The incredible story of Operation Mincemeat

Thursday 2 December 2010, 11:13

Ben Macintyre Ben Macintyre Presenter

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Operation Mincemeat was probably the most successful, and certainly the oddest deception operation of the Second World War - and perhaps any war. It involved obtaining a dead body, dressing it up as British officer, equipping it with false documents and leaving it somewhere where the Nazis would find it. All with the aim of fooling the Germans into thinking that, instead of invading Sicily in 1943, the Allied troops massed in North Africa were aiming for Greece.

I'm presenting BBC Two's documentary, also called Operation Mincemeat, and if the story sounds a little James Bond to you, that is no accident. It was partly inspired by Ian Fleming, then a young officer in naval intelligence. But it was put into action by two highly eccentric intelligence officers, Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, neither of whom had any qualms about obtaining the body of a homeless man, and then turning him into someone else entirely.

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Their plan was inspired, and entirely illegal. After the war, the officials involved tried to keep the name of the dead man a secret, but then in 1996, by accident, a key document was declassified formally identifying the 'man who never was' as Glyndwr Michael, a Welshman who had killed himself with rat poison in a disused warehouse.

I doubt such a plan would be feasible today, even in wartime. Imagine the scandal if it was revealed that British agents had deliberately stolen a dead body. One of the reasons it worked so well was that the organisers were left alone to get on with it, almost without supervision. That would never happen now.

The operation required exceptionally detailed planning. For example, they had to create a fake identity card, but had real difficulty finding someone who looked like Glyndwr Michael.

He had never been photographed when he was alive, and his dead body could not be made to look anything but dead. Eventually they spotted someone in the MI5 canteen, a fellow intelligence officer who was a dead ringer for the dead man, and hauled him off to be photographed.

On the BBC History messageboards, Pete asks an interesting question about whether the Germans ever suspected the body with the top secret documents was a plant.

British intelligence scoured the Germans' intercepted wireless messages for any hint that the ruse had been rumbled, and found none at all. On the contrary, in the words of a triumphant message sent to Churchill, "Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker."

The only person in the entire German High Command who had any suspicions was Josef Goebbels, the propaganda minister, who wondered in his diary whether the documents might be an elaborate hoax.

But he was far too cowardly to share his doubts with Hitler, who never doubted the authenticity of the papers - in large part because they confirmed what he already wanted to believe.

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Pete also asks how much of a success the operation was in terms of moving troops to Greece to defend against an invasion that never happened. Of course, that is very difficult to quantify, since it would have to be measured in lives saved, battles unfought, and blood unspilled.

But we can certainly say this: Sicily, the real target, was left comparatively lightly defended, and the island was conquered far faster than many had feared. An entire Panzer division was moved from France to Greece, to the precise spots identified in the Mincemeat documents.

And, perhaps most importantly, the great German assault on the Eastern Front, around Kursk, was called off once the invasion of Sicily was underway.

Urnungal is right that codenames were supposed not to refer in any way to the objective, individual or operation - a rule that was broken by all sides, throughout the war. Mincemeat was no exception. They chose the name because it appealed to their rather ghoulish sense of humour.

They did, however, re-use codenames. This was partly intentional since it was hoped that if, by any chance, the Germans did come across the code name, they might assume it referred to the earlier operation, and ignore it.

And lastly from the BBC History messageboards is Ferval's mention, of the film of The Man Who Never Was. It is indeed based on reality, but only very loosely. The book of that name, by one of the principal organisers, Ewen Montagu, was written under very particular constraints. Much had to be concealed, and parts are deliberately misleading.

The film went one stage further and, in the interests of drama, invented things that never happened and people, to coin a phrase, who never were. By the time the story reached Hollywood, it was partly fantasy.

Ben Macintyre is the presenter of Operation Mincemeat.

Operation Mincemeat is on at 9pm on Sunday, 5 December on BBC Two.

Read more on the BBC News website: Operation Mincemeat: How a dead tramp fooled Hitler

Comments made by writers on the TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I look forward to the prog. This is of some intrest to me as my wife grand father was one of the men who it helped save, as he was in the Sicily landings

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    Comment number 2.

    Its worth mentioning that as a result of this deception the Germans stopped believing that papers found on corpses were genuine. At Arnhem a Para officer stupidly took the entire plans for the campaign with him... when these were found on his body the genuine plans were dismissed as a clumsy deception. More lives saved!

    Incidentally I read Ben Macintyres book earlier this year- superb!

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    Comment number 3.

    I take it then that you don't believe that the Navy's admission that the body was in fact that of a casualty from HMS Dasher by the name of John Melville is true. In addition the memorial service for said John Melville held by the Royal Navy with his daughter on the current HMS Dasher at the location that the body was put into the mediteranean was also made up. After all a body of a tramp who had died from ingesting Rat Poison repeatedly frozen and defrosted would of course fool a German Autopsy into thinking he had drowned.

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    Comment number 4.

    Very true 'andyht57' I just wish historical facts were double checked before printing gestation of the original can it sloppy story making

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    Comment number 5.

    #3 I'd suggest you read the book. The Pathology advice all came from Prof Bernard Pilsbury who had a reputation as the greatest pathologist in history but who's self importance meant that he gave extremely dangerous advice. His evidence hung Crippen but has recently been shown to be completely wrong (the body in Crippins cellar has a Y chromosome so could hardly have been his wife!) Fortunately for a number of reasons they got away with it..... the body's dogtags were marked 'RC' for Roman Catholic so the Spanish (not German... the body never went near Germany) authorities didn't post mortem it mainly for religious reasons. The decay meant it was presumed the body was in the water for several weeks and for various reasons the Germans changed the facts to suit their own prejudices. Ben MacIntrye strongly implies that at least one German agent in Spain, who like his boss Canaris was executed for treason by Hitler, knew full well this was a fake corpse but passed the info on anyway.

    On a forensic note the body was kept on dry ice, not water ice which has different effects on a body and an aircrash survivor in a life jacket may die of hypothermia. In many cases of drowning little water enters the lungs.

    Several suggestions have been made for who 'the man who never was' was but Macintyre has a full paper record and photos to support his case so unless someone else has something stronger than the release forms signed by the St Pancreas coroner and a pic of Glyndwr (looking rotten and desicated) in a torpedo sized canister full of dry ice this theory seems the strongest.

    P.S The body wasn't even put into the Mediteranean.... it was dropped off near the North Spanish coast dangerously inshore... thats either the bay of biscay or the Atlantic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    i was also under the impression that the body used in operation mincemeat was a recently drowned young fit sailer so that he would be able to fool a german autopsy not an unfit poisoned tramp this is yet another example of the bbc rewriting history does no one bother with the facts anymore !!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The problem with using a genuine serviceman is that they have family and a personal history. If a serviceman dies he has to be recorded as dying plus the time period was critical.. you can't just count on a suitable corpse showing up at the right time. Now the Germans would just have found a suitable victim in a camp and killed him when they needed the body but fortunately we couldn't.

    The majority of Britains achievements in WW2 have been 're-written history'. I remember James Holland getting similar criticism for daring to suggest that the Battle of Britain didn't save Britain from invasion (because the Germans were completely incapable of getting an army across the channel). There's a strong lobby in Britain that wants to turn the Germans into unstoppable supermen to make our achievements seem all the more impressive but the truth is the Germans were hopelessly incompetent in many areas and the Abwer more hopeless than most.

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    Comment number 8.

    Those who are denigrating this as a rewriting of history should probably read the book first.

    The body was never seen by German authorities and was given only a cursory examination by a Spanish doctor. The fact is that the 'mush' Michaels body was turning into actually helped cover up the phosphorous poisoning signs, and also discouraged a more thorough examination by the Spaniards.

    A number of the people involved in this deception were still alive in 1996 when the body's name was revealed and they were interviewed by Macintyre. Macintyre is not a sensationalist writer, his research is top notch.

    Read the book then form an opinion, don't denounce from a position of limited knowledge.

    If you want to see a sensationalised version of a Macintyre book, look at the film version of Agent ZigZag which bears little similarity to the truth, but which everyone seems to think is factual.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    ... and the body was not dropped on the Northern coast of Spain, it was dumped from a submarine near the port of Huelva, on the Southern, Atlantic facing coast.

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    Comment number 10.

    also, for those who still think it was a fit young sailor from HMS Dasher, again, do your research:

    The Dasher theory, has been denied by the Naval Historical Branch who responded to a Freedom of Information request (D/NHB/25/56 of 22 Jan 2010) as follows:

    "As far as both the Royal Navy and the Ministry of Defence are concerned, the body used in Operation Mincemeat was that of Glyndwr Michael as described in the files now in The National Archive at Kew. With regard to the memorial service held on board the current HMS DASHER in October 2004, it should be stressed that, despite media emphasis on a possible 'Man Who Never Was' connection, this was a perfectly proper memorial for those lost in the previous ship of that name. It had been cleared through both HQ British Force Cyprus and the Permanent Joint Head Quarters at Northwood. The statements... as accurately reported in The Scotsman, arose through information that they had been given locally, and which they believed in good faith. Unfortunately, the statements had not been referred to this office for an opinion."

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    #9 I stand partially corrected... either way though its the Atlantic, not the Med.

    I agree with the rest of what you say too. To criticise the standard of research in a book which you haven't read because it doesn't suit something you previously believed is very poor. I'm not sure MacIntyre makes his case 'beyond all reasonable doubt' but its a very strong case and a consistent 'paper-trail' of exactly when the body was moved, when & by whom backed up with paperwork, photos and testimony from some of those involved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Whilst undoubtedly important, the MI6 inspired sting to lure Rudolf Hess to the UK was far more important in strategic terms than Operation Mincemeat.

    Whilst Britain tempted Germany with the illusion of peace from Sept 1940 to May 1941, Hitler was reluctant to invade, knowing that it would be far from easy in military terms.

    By buying time in this way, Britain forced Germany into a two front war, as she invaded Russia, without having secured a peace in the west. Ultimately that decision massively contributed to her eventual defeat.

    Please see Rudolf Hess: The British Illusion of Peace for further details.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Ah... England lost the bid so let's revert to the good ol' staple of how we won the war. So predictable.

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    Comment number 14.

    #12 Invading Britain between Sept 1940 and May 1941 wasn't 'far from easy in military terms'.... it was absolutely impossible. The Germans had failed to gain air superiority in the Battle of Britain, their very small navy was hugely outnumbered and only a madman would try and take towed flat bottom barges across the channel in winter. Storms in June '44 nearly made a failure of D-day. Plus of course Germany was fighting a 2 front war anyway... North Africa.

    #13 We only lost the bid yesterday. This documentary has been scheduled for weeks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    The theory that the body was that of John Melville from HMS Dasher is, quite simply, wrong: there has never been any hard evidence to back up this notion, which seems to be based mostly on wishful thinking. At a memorial service aboard the new HMS Dasher in 2004, Lieutenant Commander Mark Hill did say that Melville’s body was used in the deception. But he was misled, and the Ministry of Defence has now formally admitted this. On January 17 of this year, The Sunday Times reported: “Ministry of Defence officials now say the crew of the new HMS Dasher were given wrong information before the memorial service and the true identity of the corpse was Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welshman.” For the full story:

    followthetrawler (above) quotes in full the statement by the Naval Historical Branch denying the ‘Dasher Theory’, and for a full, meticulous demolition of that theory, I recommend Roger Morgan’s excellent essay ‘Mincemeat Revisited’ in Beyond the Battle magazine, November 2009. In his scholarly work on the subject, Deathly Deception, (2010) Professor Denis Smith also leaves absolutely no doubt that the body used was that of Glyndwr Michael.

    The saddest thing about this conspiracy theory is that is has led the family of John Melville, including his daughter, to believe something that is not true, which must be very painful.

    I hope the book and documentary will finally lay to rest this particular red herring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    My father was serving on Dasher as aircrew - he survived, though most of his squadron's riggers did not. I have looked at BM's book, but he gives no space to the Dasher theory. Simply out of curiosity, may I ask why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The Times article is very good and this quote:

    “Michael’s body got through all the proper channels but it was of no use. I don’t believe the body of an alcoholic tramp would have been used in this operation. A post mortem would have found he was an alcoholic and the plan would have been blown."

    Superficially makes perfect sense.... IF a post mortem was carried out. It wasn't. Spain was not a sophisticated country during WW2, the body carried ID suggesting it was catholic to ensure it was treated with respect and there was no need for the Spanish to PM the body... they were meant to be neutral and all they should have done was return a British body to the British authorities, not cut it up to see if it had really drowned. The British didn't carry out post mortems on dead German airmen dragged out of downed Luftwaffe bombers. Why would you? Cause of death is obvious and body's who've died nasty deaths are hardly rare in war time.

    Indeed the Spanish even pretended not to have opened the 'secret plans' which were also returned along with the rest of Major Martin's belongings. This is precisely why Spain was chosen and not occupied Europe where the Germans may have PM'd the corpse and certainly wouldn't have returned the briefcase!

    The events as described by MacIntyre suggest either conspiracy or gross incompetence on the Spanish authorities and indeed among the Germans involved. Despite having a 2 day old theatre ticket in his pocket no-one questioned that the body was so decomposed it was believed to have been in the sea for weeks.

    Plus on a slightly different note I suspect Winston Churchill's liver looked worse than Michaels, there's no shortage of people who drink too much, especially in wartime! However the fake 'legend' of 'Major Martin' included a stern letter from his bank manager over a huge overdraft etc. Thats not inconsistent with a booze problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Regarding Dasher the Wikipedia article says:
    "Various possible causes have been suggested, including one of her aircraft crashing onto the flight deck and igniting petrol fumes from leaking tanks. Much of what happened will never be known. Her death toll, 379 out of 528 crewmen, despite rapid response and assistance from ships and rescue craft from Brodick and Lamlash on the Isle of Arran and from Ardrossan and Greenock on the Scottish mainland, was amongst the highest in British home waters. Many escaped the ship but died of hypothermia or burns suffered when escaped fuel ignited on the water. Most of the dead were buried at Ardrossan or Greenock.
    The government of the time, eager to avoid damage to morale and anxious to avoid any suggestion of faulty US construction, tried to cover up the sinking. The local media were ordered to make no reference to the tragedy, and the authorities ordered the dead to be buried in a mass unmarked grave. Furious relatives protested and some of the dead were returned to their loved ones for burial. The survivors were ordered not to talk about what happened. This policy subsequently attracted much criticism,"

    This wasn't unique to Dasher either.... a similar cover up happened after the Lancastria went down with over 4000 killed.

    There was a month between HMS Dasher going down and the body being dropped off as part of Mincemeat. A month is going to produce a lot of decomposition if you don't freeze the body, especially as the dead from Dasher would have been possibly burnt and in sea water for hours if not days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    FOR ANYONE INTERESTED in glyndwr michael
    his name was added to the war memorial in ABERBARGOED CF81 9BU,his birthplace
    which can be viewed via google earth streetview [if only hitler knew]
    there is a large brass plate on the single gate in welsh/english .

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.


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