Weird Wednesdays: The man who died twice

The “Weird Wednesday” column is brought to you by a staff writer who is obsessed with factoids, history bits and freaky information to get you over the weekday hump.

Troops of 3rd Infantry Division on Queen Red beach (Collection of Imperial War Museums)

The deeds of the man I’m about to tell you about were accomplished when he was a corpse, which goes to show that you never know what you may do in your life (or death). It’s possible to accomplish your bucket list even after you’ve kicked it.

It was 1943, at the height of World War II. The Allied Forces were focused on the strategically integral island of Sicily, which offered an opening into the Mediterranean, in an invasion maneuver code-named Operation Husky. (Yeah, you see what I did there.)

The Germans knew about their plans. The operation would be a failure unless the Allies managed to convince them that the attack was coming from elsewhere.

Enter Charles Cholmondeley.

The MI5 Flight Lieutenant suggested planting a dead body for the Nazis to find, with “secret” letters and documents suggesting a different plan of attack for the Allies. If it worked, the ruse would draw the Germans away from Sicily and leave Italy open to invasion.

The concept of a planted corpse wasn’t new. British Intelligence has used the trick in World War I, known as the Haversack Ruse, to throw enemies off the trail. However, this would be the first time it would be used to trick the Germans on such a massive scale.

The plan was to drop the body into the ocean off the coast of Spain, the idea being that the corpse was a pilot that had been shot down and drowned. Why Spain? Two reasons: There was a known “Abwehr” (German Intelligence) agent there and apparently the Spanish weren’t all that big on post-mortem examinations. Go figure.

The first step of the scheme, dubbed Operation Mincemeat, was to obtain a corpse. Surprisingly, you can’t really go to a corner store and buy one, so MI5 had to settle for using the body of a dead hobo.

Glyndwyr Michael, a homeless Welsh laborer living in London, died from rat poison, either through suicide or accidental ingestion.

Though he had no say in what happened to his mortal remains (nor, I suppose, did he particularly care), he was perfect for the British Intelligence. Fresh, relatively unmarked and undamaged, with no family to mourn or a past to track, Michael was the ideal candidate for Operation Mincemeat.

Cholmondeley and his partner in crime, Ewen Montagu, then began the next step: Crafting a convincing backstory for their body, now named Major William Martin.

Getting the Nazis to swallow the bait would be the hardest part. Months prior, “Abwehr” agents refused to examine the top secret documents found on an actual dead soldier that had been shot down, believing it to be a fake. Clearly, the Axis would be on high alert for phonies.

Cholmondeley and Montagu worked hard to ensure that the plant was believable. Enclosed with the body was a picture of a fictitious fiancé named Pam (actually an MI5 secretary), along with some love letters, a jeweler's bill for an engagement ring, a bus ticket, some keys, a silver cross and several family letters, along with other personal items (including some really good quality underwear, which was a luxury reserved for officers.)  

The fake military letters enclosed detailed an attack on Greece by the Allies, which would be plausible due to the presence of Allied forces in North Africa. As a personal touch, Martin’s military ID was past its expiration date -- for what officer would have absolutely perfect documents?

Dressed in a Royal Marines uniform and a life jacket, the body of Major William Martin (formerly Glyndwyr Michael) was dumped from a submarine near southern Spain on April 30, 1943.            

Five hours later, the corpse was discovered by a sardine fisherman near the town of Huelva and taken in by government officials.

On May 13, a message to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived:

“Mincemeat swallowed hook, line and sinker.”

The corpse managed to dupe the most suspicious of “Abwehr” agents, with the letters arriving on the desk of Adolf Hitler himself. The German troops in Sicily were ordered to move to Greece soon afterward-- giving an “OK go” for the Allies to successfully invade less than a month later, turning the tides of war. The Germans would never again trust any documents found on a dead body and the Allies would go on to win World War II in 1945.

As for Michael, his job was done. He was buried with full military honors in Huelva under the name of William Martin. In 1998, when the British Government revealed the body’s true identity, Glyndwr Michael's name was added to the headstone.

So let this be a lesson to you, dear readers: You can, in fact, be quite useful even after you’ve died. Remember Glyndwr Michael and be wary of the contents of a dead man’s pocket.

For more fascinating facts, follow me on twitter @Marlese_Lessing. Stay weird, folks!



Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.