The tide of the war turned — thanks, in part, to the body of a tramp set adrift in the Mediterranean.
During World War II, the Nazis fell for an audacious British plot to pass off a dead tramp as an officer carrying secret documents. Rat poison does not furnish the desperate with an easy death. But this was how Glyndwr Michael, jobless and homeless in the winter of 1943, ended his life. He was found in an abandoned warehouse in King's Cross, London, one cold January night.
He was not buried in the capital, nor his hometown in south Wales. Instead, the coroner said he was to be “removed out of England” for burial.
And how. For Glyndwr Michael died a second time — a death that helped change the course of World War II.
After three months on ice in Hackney Morgue, his body was shipped off to the coast of southern Spain for an elaborate plot to fool the Nazis.
Intelligence officers Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu had painstakingly transformed the corpse into a soldier — the fictitious Captain William Martin — for whom they had spent months creating a plausible backstory.
Into his pockets went an identity card, ticket stubs and mementos from a fiancée. Chained to his wrist was a briefcase containing a letter marked “PERSONAL AND MOST SECRET”, identifying Greece for invasion by Allied forces. Greece was a dummy target — the real plan was to invade Sicily.
When found floating near the port of Huelva, the corpse was assumed to be a British military courier who had perished in a plane crash. The Spanish authorities agreed to a quick interment — due to the heat and stench of decomposition — and placed his belongings under lock and key.
And so the homeless Welsh alcoholic came to be buried with full military honours in a sunlit Spanish cemetery, under a headstone bearing the name William Martin, RM — for Royal Marines.
Michael/Martin was but a prop in Operation Mincemeat, brainchild of Ian Fleming, and put into action by Cholmondeley and Montagu, Winston Churchill's “corkscrew thinkers” in the War Office. Fittingly for a deception dreamed up by a novelist, the true story of the fictional officer was turned into a Hollywood film, The Man Who Never Was, in the 1950s, after Montagu wrote a book about the plot.
After a tense week or so — it took the Germans several attempts to get sight of the briefcase's contents — photographs of the falsified documents made it to Hitler's desk. He was fooled, and moved an entire panzer division — 90,000 soldiers — to Greece. Montagu and his team fired off a telegram to Churchill: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.” And so in early July, the Allies attacked Sicily. The island fell with but a fraction of the feared casualties and ship losses Britain had feared.
“Mussolini was soon toppled from power,” says Ben Macintyre, whose book Operation Mincemeat is now a BBC documentary. . “Forced to confront this Allied invasion from the south, Hitler called off a huge offensive against the Soviets. The Germans were now on the back foot. The Red Army did not stop until it reached Berlin.”
The tide of the war turned — thanks, in part, to the body of a tramp set adrift in the Mediterranean. — © BBC News/Distributed by the New York Times Syndicate