In 1943, an incredible British plan tricked the Nazi high command. Called Operation Mincemeat, it changed the course of World War II, and it all hinged on one unbelievable fact: The man who would carry it out was already dead.

Churchill's Gamble

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In early 1943, with Allied victory in North Africa imminent, the Allied high command started planning their attack on the European continent. They had two main avenues for the invasion: Greece or Sicily. The only problem: “Everyone but a bloody fool would know that it's Sicily,” as Winston Churchill said. If Axis intelligence detected the Allies’ strategic build-up of resources for the invasion (code-named Operation Husky), Axis troops could prepare a devastating defense of the island.

The challenge for Allied intelligence: How could they trick the Nazis into thinking the attack was coming from where it wasn’t?

Double Cross

Wikimedia Commons/Ben Macintyre

Two British intelligence agents—Charles Cholmondeley (right) and Ewan Montagu—hatched a plan. Cholmondeley and Montagu were both members of the top-secret “Double Cross System,” the committee in charge of double agents working for Allied intelligence. They decided to try a deception known as the “Haversack Ruse”: By planting fake documents in enemy hands, the Allies could mislead the Germans into thinking the attack would be landing where it wasn’t. 

It had worked before in Africa and during World War I. Could they pull it off again?

From A Basement To Hitler's Desk

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Cholmondeley and Montagu decided on a precarious plan: They would plant false documents on a body, made to look like the victim of an airplane crash. A submarine would drop off the body off the coast of Spain. Once the body washed up, Spanish authorities—who typically cooperated with the Nazis—would pass along the documents to German intelligence.

Montagu gave the plan a name: Operation Mincemeat.

The Man Who Never Was

Wikimedia Commons/Ewen Montagu

First, Cholmondeley and Montagu needed their mystery man. In London, they obtained the body of one Glyndwr Michael, a depressed vagrant who had no living parents or relatives. He died from eating rat poison, but the lasting effects on his body were minimal, so an autopsy wouldn’t show it.

Cholmondeley and Montagu decided to call him “Major William Martin.” There were several Martins in the Royal Marines, and at the rank of major, “Martin” would have had access to naval intelligence under the Admiralty’s jurisdiction.

The Fiancée Who Wasn’t

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To make the story of “Major William Martin” believable, Cholmondeley and Montagu invented miniscule details of his life that he could carry with him. The team created fake letters, obtained fake bank documents, and gathered "wallet litter" that would make him appear as real as possible.

The most creative of the inventions was “Pam,” Martin’s fiancée. Included on Martin’s uniform was a photo of “Pam”—actually Nancy Jean Leslie, a member of the British intelligence service MI5—as well as two love letters and a bill for a diamond engagement ring.

The Sicilian Defense

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Montagu envisioned the fake “intelligence” letter coming from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, then the Vice Chief of the Imperial Staff, to General Sir Harold Alexander (pictured), who commanded part of the British army in North Africa. In the letter, Nye specifically mentioned which armies would attack in Greece and where they would land. Nye also mentioned an attack on Sardinia, and that the attack on Sicily would be a cover operation.

Refrigerated Mincemeat

Wikimedia Commons/Ben Macintyre

Montagu placed the documents in a special briefcase that was cinched to Martin’s coat, and then placed the body in a special steel canister filled with dry ice to prevent the body from decaying. Montagu asked St. John “Jock” Horsfall, a British race car driver known for discretion and an utter refusal to wear glasses despite his nearsightedness, to drive the canister as fast as possible to a drop-off point at Holy Loch, Scotland. 

There, the canister was loaded on the British submarine H.M.S. Seraph. As far as the crew knew, they were receiving a top-secret weather device to be deployed near Spain.

Major Martin Goes Swimming

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In the early morning hours of April 30, 1943, the Seraph surfaced about a mile from the Spanish port town of Huelva. Captain Bill Jewell (second from right) and his officers gathered on the deck, opened the canister, fitted “Major Martin” with a life jacket, and set the body afloat. They then sent a message to Montagu: “MINCEMEAT completed.”

José Antonio Rey Maria, a Spanish fisherman, recovered the body about five hours later and reported it to local police. Jewell and his crew had officially delivered Mincemeat.

“Mincemeat Swallowed”

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Once German intelligence officers got wind of the body’s “discovery” from Spanish authorities, they quickly moved to get their hands on the documents in the briefcase, even as the British Admiralty made a show of trying to retrieve them.

When the Germans finally obtained the documents, they removed the letter from its envelope without breaking the seal, copied the letter, and radioed its contents to Berlin. They then “returned” the documents to the Navy, apparently untouched. But the Mincemeat planners realized the message had been opened, and sent an encrypted message to Churchill: “MINCEMEAT SWALLOWED ROD, LINE AND SINKER.”

The Nazis React

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Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, was skeptical of the information “intercepted” from the briefcase. But Adolf Hitler, who was already concerned about the many points of attack the Allies could leverage in the Mediterranean, bit on the planted documents. Hitler redirected three tank divisions to the Balkans—sapping German military strength in France and Russia—and redeployed naval units and reinforcements to Greece, Sardinia, and Corsica. German high command sent a message to their Mediterranean commander: “The measures to be taken in Sardinia and the Peloponnese have priority over any others.”

Mincemeat Pays Off

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When 160,000 American, Canadian, and British soldiers stormed the beaches of Sicily on July 9-10, 1943, they caught Axis forces completely unaware. Even after the Allies landed, Hitler continued to believe that the Sicily invasion was a ruse, and that an invasion of Greece was still forthcoming.

Operation Mincemeat had worked. It also set a precedent for planting false information that ruined genuine intelligence gains for the Nazis. Twice during the rest of the war—before D-Day and before Operation Market Garden—the Nazis discovered real documents detailing Allied targets and battle plans. But, fearing another Mincemeat debacle, they disregarded the information.

Operation Mincemeat: The Documentary

The full extent of Operation Mincemeat was only revealed in 1953 with Ewan Montagu's book, "The Man Who Never Was." Montagu's story was made into a movie of the same name in 1956.

This BBC documentary by James Bond creator Ian Fleming explores the full scope of Operation Mincemeat in detail. For an even more in-depth look, check out the book Operation Mincemeat by British journalist Ben Macintyre.