Episode 121 - We‘re Bim Bam Bina Back (Italy Week)
Originally I was going to talk about POW escapes from Italian POW camps, however, midway through writing my research I came up with something much more suitable for this podcast. Operation Mincemeat!
So, a bit of background: it’s September 1943. In May, Rommel and the Axis forces had been given a good old-fashioned kick up the arse in North Africa by Montgomery and the Allied forces, mostly British Commonwealth forces (one of whom was my Grandad). Between May and September, the allies set their sights on conquering Italy. There was heavy bombing of major cities and Sicily was taken after the success of Operation Husky. At this point it became clear to the Italian King that the Italians were getting a spanking, so he was keen to dissociate himself from Mussolini. Mussolini was overthrown and placed under arrest and the Badoglio government was set up.
At the same time as this announcement was made, the Allies landed in Italy, or what Churchill called “the soft underbelly of the Axis.” The main landing of Allied forces was in Salerno (Operation Avalanche), with two supporting landings in Calabria (Operation Baytown) and Taranto (Operation Slapstick). The first two operations were very successfully but Operation Slapstick was hindered by barrels of tar, boxes of feathers, tootling cars honking loudly and fields of banana skins. In all seriousness, I have no idea why this was called Operation Slapstick; my research came up with nothing. All I know is that Italian King Emmanuel III turned to Mussolini, whacked him around the back of the head and said “wella this issa a nozzer finea mess you gotta us into!”
It is at this point in my notes that I had planned to start discussing Italian POW escapes. Allied POWs were in a tricky position, they knew the Allies were advancing from the South, so was it best for them to wait until they were liberated? Or try to escape south to Allied Forces, or even to head North into morally dubious, self-preserving, fence sitting Toblerone land? Well you’ll have to read up about this yourselves listeners, because I’m taking a step back to the invasion of Sicily now and discussing Operation Mincemeat, which was part of the wider Operation Barclay, which in a nutshell, was a large disinformation/deception campaign to make the Axis powers think that the Allies were planning to attack the European mainland through Greece and then the wider Balkans. In reality, as already discussed, the Allies were looking to open a second front in Sicily and Italy.
Now, onto the tastefully named, as you will soon find out, Operation Mincemeat. In 1939, a document called the Trout Memo was written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey of the Naval Intelligence Division. His personal assistant was one Ian Fleming. Recognise the name? Yes, Ian Fleming the famous author and creator of Bond, James Bond. In this memo, enemy deception is likened to fly fishing; you patiently dangle bait in front of the enemy, waiting until they take it. Nothing radical there. However, there is specific reference to an idea; whereby fake documents are placed on a corpse and that corpse is placed somewhere where the fake documents are found by the enemy. Operation Mincemeat, how tasteful, how James Bond. We like the identities fakened, not spared?!
Let’s skips forward now to Operation Mincemeat in 1943. The two masterminds of this Operation were Charles Cholmondeley and Ewan Montagu. Yes, that’s Cholmondeley and Montagu. Possibly the two most English private school names you’re ever going to hear. They were aware, through British Intelligence, of an incident in 1942 where a British aircraft carrying, amongst other people, a British man carrying important intelligence documents and a French agent, crashed in the sea. Everyone died and the bodies were washed up on Spanish beaches. Despite Spain being neutral, some of these documents were recorded and passed to the Nazis before the bodies were returned to the British. So, Cholmondeley and Montagu decided to replicate this, but with one big difference! Faked documents.
First things first, a corpse! Preferably someone who looks like an important intelligence agent. Someone broad chested, tall, strapping and with a lovely comb over. How about Glyndwr Michael? A Welsh tramp who had died in Kings Cross Station after consuming bread crumbs laced with rat poison? A 34 year old whose father had committed suicide when Michael was 15 and whose mother had died when he was 31. A corpse that no one would claim? Beggars can’t be choosers, or is that, a beggar was chosen.
The body of Michael was crammed into a fridge and kept chilled but not frozen to ensure that the corpse didn’t have signs of being kept in cold storage when it was used. Cholmondeley and Montagu were told to use it within 3 months of it would start to stink out the fridge, make the milk taste funny and start to smell faintly like that onion you only used half off and forgot to wrap in clingfilm. Meanwhile, Cholmondeley and Montagu began work on all of the background information to really make the deceit believable. The fictitious officer was given a name: William Martin and lots of documents were faked. A load of ‘pocket litter’ was also created, including a picture of loved-one Pam, who was actually MI5 clerk Jean Leslie, and made up love letters (“dear rotting corpse of ratty Welsh tramp, not a day goes by where I do not think of you and your fetid kisses, those hugs where bits of your skin are left on my fur coat and those moonlit walks, sorry, drags, through Hyde Park.”) There was also a letter from the bank demanding payment of an overdraft (“sorry, my landlord has increased the rent on my fridge”) and a ticket stub for a Theatre show (“Oh I love West Side Story Michael! Isn’t this your favourite song? I feel rotty! Oh so smelly! I feel stinky, and fusty and foul!”)
Amusingly, Cholmondeley and Motagu had problems creating an ID card for Michael, or Martin, because they needed a photo and the corpse, no matter how much makeup they put on it, or how flattering the lighting, or how good the Instagram filter, still looked very much like a corpse. Fortunately, one Ronnie Reed of the MI5 struck a striking resemblance to the corpse. I’m not sure how Ronnie Reed would have felt when he was approached in the corridors of MI5, tapped surreptitiously on the shoulder and told, “you look just like the corpse of a rotting Welsh tramp, come with me.”
The most important faked documents were those that were going to throw the Nazis off the scent of a planned invasion of Sicily and hint at an invasion of Greece instead. These were very carefully written to make them believable. They were then placed in a briefcase that was chained to the corpse, this was for obvious reasons: they needed the body to be found with the briefcase.
Huelva off the southern Spanish coast was chosen as the target location for dropping off the corpse. The tides here were said to be very favourable and should wash the corpse in the right direction. In addition, there was a German agent in the area who the British were confident would take the bait. The next issue was how to deliver the corpse to the correct location. Faking a plane crash, which was indeed what the whole operation was pretending had happened, was considered too risky. Firing the corpse from a circus cannon on the North coast of Africa was also considered too risky. Then there was the idea of shooting the corpse out of a submarine like a torpedo, and also delivering it like a bouncing bomb, aka the Dambusters. No, I’m being silly. The corpse was to be released from a submarine. This is where another chap connected to James Bond appears in this story. Charles Fraser-Smith of Ministry of Supply was apparently the inspiration for Q in the Bond books and films. He was asked to create a water tank for the corpse that would fit in the submarine. I imagine this was an operation that was kept very secret, so on a ‘need to know’ basis on the submarine. Imagine being a sailor and taking a wrong turn in that submarine and encountering a corpse bobbing around in a fish tank? In fact, the captain of HMS Seraph told his crew that they were dropping off a piece of top secret meteorological equipment. I also joked about the corpse bobbing around in water; the tank was filled with dry ice.
Anyway, the plan was signed off by Churchill himself, and also Dwight Eisenhower who was the Allied military commander in the Mediterranean and obviously, later President of the USA. Then, on the 19th April 1943, HMS Seraph reached the target location and surfaced. All non-officers were told to stay below board and the officers released the corpse into the Mediterranean. Spanish fisherman discovered the corpse 11 days later. It was handed to Spanish authorities and the British vice-consul in Huelva, Haselden, was informed. Haselden was in on the operation. Scripted and encrypted diplomatic cables were sent between the British figures involved, all in the knowledge that the Germans had broken the code and so they would be read. These cables made out that the British were desperate to get a hold of the briefcase. In the couple of weeks that followed, the Germans were desperately trying to persuade the Spaniards to let them see the document whilst the Spaniards were working around to returning the documents to the British. The Germans eventually got what they wanted and managed to pull the important papers from the briefcase without opening the briefcase. They photographed the papers then put them back into the briefcase. When the British finally had the briefcase returned to them, forensic experts could tell that the documents had been read. On the 14th May the British code-breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted messages that confirmed that the Germans had fallen for the ruse. Hitler ordered that military resources be redeployed in anticipation of an attack on Greece. This meant that when the Allied force attacked Sicily, they quickly overran the island with minimal casualties and loss of equipment. POSH VOICE Wizard ruse Montagu! They took the bait hook, line and sinker! I must say I feel jolly good. It’s like that time we put itching powder in the socks of the Winchester college rugby team, we then left a corpse in their changing room, or even that time at Oxford when we poured pepper in the Cambridge team’s porridge before the boat race, and then left a corpse in their boat.
Glydnwr Martin buried in a grave in Huelva. He was buried with full military honours. His story was made into a film in 1956 called The Man Who Never Was. The story has been told in many theatrical productions including one that is currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse; something I only discovered after writing my notes. I also only just discovered that it is currently being turned into a film starring Colin Firth that is due to be released next year. So it’s clearly quite a well-known story!