Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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mincemeat, Operation

Major British deception preceding Operation husky, the Allied assault on Sicily. Even as Allied forces cleared Tunisia of Axis troops, their leaders were debating their next target in the Mediterranean. Although British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill wanted a thrust into the Balkans, the Allies settled on Sicily, to be followed by an assault on southern Italy. Operation mincemeat was a British deception to convince the Germans and their Axis partners, the Italians, that the invasion would instead occur in the Greek Isles and Sardinia.

A British intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu of the navy, conceived the idea of using the corpse of a man who had died of pneumonia, a disease that has all the physical characteristics of a drowning. He would be given a false military identity to convey papers that would reach the Germans. On 18 April 1943, at Greenock, Scotland, the British submarine Seraph took on board a specially constructed steel container weighing about 400 pounds and marked "Handle with Care—Optical Instruments."

Eleven days later, early on 30 April, the Seraph surfaced off the southern coast of Andalucia, Spain. Officers sworn to secrecy then opened the container and removed a soggy corpse dressed in the uniform of an officer of the Royal Marines. The body, which had been preserved in ice, had a briefcase affixed with the royal seal chained to one wrist. The officers then inflated the "Mae West" life jacket worn by the corpse, offered a few prayers, and pushed "Major Martin" overboard to drift inland with the tide. Later, a half mile to the south, the same officers turned an inflated rubber life raft upside down and pushed it and a paddle off the submarine.

A Spanish fisherman recovered the body off Huelva and turned it over to the authorities. The British had chosen this location because a German intelligence officer was known to be in the area. The Spanish identified the corpse from its papers as that of Major William Martin of the Royal Marines. It appeared from the condition of the body that it had been in the water for several days, and the Spanish concluded that the death resulted from an airplane crash at sea. They then allowed German intelligence to examine the body and the attaché case. To keep up the ruse, the British demanded that the case be returned without delay. The Spanish finally turned it over on 13 May, and subsequent tests in London revealed that it had indeed been tampered with, its contents in all probability passed on to the Germans.

The briefcase contained presumably sensitive papers and private letters from British leaders in London to theater commanders in North Africa. The Germans could only conclude from the contents that operations against Sicily were only a feint and that the Allies would next invade the Greek islands (Operation barclay) with 11 British divisions. A few days later, a large American force was to invade Sardinia, Corsica, and southern France.

The deception confirmed what the Germans already believed, but there is no evidence that the Italians were deceived. Adolf Hitler, however, sent reinforcements, including the 1st Panzer Division from southern France, to Greece. This unit might have been decisive had it been dispatched to Sicily. Clearly, the invading forces of Operation husky benefited immensely from the mincemeat deception.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Bennett, Ralph Francis. Behind the Battle: Intelligence in the War with Germany, 1939–1945. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.; Montagu, Ewen. The Man Who Never Was. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1954.
 

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