The Floating Dead Body That Saved 8,600 Lives
In 1943 during the WW2, an unpredictable discovery changed the fate of the World, preventing thousands of deaths. One morning, a Spanish fisherman spotted a lump floating in the water. It was a man’s body, wearing a British military uniform, attached to a briefcase. The fisherman brought the body back to shore and returned to his work, not giving the incident a second thought. But when authorities retrieved the body, their attention shifted to the briefcase. They secretly opened it… And were stunned.
The contents were incredibly valuable to the infamous wartime leaders of the time, preparing their troops to get ready for an attack. Little did they know, not everything was as it seemed. Is it just me, or did everyone have a German Jazz phase and almost go to Berlin but ultimately decide against it because you were too anxious about not speaking the language? Well, with our video's sponsor, Babbel, one of the top language learning apps in the World, you can break that language barrier easily! Babbel teaches using real world conversations, so you can learn the fundamentals while practicing phrases native speakers use on a daily basis! Each lesson is interactive, and they only take 10 minutes, so learning a new language is quick and engaging.
Babbel designs their lessons for all kinds of learners, including podcasts, games, videos, and even live classes with language teachers! I like how easy it is to follow the courses, especially with the reviews to make it stick! Babbel even has voice recognition technology that can help improve your pronunciation! My German learning goals are closer than ever. Learning multiple languages has been shown to help brain development, so if you had to learn another language, what would it be? Wanna see what I’ve learned? Well, ok! Hallo ich bin Brew. Wo ist die Café? Danke! That was me asking where the coffee shop is, are you impressed? Start speaking a new language in 3 weeks with Babbel! Click the link in the description to get up to 60% off your subscription! After the body was brought to shore, a military officer searched it to find the soldier’s wallet and ID, identifying him as Major William Martin of the British army. The body was ordered to be moved to Huelva, a nearby Spanish city where Francis Haselden, the British vice-consul, lived. Francis notified the British embassy in Madrid, who then notified London.
A few days later, he got a call back from the British embassy, asking if anything washed on shore with the body. The German military intelligence, known as the Abwehr, had bugged the phone lines in the embassy and had spies in the consulate, keeping a close eye on the case as London and the embassy became increasingly concerned about the briefcase that had been found with the soldier. Rumours spread that it contained very important letters that the British were anxious to keep from the Germans. When the body and briefcase arrived, Francis attended the autopsy.
The doctor saw some odd details that didn’t line up with a body being in the water for several days. Usually, drowned bodies will have small bites and nibbles from fish, crabs on the ears and other areas, dull and brittle hair, and clothing that is shapeless and soggy. This corpse didn’t have all those signs, but the body was decomposed and stinking like a sack of manure, so the doctor was relieved when Francis suggested they wrap things up quickly. The briefcase, following official procedure, would be formally handed to the naval commander of Huelva before being returned to the British. Adolf Clauss, the German vice-consul in Huelva, also an important and successful spy, was intent on getting a look at the papers in the briefcase, which had quickly become the top priority of the Abwehr. He spent a small fortune bribing his contacts but was frustratingly unable to get anyone to break diplomatic law and open the secret envelopes.
More and more spies and German higher-ups got involved until, finally, they convinced members of the Spanish General Staff to discreetly open the letters. The contents were explosive. One letter labelled “Personal and Most Secret” was from one British General to another, spoke about the anticipated British invasion of Sicily in Italy. Sicily was a strategic point that everyone believed would be attacked by the British. But the letter revealed a shocking twist—the Sicily attack would only be a cover, and a distraction from the real target in Greece. A second letter revealed why William Martin, just an airman, would be carrying such important documents.
An admiral was recommending William, an expert in air and water attacks, to help prepare for a secret invasion. It indicated that an additional attack point would be Sardinia, another island in the Mediterranean. The letters were copied and photographed before carefully being returned to the envelope and resealed. A high-ranking German spy in Spain personally carried the copies to Germany and presented them to his bosses. The Germans analyzed not only the letters, but everything else that had been with William—personal letters with William’s father, doting love letters with his fiancée, a photograph of his bride-to-be, and all the odds and ends in his pockets, including theatre tickets and receipts.
They deduced that Major Martin, Acting Captain, was a newly engaged man who had been trying to get his financial affairs in order for his wedding before he was called to serve. His last few days were pieced together: he had checked into the Naval and Military Club, received a bill for the engagement ring he bought, had lunch with his father and accountant, went to the theatre and a nightclub with his fiancée, checked out of the club, collected the letters of national importance, and boarded a flight to Gibraltar which tragically crashed in the Gulf of Cádiz. William would never reunite with his fiancée to marry her, or speak to his father, or serve his country in battle again. The Führer, the leader of Germany himself, was assured by his most trusted analyst that the information was legit.
The entire operation was declared a wild success for German Intelligence. They determined that they had two to three weeks to prepare for the British attack. The Germans decided to launch their own cover, and make it look like they were ramping up reinforcements in Sicily, while they secretly built their defenses in Sardinia and Greece. Correspondence was sent out to “prepare” for these large invasions. Hundreds of miles away, these messages were intercepted by the British and read by a small, secret group of Intelligence officers, who cheered loudly at the news.
Everything, from the discovery of the Major’s body to the Germans viewing the letters, had been carefully planned by a few British Intelligence officers. It was all a ruse, codenamed Operation Mincemeat. Operation Mincemeat was the result of months of work, led by Charles Cholmondeley, an MI5 agent, and Ewen Montagu, a Naval Intelligence officer.
The inspiration for the plan went back to 1939, when British Intelligence put together the Trout Memo, named so because it compared fooling one’s enemies to fishing for trout. The memo contained 54 possible ways to trick the German powers and was sent under the name of Admiral John Godfrey. The memo itself is believed to have been written by the Admiral’s assistant, who was none other than Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series. Admiral Godfrey also became the basis of “M” in the Bond series.
Funnily enough, when writing the Trout Memo, these men were inspired by Basil Thomson, another British spy novelist who was also a former intelligence officer. Of the 54 ideas, number 28 would go on to become Operation Mincemeat. At the time, it was titled quote, “A Suggestion (not a very nice one).” The basic idea was to plant misleading papers on a corpse that would be found by the enemy. This idea was taken straight from a Basil Thomson novel, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery.
A dead man is discovered in a barn, and it turns out that every document on him is an elaborate forgery. In suggestion 28, Ian Fleming said that “a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed.” The not very nice suggestion would go untouched for years, until the right time came. After the Allies’ success in North Africa in November 1942, the British military turned their attention to the next strategic target. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister of the time, wanted to use the forces already gathered in North Africa to attack what he called Europe’s “soft underbelly.” There were two possible targets. The obvious option was Sicily, positioned right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
Controlling the island would mean the Allies control shipping in the sea, and it would open the door for the invasion of the rest of Europe. The second option was to enter Greece and the Balkans, to trap the German forces between the British and Americans and the Soviets. The Allied powers agreed to go with Sicily. But the problem, according to Churchill, was that “everyone but a bloody fool would know that it’s Sicily.” The German military would almost
definitely be building up their defenses there, leading to a longer battle, more deaths, and a higher chance of failure for the British. The solution was to make German intelligence believe the actual target was Greece. Part of this ruse included building up forces in Egypt and Syria, including a fake formation of twelve divisions called the Twelfth Army.
Greek translators were hired, and the Allies stocked up on Greek maps and currency. But the crux of the plan was Operation Mincemeat. Charles Cholmondeley pitched a version of the Trout Memo idea in 1942 as a potential way to get fake secret documents into enemy hands. He suggested that a body could be made to look like it drowned and then placed to wash up on a coast. British intelligence thought the idea was too unworkable at the moment, but they saw potential and held onto it until the right time came. They reignited the plan and assigned Ewen to help Charles develop an operation to deliberately deceive German Intelligence.
They decided to plant a corpse in the water off the coast of Spain, along with a briefcase of fake documents that implied a British invasion of Greece. The letters would say that Sicily was a fake target to mislead the Germans, but of course the real plan was still to attack Sicily. The idea of planting fake documents on bodies that were intended to be discovered by the enemy had been done before—in 1917 during the Sinai and Palestine campaign, and before the battle of Alam Halfa in WWII.
In wartime intelligence, false information was even more common than real intelligence. A lot of effort had to go into creating the circumstances and have the documents seem genuine and believable. Charles and Ewen had to create, from scratch, a very real life for their fake character. He could not be an army officer from the infantry, because the body would be reported to too many officials and increase the number of people in on the secret.
Since Operation Mincemeat began in Naval Intelligence, they deliberated on keeping it in-house and making the man a naval officer. But a naval officer needed a tailored uniform, and would be unlikely to carry these types of documents, so Charles and Ewen decided that he would be an airman and member of the Royal Marines, the amphibious part of the Navy. The problem was that there were not that many Royal Marines, and the Germans would know if a fake name was invented. Ewen noticed that a lot of officers had the last name “Martin” and chose the most senior one to, without his knowledge, lend his name to this operation.
Now the character had a name: Captain William Hynd Norrie Martin. The captain had been promoted to acting major, and it was believable that he would be carrying important papers with him. Of course, Charles and Ewen also needed a body. They contacted a London coroner and waited for the right one to arrive.
They needed the body to belong to a man who was not too old or young, who had not died of visible trauma and could be believed to have drowned at sea. The man could not have close surviving friends and family who would seek out the body, or interfere with the plan. Soon enough, the body of Glyndwr Michael turned up.
He was from Wales, poor, homeless, and had lifelong struggles with his mental health. He died at age 34 of phosphorus poisoning after having eaten rat poison, either on purpose or by accident when he was desperately hungry, as the substance was sometimes spread on stale bread as a rat trap. The body needed to be used within three months or it would’ve rotted too much to be convincing. Glyndwr Michael’s dead body was placed in an extra cold refrigerator to slow down decomposition.
“William” was issued a new identity card, and Charles bought uniform clothes for him. Since he and Glyndwr were roughly the same size, Charles wore the clothes everyday for three months to make them appear used. Now Charles and Ewen had a name and a body. They needed to give the new William lots of little bits and pieces to fill his wallet, pockets, and briefcase, which would make him seem real. This “pocket litter” included a book of stamps, a silver cross on a neck chain, a St. Christopher’s medallion, a pencil stub, keys, a pack of cigarettes, matches, a used bus ticket, an expired pass to Operations Headquarters, an invitation to a nightclub in London, two ticket stubs for a show, a small piece of a torn letter, a crumpled-up receipt for some shirts, and a small amount of cash and change.
The religious cross and medallion were to appeal to the Roman Catholic preference against meddling with corpses. The less time the enemy spent examining the body, the safer the operation was. The richest part of William’s backstory, however, was his love life. It was decided that William was engaged to a young woman, and that they’d met just weeks before he was sent abroad.
Charles and Ewen had a photo contest among the women who worked in British Intelligence to pick the picture that would be used for William’s fiancée. In the end, a staged photo of Jean Leslie, a secretary in the counterintelligence and double-agent section, was used and planted on the body. This “fiancée” was named “Pam”, and she was given her own backstory. She worked in a government office, and was pretty, excitable, and gentle. Pam and William met only five weeks before his death, and he proposed to her with a big, expensive ring.
His father, John, didn’t approve, and suspected that Pam was after William’s money. These details were peppered into love letters from Pam that would be in William’s inside breast pocket. A bill for an engagement ring was added to the pocket litter, and two more letters would complete the character’s personal belongings.
One was from William’s father, and the other from his accountant about his financial affairs. The most important thing in the briefcase, of course, were the planted documents. The secret information would be revealed in private letters between real, high-ranking officers, but it had to be done perfectly. The targets of Greece and Sardinia would be casually identified, and Sicily would be referred as only a cover target. The letters had to contain personal discussion and arrangements so they would feel more “off the record”, and other details would reveal that it made sense that the documents would go through Major Martin’s person, and not in an official route. Several drafts were written before everyone was satisfied with the letters.
As we mentioned earlier, one letter was written from a British General to another one, detailing the plot. A second letter was between two Admirals, recommending William to help prepare for the attack in Greece. Two letters were a little bit light for William to be carrying alone in a case, so a long, non-military letter was added to make weight and explain the use of the briefcase. All the letters were written in regular ink instead of waterproof, which would have given the trick away. MI5 scientists discovered that well-dried inks remained readable for quite a while even if the letter got wet. The letters were folded in a specific way, with a single eyelash placed on the paper as a test—its disappearance would reveal that the letters had been opened.
Finally, a location was necessary. It needed to be a country that had both British and German embassies and influences, and the planners settled on Spain. There were a lot of German sympathizers in Spain, and many parts of the government were secretly on the German payroll, so the chances of Spanish authorities helping Germans break into the briefcase were high. Spain was also a bit unpredictable, with many people strongly against the German powers.
But there were several British spies who could help the success of Operation Mincemeat and monitor the progress. Huelva, a fishing port on the southwest coast of Spain, was selected as the precise location. Francis Haselden, the British consul in Huelva, was a reliable man who would help the mission.
Huelva also had a strong German community and pro-German sentiment at the time, and MI5 agents were aware that the area was home to the very successful German spy, Adolf Clauss, who would definitely be able to get his hands on the documents if he wanted to. Everything was set for Operation Mincemeat to begin. On April 17th, 1943 the corpse was dressed, but a last minute crisis struck—the feet had frozen from being in the fridge for so long! It was impossible to get his boots on. An electric heater had to be used to defrost the feet enough to work the boots on.
Not exactly the stuff you imagine top-secret spy work to be like, but the job had to be done. The pocket litter was meticulously placed, and the briefcase attached to the body with a leather-covered chain, often used by bank messengers. The corpse was put into a canister filled with dry ice to preserve the body for its business trip. The canister went into a submarine which was almost bombed before it arrived at the coast of Huelva. Naval officers opened the canister and placed the body of Glyndwr Michael, more dressed up in death than he ever had been in life, into the water. Only a day later, a local fisherman found the body.
The British were prepared. They knew that the Germans had broken into the cables they used to communicate, so they scripted a several-day correspondence about the importance of retrieving the briefcase, as well as arranging a funeral for the dead airman. The German spy in Huelva, Clauss, became more and more obsessed with seeing the documents and even crashed Major Martin’s funeral in Spain. Diplomatic convention stated that the belongings of the body had to be returned to the British undisturbed.
However, British Intelligence knew that the Spanish military and police force had a lot of German sympathizers and would probably side with the Germans over the British. But the briefcase remained in the possession of the Spanish navy, who did not hand the briefcase to the Germans and were more pro-British than people believed. In normal circumstances, this would have been a pleasant surprise to the British.
Now, it was derailing the entire plot. Eventually, German spies and officials applied enough pressure on the Spanish to get access to the letters. They were carefully opened without disturbing the seals, dried and photographed, then resoaked and returned to their envelopes. The briefcase, with the resealed documents, was returned to Francis, who forwarded it to London. Tests determined that the papers had been opened, and the telltale eyelash was missing.
But to keep up the ruse, a pre-arranged message was sent to Francis, meant to be intercepted by the Germans. It said that the envelopes were examined and determined to be unopened. So the Germans believed they had successfully seen classified documents without the British knowing.
They thought that the Allies would pretend to attack Sicily, but really push the bulk of their forces to Greece and the Balkans. Of course, this was all intentional and the real plan was to draw German defenses out of Sicily and make the island more vulnerable. The first proof of success came on May 14th, when some German communication was decrypted by the British.
It warned that there was going to be an invasion in Greece. On the same day, Churchill received a message: "Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker by the right people and from the best information they look like acting on it.” The leader of Germany took quick action based on the information. Italian leader Mussolini was convinced that Sicily was the next target, but the Führer did not agree because of the discovery of the letters. Regarding the Mediterranean sea, he told Mussolini that Sardinia and Corsica in the west must be defended at all costs.
In the east, Greece and the Balkan states were the priority. German troops were placed to do just that, with 10,000 troops and fighter aircraft arriving in Sardinia by the end of June. Torpedo boats left Sicily to defend the Greek islands instead, and seventeen German divisions transferred to Greece and the Balkans. On July 9th, the Allies invaded Sicily.
Four hours into the attack, still convinced that it was a ruse, Germany sent 21 aircraft away from Sicily to defend Sardinia instead. For weeks after the invasion, the Führer was still convinced that an attack in Greece and the Balkans would happen any minute. By the time German Intelligence realized the trick, it was far too late.
Sicily fell to the Allies on August 17th. The British expected 10,000 casualties in the first week of fighting, but the number was only a seventh of that. 12 ships were lost in the battle, when the expectation was 300.
All in all, the campaign was predicted to last 90 days, but ended after 38. Operation Mincemeat was seen as the most elaborate espionage ruse in the entire war. Due to its success and level of deception, Ewen and Charles were appointed Officers of the Order of the British Empire for their work.
The story of how a plot from a spy novel became reality and helped change the course of the Second World War. It’s so surreal and dramatic that it’s hard to believe it really happened, but real life can be just as crazy as fiction. Or, I guess in this case, real life was based on fiction? Remember, get Babbel with up to 60% off your subscription by clicking the link in the description below, and start speaking a new language in just 3 weeks!