Tuesday, April 30, 2013

TFH 4/30: Major William Martin, RM goes to war

My regular readers know that I've told many stories here of men who gave their lives in battle to save others. Seventy years ago today on April 30, 1943, a man already dead went to war, and undoubtedly saved hundreds if not thousands of American and British soldiers from becoming casualties both in July and August 1943 and beyond.

Glyndwr Michael was born in Aberbargoed, Wales on January 4, 1909. His father, a coal miner, committed suicide in 1924. His mother died in 1940, leaving the Welshman alone, depressed or suffering from additional mental illness, and homeless. His corpse was discovered on January 24, 1943 in a London warehouse. Michael's death was caused by ingesting rat poison, and it's unknown whether he committed suicide or his death was an accident because he was scrounging for food.

Society often looks past the deaths of derelicts, of the unwanted. With no family surviving to claim his remains, Michael's body would become the centerpiece of the greatest wartime deception since the perhaps mythical Trojan Horse, and would ultimately be buried with military honors befitting a man killed in battle.

How exactly does a dead man go to war?

Well, as the Allied Expeditionary Forces in North Africa were routing the Germans and approaching final victory on the continent, the strategic direction in the Mediterranean theater was clear. The obvious target, smack dab in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, controlling sea lanes on both sides, close to the Italian mainland, was Sicily.

An Allied assault on Sicily was quite nearly a foregone conclusion to the enemy. But, could the Nazi Germans be convinced that the main attack would come elsewhere, so that even if landings on Sicily did happen, they'd continue to maintain unnecessary defenses elsewhere, clearing the way in part for the real attack?

How does one convince an enemy that a so clearly obvious strategic target isn't the focus of advance? Well, by delivering unquestionable evidence that the focus was elsewhere.

British intelligence officers, led by (then) Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, a lawyer by trade in peacetime, devised a scheme that was codenamed "Operation MINCEMEAT". The British knew that there was a very savvy German agent operating in Huelva, Spain. If they could feed him disinformation regarding Allied plans in the Mediterranean, the deception would go straight to the Nazi high command in Berlin. The information had to be delivered in a way so it would be believed.

Enter the corpse of Glyndwr Michael. The plan was to plant official documents on the body of a deceased British officer who would have appeared to have perished in a plane crash at sea and the body drifted ashore. Around the body, the British created an entire backstory: debts, a girlfriend, an expired ID card, everything to make the corpse seem like he was somebody as far from a vagrant as possible.

Thus was born Major William Martin of the Royal Marines, ostensibly on the staff of Vice Admiral Louis Mountbatten at Combined Operations Headquarters. Montagu and his collaborators knew that placing generic documents on "Martin" indicating that the Allies would attack somewhere besides Sicily - a map, an order-of-battle - wouldn't be accepted. The planted information had to be beyond suspect.

But, a letter from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye, the Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff (VCIGS), to General Sir Harold Alexander, the commanding general of the 18th Army Group at Allied Force Headquarters in North Africa, had to contain accurate information. These two officers couldn't be decieved; they must both know exactly what the actual plans were.

Same goes for the letter "authored" by Vice Admiral Mountbatten destined for the Supreme Allied Commander, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

These materials, along with some other that "Martin" carried indicated that the main Allied attack would be in Greece, not Sicily. Furthermore, the document plants gave away the actual code name for the Sicily attack - HUSKY. That way, if German Intelligence intercepted anything referring to "HUSKY", it would be assumed to apply to Greece. They then devised a false code name - Operation BRIMSTONE - to refer to an non-existent Eastern Mediterranean operation, targeted at Sardinia, for which the cover target would be Sicily!

In the pre-dawn hours of April 30, 1943, the Royal Navy submarine HMS Seraph (P219), under the command of Lieutenant Norman "Bill" Jewell, surfaced off the coast of Huelva. Jewell and Seraph were selected for this mission because they were veterans of other special operations during previous Mediterranean battles. "Major Martin's" body was removed from an airtight canister containing dry ice for preservation, set adrift, and Seraph made her escape.

The body was found just hours later. As intended, the corrupt local Spanish officials passed the materials the corpse carried to the German intelligence agents. The Nazis covertly opened the documents, photographed the contents, and resealed them.

With British consular officials in attendance, the body of Major William Martin, RM was laid to rest in Huelva on May 2, 1943.

The German high command acted on the "Mincemeat" letters. They redeployed land, sea, and air forces away from Sicily to both Greece and Sardinia. They bought the deception hook, line, and sinker.

In the darkness of July 9, 1943, Operation HUSKY began under the overall command of General Eisenhower, with General Alexander commanding the ground forces. On the morning of July 10, the British Eighth Army under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery and the Seventh United States Army under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton stormed ashore on Sicily. They routed the Germans and took the island in just thirty-eight days.

Two weeks after the Allied landings, the German high command still refused to reinforce Sicily because they believed it was not the main attack. Forces that could have been used against the Allies in Sicily awaited uselessly in Greece and on Sardinia for assaults that would never come.

The impact of MINCEMEAT was continued to be felt over a year later. During Operations OVERLORD (D-Day) and MARKET-GARDEN (Holland) in 1944, the Germans captured actual, genuine Allied battle plans and ignored them because they feared they were MINCEMEAT-style plants! This, after they were wholesale victims of deception again in the lead-up to the invasion of Europe, having been convinced that the invasion would take place at the Pas de Calais, not Normandy.

Ewen Montagu eventually attained the rank of Captain in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was made a Commander of the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire for his role in MINCEMEAT. He passed away on July 19, 1985 at age 84.

Lieutenant Jewell retired from the Royal Navy as a Captain in 1963 and died on August 18, 2004, about two months before his 91st birthday.

Glyndwr Michael, a.k.a. Major William Martin, the "man who never was", rests in peace in Huelva, Spain. His true identity was kept secret for many years following the war. Today, the grave marker reflects the true and assumed names of a man forgotten by society who saved the lives of many after his own death.

The Martin/Michael grave in Huelva

In addition to the links above, I encourage all my readers to read the following:

The Man Who Never Was, by Ewen Montagu, originally published 1953.

MINCEMEAT was also dramatized (factually accurate as to substance, embellished to make it a little more exciting) in the 1955 movie The Man Who Never Was starring Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame. It's a great watch.

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