Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The story of the man who never was: Operation Mincemeat

30th of April, 1943. That day started just like any other for José Antonio Rei, a humble fisherman of Punta Umbría, in Spain, a coastal town situated not very far away from the British colony of Gibraltar. It was early in the morning when he was walking along the beach in order to get his boat and be able to start another work day at the sea; but he was destined to have a day off.

Then he saw it. There was a body lied over the beach, near the shore, obviously brought by the sea. A drowned man. As he approached the body, the fisherman was soon surprised to find that the body wore a military uniform and had a briefcase tied over his waist.

A British officer?

Local authorities identified him as Major William Martin of the British Royal Marines due to his wallet. Officially, the briefcase was open only in the presence of British consul Francis Haselden, but that wasn't true at all. That was the Spanish fascist dictatorship of General Franco after all...

Yes, Spain was full of Abwehr (German military intelligence) agents by those years, specially around the fortress of Gibraltar, a bastion of British sea power in the Mediterranean sea. Adolf Clauss, operating under the cover of an agriculture technician, was one of them. And he was deeply interested about the finding of the body; he immediately informed his superiors in Madrid.

Meanwhile, a high number of low encryption telegrams were flying constantly between London and the British embassy in Madrid with one message: "Recover the content of the briefcase is a must". Later, The Times reported the death of Major Martin.

Mayor Karl-Erich Kuhlenthal, high officer of the Abwehr in Spain, took a keen interest in know about the content of the briefcase. The Spanish were soon persuaded to collaborate after some calls from the Abwehr Headquarters in Berlin and a copy of the documents held in the briefcase was sent to the German embassy. It was a personal letter from Lieutenant-General Archibald Edward Nye to Field Marshall Harold Alexander, commander of the British troops in Northern Africa: "We will recover Southern Europe by landing in Greece and Sardinia".

"Mincemeat Swallowed Whole"

The German army redirected part of the defensive war efforts in the Mediterranean Sea. Erwin Rommel moved to Greece in order to assume overall command, and three panzer divisions (two of them taken from the Russian front, reducing German strength right before the decisive Battle of Kursk) were moved to Greece to reinforce the Axis troops garrisoned in that country.

Mussolini, the Italian dictator, was not very happy with the defensive plan as the most likely invasion point from Tunis (were the allies were concentrated) was the island of Sicily. But Hitler was so convinced by the letter that he remarked over and over again that any incursion over Sicily should be regarded as a feint.

On 9 July of 1943, the allies forces launched Operation Husky and landed in Sicily with relatively little resistance. The island was conquered after just five weeks of combat.

Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley were appointed to the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire for masterminding and carry out this successful plan.

                                           Ewen Montagu (right) and Charles Cholmondeley (left)

The grave of the man who never was is still there, in Soledad Cemetery, Spain. There rest the remains of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless 37-year old man found in a morgue by Montagu who had died after taking rat poison.

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