On 30th April, 1943 a waterlogged corpse washed ashore on a beach in Spain.
The dead man wore a British naval uniform and a life jacket; he was apparently the casualty of an airplane accident at sea.
Among his belongings were a used twopenny bus ticket, a jeweler’s bill for an engagement ring, and an irate letter from a London bank manager demanding repayment of an overdraft of eighty pounds. There was also this love note:
‘That lovely, golden day we spent together, oh! I know it has been said before, but if only time could stand still for just a minute. But what are those horrible dark hints you’re throwing out about being sent off somewhere? Of course I won’t say a word to anyone, but it’s not abroad is it? Because I won’t have it, I won’t. Oh darling, why did we go and meet in the middle of a war?’
Someone, somewhere, had lost their sweetheart. But who was he?
The body was identified by the Spanish police as William Martin, a major in the British Royal Marines. The British Embassy immediately demanded the body’s return and a few days later Bill Martin’s body was handed back, along with a briefcase that had been attached to his arm, with the assurance from the Spanish government that “everything was there”.
Why were the British so interested in the body?
Because, apart from the love letters, Major Bill Martin was carrying documents outlining key details of “Operation Husky,” a secret Allied plan to invade Nazi Europe by way of Sardinia, Corsica, and Greece. It also described a plan to prepare a false attack on Sicily as a way of drawing Nazi forces away from the true invasion site.
A German spy, acting on a tip-off from the Fascist Franco government, had already photographed these documents and sent the images to Berlin.
Sounds like a scene from a James Bond story?
That’s because even though it all happened … it was the first fiction Ian Fleming ever wrote.
In the northern Spring of 1943, 160,000 allied troops were massed in North Africa preparing to invade Southern Europe. The problem was, as Churchill himself famously remarked, ‘Everyone but a bloody fool’ knew that their objective was to attack Sicily.
So, in a fetid airless room beneath the Admiralty building in Whitehall, London an MI-5 officer named Charles Cholmondeley, (pronounced Chumley) dreamed up an idea to put the Germans off the scent. He got the idea from a 1939 memo written by none other than Bond, James Bond.
Or rather his creator, Ian Fleming. Fleming himself – in due writerly fashion – had stolen stole the idea from a 1930’s detective novel by Basil Thompson.
At the time Fleming was the assistant to the head of British naval intelligence, a man called John Godfrey, who would eventually become the model for M in the James Bond stories.
Chulmondley and Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu put the idea to the 20 Committee, (twenty is XX in Roman numerals – or double cross) and was given the green light for Operation Mincemeat.
But first they needed a corpse.
That should have been difficult in the middle of a world war. But it couldn’t be just any body, as the song goes.
What they needed was a body that no one would claim – and that also looked as if it had drowned. Enter Bentley Purchase, a London coroner, who found the ideal candidate. A vagrant had been found in an abandoned warehouse near King’s Cross and taken to St Pancras Hospital, dying from the effects of swallowing rat poison. This had caused fluid to build up in his lungs – which was also symptomatic of death by drowning.
A new identity was created for the dead man. Major Bill Martin was born – after his body had died.
On 30 April, 1943 a Royal Navy submarine, Seraph, surfaced off the coast of Huelva in Spain – the site was chosen because the British knew that the local Abwehr man was cozy with Spanish officials there. The commander, Lieutenant Jewell, read the 39th psalm and the body was pushed into the sea, floating to shore with the incoming tide.
The briefcase that Major Martin carried with him soon found its way into the hands of the local Abwehr, who teased opened the letters and photographed the contents before resealing them. The images were rushed to Berlin.
Soon afterwards, German transmissions were intercepted and decrypted; the Nazis had diverted several Panzer divisions to Sardinia, Corsica, and Greece. A cable was sent to Winston Churchill to inform him of the success: “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole.”
Two months later Allied forces struck the southern tip of Sicily, meeting very little resistance. Allied losses were just one seventh of what was feared. For the following two weeks the Germans continued to prepare for landings in Sardinia and Greece that never came. By the time they realized that they had been duped, there was no chance to regroup.
So who was the dead man who perhaps saved Europe?
The photograph on Major Martin’s Identity Card was of a serving MI5 Officer, Ronnie Reed, who bore an astonishing resemblance to the dead man, whose real identity remained an official secret for over fifty years.
Finally, in 1998, it was revealed that he was a 34-year-old homeless man named Glyndwr Michael, from Aberbargoed in Wales. His father had committed suicide when he was 15, and his mother had died in 1940. Soon afterwards he fell into depression and drifted to London destitute and homeless.
And the rat poison? It may have been suicide; or perhaps, starving, he ate bread that had been set out as rat bait.
His was a tragic story, and yet his unwitting part in Operation Mincemeat saved thousands of lives and may have turned the course of the war.
Glyndwr Michael’s grave now lies in Huelva’s cemetery of Nuestra Senora and the headstone reads:
William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales.
Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori, RIP. ( “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)
And the love letters? They were written by Victoire Evelyn Patricia Bennett, later Lady Paddy Ridsdale. She later went on to achieve some fame of her own.
Fleming based a character in his books on her.
He called her Miss Moneypenny.
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love great spy stories?
When war comes to England in 1939, Nick Davis is far away in the Balkans, posted to the British Embassy. But Nick Davis is not a diplomat; he is a spy. Far away from the bombs, he is soon at the very heart of the battle for Europe.
Turkey stays out of the war and Istanbul becomes a deadly city of spies.
When he recruits the mistress of a German Abwehr colonel, he doesn’t foresee falling in love with her.
But who is Daniela Simonici? And who is she really spying for?
But it is only when Germany is in full retreat that the real game gets underway – and the stakes for Europe, for the world, could not be higher.
‘My Beautiful Spy’ is a searing story of byzantine intrigue, where two lovers play out the final moves in a deadly game, masterminded in Berlin, Moscow and London.
“This book held my interest from page one until the end. I love the way Colin Falconer can bring the 40s to life. You forget that the people you are so worried about are characters in a book. They become real, and you care what happens to them. This is the magic of Colin Falconer. Don’t miss out on any of his books.” *****