Author: Aradhana Ghosh
Though it is little known in history, Operation Mincemeat is possibly the largest and most successful military deception plan after the Trojan War. It was a ghoulish albeit ingenious World War II covert operation devised by the British to change the tide of the war in the Allies’ favour.
In January 1943, the Allied powers held the Casablanca conference in Morocco where they decided to invade Sicily in July. This operation was codenamed “Operation Husky”. On 29 September 1939, the Director of British Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey, distributed the “Trout Memo”. It was written by his assistant, Lt. Commander Ian Fleming, in which he co-authored 51 different operations and suggestions. The 28th suggestion was borrowed from a book by Basil Thomson, a World War I spy, and it ultimately served as inspiration for Operation Mincemeat.
The idea was to procure a corpse, dress him up as a soldier and plant sensitive documents that leaked a fraudulent invasion of Greece on him. When the Nazis would stumble upon the corpse, they would act on the false intel and mount up their troops in Greece while the Allies would invade Sicily. Churchill’s corkscrew thinkers, the XX committee, led by Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley decided to put this plan to action within 3 months. Spain was chosen as the ideal place to carry out this operation because it was ostensibly neutral during World War II but harboured connections to Nazi Germany. Adolf Clauss, a ruthless but gullible Nazi agent who worked at the Huelva port in Spain, was selected to encounter the bait.
Montagu and Cholmondeley set about to create the backstory of the dead man. A fake persona of Major William Martin of the Royal Marines was created. It was replete with additional details like a wallet containing a photograph of a fake fiancee, her love letters, theatre ticket stubs, keys etc. to lend more authenticity to the backstory. A St. Christopher’s medal was also given to strongly imply that the dead person was Roman Catholic. Cholmondeley wore the uniform that would be eventually worn by Major Martin to give it a worn-out look. The operatives zeroed in on the corpse of an unfortunate, homeless Welsh labourer named Glyndwr Michael who had died by ingesting rat poison in an abandoned London warehouse. A letter hinting strongly that the Allies would invade Greece and Sardinia while keeping Sicily as the cover was placed in a briefcase that was chained to his wrist.
The body was placed in a metal canister which was shipped off in a submarine headed for the Huelva coast. He was released into the current which carried him right to the coast where he was discovered by a fisherman. At this time, the British started sending telegrams about a very important missing person so that they would get intercepted by the Nazis. They sent the British council in Spain to Huelva under the pretext of getting hold of the briefcase. However, the Spanish declared that they would keep the entire matter on lockdown as it had to be investigated. The British council then told them that the dead man was Roman Catholic which could be verified by the St. Christopher’s medal in his pocket so his body couldn’t be dissected according to Roman Catholic traditions. As Spain was predominantly Roman Catholic in the 1940s, they agreed to forgo the autopsy which prevented them from discovering that the man had not died due to drowning. Karl-Erich Kühlenthal, Hitler’s most trusted agent in Spain, caught wind of the briefcase which had been transferred to Madrid and got hold of the letter. Nine days after the body had washed to shore, the letter reached Hitler himself.
With the help of the Enigma machine, the Allies were able to determine that the operation was unraveling successfully. Hitler ordered artillery, armaments and the experienced Panzer division which consisted of 90,000 troops to be moved from Sicily to Greece. 160,000 Allied troops stormed Sicily and decimated the remaining Nazi forces stationed there. Operation Mincemeat had another effect. Due to Operation Husky, Hitler suddenly decided that he needed his troops down in Europe when he was about to storm Russia. This allowed Russia to topple the Nazi regime and Mussolini got toppled by the British.
This single deception operation masterminded by a select group of covert operatives was instrumental in completely changing the face of the war. Without this stroke of genius, the Third Reich might have taken over the world.