Operation Mincemeat

Notional Agent

The term “notional agent” is used by the CIA and other intelligence agencies to describe an operative who does not exist, but is concocted by an intelligence organization to deceive and misdirect the action of hostile forces.

For instance, during World War II, British Intelligence created a notional agent in the person of Royal Marine Major William Martin, or “Major Martin”, a fictional identity given to a male corpse launched from a Royal Navy submarine off the coast of Spain. The deceased man was complete with a set of fake documents that suggested the Allies were planning to invade Sardinia and Greece, rather than the true target, Sicily.

Major Martin was at the heart of Operation Mincemeat, a captivating tale of deception, espionage, and innovation that played a crucial role in shaping the course of World War II.

The success of Operation Mincemeat was astonishing. Hitler took the bait and diverted crucial German forces away from Sicily, believing that the Allied invasion would occur elsewhere. This diversionary tactic significantly contributed to the success of Operation Husky, the Allied invasion of Sicily

The Geopolitical Context and Significance of the Mediterranean Theatre

Axis Ambitions: At the outset of World War II, the Axis powers, led by Germany, Japan, and Italy, launched aggressive military campaigns aimed at territorial expansion and dominance. Their rapid conquests placed enormous pressure on the Allies to devise counter-strategies.

Spanning from 1940 to 1945, The Mediterranean Theatre witnessed a complex interplay of land, sea, and air operations, demonstrating the significance of the region in the grand strategy of the Second World War. The campaigns and battles that unfolded in this region remain a testament to the determination and resilience of the forces involved and their enduring impact on the course of history.

Map of the Mediterranean Sea in Summer 1942 showing controlled by Italy, British Empire, and other Axis and Allied forces
Map of the Mediterranean Sea in Summer 1942 showing controlled by Italy, British Empire, and other Axis and Allied forces – Wikipedia

The Mediterranean Sea was a hotbed of naval warfare, with both sides vying for control of critical sea lanes. The British Royal Navy and the Italian Regia Marina (Italian for “Royal Navy”) clashed in numerous engagements, while the German War Navy Kriegsmarine bolstered Axis naval power.

The Mediterranean also saw intense aerial combat as Allied and Axis air forces sought dominance. The Royal Air Force (RAF), the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF), and the German Luftwaffe engaged in dogfights and strategic bombing campaigns.

Battle of Crete: The German invasion of Crete in 1941 was a hard-fought airborne assault, illustrating the evolving nature of warfare. Although the Allies ultimately withdrew from the island, the battle highlighted the vulnerability of large-scale airborne operations.

Allied Vulnerabilities: The early years of the war were marked by Allied setbacks and defeats, making it imperative to devise strategies that could divert, confuse, and weaken the Axis forces.

Gateway to Africa and Europe: The Mediterranean Sea served as a natural bridge between Africa and Europe, making it strategically invaluable for both Axis and Allied powers. Controlling the region would determine access to critical supply lines and influence the fate of neighbouring countries.

Axis Ambitions: For the Axis, the Mediterranean represented the southern flank of their European conquests. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini aimed to control the entire Mediterranean Basin, securing access to North Africa’s resources and threatening the British Empire’s vital link to India.

North African Campaign: The Western Desert and Libyan campaigns were critical theatres within the Mediterranean. British General Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army faced off against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in a seesaw battle for control of Egypt, Libya, and the Suez Canal.

The North African Campaign’s eventual success, culminating in the Battle of El Alamein, was a significant turning point, leading to the Axis retreat from North Africa.

Allied Interests: The Mediterranean theatre of World War II was strategically significant for the Allies as it offered a gateway to Southern Europe and the eventual liberation of mainland Europe. They sought to protect the Suez Canal, securing access to the oil-rich Middle East, and establish a foothold for the eventual liberation of Europe. Controlling this region was essential for logistical reasons, as it allowed for easier access to North Africa, Italy, and southern France.

Malta: The island of Malta became a symbol of resistance and a vital Allied base. Its strategic location made it a target for Axis air raids and naval blockades, but its resilience allowed it to play a crucial role in disrupting Axis supply lines.

Invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky): The Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 marked a crucial step in the liberation of Italy and the European mainland. Operation Husky saw a diverse coalition of American, British, and Canadian forces storm the island, leading to its capture.

Italian Campaign: The Italian mainland became a battleground as Allied forces pushed north from Sicily. The campaign witnessed brutal fighting at places like Anzio and Monte Cassino, where determined German resistance tested Allied resolve.

Allied advances in Italy led to the fall of Mussolini’s regime and Italy’s surrender in 1943. This event further weakened the Axis and allowed the Allies to establish a foothold in mainland Europe.

The Mediterranean Theatre played a crucial role in opening a second front in Europe, diverting Axis resources away from the Eastern Front and helping pave the way for the Normandy landings in 1944.

The Importance of Deception

Deception played a pivotal role in World War II, with both sides employing various strategies to mislead and confuse their adversaries. In the context of World War II, these advantages played a pivotal role in shaping the outcomes of battles and campaigns.

Deception techniques allow military forces to divert enemy attention and resources away from their true objectives. By creating false impressions or manipulating the enemy’s perception, military planners could lure enemy forces into making ill-informed decisions or committing their forces to the wrong locations.

Elaborate dummy tanks and airfields were constructed to deceive aerial reconnaissance. These decoy targets drew enemy fire and led to misplaced airstrikes, saving actual military assets. Both the Allies and Axis forces employed camouflage techniques to conceal troops, equipment, and even entire installations. Camouflage netting, paint, and false structures were used to create the illusion of non-existent assets or to hide the true scale of military activities.

Effective deception can shield critical information from falling into enemy hands. By employing cryptographic methods, double agents, and other counterintelligence measures, military forces could safeguard their plans, intentions, and vulnerabilities. The ability to keep essential information concealed from the enemy was crucial for maintaining operational security and gaining an advantage on the battlefield.

The Allies recruited and managed a network of double agents who fed false information to the Axis. Agents like Juan Pujol García (“Garbo“) played pivotal roles in misdirecting Axis intelligence.

The breaking of the German Enigma Code by Allied cryptanalysts allowed them to intercept and decipher German communications, providing valuable insights into enemy intentions and actions.

British intelligence recognized the need for an effective deception strategy to mislead the Axis powers regarding the Allies’ true intentions. They kept entire units employed on various deceptive techniques. Without such a strategy, the Germans and Italians might have concentrated their defences on Sicily, making the invasion much more challenging.

The Inspiration Behind Notional Agent Major Martin: The Trout Memo

Ewen Montagu, a British Lieutenant Commander and barrister, possessed a keen intellect and a flair for innovation. Recognized for his talents, he was tasked with devising stratagems to outwit the Axis powers during World War II.

Montagu recognized the critical need for deception in wartime. With the Axis powers closely monitoring Allied movements and intelligence, fooling the enemy was imperative to gain the upper hand in strategic planning. In August 1942, he discovered the “Trout Memo”, where it was outlined the potential for using a corpse to carry false information to the enemy.

The Trout Memo Documents (1,2,3 and 4) – Downloaded From The British National Archives.

The actual memo was written by Ian Fleming, a Royal Navy’s Naval Intelligence Department agent who became famous after the war as the creator of the James Bond novels.

Unassuming in appearance but profound in its implications, this memo laid the conceptual foundation for one of the most audacious and successful deception operations of World War II—Operation Mincemeat.

The memo detailed the creation of elaborate fictitious documents, including love letters, photographs, and personal effects, designed to lend authenticity to the deception. These documents would mislead the enemy about Allied intentions and plans.

Montagu’s Trout Memo would go on to play a pivotal role in the world of military deception. This document, initially intended for a restricted audience, outlined a daring and unconventional plan that would shape the future of covert operations

Operation Mincemeat’s execution surpassed all expectations. The corpse chosen for the operation, Glyndwr Michael, played the role of Major Martin, a Royal Marines officer. The fabricated documents and the body were placed in a specially designed canister filled with dry ice and released off the coast of Spain. The German authorities, misled by this deception, diverted their resources to counter an imaginary Allied threat, ultimately benefiting the true Allied objectives.

Glyndwr Michael

The success of Operation Mincemeat hinged on the choice of a suitable corpse. The selection of Glyndwr Michael‘s (sometimes spelled Glendore Michael) corpse was a meticulous process. The goal was to find an individual with no discernible ties to the military or intelligence services, minimizing the risk of discovery.

Michael was chosen due to his anonymity. A Welsh homeless man who had tragically died from ingesting rat poison; and for his physical attributes, which matched the desired age and appearance of Major Martin. Glyndwr Michael’s obscurity was an asset. He was a man without a family or connections, making it less likely that anyone would investigate his background.

The corpse of Glyndwr Michael, dressed as Martin, just prior to placement in the canister
The corpse of Glyndwr Michael, dressed as Martin, just prior to placement in the canister

To further obscure his identity, he was given an extremely common name and surname. Anyone looking for a Martin within the British Intelligence personnel, would come up with hundreds, if not thousands of Martins.

A thorough backstory was developed, complete with details about his upbringing, education, military service and connections, friends, and personal life.

The creation of a believable identity for the corpse was crucial. British intelligence settled on the persona of Captain (Acting Major) William Martin, a Royal Marines officer. Major Martin’s fictitious background included a well-crafted military history, complete with postings and service records.

His character was designed to embody the image of a dedicated and loyal officer. This choice was strategic, as it conferred a sense of authority and urgency to the documents he would carry. The rank of major added gravitas to the persona, making it more convincing.

To lend credibility to Major Martin’s identity, a network of fictitious characters was created. This cast included a fiancée, Pam, a father, an estranged brother, and various military contacts.

Each character had a carefully crafted role to play to reinforce the deception of the operation, ensuring that the entire narrative was consistent and convincing. The supporting cast was carefully constructed to create a web of relationships that would provide context and depth to Major Martin’s persona. These characters would help validate his existence and add emotional weight to the deception.

Crafting a believable personal history for Major Martin involved creating a trove of love letters and personal correspondence between him and his fictitious fiancée, Pam. These letters added a human dimension to the character and lent authenticity to his personal life.

Pocket litter - Some of the Items found in Major Martin's body
“Pocket litter” – Some of the Items found in Major Martin’s body – National Museum of WWII

In addition to letters, a collection of photographs, mementos, and personal effects were fabricated. These items served as tangible evidence of Major Martin’s existence and relationships.

The most critical component of Operation Mincemeat was the fake documents. These included the letter from General Sir Archibald Nye to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, outlining false information about Allied invasion plans, as well as other military documents. These documents were created with meticulous attention to detail. They had to be convincing both in terms of content and presentation, with accurate military terminology and formatting to withstand scrutiny.

Execution of Project Mincemeat

On April 30, 1943, the corpse of Major Martin, along with a briefcase containing the fake documents, was placed in a specially designed canister filled with dry ice to prevent decomposition. The canister was then loaded onto the submarine HMS Seraph for transport. HMS Seraph was chosen for its stealth and reliability.

HMS Seraph , commanded by Lieutenant Norman Jewell, sailed on April 19, 1943 with Major Martin in a dry-ice cylinder.
HMS Seraph , commanded by Lieutenant Norman Jewell, sailed on April 19, 1943 with Major Martin in a dry-ice cylinder. – The Mincemeat Postmortem

The journey of HMS Seraph was marked by utmost secrecy. The crew, under the command of Lieutenant Norman Jewell, knew the significance of their cargo and the need for absolute discretion. The canister’s dry ice ensured that Major Martin’s body remained preserved, minimizing the risk of decomposition.

On the night of April 30, 1943, off the coast of Huelva, Spain, Major Martin’s body was released into the sea. This location was carefully chosen due to its proximity to Spain, a neutral country with Axis sympathies. It was hoped that Spanish authorities would find the body and the documents and pass the information to the Axis powers.

The release of the canister required impeccable coordination. The crew of HMS Seraph executed this operation with precision, ensuring that the canister, weighted to sink to the seabed, was released at the designated coordinates.

After the release, the crew of HMS Seraph maintained radio silence and anxiously awaited news of discovery. The success of Operation Mincemeat depended on the Spanish authorities discovering the body and the accompanying documents.

HMS Seraph’s battle honours board, showcasing its operations – Credit The National Museum of the Royal Navy
HMS Seraph’s battle honours board, showcasing its operations – Credit: The National Museum of the Royal Navy

The Discovery of Major Martin’s Body

On the morning of April 30th, 1943, a sardine spotter named Jose Antonio Rey Maria set out on his small boat into the rough waters of the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Spain.

As Jose scanned the turbulent sea, he noticed something peculiar in the distance—an object floating on the surface. Initially, he thought it might be the remains of a dead sea creature. But as he approached, he noticed a yellow color on the object, which turned out to be part of a life jacket. To his astonishment, he discovered a lifeless body in military attire, face down in the water.

Interview with Jose Antonio Rey Maria, who found and retrieved Major Martin’s body

To make matters even more mysterious, there was a chain wrapped around the dead man’s wrist, leading deep into the water. With courage and curiosity, Jose pulled the chain, eventually revealing a black briefcase secured with a combination lock.

In the context of wartime Europe, finding a dead soldier was not unusual. However, Spain was a neutral country during World War II, and such grim discoveries were unexpected.

Major Martin's ID card
Major Martin’s ID card – The National Museum of WWII

Spanish soldiers, conducting training exercises nearby, noticed the commotion and approached to investigate. They identified the deceased as Major William Martin, a British Royal Marine assigned to the Combined Operation Headquarters in London. His military trench coat and gear hinted at his involvement in Commando raids behind enemy lines.

However, as the soldiers inspected the body, they found no evidence of shrapnel or gunshot wounds. The corpse bore no signs of violent death. The mystery deepened when they discovered three letters from high-ranking British military officials inside the black briefcase. These letters contained information that would soon find its way to Hitler’s desk, altering the course of history.

Photograph of the fictitious girlfriend Pam, carried by Martin
Photograph of the fictitious girlfriend Pam, carried by Martin. The portrait depicted a female member of Montagu’s MI5 team. Martin had purchased an engagement ring for her, as evidenced by a receipt that displayed the amount in pounds sterling. Furthermore, some theatre tickets to “Strike a New Note” at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London indicated that he had attended the performance with Pamela on April 22, the night before his fateful journey.

The autopsy was conducted on May 1st at the Nuestra Señora de la Soledad cemetery morgue by the chief forensic examiner, Eduardo Fernández del Torno. In his report, he concluded that Martín had passed away approximately five to ten days earlier. He observed the absence of the typical fish bites. Being familiar with such findings from the examinations of other drowned sailors, he expressed his astonishment at these anomalies.

However, the German spies paid no attention to these details. If they had taken them into account, they would have realized that Martin could not have been at the theater on the night of April 22nd because he would have been dead for several days by that date.

At the time, Hitler was deeply concerned about a potential Allied invasion. His intelligence suggested that an attack on Sicily was imminent. But the letters from Major Martin, discovered in Spain, revealed a different plan. They indicated that the invasion of Sicily was a ruse, designed to mislead the Germans. The real target was Greece, a strategic location that Hitler considered a weak point in his defenses.

With this newfound information, Hitler redirected his forces to prepare for an attack on Greece. German soldiers and U-boats were deployed to defend the Greek coast. However, the actual Allied invasion occurred in Sicily, where German defenses had been significantly weakened due to the shift in focus.

Operation Husky: The Liberation of Sicily and the Prelude to Victory

Operation Mincemeat came into being during a critical juncture in World War II, when the Allies were planning Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Operation Husky, launched in the summer of 1943, marked a pivotal moment in World War II. As the Allies embarked on the liberation of Sicily, they took a significant step toward the eventual liberation of mainland Europe from Axis control.

Map of Sicily
Map of Sicily, 1943. Sicily was completely unprotected. On July 10, 1943, the Allies landed in Sicily and of the 160,000 soldiers who participated in Operation Husky, more than 153,000 were alive at the end. It was a complete success and the fate of many lives depended largely on a fisherman collecting a corpse while fishing for sardines.

The Mediterranean theatre was of strategic importance, serving as a stepping stone for the eventual liberation of mainland Europe. Sicily served as a gateway to Southern Europe and was a crucial stepping stone for the liberation of Italy and the eventual advance into Germany.

The North African Campaign: The Allies had already achieved success in North Africa, pushing back Axis forces led by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. With North Africa secured, the stage was set for the next phase of the Mediterranean campaign.

Operation Husky, was a high-stakes operation. A joint effort involving American, British, and Canadian forces. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later become the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, led the overall operation.

The Allies needed to ensure the element of surprise, as a well-prepared enemy could have repelled the invasion, causing significant casualties and delaying the liberation of Europe. Deception was necessary to divert Axis forces away from Sicily, increasing the chances of a successful invasion.

Axis Reaction: The Axis powers did indeed take the bait. The Spanish authorities recovered Major Martin’s body and the documents and promptly shared the information with the Abwehr (German intelligence services).

While Spain was supposed to be neutral during WWII, the reality was quite different. Dictator Francisco Franco and Adolf Hitler were indeed allies, often working closely together and sharing highly sensitive information with one another.

The British Intelligence services knew this. The success of Operation Mincemeat lay in the reaction of the Axis powers. The misinformation contained in the documents, which suggested an impending Allied invasion of Sardinia and Greece, led the Axis to divert significant military resources away from Sicily and toward other potential Allied invasion points.

D-Day: July 9, 1943: Operation Husky began on the night of July 9, 1943, with Allied forces landing on the southeastern coast of Sicily. The invasion involved an amphibious assault, with troops coming ashore in a series of coordinated landings.

Assault on Sicily 10th July 1943
Assault on Sicily 10th July 1943

The battle for Sicily was characterized by a series of advances and setbacks. Allied forces faced stubborn resistance but gradually gained ground, with British, American, and Canadian troops making significant contributions.

The Axis powers, led by General Alfredo Guzzoni, offered fierce resistance. The mountainous terrain and well-fortified defenses presented significant challenges for the invading forces.

The Fall of Mussolini: Allied advances in Italy led to the fall of Mussolini’s regime and Italy’s surrender in 1943. His fall from power further weakened the Axis position and allowed the Allies to establish a foothold in mainland Europe.

Prelude to Victory: The success of Operation Husky marked a turning point in the war. It opened a second front in Europe, diverting Axis forces from the Eastern Front and setting the stage for the Allied invasion of mainland Italy. Operation Husky demonstrated the ability of Allied forces to coordinate large-scale amphibious operations and served as a prelude to the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944, marking the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.


The need for deception in World War II was born out of strategic necessity, and its execution became an art form. Deceptive operations such as Operation Mincemeat, elaborate camouflage techniques, and the manipulation of enemy communications were instrumental in shifting the tide of the war in the Allies’ favour.

This operation stands as a testament to the lengths to which intelligence agencies went during World War II to deceive the enemy and ultimately played a crucial role in the Allied victory.

Operation Mincemeat remained one of the most closely guarded secrets of World War II. It was only in the post-war period that the full details of the operation were declassified and revealed to the public. Ewen Montagu’s book, “The Man Who Never Was,” published in 1953, provided an insider’s account of the operation, shedding light on its significance and the remarkable lengths to which intelligence agencies went to deceive the enemy.

Montagu and Cholmondeley, the masterminds behind Operation Mincemeat, received promotions and later became well-known for their ingenious plot.

Glyndwr Michael posthumous contribution to history is commemorated with a marker in Spain. William Martin’s grave is located in the La Soledad cemetery in Huelva, and even a beach bar (chiringuito) in Punta Umbría is dedicated to him.

Grave of Glyndwr Michael in Huelva, Spain
Grave of Glyndwr Michael in Huelva, Spain

Another commemorative plaque can be found in the Hackney Mortuary (London), which play an important role in British Operations during World War II, and where the body of Glyndwr Michael was transformed into Major Martin.

Erected by Hackney Council, Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, Martin Sugarman (AJEX).
Erected by Hackney Council, Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, Martin Sugarman (AJEX).

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