How a dead guy helped win WWII

Glyndwr Michael‘s gravesite (Photo from Flickr)

In 1943, a British-American invasion force drop-kicked the Nazis out of North Africa in Operation Torch. With this victory, commanders planned to march their troops north to liberate Sicily. Both the Allies and the Germans knew how strategically important the island was; to avoid a massacre, Allied commanders had to divert the Wermacht’s attention away from Sicily. Mission planners working for British intelligence came up with a brilliantly insane plan, which they christened Operation Mincemeat.  

This is where the dead guy comes in.

For the plan to work, Intel first needed a body. Top brass found said corpse in 34-year old Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welshman who had killed himself by swallowing rat poison. They dressed him up in an old Royal Marines uniform and created a false identity for him, complete with ID card and fake love letters. When the transformation was complete, Glyndwr Michael was now Major William Martin, Royal Marines.

Operation Mincemeat hinged on misinformation, so “Major Martin” was fitted with a briefcase containing false papers. Chief among these papers was a letter that hinted at an Allied strike at Sardinia and Greece instead of Sicily, the intended target. With the Nazis defending the wrong islands, Sicily could be invaded with relative ease.

On April 19, 1943, the body was transported to the coast of Spain on the submarine HMS Seraph. The boat surfaced near the town of Huelva; after a short funeral service, “Major Martin” was floated away. 

Carried by the tide, the body drifted to shore. The papers were turned over to local Nazi officials and worked their way up the chain of command. In the meantime, “Major Martin” received a full military burial.

The Nazis took the bait—the plan was so well orchestrated that even Hitler fell for it. Hitler diverted as many men, tanks and aircraft as he could to Sardinia and Greece, and in doing so stretched his forces thin to the breaking point. When our boys did invade Sicily, it caught the Germans completely by surprise, and the island was taken without much of a fight. 

Operation Mincemeat was a success, but what of “Major Martin”? Glyndwr Michael’s identity wasn’t revealed until 1998; his tombstone was revised to reflect his role in the plot, and is now a major tourist attraction.


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