Looking for sardines, a Spanish fisherman named Jose Antonio Rey Maria rowed his skiff out from the coast of Andalucia on April 30, 1943. What he found instead was a corpse, floating face down. He rowed the corpse ashore, where the fisherman noticed that a black briefcase was attached to the man by a chain.
The first stage of Operation Mincemeat, one of the most improbable and audacious spy capers of the Second World War, had succeeded. Less than six weeks later, some 160,000 troops from Canada, Britain and the United States took part in what was then the biggest invasion in history – the Allied landings in Sicily, known as Operation Husky – puncturing Hitler's Mediterranean flank.
At the end of the Sicilian campaign, 153,000 of the soldiers were still alive. What the survivors did not know was that the relatively low casualty rate was in no small part due to Mincemeat. The corpse found by the sardine spotter was identified as Major William Martin of the Royal Marines. But his identity, and the top-secret documents in his briefcase, were an elaborate hoax.
The phony documents convinced Hitler that Greece and Sardinia would be the targets of the invasion of Europe's Mediterranean flank, not Sicily. Germany's defensive efforts were directed to Greece. Even Erwin Rommel, the German field marshal who was considered one of the finest tacticians of the war, was sent there, along with three panzer tank divisions. If all that defensive talent and machinery had gone to Sicily instead, Husky might have been a bloodbath for the Allies.
The details of the spy ruse are detailed in Operation Mincemeat, the 2010 bestseller and rollicking good read by the British author Ben Macintyre, though previous books and the film The Man Who Never Was had made it part popular British culture since the 1950s. Major Martin was in fact Glyndwr Michael, a Welsh tramp who died from apparent poisoning in January, 1943. The corpse was scooped up by British intelligence and placed into cold storage while his identity as a British secret agent was concocted. Documents were forged that suggested the Allied assault would target Greece and Sardinia.
Major Martin was slipped into a canister and delivered by the British submarine HMS Seraph to the Spanish coast, where he was dumped overboard. A few hours later the sardine fisherman found the corpse and the ruse was in motion. After a series of improbable events, incredible good luck and the involvement of a bizarre cast of characters, including a cross-dressing British spy based in Madrid, the documents ended up with German intelligence in Spain. Shortly thereafter, the bogus invasion information reached Hitler's desk.
The Sicilian landings of July 10 met with little resistance, though ferocious fighting on the island was to come. The phony spy had helped to make invasion day a cake walk.