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Operation Mincemeat - Huelva in Huelva Municipality in Huelva Province

By Nick Nutter | 25 Sep 2018

Only a thin sliver of the waning crescent moon seen through a thin veil of cloud very low down on the eastern horizon illuminated the Gulf of Cadiz. In three more nights the moon would be new but that would be too dark for what was planned for the night of Thursday 29th April 1943.

At 4.30am on Friday 30th April, just 22 minutes after moonrise, with barely a ripple, a periscope emerged from the sea and rapidly turned through 360 degrees. Lieutenant Bill Jewell, commander of His Majesty's Submarine Seraph made his first quick reconnaissance. Only two specks of light showed, both more than a mile away to the west, probably local sardine fishermen night fishing with the aid of a light in the boat, a traditional method in these parts, in any case too far away to interfere with Seraph. To the north the low lying sandspit, Punta Umbria, was faintly backlit by the glow of urban lights from the town of Huelva, one mile inland in a neutral Spain. It had been an impressive feat of navigation to bring the submarine to just this spot on a largely featureless coastline, underwater and undetected, just 1 mile off the mouth of the Rio Odiel. Even more impressive to arrive at just the right time, low tide.

Seraph glided to the surface. Lieutenant Jewell joined his first lieutenant, Lieutenant David Scott, on the bridge. All was clear and Jewell ordered a canister to be brought on deck and then cleared the deck and bridge of crew. The canister had been brought all the way from Holy Loch in Scotland where it had been loaded aboard on the 19th April. The crew thought it contained a top secret meteorological device. It was important they never discovered the true contents, the fewer people who new the better.

Lieutenant Scott, the only other officer aware of the contents, opened the canister. He removed a male body dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marine officer with a great coat over his battledress uniform. Scott and Jewell fitted the corpse with a lifejacket and attached one end of a leather coated security chain to the coat's belt, running the other end down the right sleeve of the coat and fastening it to a briefcase. Lieutenant Jewell read the 39th Psalm as the officers committed the body of Major Martin to the deep. Operation Mincemeat was underway.

Mincemeat was part of an overall operation called Operation Barclay which was a series of ruses in 1943 designed to persuade the Germans that an allied invasion of southern Europe would be through the Balkans rather than Sicily. Planting fake documents on fresh corpses that would then be found by the enemy was not a new idea but Operation Mincemeat had a complication, the body could not be fresh since it had to be prepared in the UK and transported to the Spanish coast and then appear that death was as a result of drowning following an aeroplane crash into the sea. Flight Lieutenant Cholmondeley who was seconded to MI5 and Ewen Montagu who worked in Naval Intelligence were assigned to the plan.

Pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury was consulted for advice over the matter and Northern District of London coroner, Bentley Purchase, was subsequently asked to keep a look out for a suitable body. He pointed out that  "I should think bodies are the only commodities not in short supply at the moment, even with bodies all over the place, each one has to be accounted for." 

In January 1943 Purchase found a suitable body, that of a tramp who had died through eating rat poison that contained phosphorus. Montagu commented that the undernourished corpse did not look like a fit field officer. Purchase told him, "he does not have to look like an officer – only a staff officer".

The body was put into storage at a temperature just above freezing point. Purchase warned that it had to be used within three months or it would have decomposed too much to be of use.

Montagu and Cholmondeley created a legend for the corpse who was now called Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines that included a fictitious girlfriend and father, a family solicitor and a non existent account at Lloyds Bank. The deception went as far as Cholmondeley wearing the uniform procured for Major Martin to give it a used look.

Meanwhile the documents to be used in the deception were being prepared. Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye, Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote a letter to General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of the Anglo-American 18th Army Group in North Africa. The letter covered several subjects not related to an invasion and then the following paragraph:

"We have recent information that the Bosche have been reinforcing and strengthening their defences in Greece and Crete and C.I.G.S. [Chief of the Imperial General Staff] felt that our forces for the assault were insufficient. It was agreed by the Chiefs of Staff that the 5th Division should be reinforced by one Brigade Group for the assault on the beach south of CAPE ARAXOS and that a similar reinforcement should be made for the 56th division at KALAMATA".

This letter together with other corroborative 'evidence' was place in the briefcase attached to Major Martin's body.

Major Martin was found by Spanish fishermen the following morning, the 30th April, and the body was taken to Huelva. There the British Vice Consul was informed by the Spanish. He started a series of communications with the Admiralty using a code known to have been cracked by the Germans, in which the recovery of the briefcase was stressed as being a priority.

On the 1st May a post mortem was carried out on the body by Spanish doctors. Cause of death was given as 'asphyxiation through immersion in the sea'. The following day Major Martin was buried in the San Marco section of Nuestra Senora cemetery in Huelva with full military honours.

The briefcase was not returned to the Vice Consul until the 11th May by which time the information within had found its way to the Germans.

It was not until 1996 that the corpse of Major Martin was revealed as that of Glyndwr Michael through evidence found in the Public Records Office. In 1997 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission added the postcript "Glyndwr Michael served as Major William Martin RM" to 'Major Martin's' grave at Huelva. 

Did Mincemeat work? On the 14th May 1943 Grand Admiral Donitz met Hitler to discuss the progress of the war. The Mincemeat documents were referred to as the 'Anglo Saxon order'. The minutes of the meeting showed that, "The Führer does not agree with ... [Mussolini] that the most likely invasion point is Sicily. Furthermore, he believes that the discovered Anglo-Saxon order confirms the assumption that the planned attacks will be directed mainly against Sardinia and the Peloponnesus." Reinforcements were sent to Greece and Sardinia but not Sicily. 

The Allies invaded Sicily on the 9th July. As a result of Mincemeat the island was taken from the Germans more quickly and with fewer casualties than had been anticipated.

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