World War II: Allied Invasion of Sicily and "The Man Who Never Was"

World War II: Allied Invasion of Sicily and "The Man Who Never Was"


As the World War II Allied campaign in North Africa drew to a close, Allied command turned its attention to its next major objective, an invasion of Europe. From their position in North Africa, with the aid of their fleet in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, the next logical targets for the Allies were German defenses on the Italian island of Sicily. However, rough terrain and solid German land and air defenses would make a direct assault on the island costly, and potentially disastrous. As the German command expected the Allies to attack Sicily, Allied intelligence was charged with devising a plan to feed misinformation to the Germans, causing them to believe that Allied forces were massing to invade Europe via Greece or the Balkans. The plot became known as "Operation Mincemeat," or "the man who never was."

Two British intelligence agents, Ewen Montagu and Sir Archibald Cholmondley, members of the XX "double cross" intelligence committee, proposed to use a dead body, dressed as a military courier, to slip false information about Allied battle plans to the German intelligence service, the Abwehr. The two men convinced Allied command that, with enough attention to the ruse courier's body, uniform, placement, and personal effects, Abwehr agents were sure to believe the validity of any information the courier carried. The team was given less than three months to carry out the "man who never was" operation.

Montague first located a suitable body, that of man in his 30s who had died of pneumonia. Since the team planned to deliver the body by sea, making it look as though the victim washed ashore after a plane crash, the similarity of the pathology of pneumonia and drowning was highly convenient. After gaining the consent of the dead man's family, the body was kept in cold storage while a the XX intelligence team went to work on "Operation Mincemeat," creating a false identity and personal effects for their mystery soldier.

The XX team dressed the body in a Royal Marine uniform, and stuffed his pockets with typical soldier accoutrements. Because the corpse's false identity would have to appear in public casualty noticed printed in the newspapers, the corpse was given the most common name on British military rolls, (acting Capt.) William Martin. Montague and Cholmondley convinced their secretary to write letters to Martin, posing as his fiancée. They included her picture in "Mincemeat's" pockets.

After producing the false documents and private communications between field generals that were added to Martin's attaché case, the body was ready to transport, via submarine, to the Spanish coast. The team chose the location because of the plethora of German agents working in the region. In addition, it gave the illusion that the courier was trying to avoid travel over hostile territory. The body was released into the water off the coast of Spain on April 19, 1943. A fishing boat retrieved the remains of the "man who never was," and reported the find to German agents.

Immediately, British intelligence published William Martin's name on public casualty lists, with the explanation of missing, presumed dead in air accident. Intelligence officers knew that Abwehr agents would check public records to confirm the man's identity. To further the deception, the XX team held a mock funeral for Martin back in England, complete with flowers and a grieving fiancée.

British military intelligence cryptanalysis staff at Bletchley Park monitored German Enigma encoded messages almost in real time. Intercepts indicated that Martin had been found and that the Abwehr had located the misinformation planted on the corpse. Remarkably, within weeks, intercepts reveled that the German High Command had distributed the information to Generals in the Mediterranean. On May 12, 1943, the Germans moved thousands of troops, airplanes, and weaponry from Sicily to fortify defenses in Sardinia and Greece, where they presumed Allied forces were going to invade.

Allied forces invaded Sicily on the morning of July 9. Operation Mincemeat succeeded in weakening German outposts on the island, and allowed the Allies to sweep ashore with astonishing surprise. Though fighting persisted on the island for a month, the clever deception of the "man who never was," whose true identity has never been revealed, greatly reduced the human cost of the invasion for Allied forces. Sicily fell to Allied control on August 17, 1943.



Hinsley, F. H. British Intelligence in the Second World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Montagu, Ewen. Man Who Never Was. London: Globe Pequot Press, 1997.


Bletchley Park
Codes and Ciphers
Codes, Fast and Scalable Scientific Computation

OSS (United States Office of Strategic Services
Poland, Intelligence and Security
Ultra, Operation
United Kingdom, Intelligence and Security

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