The corpse that fooled Hitler

In the second part of our series on the use of deception during World War Two, Taylor Downing uncovers the extraordinary true story of Operation Mincemeat.


On 25 September 1942, an RAF Catalina of 119 Squadron flying from Pembroke harbour to Gibraltar encountered a severe electrical storm and crashed into the sea off the Spanish port of Cadiz. Everyone on board was killed. The Spanish authorities recovered the bodies from the sea and returned them to the British. On board was a courier carrying details of the upcoming Anglo-American invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, including the date of the planned landings. It was not known if the Spanish had discovered the letters the courier was carrying and passed them on to the Abwehr, the German military-intelligence service, which had a substantial presence in Spain. But it had to be assumed that news of the landings had been compromised.

Allied forces landing on Sicily,   10 July 1943. As a result of Operation Mincemeat, several German units on the island had been misdirected elsewhere.

Operation Torch went ahead, however, and was a resounding success. Soon, American and British troops were advancing east through North Africa towards Tunisia. And after Montgomery’s great victory at El Alamein, the Eighth Army was advancing westwards across Libya. But it would be many months before Axis forces were expelled from North Africa. Final victory did not come until May 1943.

In the meantime, at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, Churchill, Roosevelt and their chiefs of staff resolved that after victory in North Africa, the Allied armies would invade Sicily with a view to knocking Italy out of the war. In many ways, it was an obvious next step, with Sicily located in the central Mediterranean and a convenient stepping stone for an assault upon the Italian mainland. So those in charge of deception planning in the British Army were asked to come up with a scheme to fool the enemy into thinking that the next step would not be Sicily but instead would be either Sardinia or Greece. The deception was to be called Operation Barclay.

False identity

One of the deceivers whose job it was to come up with imaginative schemes to fool the enemy was a bright, lively 25-year-old RAF officer, Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced ‘Chumley’), a lanky eccentric with a waxed moustache. Everyone who knew Cholmondeley remembered him as an extraordinary young man with a vivid imagination. Cholmondeley recalled the incident of the body from the Catalina crash being recovered by the Spanish, and was also partly inspired by a pre-war novel by Basil Thomson, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, in which the corpse of an airman was dropped off the enemy coast, carrying information to mislead the enemy. This had been picked up by Ian Fleming of Naval Intelligence (later, of course, author of the James Bond books), who in 1939 added it to a list of possible ways of deceiving the enemy, known as the Trout Memo.

Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu from Naval Intelligence (above) and Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley (below) worked together on the deception plan. 

With these two examples in mind, Cholmondeley suggested dropping a corpse into the sea from an aircraft near an enemy coastline. The corpse would supposedly be that of an army officer carrying details of planned assaults against Sardinia and Greece, explaining that an attack upon Sicily was simply intended as a ruse to fool the enemy and to guide them away from these genuine attacks elsewhere.

The XX Committee, also known as the Double Cross Committee, was a top secret group who met every Thursday afternoon at MI5 headquarters in London to advise on deception operations. The committee approved the plan in principle but, as it would involve naval matters, introduced Cholmondeley to Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu from Naval Intelligence. Montagu had been a successful barrister before the war and a keen yachtsman who had joined the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserve in 1938. He had then worked his way up to become secretary of W-Board, another backroom committee made up of the Directors of Intelligence of the Army, Navy, and RAF, along with the heads of both MI5 and MI6.

Cholmondeley and Montagu hit it off and, with the two men bouncing ideas off each other, the deception operation rapidly took shape. As a part of Barclay, it was now given its own name: Operation Mincemeat. On 4 February 1943, the two men put their proposal before the XX Committee. The body of an army officer would be dropped off the Spanish coast. On the body would be detailed plans for an invasion of the Balearics or of southern France as a follow-on from Allied victory in North Africa. It was pointed out that the body would have to be dropped in the sea within 24 hours of being removed from cold storage. The XX Committee gave the idea the go-ahead and instructed Air Ministry and Admiralty representatives to advise. John Bevan, another of the key deceivers in London, was asked to help create a false identity for the body dropped in the sea.

A suitable body

The first challenge was to find a suitable corpse. Over sherry in a London club, Montagu was introduced to W Bentley Purchase, the coroner for the St Pancras district of north London, then a very run-down area of the city. Bentley Purchase came back a little later with a ‘candidate’ for the cadaver. A homeless down-and-out from Wales living in London by the name of Glyndwr Michael had taken rat poison, probably as suicide. He died in hospital a couple of days later. Imagining there would be no relatives and that no questions would be asked, Bentley Purchase kept the body under refrigeration in the mortuary. He advised it would keep for about three months before decaying.

Among the items placed on the body of the fictitious Major Martin (above) were his naval identity card and a photograph (images below), supposedly of his girlfriend Pam, but actually depicting Jean Leslie, an MI5 clerk.

There was much discussion about what form the plans for the phoney invasion should take. It was decided to forget the Balearics and focus instead on Sardinia and Greece. It was also agreed that instead of military plans, it would be more impressive if the courier was carrying letters from senior British military officials in London to commanders in North Africa. A letter was drafted from General Nye, the Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, to General Alexander along with a letter from Mountbatten, head of Special Operations, to Admiral Cunningham. Amid personal chit-chat and gossip, both letters would include references to imminent action in Greece and Sardinia and explain that preparations for an assault upon Sicily were merely a feint to deceive the enemy.

Cholmondeley and Montagu transporting the body to Greenock on 17 April 1943.

The Navy suggested that the body should not be dropped from the air, but should be launched at sea from a submarine in an area where the currents were likely to wash the body ashore. The region selected was off the Spanish Andalusian coast at Huelva, where there was an active German Abwehr agent who was close to the Spanish authorities.

Instead of an army officer, it was decided to make the body that of Royal Marines Major William Martin. If the Germans checked, there was a Major Martin on the official Navy List. And as Royal Marines officers travelled in battle dress, he would be easily identified as such.

Crucial to the deception would be to give Major Martin a convincing identity. Here, the Deceivers went into overdrive. Items placed in his pockets included the stubs of London theatre tickets, a letter from his bank manager warning about an imminent overdraft, and a receipt from the Naval and Military Club for five nights’ accommodation.

In a stroke of genius, it was decided that Major Martin had just become engaged to his girlfriend, Pam. He had a photo of her in a bathing suit in his top pocket. In fact, it was of Jean Leslie, an MI5 clerk. He was also carrying love letters from Pam, which had been written with heart-felt emotion by Hester Leggatt, also in MI5. ‘Bill darling,’ she wrote, ‘why did we go and meet in the middle of a war?’ In another letter, she wrote: ‘Please don’t let them send you off into the blue the horrible way they do nowadays – now that we’ve found each other out of the whole world I don’t think I could bear it.’ The letters looked totally authentic and would have expressed the emotions felt by thousands of star-crossed lovers who had met in wartime.

With the prospect that the valuable military correspondence at the heart of the Deception could somehow be lost at sea, it was decided that they would be carried in a briefcase that was chained to Major Martin’s wrist. In reality, military couriers did not use this technique but it was hoped that the Spanish and Germans would not know this and at least the documents would be sure to remain with the body.

On 15 April, John Bevan outlined the plan in person to Churchill, who loved these sort of cloak and dagger operations and showed a great deal of interest in the deception. Bevan explained that there was a high probability that it would not work or that the body might not even be washed up on the coast. Churchill commented enthusiastically that if that were the case, ‘We shall have to get the body back and give it another swim.’

Two days later, Cholmondeley and Montagu met Bentley Purchase at the mortuary, dressed the corpse in its uniform, added all the personal documents in appropriate pockets, and attached the briefcase to its wrist. The body was packed in dry ice in a canister and driven to Greenock. HMS Seraph had been selected as the submarine to place the body in the sea and it was scheduled to depart on 19 April. Only the submarine’s experienced captain, Lieutenant Jewell, knew the contents of the canister.

Taking the bait

Just before dawn on 30 April, HMS Seraph surfaced off Huelva. The sailors were sent below decks as Lieutenant Jewell and a couple of other officers fitted the body with a Mae West life jacket and launched it in the direction of the Spanish port. The deceivers had done all they could to concoct a subtle and daring plan. Now all they could do was sit back, and wait and see if German Intelligence took the bait.

The officers of HMS Seraph, the submarine selected to place Martin’s body in the sea off the Spanish coast.

A few hours later, Spanish fishermen spotted the body on the beach and reported it to the local authorities. On the following day, the Spanish handed the body back to the British naval attaché. The briefcase and the documents were returned ten days later on 11 May. They appeared to be unopened. At first, there was massive disappointment when this was reported back to London.

But the briefcase had been opened and the documents copied. The Spanish handed over the copies to the Abwehr in Madrid. The Abwehr operation in the Spanish capital was large, with three hundred officials operating out of the German embassy. The Abwehr officers were delighted with the information and convinced of its authenticity. When copies reached Berlin, they landed on the desk of Colonel Baron Alexis von Roenne, the head of Fremde Heere West (FHW), the intelligence department of the Army High Command Foreign Armies West. Von Roenne was a Prussian aristocrat, who had risen to a position of senior command although he had little sympathy for the thuggish ways of the Nazi regime. In the end, von Roenne agreed that the documents were genuine – though Ben Macintyre, the British author who wrote a bestselling book about Operation Mincemeat, believes that he saw through the deception, but was happy to play along as it might weaken German defences in the Mediterranean.

Von Roenne reported to General Jodl in the OKW that the documents were genuine. Hitler too was advised of the supposed breach of British Intelligence. At a conference on 14 May, the Führer announced that, from papers carried by a British courier washed up on the Spanish coast, it was evident that Allied attacks would be made against Sardinia and the Greek Peloponnese. Three panzer divisions were sent to Greece and Field Marshal Rommel was put in charge of the military defence of that country. When reports of the positioning of German troops were picked up and deciphered by Bletchley Park, it was clear that the deception operation had succeeded magnificently. Churchill was in Washington at the time, when he received a telegram that read: ‘Mincemeat swallowed hook, line and sinker by right people’.

Hitler conferring with officers, March 1943. Two months later, he announced that papers washed up in Spain showed the Allied attacks would be launched against Sardinia and Greece. 

A resounding triumph

On 10 July, the invasion of Sicily was launched. The British landed in the south-east of the island, around Avola, and the Americans landed in the south-west, around Gela. The garrison remaining on the island consisted of nine Italian divisions, a mixture of second-rate coastal militias that could not be relied on, and better quality mobile units, along with only two German divisions. The fighting that followed was still hard and relentless. But it would have been much tougher had the Germans not misdirected several units to Greece.

Martin’s grave in Huelva, Spain. In 1998, a new inscription was added after the British government identified the body as that of Glyndwr Michael.

After 38 days of hard combat, the Allies finally captured the port city of Messina. The last Axis troops escaped to the Italian mainland and Sicily came under Allied occupation. In Rome, the government of Mussolini collapsed. King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Marshal Badoglio as the new Prime Minister. The Germans lost an important ally and, in order to avoid a complete collapse on their southern front, had to send dozens of divisions to occupy Italy. The battle for Sicily was a resounding triumph for the Allies, and had proved beyond all doubt the immense value of deception in mounting an invasion. This would be shown once more only 11 months later.

How the Mincemeat story was revealed

In the post-war years, the secret services decreed that all wartime deception operations must remain secret as it was possible that some of the techniques would be used again if the Cold War ever went hot. However, five years after the war, the historian and Conservative Party politician Alfred Duff Cooper wrote a novel, Operation Heartbreak, featuring a plot in which a dead body with false documents was planted on the Spanish coast. This generated frenzied rumours in the press, and the authorities reluctantly decided it was best to reveal the story of Mincemeat.

Ewen Montagu took a short break from the busy legal career to which he had returned and wrote The Man Who Never Was, published in 1951. Several conditions were placed on him. He was not to reveal the name of the body and how it was obtained. Nor was he to reveal how the Ultra transcripts were used – the secret of cracking the Enigma codes did not become public for another 25 years. Most significantly, Charles Cholmondeley, who had stayed in MI5 after the war, could not feature in the book and so was written out of the narrative by Montagu, who placed himself at the centre of the deception.

The publication of Montagu’s book proved a sensation and it was a best-seller in both Britain and the United States. It was not long before Hollywood became interested. At an auction, 20th Century Fox bought the film rights. The film, released in 1956, was a lavish Anglo-American co-production shot in colour in one of the cinema’s newest widescreen technologies, Cinemascope. It was made in Britain but an American actor, Clifton Webb, played the central character of Montagu.

Montagu published The Man Who Never Was in 1951, but his bestselling account of Operation Mincemeat left out crucial details.

The full story behind the deception has only come to the surface in recent years. In 2010, the writer Ben Macintyre published Operation Mincemeat, which became a best-seller. In the same year, Denis Smyth’s more academic telling of the story appeared as Deathly Deception. Both books drew on largely the same sources – released documents at the National Archives and Montagu’s personal papers. Macintyre’s book is brilliant on the extraordinary personalities involved and the twists as the deception plan unfolds.

Warner Brothers acquired the rights to Macintyre’s book, which became the source for a new movie, Operation Mincemeat, directed by John Madden, released in 2022 (see MHM 128, June/July 2022). This time, the role of Cholmondeley, played by Mathew Macfadyen, is central; Montagu is played by Colin Firth; and a key role is given to Jean Leslie (played by Kelly Macdonald), the MI5 clerk whose photograph was used in the scheme. The film was an immense success and so far has taken $16 million at the box office, almost three times its budget.

Taylor Downing’s ‘War on Film’ column appears here . His most recent book, 1942: Britain at the Brink, is out now in paperback (Abacus, £12.99).

In the next issue of MHM The story of Juan Pujol, the WW2 double agent codenamed Garbo.

All Images: Wikimedia Commons unless stated otherwise.