April 30, 1943 The Man Who Never Was

The idea was a head fake, disinformation planted into the hands of Nazi Germany, to make them believe the allies planned to invade Sardinia and Greece in 1943

The idea was a head fake, disinformation planted into the hands of Nazi Germany, making them believe the allies planned to invade Sardinia and Greece in 1943, rather than the real targets of North Africa and Sicily. British Military Intelligence called it “Operation Mincemeat”.

The London coroner obtained the body of a 34-year-old homeless man named Glyndwr Michael, on condition that his real identity never be revealed. The Welshman had died of rat poison, though it’s uncertain whether the death was accidental or suicide.  This particular poison came in a paste, and was spread on bread crusts to attract rats.  Michael may have died, merely because he was hungry.

glyndwr-martinBe that as it may, the cause of death was difficult to detect, the condition of the corpse close to that of someone who had died at sea, of hypothermia and drowning. The dead man’s parents were both deceased, there were no known relatives and the man died friendless.  So it was that Glyndwr Michael became the Man who Never Was.

The next step was to create a “past” for the dead man. Michael became “(Acting) Major William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines”, born 1907, in Cardiff, Wales, assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations. As a Royal Marine, “Martin” could wear battle dress rather than a naval uniform. This was important, because Naval uniforms at the time were tailor-made by Gieves & Hawkes of Saville Row.  Authorities could hardly ask Gieves’ tailors to measure a corpse, without raising eyebrows.

The rank of acting major made him senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents, but not so prominent that anyone would expect to know him. The name “Martin” was chosen because there were several Martins of about that rank, already serving in the Royal Marines.

A “fiancé” was furnished for Major Martin, in the form of an MI5 clerk named “Pam”. “Major Martin” carried her snapshot, along with two love letters, and a jeweler’s bill for a diamond engagement ring.

In keeping with his rank, Martin was given some good quality underwear, to increase his authenticity. Extremely difficult to obtain due to rationing, the underwear was purloined from the Master of the New College Oxford, who’d been run over and killed by a truck.

The Man Who Never Was Year 1956 Director Ronald Neame
Scene from “The Man Who Never Was”, 1956, Directed by Ronald Neame

Made to look like the victim of a plane crash, the plan was to drop the body at sea, at a place where the tide would bring it ashore and into German Hands.

On April 30, 1943, Lt. Norman Jewell, commander of the submarine Seraph, read the 39th Psalm.  The body of the man who never was, complete with briefcase padlocked to his wrist containing “secret” documents, was gently pushed into the ocean off the Spanish Atlantic coast.

The hoax worked out, nicely.  A Spanish fisherman recovered the body and a Nazi agent intercepted the papers, as intended.  Mussolini insisted correctly that the allied attack would come through Sicily, but Hitler wasn’t buying it.  He had swallowed the Mincemeat scam whole, insisting that the Sicilian attack was nothing but a diversion from the real objective.

When the Allies invaded Sicily on the 9th of July, the Germans were so convinced it was a feint that they kept forces out of action for two full weeks.  After that, it was far too late to effect the outcome.

Glyndwr-Michael-memorialThe non-existent Major William Martin was buried with full military honors in the Huelva cemetery of Nuestra Señora. The headstone reads:

“William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales, Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori, R.I.P.”  The Latin phrase means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

In 1998, the British Government revealed Martin’s true identity, and “Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM”, was added to the gravestone.

There is a war memorial in the small South Wales town of Aberbargoed, in memory of Glyndwr Michael. A plaque is inscribed with the Welsh phrase “Y Dyn Na Fu Erioed“.  It means “The Man Who Never Was”.

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Author: capecodcurmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, father and grandfather, a history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. Four years ago, I began writing a daily "Today in History" story, as sort of a self-guided history course.  At some point I committed to myself to write 365.  The leap year changed that to 366. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but Lord knows I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories, in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them as much as I have in writing them. Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share. Rick Long

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