A new film details a barely believable operation from World War II involving a dead body designed to fool the Nazis about Allied invasion plans and save the lives of thousands of soldiers. The success of Operation Mincemeat hinged on creating a carefully crafted fiction, which is where James Bond author Ian Fleming came in.
Fleming hadn’t created Bond yet, he was an espionage officer in the British military.
In 1943 Allies were planning to invade the Italian island of Sicily to open a new front. But trying to invade a heavily defended island meant risking heavy casualties — men disembarking from small boats would be easy targets. To make things worse, the Allies believed the Axis forces had obtained some intelligence about the plans. It was essential to divert attention from Sicily to other possible invasion points.
And so a group of spies came up with a plan to plant a dead body which seemed to be carrying confidential plans to invade Greece instead. The body would be dumped in the sea off the Spanish coast in the hope that Nazi agents in the non-aligned country would get wind of its discovery. Nothing was certain in this scenario — the body could disappear, or not come to the Nazis’ notice. But if it was found, the Allied espionage team were determined that their plant would be as believable as possible. A body with nothing in it except a uniform and top-secret papers would raise suspicions. So the spies set out to create a life story for the corpse, and leave clues on his body. Mundane things like a receipt for an engagement ring or a theatre ticket dated in the right time frame for someone coming from London as a message courier. A photo of his girlfriend. The tiny signs of civilian life that all of us carry around.
Several of the team working on the subterfuge were amateur or published authors. Among them, Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond novels after the war (and help found the CIA.) Although this operation, based in a dingy London basement, was far from the glamour of Bond’s missions, it required all of Fleming’s imaginative skills to transform the corpse of a homeless man into “Major William Martin”.
This short video from the National Archives shows some of the documents and artefacts from the real Operation Mincemeat.
On general release 27 April.