The Man Who Never Was



During World War II, Sicily became a place of unquestionable, strategic value.

William Martin was an officer from the British Navy. He was born in Cardiff in 1907 and his life was apparently normal – he smoked, liked going to the cinema, and had a girlfriend named Pamela. During World War II, a plane accident threw him down to his death into the cold water of the Mediterranean Sea in 1943.

At least, that was what Germans had to believe, as William Martin actually never existed – he was just the main character of a delicate military operation. Martin’s ‘father’ was Ewen Montagu, a naval intelligence officer for the UK.

Operation Mincemeat

Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley RAF of Section B1(a) of MI5 – not Sir Archibald Cholmondeley, as it is said in some accounts – had the idea of throwing off a corpse attached to a badly-opened parachute and a radio set over the French coast to provide the Allies with a disinformation source against Germany, so their resistance forces would be weaker. The plan was abandoned due to its impracticability, but it was recovered few months later by Capt. Ewen Montagu, an intelligence officer and a member of the XX Committee – a group running a branch of MI5 specialised on counterespionage and disinformation operations – who thought that the idea had a good chance of succeeding and started working on the details of the deceit.

According to Cholmondeley’s suggestion, the first thing that his team did was thinking what kind of papers a man having died of a collision due to an error in the opening of his parachute would take with him. As Germans knew that the Allies never sent compromising documents in the flights above enemy territory, they decided that the man would be a victim of a plane accident on the sea. This would explain why he had been dead in the water for several days and solved the problem of the highly compromising documents. Now the operation needed a codename. With his characteristically macabre sense of humour, Montagu named it ‘Operation Mincemeat’.

As discreetly as it was possible, they obtained the corpse of a 34-year-old man who had died of pneumonia chemically caused by the ingestion of rat poison. They did not talk to the family about the operation or asked for their permission, but they stole the body with the help of the man in charge of the morgue of St. Pancras Hospital. As the man had died of pneumonia, the fluid inside his lungs matched the fact that he had been in the water for a long time.

The following step was making up a ‘legend’ or a false identity – Major William Martin, Royal Marines, born in Cardiff in 1907, and assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations.

To make the story more credible, he was given a girlfriend named Pam – actually, a clerk in MI5 – together with photographs and love letters. His belongings included a key ring, some recent theatre tickets, an accommodation bill from his club in London, and so on. To further the ruse, Montagu and his team decided to give some hints of Martin’s carelessness with unpaid bills, a duplicate of an ID card to replace the lost original, an expired pass of the Headquarters, Combined Operations, which he had forgotten to renew and an angry letter from his bank.

Besides, the letter used a master play of inverse psychology by hinting that there were plans to deceive Germans and convince them that the landing would take place in Sicily. This would give Germans the impression that they were fighting against enemies strong enough to carry out two simultaneous operations far away from Sicily, what would make them to disperse their forces to confront the menace.

How the operation was carried out

Major William Martin was put inside a sealed-up, watertight canister, conserved in dry ice, and dressed in his Royal Marines uniform. Cholmondeley and Montagu rented a car for his delivery in Holy Loch, Scotland, and stowed him into the British submarine HMS Seraph. Montagu had arranged it with Admiral Barry, under whose command were the submarines. Barry suggested that they used the Seraph, which was available at that moment.

On the 19 April 1943, the Seraph navigated until it reached a position at one mile of distance at the south of Huelva. This location was chosen because Spain sympathized with the Axis powers and was full with secret agents of the Abwehr – a German military intelligence organization – despite being officially neutral. It was also known that there were active agents in Huelva who had excellent contacts with Spanish authorities. Afterwards, they opened the canister, put Major Martin on a lifejacket and attached him a briefcase with the papers. After reading the 39th Psalm, they gently put the corpse into the water so that the tide would wash it ashore.

The body was found out by 9.30 in the morning in the beach of El Portil by José Antonio Rey María, a Portuguese-born fisherman from Punta Umbría who took it to the harbour and informed Spanish authorities. The local Abwehr, represented by German Adolf Clauss – who operated under the cover of an agriculture technician –, was immediately reported about the discovery.

Consequences of the operation

Three days later, the XX Committee received a telegram from the Naval Attaché in Spain with the news of the Discovery of the corpse. Major Martin’s body was given to the British Vice-Consul F. K. Hazeldene and buried on 2 May in the cemetery of Huelva. It was reported that the man, who was alive when he fell into the water, had no bruises, but his death had been due to drowning, and the body had been in the water between three and five days.

The ruse was furthered with several urgent messages from the Admiralty to the Naval Attaché asking for the papers found with the body at any cost due to their highly compromising contents – this would alert Spanish authorities about their importance. The documents were returned on the 13 May with the assertion that nothing was missing. However, the Germans had already heard about the discovery of the papers before, and the local agent managed to get them not without effort. The Germans carefully opened the briefcase and took photographs of its contents before Spanish authorities handed it over to the British. The photographs were urgently sent to Berlin, where they were analysed by German intelligence services.

When Major Martin’s corpse was returned and the papers were checked, the British saw that the German had read the documents and carefully put back into the briefcase. Thanks to the deceit, the boats assigned to the defence of Sicily – patrol boats, minelayer boats, and minesweeper boats – were sent elsewhere. As a result, the conquest of Sicily confronted relatively little resistance and was completed on 9 August.

Who was Major Martin actually?

The man who was known as ‘Major Martin’ is still buried in the cemetery of Huelva. In 1996, an amateur historian named Roger Morgan found evidence of Martin being a Welsh alcoholic vagabond named Glyndwr Michael who died after eating rat poison. However, it is not known how or why he did it. The headstone carries William Martin’s name, who saved thousands of lives with his death and changed the course of the war. Glyndwr Michael’s name would be subsequently added in recognition of his work.

With respect to Ewen Montagu, he was appointed to the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his participation in the Operation Mincemeat. In 1953, he wrote the book The Man Who Never Was, an account on the Operation Mincemeat, which was soon afterwards made into a film.