'Operation Mincemeat': The Wild Spy Deception That Helped Win WWII

By: Dave Roos  | 
Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu
Charles Cholmondeley (L) and Ewen Montagu, two of the British intelligence officers involved in the planning of Operation Mincemeat, are shown in front of the vehicle transporting the body of Glyndwr Michael for pick up by submarine. Wikipedia/Public Domain

In November 1942, Winston Churchill delivered a speech to the British House of Commons that laid bare the Allied strategy for defeating Nazi Germany and its Axis sidekick in Europe, Italy. The Allies would first take Northern Africa, then invade Europe through "the underbelly of the Axis, especially Italy," said Churchill. (He didn't call it the "soft underbelly," by the way — that's a misquotation.)

If Adolf Hitler wanted to know precisely where the Allies were going to attack, all he had to do was look at a map of the Mediterranean. The Allies would almost certainly launch their invasion from Northern Africa, and the closest Axis target by far was Sicily, the southern Italian island.


And that's exactly what happened. In July 1943, British and American troops carried out a wildly successful amphibious invasion of Sicily, encountering limited resistance from the Italian forces. Within months, Italy surrendered.

But if Hitler knew back in 1942 that the Allies were going to invade Sicily, why was it left nearly defenseless? Because of a brilliant and risky top-secret plot known as "Operation Mincemeat." Born from the mind of Ian Fleming — the James Bond creator who worked in British naval intelligence during World War II — Operation Mincemeat dared to fool the Fuhrer into believing that the Allies were going to invade Greece instead of Sicily.

All it took was a dead body, some falsified documents and a lot of luck.


54 Ways to Fool a Nazi

In 1939, Ian Fleming wasn't a famous author yet, but he helped write something called the "Trout Memo," a list of 54 clever tricks that British intelligence could use to fool the vast network of Axis spies operating in Europe (it was called the "trout" memo because it compared spycraft to fly fishing). Trick No. 28 was so outlandish that even Fleming called it "a suggestion [not a very nice one]."

The ruse involved finding a corpse, dressing it like a British soldier, stuffing its pockets with false papers, and dumping it somewhere that German operatives would be sure to find it. Fleming freely admitted that he stole the idea from a 1930s novel by Basil Thompson.


As wild as the plan was, it did have a real-life corollary — in September 1942, a British naval ship crashed off the coast of Spain and Spanish authorities recovered the body of a British courier holding top-secret military plans. Spain was officially neutral in WWII, but the fascist government contained many Nazi sympathizers.

British naval intelligence, led by a group called the "20 Committee" (as in "XX" for "double cross"), decided to take a gamble on Fleming's daring plan. Instead of a shipwreck, they invented a plane crash and a dead British officer who would wash up on a Spanish beach carrying an important-looking briefcase.

If the right Spanish official got his hands on the information in that briefcase — what looked like top-secret Allied plans for the invasion of Greece — he would almost certainly pass it along to Germany. But would Hitler swallow the bait?


Making William Martin

Naval identity card of "Major Martin"
Naval identity card of "Major Martin" with a photograph of a real British officer, Captain Ronnie Reed. Montagu spent a few weeks rubbing the card on his trousers so it would have a used sheen to it. Wikipedia/Public Domain

The two people put in charge of this high-stakes ruse were a nearsighted Air Force officer-turned-spy named Charles Cholmondeley and a British barrister (fancy lawyer) named Ewen Montagu who was secretly working for the Naval Intelligence Department (NID). (Montagu gave the corpse-dropping operation its codename, "Mincemeat," which he credited to his "somewhat macabre" sense of humor.)

Both Cholmondeley and Montagu knew that the key to the whole operation was creating a convincing dead man. If the Germans didn't believe that the recovered body was a real soldier, then the jig was up. First, though, they needed to find a body.


"I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital," wrote Fleming in the Trout Memo, "but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one."

It wasn't easy at all, in fact. Because of the top-secret nature of their work, Cholmondeley and Montagu needed a very specific type of corpse: young, male, recently deceased with no next of kin to claim him. After a lengthy search, they found Glyndwr Michael, a mentally troubled young Welshman who had taken his own life by ingesting rat poison.

Now their job was to transform Glyndwr Michael into "William Martin," a fictional major in the Royal Marines. They crafted ID papers for him, dressed him in a well-worn uniform (down to his officer-issued underwear) and filled his jacket pockets with something called "wallet litter" — the detritus of a real life.

There was a note from his bank manager that William had overdrawn his account, cigarettes, matches, ticket stubs and receipts from movie theaters and nightclubs. And for a personal touch, there was a letter from his girlfriend "Pam" with her photo (in reality, the photo of an MI5 clerk named Jean Leslie) and even an engagement ring tucked into his breast pocket.


Setting the Bait

On April 30, 1943, Major Martin's body was jettisoned into the Mediterranean by the British submarine HMS Seraph. The currents carried Martin's corpse to the provincial fishing village of Huelva, Spain, where Cholmondeley and Montagu prayed that a Nazi-leaning Spanish official would notice the briefcase handcuffed to Martin's wrist.

The briefcase contained two letters in sealed envelopes: One was from the British high command to the ranking general in North Africa, indicating that the Allies would wage a false attack on Greece to draw attention from the real attack on Sicily. (In truth, of course, it was the other way around.) The second letter introduced Major Martin as an expert in amphibious landings, and included a lame joke about sardines. Cholmondeley and Montagu hoped the joke to be interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to the island of Sardinia, another false lead for the Germans.


The Spanish took the bait. They delivered the soldier's body to the British consulate, where he was given a funeral with military honors, but the Spanish navy held on to the briefcase for nine days. During that time, British military officials sent frantic orders to the British consulate in Spain to recover the briefcase before the top-secret contents fell into enemy hands. The messages were sent using an encryption method they knew the Germans could break.

The briefcase was ultimately returned, but NID officials quickly ascertained that the sealed envelopes had indeed been opened and read. The only question was: Did Hitler get the message, and did he believe it?

Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Netflix movie
L-R: James Fleet (as Charles Fraser-Smith), Colin Firth (as Ewen Montagu) and Matthew Macfadyen (as Charles Cholmondeley) go over the plans in this scene from the 2022 Netflix movie "Operation Mincemeat."
Giles Keyte/Netflix


The "Most Successful Single Deception Operation" of WWII

Boy, did he! On May 14, 1943, Hitler met with a top admiral and declared that Greece and possibly Sardinia were the prime targets of the Allied amphibious landing. When British intelligence caught wind of Hitler's new plan, they sent a celebratory telegram to Churchill: "Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker by the right people and from the best information they look like acting on it."

Based on the fake intel, the Nazis poured all of their resources into the defense of Greece and Sardinia. Hitler ordered the entire 1st Panzer Division (90,000 soldiers) to leave France for Greece, and also sent more than a dozen divisions from Italy into Greece, the Balkans and Sardinia.


On July 10, 1943, more than 150,000 Allied troops under British and American command (including General George S. Patton) stormed the underprotected beaches of Sicily with minimal casualties. A top historian of British intelligence during WWII called Operation Mincemeat "the best known, and perhaps the most successful single deception operation of the entire war."