Operation Mincemeat: an elaborately staged deceit

Former CIA director Allen W Dulles’ book about the intelligence business gives an example of how a rigged accident can be used to feed fake information to the enemy.

His example, Operation Mincemeat, as it turns out, is a well-known one told in the 1950s book ‘‘The Man Who Never Was’ and the movie of the same name.

This was the first I’d heard of it though, which just goes to show that all the information in the world won’t do you any good unless you actually see it.

Anyway, it’s a cracking story that left me thinking this: “No matter how far out of my comfort zone my work takes me, at least I’ll never have to find a corpse, dress it in uniform and carefully float it ashore on a Spanish beach before making off in a submarine.”

Dulles explains the operation thus:

An accident was cleverly staged by the British in 1943 before the invasion of Sicily, and it was accepted by the Germans at the time as completely genuine. Early in May of that year the corpse of a British major was found washed up on the southwest coast of Spain near the town of Huelva, between the Portuguese border and Gibraltar.

A courier briefcase was still strapped to his wrist containing copies of correspondence to General Alexander in Tunisia from the Imperial General Staff. These papers clearly hinted at an Allied plan to invade southern Europe via Sardinia and Greece. As we learned after the war, the Germans fully believed these hints. Hitler sent an armoured division to Greece, and the Italian garrison on Sicily was not reinforced.

This was perhaps one of the best cases of deception utilising a single move in recent intelligence history. It was called ‘Operation Mincemeat’, and the story of its execution has been fully told by one of the main planners of the affair, Ewen Montagu.

It was a highly sophisticated feat, made possible by the circumstances of modern warfare and the techniques of modern science. There was nothing illogical about the possibility that a plane on which an officer carrying important documents was a passenger could have come down, or that a body from the crash could have been washed up on the Spanish shore.

Actually, the body of a recently dead civilian was used for this operation. He was dressed in the uniform of a British major; in his pockets were all the identification papers, calling cards and odds and ends necessary to authenticate him as Major Martin. He was floated into Spain from a British submarine, which surfaced close enough to the Spanish coast to make sure that he would reach his target without fail. And he did.

A couple of footnotes.

On how to find a suitable corpse, the BBC’s h2g2 site has this to say:

Because of the sensitive nature of the operation, they could not very well ask all and sundry if they’d come across any bodies or knew anybody who’d died from drowning recently, let alone raise the delicate issue of borrowing a body. They managed to slip some very carefully guarded enquiries to trusty Service medical officers; however, in all of the cases they had the relatives’ consent to worry about, or the possibility that somebody might talk. And all around them, bodies piled up – none of them suitable.

Finally, when the committee was beginning to consider resorting to grave robbery, they heard of a man who had recently succumbed to pneumonia brought on by ingesting rat poison. The pneumonia would help embellish the deception nicely – a man who had died floating around in the sea would be expected to have some liquid in his lungs; the difference between saltwater and freshwater would hardly be noticed in lungs that were decomposing, especially if the post-mortem were to be carried out by someone with the preconceived notion that death was caused by drowning. It would take an expert of Sir Bernard’s calibre to tell that the man had not died at sea; Spain hadn’t any.

And who was Major Martin? Again from BBC’s h2g2 site:

In 1996, 53 years after Mincemeat, a British town planning officer and amateur historian by the name of Roger Morgan uncovered evidence that Major Martin had actually been a homeless Welsh alcoholic named Glyndwr Michael who had died through ingestion of rat poison (whether it was suicide or accidental poisoning was undetermined)24.

But not everyone agrees on the identity of the corpse as this telegraph.co.uk story from earlier this year explains. I’ll leave you to pick up the story from here.