Behind the well-known battles and campaigns of the Second World War lies a secret history. Covert operations and deception plans aimed to confuse the enemy at every opportunity.
Operation Mincemeat was a deception conceived by British Intelligence to fool the Germans regarding the true target for the Allied invasion of Sicily. A dead body would be ‘planted’ off the coast of Spain carrying secret documents which purported to reveal that the targets for the forthcoming invasion would be Greece and Sardinia, with Sicily only intended as a feint. To ensure that the Germans swallowed the deception, it was necessary to create a detailed false identity for the body, which was that of a homeless labourer who had died after swallowing rat poison.
Portrait photo of Captain Ewen Montagu RNR. Montagu was a navel intelligence officer who played a leading role in devising Operation Mincemeat, together with Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondely RAFVR.
The secret operation involved dressing this corpse as a Major in the Royal Marines and giving it the false identity of ‘William Martin’. Appropriate identification documents and other papers would give the body a personality and background. These included a photograph of Major Martin’s fiancée, a receipt for an engagement ring, a theatre ticket stub and other evidence.
Early on 30 April 1943, the body of ‘Major Martin’ was launched into the sea from the British submarine HMS Seraph and left to drift just over a mile off the southern Spanish coast. Once recovered by the Spanish authorities, the ‘secret’ documents carried on the body were covertly opened, photographed and passed via Nazi sympathizers to German intelligence officers in Spain.
Letter from the private papers of Captain Ewen Montagu RNR showing the authorisation of the plan on behalf of PM Winston Churchill.
Signal outlining the role of submarine HMS Seraph in delivering its secret cargo.
The Germans acted swiftly on the false information by doubling the number of troops sent to Sardinia, while many additional German divisions were also transferred to Greece and the Balkans. The Allied invasion of Sicily was launched on 9 July 1943 and, as intended, proved a huge surprise to the German defenders. In just over a month the island was fully captured by the Allies, and the lack of enemy reinforcements had proven to be a deciding factor in the success. ‘Mincemeat’ had been well and truly swallowed.
Signal ensuring that the Spanish authorities realised that the documents found on the body were important.
The papers of the naval intelligence officer Ewen Montagu have been deposited in the IWM archives and feature in the book The War on Paper, available to order from the IWM Shop. This book tells the story of the Second World War through twenty key documents, each one making a significant difference to the course of the conflict. Military orders and political agreements determined the nature of fighting between the Allies and Axis, while more personal records would have a direct impact on the fate of individuals and, in some cases, even society itself.