I posted a shorter version of this article some time ago; however, I’m re-posting now with extra information to highlight the fact that you can now view it as a video on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, please hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!
The saying goes that dead men tell no tales, but that’s precisely what British intelligence officers hoped would happen when they dressed a dead tramp as a senior military officer and dropped his body into waters off the Spanish coast during World War II.
Operation Mincemeat was a bid to fool Adolf Hitler’s Military High Command during planning for the Allied invasion of Italy in September 1943.
Landing on Italy’s steep shorelines against a well-entrenched, formidable opposition could have led to a massacre, which is why a plan was concocted to fool Hitler into thinking that the Allies were targeting Greece instead.
The tramp in question was Welshman Glyndwr Michael, a semi-literate drifter who made money as a part-time gardener and labourer.
Michael’s life seemed to be one filled with sadness. Born in Aberbargoed in Wales in 1909, by the age of 15 his father had committed suicide. Further tragedy followed with the death of his mother when he was 31.
Poorly educated and homeless, Michael moved to London. He died in 1943, after being found dead in an abandoned warehouse, killed after apparently eating stale bread which had been smeared with rat poison. The poison caused a build-up of fluid on Michael’s lungs, a type of death which would also be consistent with drowning.
At the time of Michael’s demise, Britain was struggling for survival in the war against Nazi Germany. For some time, a plan codenamed ‘Operation Mincemeat’ had been bubbling away at MI-5 – a deception developed to steer the German army away from Sicily, which was the planned point of attack for an Allied invasion of Italy.
Michael’s body was kept in cold storage while the plan’s creators set about building a fake identity and a ‘life’ for the dead man.
An identity was created – ‘Acting Major William Martin’ of the Royal Marines. The name was chosen because there were several ‘William Martin’s’ listed on the Navy personnel list at the time, and it was hoped the Germans would check.
Life had been hard for Glyndwr Michael but it would be in death that he would achieve true greatness by playing the key role in one of the greatest hoaxes in military history
When Michael died he became Major Martin. His body was dressed in a naval uniform and an attaché case containing false invasion plans was handcuffed to his wrist. The spymasters feared that German intelligence might suspect the ruse, so further ‘proof’ of Martin’s identity was included with the corpse.
To make ‘Martin’ more convincing, a whole collection of documents, including a receipt for an engagement ring, a letter from the Major’s father, a warning about his overdraft from his bank manager and even love letters and a photo of his fiancée, ‘Pam’ were placed among his possessions.
Captain Norman Jewell’s submarine, HMS Seraph, was chosen to deposit the corpse in the sea. It wasn’t the first clandestine mission that he and his vessel were involved in.
On October 19 of the previous year, he landed US General Mark Clark and a party of men in collapsible boats off the coast of Algeria, where they went to secretly meet with Vichy French officers. Jewell had to wait 24 hours to pick up Clark.
When the time came, the sea was too rough for the general to use the collapsible boats and so Jewell took the Seraph right up to shore, practically grounding the submarine, with less than ten feet of water beneath her keel, and collected Clark and his men.
In Operation Mincemeat, Glyndwr Michael’s body was loaded onto the Seraph and Michael or Martin went on his first and last voyage. On April 30, 1943, the submarine surfaced off the port of Huevla, in Spain, where Captain Jewell performed a burial at sea and set Michael’s body loose on the ocean.
As hoped, the current washed the body ashore. The hoax worked, and Hitler and his generals moved 90,000 troops from Sicily to Sardinia, leaving the way clear for the subsequent invasion.
The tramp Glyndwr Michael had fooled the German High Command, but he didn’t do it alone. Royal Navy Commander Ewen Montagu and a certain Nancy Jean Leslie also played their parts to perfection.
Montagu was in charge of the operation. It was his job to ensure that Michael made a convincing corpse. Leslie was an 18-year-old clerk at MI-5. It was her photo that was slipped into Martin’s wallet along with ‘love letters’ she and Montagu wrote to each other, signed ‘William’ and ‘Pam’ .
“He was Willie and I was Pam,” Leslie recalled years later. “We went to clubs, films and dinner – always keeping tickets stubs etc.” She also inscribed a photo of herself in her swimsuit with a loving, “Till death us do part. Your loving Pam”.
It was only in 1996 after the true identity of ‘Major William Martin’ was discovered that Leslie (who became Jean Gerard Leigh after her marriage in 1946) came forward and identified herself as ‘Pam’.
Montagu died in 1985. On his deathbed, he was granted permission by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to read the official verdict of the operation.
Jean Gerard Leigh died in 2012 at the age of 88. Her part in one of military history’s greatest hoaxes should be acknowledged, but the role played by a dead tramp from should never be forgotten.
Operation Mincemeat was made into a movie, The Man Who Never Was, in 1956. Now, a new film is being made about the deception, with Colin Firth playing the role of Montague.
Michael’s body lies in Spain’s Huelva cemetery. His achievements in death saved the lives of thousands of British, American and Canadian soldiers, brought about the end of Benito Mussolini’s reign in Italy and altered the course of the entire war, not to mention spawning two feature films and several books… pretty good going for a dead tramp who never had a chance in life.
Dead men tell no tales…? Try telling that to Glyndwr Michael.
You can check out the video version of this blog on my YouTube channel, History Twist. If you enjoy the video, hit the ‘Like’ button on YouTube — and don’t forget to subscribe to the channel!