Major William Martin helped change the course of the Second World War – not bad for somebody who didn’t actually exist!
WORDS: PAUL F COCKBURN
On 30 April 1943, during the Second World War, the body of a Royal Marine intelligence officer called Major William Martin was recovered from just off the coast near Huelva, in nominally neutral Spain. Assumed to be the victim of a plane crash at sea, top secret documents in the briefcase chained to his belt were quickly seen by a local Nazi agent and, within days, his report had convinced the German High Command that the expected Allied invasion of southern Europe would be made through Greece and Sardinia. Hitler ordered that his ground and naval forces were moved accordingly.
What the German High Command didn’t realise was that Major Martin didn’t actually exist; his identity was fictitious, the documents found on the body were careful forgeries and the whole scheme was designed to distract them from the Allies’ true (indeed obvious) target – Sicily.
Operation Mincemeat, better known as ‘The Man Who Never Was’, remains quite possibly the most successful strategic deception in British military history. Its complete success undoubtedly saved thousands of lives but, for some people, one question has never been satisfactorily answered – whose dead body was dropped into the sea by submarine that night? Who was subsequently buried in a Spanish graveyard with full military ceremony?
AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, the main man behind the scam, published his version of the story in the 1950s, and a film based on his book followed soon after. Montagu, however, never revealed the true identity of the dead man, taking the knowledge to the grave.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped people coming up with their own theories. Although the official story states the body was that of a suicide case, some people believe the dead man was a sailor called John Melville, killed in the accidental explosion that sunk the US-built aircraft carrier HMS Dasher in the Firth of Clyde the previous month. Others insist the body was that of an alcoholic, vagrant Welshman called Glyndwr Michael, who died in a warehouse near King’s Cross. Some even suggest that more than one body was officially acquired for use in the scam.
Whoever Major Martin really was, those with a love of conspiracies believe the continuing official silence on the matter suggests that somebody has something to hide, nearly 70 years later.
A QUESTION OF IDENTITY
Adrian Jackson is the artistic director of London-based theatre company, Cardboard Citizens, which last year mounted a show exploring the story behind Operation Mincemeat. “I think it’s still open to a lot of speculation, and that’s what our play looked at,” Adrian told Civvy Street. “That’s why we ran debates between people who have different opinions about the identity of the body. How he died, how the body was acquired, and how the law was slightly bent – these are all areas of speculation.”
However, for Adrian – who works with many of the capital’s homeless people – the most striking part of Operation Mincemeat isn’t the real identity of Major Martin; it’s how those behind it successfully turned a nobody into a believable Somebody with little more than photos and letters, some theatre ticket stubs, a few bills and receipts. “It’s a story about identity, who are we, and how we construct our identity,” he said.
The ultimate success of the scam, though, is undeniable – and not just in 1943. During the latter years of the Second World War, there were several occasions when highly sensitive – and completely genuine – Allied documents were discovered by German forces. On each occasion they were assumed to be fakes and so ignored!