Flight-lieutenant Charles Christopher Cholmondeley, RAF/MI5, 1943 [Public domain]
Lieutenant-commander Ewan Montagu, British Naval Intelligence, 1943 [Public domain]
This week in the war, in the early hours of the morning of 30 April 1943, British submarine HMS Seraph
surfaced off the coast of Spain. A canister was brought on deck and opened to reveal a dead body dressed in the uniform of a major in the Royal Marines. A briefcase was then attached to the body by a chain and the body was fitted with a life jacket and slipped overboard so that it would float ashore with the morning tide.
The event signaled the start of Operation Mincemeat, an elaborate deception designed to fool the Germans into thinking that the Allies would not invade Sicily (which was the obvious target after North Africa) but were interested instead in landing in Greece and Sardinia. Identification on the body indicated that the deceased was a Major William Martin of the Royal Marines, and receipts and bills plus love letters and a photo of his fiancée Pam found in the major’s pockets backed up the story of a man who, in fact, did not exist.
Operation Mincemeat—–by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2010) [Photograph by Edith-Mary Smith]
The idea for Operation Mincemeat
was due to an eccentric RAF intelligence officer named Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumly’
)—doomed never to fly on account of his poor eyesight—and a brilliant barrister named Ewen Montagu who was serving in Naval Intelligence, in fact in the same unit as Ian Fleming of James Bond
fame. After the war, Montagu described the events in his book The Man Who Never Was
which, in 1956, was turned into a movie. More recently, Ben Macintyre has provided a well-researched and highly readable account in his book Operation Mincemeat
After the body of the fictitious major was washed up on the beach, the briefcase was opened and the bogus plans were examined by Spanish authorities and the details reported to Berlin. The major was subsequently buried with due military honours.
The Germans, including Hitler, were convinced that the plans were genuine and began to strengthen their forces in Sardinia and Greece. The British realized that the trick had worked and a cryptic telegram was dispatched to Churchill (who was in the USA): “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”