Operation Mincemeat was the codename for a plan created and carried out by a small number of British intelligence officers during World War II, with the intent of convincing the German High Command - through false documents deliberately passed to them - that an Allied invasion into southern Europe through Greece would take place in mid-1943. Extremely successful, Mincemeat would cause the Germans to remove a significant amount of troops and armor from France, the eastern front against the Soviet Union, and the island of Sicily to bolster their forces in Greece and the Balkans; their acceptance of the ruse allowed for complete Allied victory in Operation Husky, in which the real target of invasion was Sicily. The success of Mincemeat was further guaranteed by the macabre element central to the plan: the documents were in a briefcase chained to a dead man - with a false identity - who was set adrift at sea.
The idea of using a corpse as an agent to deliver false information had its roots in a novel. In 1937, Basil Thompson wrote a book entitled The Milliner’s Hat Mystery in which a dead man is discovered with a false identity, courtesy of the many forged papers and documents found with him. The tenth in a series of detective novels featuring his Inspector Richardson character, it was not a good seller at the time, but it was picked up and read avidly by a British naval officer who happened to have loved the series, Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming.
Fleming was responsible for the creation of a top-secret memo shortly after war was declared in September, 1939; the memo listed 51 ideas that could be carried out against the Germans using deception, false information, and so on; number 28, as Fleming wrote it...
- "A suggestion (not a very nice one). The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with dispatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one."
Assembling the plan
In 1943 the Allies were by then firmly-established in North Africa. Operation Torch had been a success, and British General Montgomery was poised to remove the Afrika Corps under Erwin Rommel at El Alamein. In the meantime, plans were being readied for the invasion of southern Europe, and to both sides of the conflict it was obvious that the invasion would first go through Sicily. The Germans had already augmented their forces on the island in expectation; what the Allies needed to do was to have some or all of those units removed for the invasion to succeed.
Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, two officers working in the Intelligence Division, were also aware of the Sicily plans, and knew that the invasion could possibly fail if German reserves were not removed from the island in some degree. Thinking back to the "trout memo", Cholmondeley suggested an air drop of a corpse wearing a radio; this plan was shelved as not feasible. But the corpse idea remained, and Montague took it up with a bolder plan: Cholmondeley's idea of the radio was replaced with documents, and the corpse was to be dumped at sea, complete with the identity of a British officer who may have been the victim of a plane crash. The corpse would be near-enough to be recovered and taken to a neutral country, but one that was known to harbor German spies; the plan being that the documents would be opened and read.
Spain was chosen as the recovery site. Although neutral during the war, Spain had as its leader a pro-Nazi dictator, Fransico Franco; further, its Atlantic coastline between British-controlled Gibraltar and the Portuguese border had cities which were swarming with German spies. A submarine, it was suggested, could get near the shoreline, place the corpse in the water at night, and leave without being detected; the body would be taken to shore by the currents within hours.