Dead Man Floating: World War II's Oddest Operation In April of 1943, the body of a British Royal Marine washed ashore in Spain, carrying top secret letters about Allied plans to invade Greece and Sardinia. Or so it seemed. In reality, the body was that of a homeless Welsh laborer, and the letters were fakes designed to direct German attention away from the real Allied invasion target: Sicily.

Dead Man Floating: World War II's Oddest Operation

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GUY RAZ, host:

Now, this next story you're about to hear might sound like something out of a James Bond movie. And if it does, it's because one of the men behind it was Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond series. But this story is true and it happened in 1943 in wartime Britain.

The allies were gearing up to invade the island of Sicily. Now, for the attack to succeed, the allies needed to take the Germans and Italians by surprise. So a group of British military and intelligence officers came up with a plan to trick the German high command into thinking that the allies would actually invade Greece.

The story is told in the new book by Ben Macintyre. It's called "Operation Mincemeat."

And Ben Macintyre joins me from London. Welcome.

Mr. BEN MACINTYRE (Author, "Operation Mincemeat"): Thank you.

RAZ: Describe "Operation Mincemeat." What was it?

Mr. MACINTYRE: Well, it was probably the most elaborate, certainly the oddest and certainly one of the most successful deception operations ever undertaken. The idea was, in a nutshell, 1943, January 1943, the allied troops, 160,000 of them, were massed in North Africa preparing to invade Southern Europe.

Now, everyone knew the invasion was coming. The key, though, was to try to bamboozle the Germans into thinking it was going to come where it wasn't going to come.

RAZ: Now, how was Ian Fleming, the man behind the James Bond novels, involved in this ruse?

Mr. MACINTYRE: Well, Ian Fleming, at this time - and indeed from very early on in the war, was naval commander in British naval intelligence. He was the assistant to the head of the whole of British naval intelligence; he was a man called John Godfrey, who would eventually become the model for M in the James Bond stories.

And in 1939, he and Godfrey drew up something called the Trout Memo, which was so called because Godfrey was a very keen trout fisherman and he compared the art of espionage to the art of fly fishing, really. And this memo contained 54 suggestions for bamboozling the enemy at sea.

And one of them, number 28, was headed: A suggestion [not a very nice one]. And the idea very simple was to get a dead body, to equip the dead body with false papers and then to drop it somewhere where the Germans would find it. And Fleming was very clear about where it had come from. He himself had also found it in a novel by a man named Basil Thompson, long forgotten these days, but he wrote detective novels in the '30s.

And in a way that's why I love this story, is that it starts in fiction. And in a way, it really is a case of somebody...

RAZ: Yeah.

Mr. MACINTYRE: ...just imagining their way into reality.

RAZ: Ian Fleming reads this story in a novel from the mid-'30s and says, hey, that might be a good way to trick the Germans.

Mr. MACINTYRE: That's right. And the other bizarre aspect of this is that for four years this idea simply laid dormant. No one picked it up.

RAZ: So how did it reach the people who eventually carried it out?

Mr. MACINTYRE: Well, its time came early in 1943 when, as I say, the allies were preparing to attack Europe. And it was picked up by another most extraordinary figure, a man named Charles Cholmondeley, who was an Air Force officer who'd been soconded(ph) to MI-5, which is the sort of domestic intelligence service in Britain.

And he hit on this idea and put it to his bosses, particularly in a committee called the 20 Committee, which was really in charge of running double cross operations. It was the kind of joke that they liked because 20, of course, in Roman numerals is two Xs and two Xs are a double cross.

And Cholmondeley, who was part of this committee, suggested to them, look, isn't this the perfect moment to put into action this bizarre idea?

RAZ: So Cholmondeley eventually begins to work with somebody else on this committee named Ewen Montagu - he is a naval officer. What do they decide to do?

Mr. MACINTYRE: Between the two of them, they decided the first thing they had to do, obviously, was to try and find a dead body. Now, they'd assumed that this would be very easy in the midst of, you know, the bloodiest war that's ever been fought. But actually finding the right sort of dead body was proving particularly difficult because the body had to look as if it had died in an air crash.

That was the center of the ruse. The body would be floated ashore at a particular point wearing a life jacket, but it had to look as if it had died at sea.

RAZ: And of course, they had to have that body float up and arrive somewhere where the ruse could work, right? So they had it arrive to a village in Spain. Why Spain?

Mr. MACINTYRE: Well, there were two reasons for Spain, essentially. Spain was neutral during the war but many Spanish officials were leaning towards the axis powers.

Now, the secondary reason and perhaps the even more important reason, was that there was a particular German spy operating on this part of Spain. His name was Adolf Clauss(ph). And we knew that he had bribed essentially every Spanish official of any note. And so therefore the assumption was if they could get it to the right Spanish hands that it would end up in German hands.

RAZ: Now, the supposed officer who dies in the plane crash is named Major William Martin. He was not an officer of the Royal Marines as he was portrayed, right?

Mr. MACINTYRE: No. In fact, there was no such person as William Martin of the Royal Marines. He was a completely invented character. And here we get in a way to one of the more tragic and I think very moving parts of this story is that early in 1943, a young man named Glyndwr Michael, who was a homeless Welshman. He was illiterate, he was probably mentally ill, died of rat poisoning in a warehouse, a disused warehouse in London.

So that this poor chap, Glyndwr Michael, was placed literally on ice in a morgue while Cholmondeley and Montagu, like a pair of novelists, set out to create an entirely new personality for him. They turned him into William Martin of the Royal Marines.

RAZ: There must have been some skepticism among senior British officials that this would work. What was the primary reason why the Germans fell for it?

Mr. MACINTYRE: Very early on in the war, Godfrey, Admiral Godfrey, who I mentioned earlier, and Ian Fleming identified two salient elements in espionage, which make a ruse like this work.

One was what they called wishfulness(ph), which doesn't exist as a word, and the other was yesmanship(ph), which doesn't exist either. But what I think they meant was wishful thinking: if you can persuade the enemy to believe something that he is already inclined to believe, then you are far more likely to succeed. And the other element, what they called yesmanship, was that in the intensely hierarchical German chain of command, if the boss believed something, then everybody else would fall into line, no matter how skeptical they might be.

RAZ: Because the Germans sort of bought this hook, line and sinker, they sent reinforcements to Greece instead of to Sicily. To what extent was it vital in the eventual allied victory?

Mr. MACINTYRE: Well, I think there is general agreement among historians that it played an absolutely critical part. Entire panzer divisions were moved from one side of Europe to another to defend against an attack that never materialized.

The other thing that has to be born in mind here is that the conquest of Sicily took place at a critical moment in the war in general. The battle on the eastern front was absolutely in the balance. But at the moment that Sicily was invaded and successfully conquered, Hitler called off that assault. And from that moment on, the German army was on the back foot on the eastern front and the Red Army didn't stop until it reached Berlin.

So in terms of the sort of general choreography, if you like, of the war, this was an absolutely critical dance.

RAZ: That's Ben Macintyre. He's the author of the new book, "Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory."

Ben Macintyre, thank you so much.

Mr. MACINTYRE: It's been a pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening and have a great night.

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