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The Man Who Never Was – The True Story of Operation Mincemeat

Warner Brothers upcoming movie Operation Mincemeat tells the story of one of the most secret operations of World War Two. In 1943, following the campaign in North Africa the Allies turned their attention to the island of Sicily. But to help increase their chances of success, the British Intelligence service hatched an elaborate plan to fool the defenders into thinking Allied priorities lay elsewhere.

What was Operation Mincemeat?

In January 1943, with Allied victory in North Africa fast approaching, Allied planners decided on the Italian island of Sicily as the next target for operations, with the invasion earmarked for no later than July that year. However, Sicily was an obvious target and so British intelligence set about deceiving Hitler and Nazi High Command into thinking that the next Allied targets were Greece and the islands of Sardinia and Corsica.

The tale of Major Martin

William Martin Identity cardWilliam Martin was born on 23 March 1907 to John Glyndwr Martin and Antonia Martin, of Cardiff, Wales. In the few days before his death he had been in London on leave, staying in the Naval and Military Club in St. James's Square. He had recently bought a diamond engagement ring from Bond Street for his fiancée Pam, a new shirt from Savile Row, and attended a show in the West End.

Major Martin was assigned to Combined Operations Headquarters, working under Commodore Lord Louis Mountbatten. When his aircraft crashed he was carrying secret documents, including a letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff to General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Anglo-American 18th Army Group then stationed in North Africa.

The body of Major Martin was found at around 9:30am on 30 April 1943 by a local fisherman, who duly informed the local authorities. On 1 May a perfunctory post-mortem was performed by two Spanish doctors in the presence of the British Vice-Consul and the cause of death was listed as ‘asphyxiation through immersion in the sea’. Major Martin’s briefcase along with its contents of secret papers were taken into safe keeping by the Spanish Navy. Major Martin was buried in Huelva Roman Catholic Cemetery, with full military honours the following day.

The German Abwehr (military intelligence) learnt of the briefcase and, despite Spanish reluctance, conspired to discover its contents. German secret agents photographed the contents of the briefcase, careful scrutiny of which showed that the Allied forces in North Africa were preparing to invade Greece and the Italian island of Sardinia in the summer of 1943.

However, the man laid to rest in Huelva Roman Catholic Cemetery was not Major Martin. Major Martin never existed. William Martin, along with the documents he carried were an elaborate forgery, a fiction conjured up in the minds of British Intelligence operatives including then Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, the later creator of James Bond.

Who was the real Major Martin?

British intelligence obtained the body of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless man who died in London in January 1943. Originally from Aberbargoed in Monmouthshire in south Wales, Glyndwr had an unfortunate life. His father committed suicide when he was young and his mother had died when he was 31. He’d struggled to hold down a job and eventually drifted to London, where he died on 24 January 1943 from complications as a result of having ingested rat poison.

Grave of William Martin and Glyndwr MartinThe body of Glyndwr came to the attention of the coroner of St. Pancras District, who’d been asked by British intelligence to keep an eye out for the body of a suitable male with no next of kin. British Intelligence then began to implement the ghoulishly named Operation Mincemeat. A false identity was created for the body of Glyndwr, including a new name, military rank and identity card, letters from a fictitious girlfriend and shopping receipts. The body was dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marine and a briefcase containing the fake documents was attached to the body. The body was then smuggled aboard a Royal Naval submarine and set adrift off the Spanish coast, during a favourable tide, to be picked up by the Spanish authorities. Where, it was hoped, it would come to the attention of German Intelligence.

Glyndwr Michael is buried at Heulva Roman Catholic Cemetery in Spain in a grave also marked by the name of his alter-ego, Major William Martin. 

Was Operation Mincemeat successful?

The plan worked, German secret agents passed copies of fake documents onto German high Command who believed the deception and began redeploying troops. By the end of June, the German forces on Sardinia had been doubled to 10,000. German torpedo boats were moved from Sicily to the Greek islands in preparation and German divisions transferred to Greece and the Balkans.

The Invasion of Sicily

On 9 July the Allies launched Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Across three days, more than 150,000 ground troops were landed on the island, supported by 3000 ships and more than 4000 aircraft.

German signals intercepted by the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) showed Operation Mincemeat had worked so well that even four hours after the invasion began, 21 Axis aircraft left Sicily to reinforce Sardinia.

While the Sicily campaign was hard fought, the Allies achieved victory in just 38 days, compared with the predicted 90 and with fewer than expected casualties. The invasion was the first step towards the liberation of Western Europe, paving the way for subsequent amphibious assaults in Italy and Normandy.

Buried at Agira Canadian War Cemetery, Catania War Cemetery and Syracuse War Cemetery in Sicily are some 2,776 Commonwealth servicemen who died during the campaign (9 July to 17 August) while 698 are commemorated on the Cassino Memorial to the Missing, however the number of casualties could have been many more if not for the posthumous service of Glyndwr Michael.


An armoured vehicle was being towed ashore from landing craft during the landings in Sicily at dawn of the opening day of the invasion. IWM (A 17918)

Is there an Operation Mincemeat film?

The events of Operation Mincemeat are loosely portrayed in the spy novel Operation Heartbreak (1950), again with more accuracy in the book (1953) and later film (1956) The Man Who Never Was.

A new film version of this story is set to be released in 2022. Operation Mincemeat will star Colin Firth, Matthew Macfayden and Jason Isaacs. The film is based on the book with the same name by historian and author Ben Macintyre. Firth and Macfayden will play Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley two of the masterminds behind the plot.

Book and film covers for Operation Mincemeat

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