One of the most famous and successful deceptions of all time, Operation Mincemeat involved the planting of “secret” documents on a dead body dressed up as a major in the Royal Marines. The British disinformation campaign convinced the top brass in Germany (including Hitler) that the Allies were planning to invade Greece and Sardinia. The Germans fell for the ruse completely and distributed their armies accordingly. They were therefore unable to cope with 160,000 Allied troops suddenly invading Sicily—their true target.
As part of the SPYSCAPE forgery series, we take a closer look at the inception of the faked documents themselves.
The first step was authenticity. For the documents to be believed, they had to appear to come from the highest level. So the main forgery was a personal letter from Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye to General Sir Harold Alexander. General Nye drew up the letter himself, opening with “My dear Alex.” The letter went into detail on multiple “sensitive” topics including a new commander being appointed for the Guards Brigade, and US service medals being awarded to British servicemen. These details gave the letter the complexity and importance necessary for it be believed and, vitally, to justify its needing to be delivered by hand.
The crux of the deception came next: fake Allied war plans in the Mediterranean. Nye referenced Operation Husky, which he described as an invasion of Greece, naming target beaches and troop numbers. In reality, Husky was the codename for the planned attack on Sicily.
The letter went even further by including reference to another operation, nicknamed Brimstone, described as an effort to make the Germans believe the true target was in fact Sicily. Nye, in the letter, wrote “we stand a very good chance of making [the Germans] think we will go for Sicily--it is an obvious objective and one about which [they] must be nervous.”
This was a canny double bluff. It duped the Germans into discrediting any intelligence that suggested the Allies would invade the true target!
The letter needed a solid delivery mechanism. A plan was hatched to plant the letter on a naval officer who would float ashore and into German hands. And so a Mr Bentley Purchase, the coroner of the London district of St. Pancras, supplied the body of a 34-year-old Welshman named Glyndwr Michael, who had died after ingesting rat poison. Michael was posthumously transformed into “Major William Martin” of the Royal Marines.
Personal possessions gave depth to Martin’s character: love letters, an engagement ring, ticket stubs from a theater play, keys, and a receipt for a new shirt. The dates of the stubs suggested that Martin had left London on April 24th. His body would “wash ashore” on the 30th. Thus the Germans would believe his plane had crashed at sea after leaving Britain.
The fake documents and items were placed in a briefcase and attached to the corpse with a leather-covered chain, looped around the belt of a trench coat.
“Martin” was then placed in a steel canister filled with dry ice to preserve him. He was then delivered to Scotland, brought aboard British submarine HMS Seraph, and dropped just off the coast of Spain (a country with friendly military ties to Hitler). The body was wrapped in a life jacket and pushed gently into the sea.
A message was sent by the submarine’s commander, Lt. Bill Jewell: “MINCEMEAT complete”, and the body was discovered several hours later by a local sardine fisherman who informed local law enforcement . . .
From here, the documents made their way all the way onto Hitler’s desk.
The full story of this amazingly effective deception is worth digging deeper into. History.com hosts a short write-up, a 2010 novel by Ben Macintyre fleshes out the entire operation in great detail. And Macintyre has written a good summary of it for a BBC documentary.
This article is part of the SPYSCAPE forgery series, which delves into the history of forged and faked physical items, from war documents to valuable historical artifacts to great works of art. For more articles in the series, click here.