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How Ian Fleming fooled the Nazis

Matthew Macfadyen, Colin Firth and Johnny Flynn in Operation Mincemeat (2021)

The Allies’ 1943 deception campaign known as Operation Mincemeat was a “bonkers” idea “borrowed from the pages of a cheap thriller”, says Dan Snow on History Hit. The aim was to deceive the Germans about where Allied forces might land in Italy, and the idea came from Ian Fleming – then a lieutenant commander, later the author of the Bond novels – who stole it from a 1930s paperback. Fleming proposed dressing up a corpse as a British airman, stuffing his pockets with misleading intelligence, and then making sure the enemy found him. Charles Cholmondeley, an MI5 operative, was tasked with putting the plan into action.

The hardest part was finding a suitable body. The man had to be of military age but with no bullet holes, so that the enemy would think he’d drowned after a plane crash. A coroner in north London suggested Glyndwr Michael, a homeless man who’d died in a King’s Cross warehouse after eating poison. He was destitute and skinny, so Cholmondeley made him a staff officer – “someone who sits behind a desk more often than the machine gun”. They created a fake name – William Martin – and stuffed his pockets with “racy love letters” from a fiancé and a receipt for an engagement ring. Cholmondeley rubbed a false ID card on his trousers every day for weeks to give it a “used sheen”. The senior military commander in the Mediterranean, General Eisenhower, organised for the body to be released just off the Spanish coast, betting that Franco’s government would pass on the fake intelligence to Germany. The gamble paid off – and Glyndwr Michael, a destitute London beggar, became a hero of the Allied war effort.