WWII

Operation Mincemeat: New film tells how a homeless man's body fooled Nazi Germany

Warner Bros. film tells of secret operation to dress the corpse of a dead homeless man as a Major in the Royal Marines.

Operation Mincemeat was one of the greatest single deceptions of the Second World War in which the body of a dead homeless man, dressed as a fictitious British officer and carrying fake plans for a fabricated operation, was used to throw Germany off the scent of real plans for an Allied invasion.

Now a major new film, featuring an all-star cast including Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen and due for release in UK cinemas on Friday 15 April, tells the extraordinary story based on true events in which two British intelligence officers hatched an outlandish plan to fool the Nazis and change the course of World War Two.

Set in 1943, when Britain was determined to break Hitler’s grip on occupied Europe, the Warner Bros. film, Operation Mincemeat, tells how Allied forces planned to launch an all-out assault on Sicily, but they faced an impossible challenge - how to protect the invasion force from potential annihilation.

It fell to two remarkable intelligence officers, Ewen Montagu, played in the film by Bridget Jones actor Firth, and Charles Cholmondeley, played by Macfadyen, perhaps best known for his role as Mr Darcy in the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, to dream the most inspired and improbable disinformation strategy of the war - centred on the most unlikely of secret agents: a dead man.

Allied forces had begun amassing along the coast of North Africa in preparation to make a push on the strategically important target of Sicily. 

For the invasion to succeed, British Intelligence needed to convince the Germans they were aiming for somewhere else, so that they would divert resources. 

Operation Mincemeat was born.

It was the brainchild of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, who at the time worked as an assistant to the head of British Naval Intelligence.

The unusual tale was later popularised in a book by Ben Macintyre in 2010, which has now been adapted by screenwriter Michelle Ashford for the Operation Mincemeat film, directed by John Madden and which is due to feature on Netflix on 11 May in the US.

Major Martin Identity Card Operation Mincemeat CREDIT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Major Martin's fake identity card (Picture: The National Archives).

The idea was to plant a dead body dressed as a British officer off the coast of Spain, carrying 'secret' documents revealing Greece and Sardinia as the targets for the upcoming invasion. 

Spain was chosen as the location for the deception because although officially neutral, it had many Nazi spies who could pass the fake intelligence up the chain of command. 

For the plan to work, the false identity of the body needed to be meticulous.

Glyndwr Michael had been a homeless Welsh labourer who died after eating rat poison. 

His corpse was selected to become the fictitious Captain (Acting Major) William 'Bill' Martin, an officer in the Royal Marines and was subsequently kept in cold storage until the plans were in place.

It took three months for intelligence officers Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu to painstakingly create the appropriate identification and other papers for Major Martin.

Major Martin Fake Girlfriend Pam Operation Mincemeat CREDIT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES
The operation even involved the creation of this photograph, Major Martin's fictitious girlfriend, Pam (Picture: The National Archives).

He was given an identity card, No148228 and also personal documents to give him a credible backstory.

These included a photograph of his fiancée, a receipt for an engagement ring, a theatre ticket stub and even two love letters.

A newspaper even ran a line mentioning the death of "A/Major W. Martin".

A suitcase containing the fake documents was handcuffed to his wrist and he was dressed in a lifejacket to look like he had been in a plane crash.

In April 1943, the body was dropped into the sea from a Royal Navy submarine and then floated towards the coast of Spain.

Maj Martin was found by a Spanish fisherman and passed over to German intelligence.

They were fooled by the plot, transferring 90,000 German soldiers to Greece, the dummy target. 

When the Allies invaded Sicily on 9 July, the island fell but with a fraction of the casualties initially feared.

It is estimated that Operation Mincemeat saved the lives of thousands of British, Canadian and American troops.

Maj Martin was eventually buried with full military honours in Nuestra Señora cemetery in Spain.

In 1998, after the British Government identified the body as Glyndwr Michael, the inscription 'Glyndwr Michael Served as Major William Martin, RM' was added to the headstone.

Cover image: Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley and Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu in the film Operation Mincemeat (Picture: Courtesy of See-Saw Films / ©See-Saw Films Limited 2021).