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How A Dead Body Helped Defeat Hitler

Updated on February 10, 2019
Mamerto profile image

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

When you are out there fighting wars, you ought to resort to anything to win. And military planners could come up with the most ingenious ways to put their enemies on their knees. It might involve quick army maneuvers, special operations, assassinations, even propaganda and psychological warfare. And when the situation calls for it, the plan could get weirder.

Personally, I don’t like the James Bond character, but there are some highly classified military operations that rivals his exploits. However, no one will be hooking with femme fatales or fighting grotesque villains this time. Real life covert operations are neither sexy, romantic or glamorous. Nevertheless, hearing the real story could be stranger than fiction. In one case in the heat of the Second World War, the British staged a successful misinformation that helped the Allied Forces scored a victory against the Nazis. Sicily was their target, and they need to disguise the plan, so Hitler won’t notice. No clever gadgetry was used. No intrepid spies are deployed. No shots are fired. The British found a potent weapon in the cold storage of the mortuary.

They used a dead body.

The Background of the Operation

Allied invasion of Sicily
Allied invasion of Sicily

Again, the year was 1942 and the Allies just won the North African Campaign. They now set their sights on the new target. They felt that the time was still not ripe for the invasion of France, and Winston Churchill considered going for the “soft underbelly” of Europe. One of these soft spots was Sicily. Once the Allied Forces got hold of it, it will open Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. The other is Greece and the Balkans, where the Germans will be trapped. Eventually the Allied Forces agreed to launch the Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily. There is one problem though. The Allied planners thought that the Nazis will notice it immediately and the plan will be foiled before it started. Fortunately, the Allied Forces were also aware of Hitler’s concern about the Balkan invasion. The area was the lifeblood of the German forces, where raw materials for his military came from. Hence the Allied played on his fears and launch a misinformation campaign Operation Barclay. With bogus military build-up, radio traffic, recruitment of Greek interpreters and acquisition of Greek maps, it was a staged act to fool Hitler into thinking that they will go for Greece instead. And to make this maneuver more convincing, the British launched the daring, and somewhat bizarre Operation Mincemeat.

Operation Mincemeat

Ian Fleming, the brainchild of the Operation Mincemeat.
Ian Fleming, the brainchild of the Operation Mincemeat.

The Operation Mincemeat aims to further fool the Nazis into thinking that Greece was indeed the target. It was done by planting supposedly classified, but fake documents into the hands of Nazi spies. Now, handing the enemies fabricated files was nothing new. The move was called the Haversack Ruse, which was already on practice years before. During the Sinai and the Palestinian campaign of the First World War, British intelligence officer Richard Meinertzhagen let a haversack filled with false battle plans fall into the Ottoman military. This fooled the Turkish planners, and the British scored a win in the Battle of Bersheeba and Gaza. In the events of the later war, the Haversack Ruse will influence many deception campaigns, like the Operation Mincemeat. This time however, the British added a twist. They will use a corpse to deliver the misleading papers to the Nazis.

The whole elaborate plot was the brainchild of Ian Fleming, the man who will later bring James Bond to the world through his works of fiction. Back then he was Lieutenant Commander in the British Naval Intelligence. It started with the Trout memo, a paper comparing enemy deception to fishing. Though it was published under Rear Admiral John Godfrey (Director of the British Naval Intelligence), it bore Flemings’ hallmarks. It had numbers of schemes to bait the Germans, and one is to plant phony papers on a corpse that would be found by the enemy later.

Finding a Dead Operative

Charles Cholmondeley (left) and Ewen Montagu (right). The real James Bonds.
Charles Cholmondeley (left) and Ewen Montagu (right). The real James Bonds.

Intelligence officers Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu were the ones tasked to carry out the plan. But before everything else, they must find a body. Ideally it must have no relatives that will claim the corpse for burial. And in January 28, 1943, Bentley Purchase (the Northern District of London coroner) found a suitable cadaver.

In life, Glyndwr Michael was a virtual failure. He had part time jobs as gardener and laborer, but his father killed himself and his mother died when he was 31. The unfortunate Michael then drifted to London, where he lived as a tramp. He then died after eating bread smeared with rat poison. It was a possible suicide, but the man could had been desperate for food and he ingested the tainted bread out of hunger.

Michael was a miserable man in life, but he never imagined that he will be a crucial part of a daring plan after death. Once Montagu obtained his corpse, he will be given a new identity, a fabricated life grander than what he had.

Creating a False Identity

Items of the pocket litter. Note the ID with the picture in the middle.
Items of the pocket litter. Note the ID with the picture in the middle.

It is now up to Montagu to transform the undernourished tramp into a convincing soldier. At first, he noted that a gaunt tramp never looked like any fit field officer. Yet Bentley Purchase suggested that the dead Michael could play staff officer instead (soldiers suited for office jobs). With that said, the painstaking transformation work began.

Firstly, Montagu and Cholmondeley fabricated a “legend.” Basically, it is a made-up background story and character for the corpse. For his fake name, they rechristened Michaels as Captain William Martin of the Royal Marines. They chose the name Martin because it is a common name in that rank in the Royal Marines. They then prepared the pocket litter to make his identity more convincing. In espionage, pocket litter are items carried in person which could provide details on the person’s background and lifestyle. Among the pocket contents, the ID card is the most important. The problem here was that Michaels corpse was now days old, and he now looked more like a cadaver rather than a living person. This made him unsuitable for ID photos. So, they photographed Captain Ronnie Reed of MI5, a man resembling Michaels instead.

MI5 clerk Jean Leslie posing as the fictitious girlfriend Pam.
MI5 clerk Jean Leslie posing as the fictitious girlfriend Pam.

In addition to the phony ID, other items for the pocket litter includes a book of stamps, religious items, cigarette, matches, pencil stub, keys, receipts, billings and ticket stubs from the London theatre. They also provided him with letters from his nonexistent father, bank, and even from a girlfriend. Just to be sure they asked an MI5 clerk Jean Leslie to be photographed as his girlfriend Pam.

Lastly the corpse will wear the standard Royal Marines battledress. Glyndwr Michael now had a fictitious life he always desired.


The corpse of Glyndwr Michael dressed as Captain William Martin.
The corpse of Glyndwr Michael dressed as Captain William Martin.

The day of the mission came and on April 17, 1943, Michaels was dressed and transformed into Martin. They loaded the pocket litter and attached the briefcase containing the fake documents about the false invasion of Greece and Sardinia. The corpse set sailed on board the submarine HMS Seraph, where it was dumped off the coast of Huelva, Spain in April 29. Spain was chosen as the suitable location because of the many Nazi spies it had. It was later discovered by fishermen and was taken by Spanish soldiers to a naval judge. Due to the heat and the stench of decomposition, the corpse was quickly buried with full military honors (without any idea that the corpse belonged to a tramp). The cause of death was dismissed as drowning. Later it will be claimed that the corpse came from a plane crash in the sea. Some of the belongings, including the notorious bogus papers are kept under lock and keys. Eventually it captured the attention of the German spies and they persuaded Spain to surrender the documents. Once in their possession, they photographed the documents and passed the information.


The grave of Glyndwr Michael in Huelva, Spain.
The grave of Glyndwr Michael in Huelva, Spain.

Hitler reacted to the misinformation by moving an entire panzer division to Greece, and Sicily was left with minimum defense. By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late. They are left defending the wrong property and Sicily fell to the Allied Forces. Even after the fall of Sicily, Hitler was still convinced that the Allies will go after the Balkans that he suspended the Kursk offensive to station more troops in the region. This proved to be a grave mistake, as it allowed the Soviets to mount their own offensive that lasted until they reach Berlin. The tide of war turned, all thanks to the deceased tramp who helped fight Hitler beyond the grave.


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    • Mamerto profile imageAUTHOR

      Mamerto Adan 

      2 years ago from Cabuyao

      Thanks too Umesh!

    • bhattuc profile image

      Umesh Chandra Bhatt 

      2 years ago from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India

      A well researched article. Nice reading and very informative. Thanks.

    • Mamerto profile imageAUTHOR

      Mamerto Adan 

      2 years ago from Cabuyao

      Thanks Nishika!

    • LoyalFrienemy profile image

      Nishika Chhabra 

      2 years ago from India

      Just amazing! I really liked your article


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