During WWII an amazing feat of deception was staged by the British Government and two spies, Captain Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, 5th Marquess of Cholmondeley. It was so secret that even those two men did not know all the information.
In 1984 Montagu, just months before his death petitioned British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher for the opportunity to read the classified papers regarding the outcome of Operation Mincemeat. Conducted during the Italian campaign it completely fooled the Germans and may have changed the direction of the war.
Mrs. Thatcher approved the request on the condition that Montagu returned the documents after he had examined them and never speak of what he read. Although Montagu disagreed with Mrs. Thatcher that the information should remain classified, he did as he was instructed.
When WWII broke out Montagu enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve. Due to his advanced education and background as a barrister, he quickly moved up the ranks to serve in the Naval Intelligence Division of the British Admiralty. There Montagu and Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondeley cooked up a scheme to blindside Hitler.
They obtained the dead body of a man in his mid-thirties and kept it preserved in ice while the deception was put in place. The real identity of the corpse is still unknown, but most writers say it was Glyndwr Michael, a destitute man from Wales who had committed suicide by poisoning himself.
The body was clothed in the uniform of a British Major in the Royal Marines and given the name William Martin, a common enough name that would not raise suspicion. A wallet was placed on his person containing all the usual paraphernalia of a soldier including British currency, military ID and pictures and letters from a fictional fiancée. They also handcuffed a briefcase to his waist filled with false military documents indicating the Allied Armies in North Africa were planning to invade German-occupied Greece and the Balkan Islands. In fact, the upcoming invasion was planned for Italy.
In the spring of 1943, the body was released into the sea by a submarine off the coast of Spain hoping the tide would take him ashore. Whether or not the corpse washed up or was found in the water is still a point of debate but either way, the ploy worked. It was found and, as planned, was assumed to be a British courier who had been traveling on a ship that had been sunk.
Meanwhile, the British sent false radio signals to Spain asking about a Major Martin with a briefcase who was missing in action. The Spanish dictator, loyal to the Third Reich, informed the Nazis, and the documents eventually made their way to the Führer’s desk.
Hitler had suspected that Greece and the Balkans, not Italy, was the Allies target and as far as he was concerned the documents proved him right. He pulled most of his Mediterranean Panzer troops from Italy and moved them into place to resist the attack that never happened.
Between November 1942 and May 1943, Allied Forces liberated Sicily and Italy – but at a high cost. More than 300,000 US and British casualties were reported.
In 1953 Montagu published his account of Operation Mincemeat, “The Man Who Never Was” and advised on the movie of the same name which premiered in 1956 starring Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame.
In 2010 British journalist Ben Macintyre published Operation Mincemeat, an in-depth look at the event pronounced “brilliant” by The New Yorker’s Critic At Large writer, Malcolm Gladwell.