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The Dead Man Who Duped Hitler: The Beyond Bizarre Tale of WWII’s Strangest Operation

Now a major motion picture starring Colin Firth, Operation Mincemeat involved a corpse, a fake fiancée, and the successful invasion of Sicily.

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  • Photo Credit: Netflix

Bluffing: as integral to warfare as it is to poker. In 1943, British naval officer Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu gambled with the highest stakes, using false letters, a fake identity and a corpse. Success or failure would change the course of the war.

Welsh vagrant Glyndwr Michael hadn’t served his country in life. Being washed up on the Spanish coast near Huelva under a false identity made up for that in his death. Glyndwr Michael would enter military history as ‘The Man Who Never Was.’ 

In the early 1940s, Hitler appointed one of his favored generals, Erwin Rommel, leader of the Afrika Korps. The troops set off on an expeditionary mission to North Africa, meant to keep Allied forces from accessing the area as a launching point into Europe. However, by 1943, Rommel and the Korps were facing defeat, as Allied troops swept across the region. The Allies’ next, most likely target was Sicily. Sicily would allow Allies an access point into Europe, through what Churchill called the “soft underbelly”.

Related: Meet the British Soldier Who May Have Spared Hitler's Life During WWI 

But the fact that this tactic was so obvious meant that the British forces would have to engage in some sort of subterfuge to confuse the Nazi forces. Here, Montagu, Glyndwr Michael, and a cunning plan came into play.

Montagu, a lawyer before entering naval service, was subtle, clever and unconventional. He believed that German military intelligence, the Abwehr, thought only in straight lines. If they discovered a corpse carrying sensitive letters they believed genuine, they might believe a forthcoming invasion of Sicily was in fact aimed at Greece and Sardinia. If they did, they might transfer huge forces away from Sicily making invasion considerably less difficult.

So, Montagu came up with a false identity, Major William Martin. He then reached out to nearby army hospitals to find a body to go along with the identity.

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  • Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu transporting the body to Scotland.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The corpse would be delivered via submarine but, to German and Spanish authorities, it had to appear to come from a crashed plane supposedly flying from England to Gibraltar. If the Spanish or German saw through the deceit, they would be able to crush the British forces easily.

Operation Mincemeat, therefore, simply had to work. Everything about the corpse and its cargo had to ring true.

Montagu knew Spanish “neutrality” favoured Berlin, not London. He believed the Spanish would let Abwehr agents copy the letters before returning them to the British. By the time they were returned, copies would be on Hitler’s desk. Montagu also knew Huelva’s resident Abwehr agent Major Karl-Erich Kuhlenthal was personally ambitious and anxious to please his superiors. Kuhlenthal was the perfect mark.

Related: The WWII Dutch Warship That Pretended To Be an Island to Evade the Enemy 

Procuring letters with fake intelligence between very senior Allied officers wasn’t difficult. Some were even written and signed by the officers themselves. Generals Archibald Nye and Harold Alexander (commanding the 18th Army Group) and Admiral Cunningham (commanding the Mediterranean Fleet) drafted their own. Others were signed by General Eisenhower and Louis Mountbatten, then running Combined Operations. 

None of the letters explicitly mentioned Greece or Sardinia, as that would have been far too obvious. Montagu wanted the Abwehr to make that connection themselves and advise Hitler accordingly. Making Major Martin an expert in amphibious warfare, particularly landing craft, subtly strengthened the deception.

Obtaining a corpse proved surprisingly difficult, but not impossible. Legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury advised on choosing one that would look like it had drowned. Major Martin even had a tailored uniform. Nothing about the corpse could say Michael wasn’t Major Martin, right down to the underpants previously owned by historian H.A.L Fisher.

With corpse and letters procured, Major Martin needed a personality. A uniform, dog tags and entry in the Navy List (where all Navy and Royal Marine officers appear) weren’t enough. He needed a cover as good as any living agent. Montagu’s team created one, including a private joke: Martin’s middle name was Glyndwr.

Martin was a big spender, so a letter about his unpaid overdraft came from a genuine bank official. A tailor’s bill was included, also unpaid. His inability to settle up was explained by a bill for an engagement ring (also unpaid) for his fiancée, Pam. Even a pair of theatre ticket stubs, chosen so their dates matched his supposed flight to Gibraltar, strengthened the deception. Chained to Martin’s wrist was a briefcase containing the falsified letters intended to sell one of history’s biggest lies.

Related: How These Armies Beat Their Foe With a Prostitute, Palm Trees, and the Plague 

“Pam” was actually Jean Leslie, one of Montagu’s secretaries who donated the photograph in Martin’s wallet. A love letter came from another secretary, written to a Major who didn’t exist about an engagement that never was, selling an invasion that wasn’t happening. Not in Greece or Sardinia, anyway.  

Delivering Major Martin also had to be arranged, preferably without the couriers knowing what (or rather who) they’d delivered. Fortunately, William Jewell, skipper of submarine HMS Seraph, was experienced in special operations. Jewell surfaced very briefly off Huelva, very discreetly sending Major Martin into the field at dawn on April 30, 1943. Until they surfaced, Jewell’s crew had no idea what lay in the torpedo-shaped, refrigerated tube labeled as optical instruments. Martin was found on Huelva’s beach by a local fisherman, Jose Antonio Rey Maria, a few hours later.

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  • Naval identity card of Major MartinPhoto Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After that, Montagu knew, Spanish “neutrality” and Kuhlenthal’s ambition would do the rest. Montagu also knew that, regardless of the professionals’ opinions, Hitler’s was the only one that mattered. If Hitler swallowed Operation Mincemeat, it would prove a poison pill indeed.

And swallow it, he did. The Spanish let Kuhlenthal copy the letters. In Berlin, ignoring the advice of senior figures, including Joseph Goebbels (himself a master of dishonesty), Hitler transferred huge numbers of troops away from Sicily. The Allies, watching Axis troop movements and reading broken Enigma ciphers, knew it had worked even before Allied troops launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, on July 10, 1943. A simple message to Churchill read: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”

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With substantial enemy resources now rendered harmless, Sicily fell with surprising speed thereafter.

Major Martin was buried near Huelva with full military honours. In 1997, his gravestone received a small addition: an inscription reading “Glyndwr Michael, served as Major William Glyndwr Martin, RM.”

Montagu left the Navy after the war and wrote The Man Who Never Was, eventually becoming a magistrate and a judge before he died in 1985. In 1956, Hollywood released a highly fictionalized movie based on Montagu’s book. In one scene, a senior Royal Air Force officer points out to Montagu (played by Clifton Webb) the risk of accidentally betraying Sicily as the real target. The senior RAF officer was played by Montagu himself. More recently, Netflix released the war drama film Operation Mincemeat on May 11, 2022. Colin Firth stars as Montagu.