that he was indeed no paragon of virtue he was to carry with him a stiff letter of admonishment from his bank manager about an overdraft of £70 19s 2d.
But the most poignant of Major William Martin’s personal possessions were two love letters which a pretty young girl in the War Office had agreed to write to a fictitious fiancé. She became ‘Pam’ and her photograph was to be found in the major’s wallet together with a bill for her engagement ring. They were marvelously intuitive letters which only a woman could have written.
The crucial letters from Sir Archibald Nye and Lord Mountbatten were placed in an official dispatch case together with a heavy brochure to provide bulk. To make sure that the floating corpse would not become detached from the case it was decided to assume that the major would have been issued with the type of chain that bank messengers wear down their sleeves and clip to their bags and that, for the sake of comfort on the aircraft, he had looped the chain through his trench coat belt so that he would not lose the case or forget it.
By now the Chiefs of Staff, urged on by Churchill, had given the go-ahead for Operation Mincemeat. It was decided that the body should be floated ashore at Huelva, a tiny port in southwest Spain, where it was known there was an active German agent, on or about April 30 when tide and wind conditions would be favorable. Montagu decided on one last subterfuge. Among the last items to be placed in the major’s pockets were two counterfoil stubs of tickets for a Sid Field show at the Prince of Wales theater, dated April 22, his last night out with ‘Pam’. A bill from the Naval and Military Club indicated that Major William Martin would have left London on April 24.
Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the pathologist, had been consulted by Montagu and it had been concluded that when Major William Martin’s body came ashore in Spain it would have the decomposed appearance of a corpse that had been drifting in the sea for five or six days and that this would tally with the major having been involved in an air-crash on the day after leaving Britain.
On Spilsbury’s advice the body was packed tight in ‘dry ice’ in an airtight cylindrical container to exclude as much oxygen as possible. On April 19 the 400-pound cylinder marked ‘Optical Instruments’ sailed from Holy Loch in a submarine tube of the HMS Seraph. Only her young commander, Lieutenant Bill Jewell, knew the grim secret of his strange cargo.
In the early hours of April 30, on an ink-black night, the Seraph surfaced just over a mile from Huelva. With the waters of the Atlantic lapping their boots, Jewell and four astonished fellow officers unbolted the canister and revealed the body of Major William Martin. Then, bare-headed, they murmured the words of the Burial Service before the corpse was gently lowered into the water.
The bait was set. Would it be taken?
On May 3 the British Naval Attache in Madrid signaled that the Vice-Consul in Huelva had informed him that the body of a Major William Martin, Royal Marines, had been picked up offshore by a fisherman on the morning of April 30. The major had been buried the following day with full military honors. There was no mention of the briefcase or of any official papers.
True to its role, the Admiralty acted as if the alarm bells were ringing and that there really had been a disastrous leak of strategic information. The attache was bombarded with signals urging the importance of retrieving the major’s briefcase but warning him not to arouse the interest of the Spaniards.
It was not until May 13 that the Spanish Chief of Naval Staff handed over Major William Martin’s effects. The briefcase was open with a key in the lock. The attache was assured that ‘everything was there’ and gained the clear impression that the Spaniard knew of the contents. And that if he knew, then others knew too. Naval Intelligence were quite sure that the documents had been leaked to the German agent and scientific tests later showed that the envelopes had been opened.
Events were to prove that the Spaniards had acted out the part scripted for them by Montagu and that news of the contents of the letters were swiftly passed from agents in Madrid to a delighted German Intelligence Headquarters in Berlin.
It was an equally jubilant British Chief of Staff who sent a message to Churchill, then in Washington: “Mincemeat swallowed whole.”
The full details of Sir Archibald Nye’s letter to General Alexander were found in a captured German intelligence appreciation after the war, initialed by Admiral Karl Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. It was clear that the Germans had no doubt about its validity. They concluded that “the genuineness of the captured documents is above suspicion.”
When a copy of Nye’s letter reached German High Command it served to reinforce Hitler’s own view that the Allies were bent on invading Greece. Furthermore, and this gave the greatest personal pleasure to Ewen Montagu, his joke about sardines in the Mountbatten letter had not been wasted. For another German document was to reveal… “Target for the operation under General Alexander in the Western Mediterranean is not mentioned. A joking reference in the letter points to Sardinia.”
Donitz, who had been sent to Italy to bolster Mussolini’s flagging morale after the North African disasters, wrote: “The Führer does not agree with the Duce that the most likely invasion point is Sicily. Furthermore, he believes that the discovered Anglo-Saxon order confirms the assumption that the planned attack will be directed mainly against Sardinia and Peloponnesus.”
With Hitler and his Supreme Command convinced that Greece and Sardinia were to be the Allied targets the Germans moved fast. To build up their defenses in Greece three new minefields were laid and a fleet of motor torpedo boats switched from Sicily to the Aegean. Hitler appointed Rommel himself to take command and sent a Panzer division rumbling right across Europe to help him. In the Western Mediterranean, German forces were stripped from Sicily to reinforce the defenses of Sardinia and Corsica.
Operation Mincemeat had reaped rich dividends. When Allied troops went ashore in the south of Sicily on July 10 they were opposed by an Italian force and only two German divisions. The assault went well, casualties were lighter than expected and reports left little doubt that the Germans had switched their troop concentration away from the south to the north of the island in preparation for a diversionary attack during an invasion of Sardinia. It took two vital days before the Germans were really convinced that the invasion of Sicily was genuine and not a diversion, that the Operation Mincemeat information was suspect.
The body of the unknown warrior who became Major William Martin still lies in Huelva cemetery many years after these momentous events. Because of him many men are alive today who would certainly have been killed in the fighting. His true identity is still a mystery.
Ewen Montagu, who became a distinguished QC and judge after the war, though he was the only one alive to know the man’s real name. But every November — on the anniversary of his actual death — some unknown person lays flowers on the tombstone with its Latin inscription, which reads: “Dulce et decorum est pro Patria Mori“… “It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country”.
UPDATE: Has the real identity of Major William Martin, “the man who never was”, finally been found? Read this article to find out.