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Photo: British Royal Navy Lt. L. Pelman

In ‘Weekend At Bernie’s,’ a corpse becomes the life of the party. But, in World War II, a corpse saved the lives of thousands of American and Allied soldiers.

On April 30, 1943, the British submarine HMS Seraph surfaced a mile from the southwest coast of Spain. A canister was brought on deck and the officers of the sub opened it. Inside was the body of an alcoholic, homeless man who had died from ingesting rat poison, now dressed in the clothes of a British Royal Marine major.

The sailors put a life jacket on the corpse, strapped a brief case to its belt, read Psalm 39 over it, and then pushed the body into the ocean.

This was the fruition of Operation Mincemeat, one of the most important actions to the success of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily and the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Fortress Europe.

‘The underbelly of the Axis’

After the success of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of German North Africa, was assured, Allied planners were fully focused on how to break into fortress Europe. It was widely agreed that the first attack should be into Italy, attempting to knock it out of the war, thus weakening the Axis Powers. The problem was, though Italy was described by Winston Churchill as, “the underbelly of the Axis,” it was heavily fortified.

Allied planners knew Sicily, the island off the “toe” of Italy’s “boot,” was the logical place to attack in order to take the fight to the Axis. Unfortunately, logical places to attack are generally well-defended. Since Hitler was known to be afraid of an attack through Greece and the Balkans, the Allies decided to play up the possibility of an invasion there while claiming they would bypass Sicily entirely.

Operation Barclay, a deception operation, was launched to sell this lie to the Third Reich. One of the key elements of Barclay was Operation Mincemeat, possibly history’s most daring Haversack Ruse.

The Haversack Ruse and the Trout Memo

The Haversack Ruse was invented in World War I when the British Army needed to deceive the Ottoman Military. Though there are conflicting accounts on who planned and who executed the ruse, someone rode a horse into contested territory, waited until they were shot at by the Ottomans, slumped over in their horse like they’d been hit and rode as quickly as possible back to British lines.

During the escape, the rider “accidentally” dropped a haversack with fake battle plans in it. The British faked a search for the documents. The Ottomans recovered them, assumed they were real, and redeployed their forces. This lead to the Ottoman defeat at the Battle of Beersheba.

Early in World War II, Naval Intelligence released a document called the “Trout Memo.” Though it was credited to the British Director of Naval Intelligence, it is thought to have actually been the work of his assistant, Sir Ian Fleming. Fleming would go on to write the Bond novels which were partially based on actual operations in the war.

The memo, released in 1939, listed 51 ways to deceive enemy intelligence. Number 28 was a plan for an updated Haversack Ruse. Intelligence operatives would fake an airplane crash in such a way that the body would wash up on the shore where the enemy would find it. Hidden on its person would be documents that the enemy would find credible. This idea would form the core of Operation Mincemeat..

Planning Operation Mincemeat

Planning for Operation Mincemeat was conducted by British Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu and Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley.

They knew that Spain, though neutral, regularly allowed Nazi military officials access to Allied documents that fell into their hands.

Ocean currents were studied and a timeline was established. The goal was a set up where a body, recently deceased, could be floated to the coast where it would be appear to have arrived after a plane crash. To make it work, they needed a false identity and a real body.

A coroner and former colleague of Montagu’s, Bentley Purchase, was contacted to quietly look for suitable bodies. On January 28, 1943, a homeless Welsh man, Glyndwr Michael, died of phosphorous poisoning and was sent to Purchase. Purchase contacted Montagu and Cholmondeley who agreed the body was fit for the task. Michael was placed in cold storage, giving the British 3 months to perfect the fake documents and execute the mission before the body would be too decayed to use.

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Photo: UK National Archives

Montagu and Cholmendeley worked together to create a false identity for their corpse. Their final creation was Maj. William Martin, a Royal Marine. Martin was recently engaged to a woman named Pam. A photo of a Military Intelligence Section 5, MI5, staffer, was included in Martin’s effects.

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Photo: Ewen Montagu Team, Wikimedia Commons

The conspirators thought it would be suspicious if a major was shabbily dressed. So, Martin was given a pair of nice underwear, taken from the possessions of a recently deceased official at New College, Oxford. A series of documents were forged and placed on Martin including sale receipts, a collection letter from a bank, and the photo of “Pam,” in order to sell the “Martin” identity.

In addition, military documents were put into an official briefcase that would later be chained to the deceased man’s belt. These documents were specially crafted to make it sound like Operation Husky was the invasion of Greece instead of Sicily. They also referenced a fictional operation, Operation Brimstone, as the invasion of Sardinia while implying that the Allies would feint to Sicily. This would convince the Germans that the real invasion of Sicily, when it began, was just a smokescreen for the fictional invasions in Sardinia and Greece..

NEXT! Conducting the Operation. link to We are the Mighty.


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2 thoughts on “This top-secret operation was the World War II version of ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’

  1. Absolutely. Deception and psychological warfare; can do a doozy to the minds of the enemy, although they have tricks up their sleeves as well. It boils down to who’s smarter, and ultimately the quicker draw.

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  2. I read about this a long time ago. Deception is the rule of spies. Like Mata Hari they will use every way possible to pull off the trick. Watch the rabbit and the fox bites you.

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