It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Oct 19, 2008

The Man Who Never Was

This is one of the finest and most significant hoaxes in history. It had a very limited audience - the German military intelligence and command structure up to and including Hitler in World War II. The hoax was perpetrated by British Naval Intelligence people. Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, the chief hoaxer, told the story in 1953 in the book "The Man Who Never Was." Hollywood couldn’t generate a better story.

The story of the hoax began in late 1942, when a young man died of pneumonia in London. His involvement in the hoax is almost too fantastic to believe.

At the same time, the Allied forces were seeing the requirement for taking Sicily from the Germans. It was serving as a base for attacking Allied supply convoys in the Mediterranean, resulting in serious losses in those convoys. What would be the target of an Allied invasion? Churchill himself later said that "anybody but a damn’ fool would know it is Sicily." Montagu’s project was to develop a hoax that would deceive the Germans into thinking that the Allied invasion would start somewhere else. But how to do that? The Germans were very thorough and checked everything very carefully.

The hoax entailed developing a plausible scenario that would deliver documents of significant military value to the Germans; the documents would, of course, be fake and constitute the payload of the hoax. The challenge was to make the scenario so perfectly believable that the Germans would accept the documents as genuine. The plot was given the code name "Operation Mincemeat."

The ultimate scenario can be summarized as follows.

1. The Vice Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Gen. Sir Archibald Nye, writes a letter to Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, who was commanding an army in Tunisia. This letter would be most sensitive and secret because it discussed Mediterranean operations and cover plans, along with a few other issues of interest to Gen. Alexander.
2. This letter would be hand-carried to Africa by a Major William Martin of the Royal Marines.
3. Because flying over enemy territory with sensitive material was prohibited, the Major’s aircraft would avoid land until it reached Africa.
4. Some accident occurs, the aircraft crashes at sea and all hands perish.
5. Major Martin’s body, still clutching the briefcase containing the letters he was carrying, washes up on the beach at Huelva, on the Atlantic coast of Spain. An overturned life raft is found in the same area.
6. The body is found by a fisherman and turned over to authorities.
7. After an autopsy, Major Martin is buried with full military honors in the Huelva cemetery.
8. The Major’s briefcase would later be returned to British diplomats in Spain and ultimately returned to England.
9. German intelligence agents, active in Spain, would obtain copies of whatever documents Major Martin was carrying.

That was the plan. The actions of the Spanish were reasonably predictable, so the last steps were relatively certain.

Montagu and his team knew that, even though Spain was neutral in the war, the Abwehr (German intelligence service) was quite active there and that the Spanish were cooperative. This knowledge was important in the design of the scenario.

The letters Major Martin carried were carefully designed deceptive fakes intended to suggest that the Allied invasion would be aimed at Greece and Sardinia, NOT Sicily. The vehicle for their delivery was the stuff of legend: Major Martin was a completely fictitious character - the Man Who Never Was. He never existed. So - just who was it that washed ashore at Huelva? Remember that young man who died of pneumonia in London? Montagu needed a corpse of a young man to pose as Major Martin. After the body was discreetly (and legally) obtained, it was put in cold storage while the plot was developed. Montagu noted that Major Martin was the only man ever to join the Royal Marines after he was dead!

Real Major Martin Grave in Spain

Major Martin did not die in an airplane accident - he was already dead! The body, fitted out as a Royal Marine major, was iced down in a special container, loaded aboard a British submarine, taken to a point offshore from Huelva and placed in the water. The onshore wind carried the body towards shore where the fisherman found it. After that the Spanish did exactly as Montagu had predicted.

It’s a long and fascinating story. To sum it up, the hoax worked beyond Montagu’s wildest dreams. It fooled everyone in the German command, including Hitler. That letter from Gen. Nye caused the Germans to split and dilute their defenses in a catastrophic way. An important Panzer division was diverted to Greece and a large amount of resources was expended in fortifying the area. A useful naval unit was sent to the Aegean, taking it out of action in Sicily. In the West, defensive efforts were diverted from Sicily to Sardinia and Corsica.

The seriously weakened defenses of Sicily were unable to withstand the huge Allied assault and collapsed fairly quickly. After a few days the Germans began to suspect something, as the invasion of Sicily continued and nothing was happening at Sardinia and Greece, but it was too late to recover.
The monstrous hoax had done its job perfectly; it caused the Germans to split their defenses across Europe, ensuring an Allied success at Sicily and saving thousands of Allied lives. The pen was mightier than the sword!

The Man Who Never Was has been a title of a 1954 book by Ewen Montagu and a 1956 World War II war film based on the book.

You can see the entire movie at the following link for free:


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