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"The Man Who Never Was" Launches Operation Mincemeat (April 30, 1943)

Major MartinToday in Odd History, a Spanish fisherman discovered the body of Major William Martin, a British Royal Marines courier. There was a briefcase attached to the dead man's wrist, which contained personal correspondence and documents related to the impending Allied invasion of Sardinia, in Greece. Spanish authorities notified the Germans, who moved quickly to fortify the Greek coast, leaving Sicily almost completely undefended. This was exactly what the Allies had intended.

"Major Martin," also known as "The Man Who Never Was," was an unwitting player in one of the greatest military hoaxes of World War II. The Allies had been planning an invasion of Sicily (and not Sardinia) for some time. Sicily, however, is mountainous, and therefore easier to defend than to attack. It is also so strategically located that the Germans were almost definitely expecting an attempt to dislodge them from it. And the buildup of troops and equipment that would be necessary for the invasion were certain to attract attention. If "Operation Husky," as the invasion was known, was to be a success, rather than a slaughter, the enemy's command must be led astray. Squadron Leader Sir Archibald Cholmondley, of the British Intelligence interservice XX Committee (XX for double cross) suggested that a set of false plans should be planted on a dead man, who would deliver them into the enemy's hands. This obviated any concern that the chosen spy could turn out to be a double agent, as well as ensuring that he wouldn't break under torture and confess whatever he knew about the true nature of his mission. Cholmondley entrusted the details of the mission to Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu of Naval Intelligence.

It was Montagu's idea that "Martin" should appear to have drowned, probably after his plane crashed off the coast of Spain. This necessitated finding a corpse whose lungs were already full of fluid, so that any doctors who examined the body would accept that he had been at sea for some time. He found a 34-year-old man who had recently died of pneumonia brought on by ingesting rat poison. The man would have been dead for some time before he fell into enemy hands, but the effects of salt water upon the corpse would disguise the inevitable decomposition. Intelligence secretaries pitched in to write love letters to "Martin," and one of them even donated a picture of herself in a swimsuit--ostensibly a photo of the dead man's fiancee, Pam. Cholmondley carried the letters in his wallet for several weeks, to give them an authentically worn appearance. "Martin's" personality was further enhanced by an irate letter from his bank manager, a stern letter from his father, a few overdue bills, a replacement military I.D. card, matchbooks, theatre tickets, keys... All the personal detritus of a likable young man who might be somewhat careless in his personal affairs (and thus more likely to wind up face-down on a beach in Spain), but who was doubtless quite good at his job. These items went into the briefcase with the documents that told of the Allies' plans to invade Sardinia.

"Operation Mincemeat," as Cholmondley had dubbed his master plan, was well under way. All that remained was to escort poor "Major Martin" into enemy territory. The body was packed in dry ice, and put aboard the British submarine HMS/M Seraph, under the command of Lieutenant Commander N. A. "Bill" Jewell. Just off the port of Huelva, Lt. Jewell said a short prayer, and Seraph gave "Major Martin" into the arms of the sea.

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