In Spring 1943, the British and Americans began planning to invade Sicily, the first stage of the plan to liberate Europe from Nazi Occupation. Heavy Allied casualties were expected.
A Jewish barrister, Commander Ewen Montagu, OBE, KC, RNVR, and a wealthy aristocrat, Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley, MBE, RAF, both working in Secret Intelligence, were tasked with planning a deception that would fool the Nazis into thinking the Allies planned to invade Greece rather than Sicily. They came up with a scheme to release the body of a fake Royal Marine Officer carrying forged documents off the coast of Spain where they hoped it would be retrieved by Nazi sympathizers who would pass on the documents to the Germans.
It was more difficult than they expected to find a corpse that was intact. The one they used was the body of a vagrant who had committed suicide by ingesting rat poison. The body was prepared and dressed in a British Military uniform at Hackney mortuary by Montagu and Cholmondeley, together with the Chief Coroner for London. The intelligence officers created a phony biography for
Major William Martin and placed personalized items on the body like a love letter with a picture from an invented fiancé. Handcuffed to his wrist was a briefcase with phony top secret documents signed by the appropriate military officials indicating the Allies invasion target was Greece.
A famous racing driver was to drive the officers and a special container with the body, protected by dry ice, to a secret submarine base in Scotland. From here, with only the submarine officers knowing what was in the container, the body was taken to near the coast of Spain. It was then floated into the sea at a spot where it was known that the current would wash it ashore near the coastal town of Huelva. Here it was discovered, as expected, and the local Spanish authorities ensured the local Nazi spies saw the contents which were then photographed and sent to Berlin.
Falling for the ruse, Hitler ordered German soldiers, tanks, aircraft, and artillery to be transferred from Italy and Sicily to Greece, resulting in far fewer casualties when the Allies landed in Sicily on July 9, 1943.
The story was recounted in Montagu’s 1953 book, The Man Who Never Was, and a film (1956) was later made with Montagu playing a small cameo role. However, the full story with actual names and many details could not be told owing to The Official Secrets Act. Ben MacIntyre’s book, Mincemeat, published in 2010, was able at last to tell all.
A plaque commemorating the deception plan – “Operation Mincemeat” – was erected outside Hackney Mortuary. The text reads:
The story is also the subject of a movie by the same name released in 2022.