Imagine that you are a fisherman who usually goes out in your small boat to earn your wages, and one fine day, after returning to land, someone asks you: «Hey, how did things go today, anything big caught?»; Then you answer: «As big as a person... a corpse.» The face of astonishment, of perplexity, of panic, of the person who asked could be similar to yours when you came across such a strange catch in the sea. Surely this conversation never took place —or maybe yes, who knows if in other terms but with a similar idea— in the story we are going to tell, but what was real and not a product of his imagination was what on April 30, 1943 the fisherman José Antonio Rey María found floating in the marine waters of a beach in Punta Umbría (Huelva, Spain) early in the morning.
Interview with José Antonio Rey María. Program Los Reporteros of Canal Sur TV (1993).
A Corpse, a Briefcase and a False Identity
Without knowing it, his tragic discovery, a lifeless body with a mysterious briefcase chained to one of his wrists, was part of Operation Mincemeat, a stratagem carried out by the Allied side during World War II that had the objective of making the Nazis believe that the advance towards the center of Europe, once they had been defeated in North Africa, it would be through Sardinia and Greece, and not from the true springboard to unfold the invasion: Sicily.
On the other hand, at that time Spain, although it exhibited its neutrality to the world from the point of view of an explicit participation on the side of the so-called Axis powers —Germany, Italy and Japan—, allowed the Nazis use its territory geo-strategically, as well as exploit its material resources for, for example, its war machine. The Peninsula therefore had a large presence of officers and spies from the Third Reich, which undoubtedly favored it as a critical enclave for the farce, that is, the ideal place to make the corpse of the Major William Martin, of the Royal Marine Corps of the United Kingdom, a false identity created for the occasion, floating in the waters of the Huelva coast after an alleged and fatal plane crash.
«Mincemeat Swallowed Whole»
Once discovered, it would only be a matter of hours before not only the news reached the ears of the German side, but it would not take too long for them to obtain the bait-documents, thus taking the bait prepared by its enemy. As the encrypted message from the British Intelligence Service to Prime Minister Winston Churchill read: «Mincemeat Swallowed Whole», the plan had worked.
Everything had been meticulously planned by British Intelligence, providing Major Martin with a personal past and a military career, all perfectly documented, that did not cast any doubt or suspicion on his true identity. And what precisely was the true identity of the false William Martin? Well, the person who allegedly was rescued on the coast of southwestern Spain had a first and last name: Glyndwr Michael, a 34-year-old Welsh homeless man who had died from ingesting rat poison, and whose body had been conveniently frozen before his departure from the United Kingdom in the submarine HMS Seraph bound for the coast of Huelva, where he would be deposited in the sea with a life jacket. The burial of the false William Martin took place days after his discovery as part of the plan, resting his remains today in the Huelva cemetery.
Wretched Life, A Hero after Death
According to journalist and writer Ben Macintyre, author of the book Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II, «Glyndwr Michael is possibly the most unlikely hero of all of World War II.» The author recounts how he was forced to move from Wales to London in order to escape the misery caused by the Great Depression after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. An extreme situation that had even led his father to commit suicide after the lack of work in the mines. Although the forensic report concluded that Glyndwr Michael would have followed the same way as his autopsy revealed the ingestion of rat poison, Macintyre, rather than the possibility of taking his own life, attributes it to the fact that by mistake, and being hungry, he could have eaten bread poisoned with rat poison.
Several documentaries have been made of Operation Mincemeat and it has even been taken to the big screen. Although recently, in 2020, a movie about it was released, the first film about this historical event dates back to 1956, The Man Who Never Was. Title taken from the homonymous book on which it is based and that it had written three years before, a decade after said operation, by one of their brains; the then Naval Intelligence officer, Ewen Montagu.
The explosion of HMS Dasher and last minute orders to HMS Seraph
The true identity of William Martin continues to be the focus of discussion for both researchers and those curious about the matter, with several hypotheses in this regard. Thus, for example, in the book The Secrets of HMS Dasher by John and Noreen Steele, one of them is noted. The HMS Dasher was an aircraft carrier of the British Royal Navy that on March 27, 1943, just one month before the body of the false William Martin appeared floating in Punta Umbría, suffered an explosion under mysterious circumstances and that meant the loss of 379 lives; and it is here that the authors argue that the number of officially recovered bodies was greater than that of those buried by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. And that difference is where they believe the corpse used to give life to Major Martin came from, and according to them it could be that of Sub-Lieutenant John McFarlane, whose father had required his body for a private burial, being said request rejected. In addition, another element that supports their theory would be the testimony of Admiral Norman Jewell, who according to them, being at that time a young lieutenant in command of the Seraph —the submarine that would transfer the false William Martin to Spain— had received last-minute orders to sail to Holy Loch, just eight miles from where the Dasher sank.
Another of the hypotheses is based on a letter to the Daily Telegraph published on August 13, 2002. In it, a certain Mr. Ivor Leverton, owner of a well-known undertaker company, recounts how about sixty years ago, he had been secretly ordered by the St Pancras coroner at 1 a.m. to transfer a body from the local mortuary to Hackney, adding that it was a body measuring six feet four inches (1.93 m). However, there are those who wonder if a body of such an unusual height, and more so at that time, would have been selected for such a mission. It is curious, in any case, to observe how the corpse in the photograph on the upper left seems to correspond to that of a person taller than average height.
«The permission was obtained on the condition that I should never let it be known whose body it was»
Montagu passed away in 1985, perhaps taking the secret of William Martin's true identity with him to the grave. At least, in his book he left us the following about that man who never was, but thanks to him the Allied side was able to take a giant step towards victory in World War II:
At last, (...), we heard of someone who had just died from pneumonia after exposure: pathologically speaking, it looked as if p30 he might answer our requirements. We made feverish enquiries into his past and about his relatives; we were soon satisfied that these would not talk or pass on such information as we could give them. But there was still the crucial question: could we get permission to use the body without saying what we proposed to do with it and why? All we could possibly tell anyone was that we could guarantee that the purpose would be a really worthwhile one, as anything that was done would be with approval on the highest level, and that the remains would eventually receive proper burial, though under a false name. Permission, for which our indebtedness is great, was obtained on condition that I should never let it be known whose corpse it was.It must therefore suffice for me to say that the body was that of a young man in his early thirties. He had not been very physically fit for some time before his death, but we could accept that for, as I said to a senior officer who queried the point «He does not have to look like an officer — only like a staff officer.»
As a precaution, I had another chat with Sir Bernard Spilsbury. He was quite satisfied: the pneumonia was a help, for there would tend to be some liquid in the lungs, as might well be the case if the man had died while floating in a rough sea. If a post mortem examination was made by someone who had formed the preconceived idea that the death was probably due to drowning there was little likelihood that the difference between this liquid, in lungs that had started to decompose, and sea water would be noticed. Sir Bernard closed our talk with the characteristically confident statement: «You have nothing to fear from a Spanish post mortem; to detect that this young man had not died after an aircraft had been lost at sea would need a pathologist of my experience — and there aren't any in Spain».
So we arranged for the body to be kept in suitable cold storage until we were ready for it.
Ewen Montagu (1954). The Man Who Never Was. Philadelphia and New York, United States: J. B. Lippincott Company
J. M. Sadurní. "La Operación Mincemeat en la Segunda Guerra Mundial". National Geographic, 29 October 2022, https://historia.nationalgeographic.com.es/a/operacion-mincemeat-segunda-guerra-mundial_15257
"Operation Mincemeat: The man who never was". The History Press, 29 October 2022, https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/operation-mincemeat-the-man-who-never-was/
Neil Prior. "El vagabundo que se convirtió en el 'más improbable' héroe de la Segunda Guerra Mundial… aunque estaba muerto". BBC News, 29 October 2022, https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-internacional-61165871]