What does James Bond, the fictional British secret agent, who has the codename 007 have in common with Sicily?
On the 9th and 10th July 1943 Allied Forces under Generals Montgomery and Patton landed at Licata, Gela, Pachino and Siracusa conquering Sicily in just 38 days. Across the island you will find memorials and Commonwealth Cemeteries dedicated to those who fell during the the Allied invasion of Sicily which was codenamed Operation Husky.
Husky was a major campaign of World War II involving a large amphibious (sea) and airborne operation, followed by a six week land campaign. It remains the largest sea invasion ever mounted in war history landing 160,000 men in a single day, including my maternal grandfather. The following 38 day battle for Sicily was one of the most dramatic of the entire Second World War and the island acted as a strategic stepping stone to Hitler's fortress Europe.
On Operation Husky D-Day along with the 160,000 men came 14,000 land vehicles and at sea to the south and south-east of Sicily there was an astounding 2,590 vessels along with 3,500 aircraft that were involved in air support.
Part of the reason for the swift success of the invasion was a plan of extraordinary deception created by Winston Churchill's expert spies codenamed "Operation Mincemeat". This plan tricked the Nazis into thinking that the Allies were planning to invade Greece and Sardinia and not Sicily, which was an obvious choice due to its proximity to mainland Italy.
The full effect of Operation Mincemeat is not known but Sicily was liberated more quickly than anticipated and losses were lower than predicted.
Operation Mincemeat was based on the 1939 "Trout Memo" written by Rear Admiral John Godfrey the Director of the British Naval Intelligence Division and his personal assistant Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming who most of you will know as the author of the James Bond novels.
The trout memo contained deception plans and schemes considered for use against Axis powers including an idea to plant misleading papers on a corpse that would then be found by the enemy. In the book "Operation Mincemeat" written by Ben Macintyre he observes that although the paper was published under Rear Admiral John Godfrey's name, it had all the hallmarks of the inspiration and creativity of Ian Fleming and I have to agree it sounds like the perfect plot for a Bond movie.
In late 1942 after the Allied success in North Africa military planners looked to their next target. Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to use the Allied forces from North Africa to attack Europe's "soft underbelly". There were two possible targets for the Allies to attack. The first option was Sicily, as by taking control of the island it would open the Mediterranean Sea to Allied ships and allow the invasion of Europe through Italy. The second option was to invade via Greece and the Balkans. At the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 Allied planners agreed on their next target, Sicily, codenamed Operation Husky. There was concern among the Allied planners that Sicily was too much of an obvious choice and Winston Churchill is reputed to have remarked "Everyone but a bloody fool would know that it's Sicily".
Adolf Hitler was already concerned about a Balkan invasion and knowing of his fears the Allied planners launched Operation Barclay, a deceptive operation to play upon his concerns and wanted to mislead the Axis powers in order to make them divert their resources and troops from Sicily. An elaborate deception plan was needed.
After an incident in 1942 when an aircraft flying from Britain to Spain crashed all onboard were killed, including a courier carrying top secret documents whose body washed up onto a Spanish beach. The body was recovered by the Spanish authorities who then returned it to the British. The top secret documents were still intact and British technicians determined that the letters had not been opened. A month after the crash a British intelligence officer named Charles Cholmondeley outlined his own version of the Trout memo plan codenamed "Operation Trojan Horse". His plan was to obtain a body from a London hospital whose lungs would be filled with water. Then along with the documents placed in an inside pocket the body would be dropped by an aircraft in the hope that it would then be given over to enemy hands. His plan was turned down as it was thought of as unworkable, although it had potential. As there was a naval connection to the plan a naval representative called Ewen Montagu was appointed to work with Charles Cholmondeley to develop the plan further. Rear Admiral John Godfrey had also appointed Ewen Montagu to oversee all naval deception involving double agents. As part of his duties Ewen Montagu was briefed on the need for deception operations to aid the Allied war aims in a forthcoming invasion in the Mediterranean and so Charles Cholmondeley's plan was resurrected and Operation Mincemeat was put into action.
Ewen and Charles were assisted by a MI6 representative Major Frank Foley as they examined the practicalities of the deception plan. Ewen approached a pathologist to determine what kind of body they needed and what factors they would need to fool a foreign pathologist. After contacting a coroner for the Northern District of London he promised Ewen that he would look out for a body that was suitable, preferably one with no relatives who would want to claim the body for burial.
On the 28th January 1943 the coroner contacted Ewen Montagu with the news that he had a suitable body, that of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless alcoholic from Wales who had died from eating rat poison that contained phosphorus. He informed Ewen and Charles that the small amount of phosphorus would not be identified in a body that was supposed to have been floating in the sea for several days. The body was kept in the mortuary refrigerator.
Ewen Montagu selected the code name Mincemeat and on 4th February 1943 along with Charles Cholmondeley they filed their plan for the operation as a reworking of Charles's Operation Trojan Horse. The deception plan was to place documents on the corpse and then float it off the coast of Spain whose neutral government was known to co-operate with the German military intelligence organisation. The plan was passed up to senior Allied strategists who gave the order to continue with their preparations for the operation.
Ewen and Charles began to create a fictional character and background for the body. The name and rank chosen was Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines. As a Royal Marine, Major Martin would have come under Admiralty authority and therefore it would be easy to ensure that all official inquiries and messages about his death would be routed to the Naval Intelligence Division. The rank of Acting Major would make him senior enough to be entrusted with sensitive documents. To create the impression of Captain Martin being a real person Ewen and Charles provided details to be carried on the body which is known in espionage as pocket litter. These included a photograph from an invented fiancée they called "Pam", whose photo was actually that of an MI5 office clerk called Jean Leslie. Two love letters from "Pam" were included in the pockets of Captain Martins Royal Marine uniform in which he would be dressed and also a receipt for a diamond engagement ring from a Bond Street jewellery shop. Additional personal correspondence was included such as a letter from a fictitious father, a note from a fictitious family solicitor and a fake letter from Lloyds bank demanding a repayment of an overdraft. To ensure that the letters would remain legible after being immersed in seawater MI5 scientists conducted tests on different inks to see which would work best. Other items placed on the corpse were a book of stamps, a silver cross and St Christopher medallion, cigarettes, matches, a pencil stub, keys and a receipt for a new shirt. To provide a date that Captain Martin had been in London ticket stubs from a London theatre and a bill for a four night stay at the Naval and Military Club were also added, creating an itinerary of his fictional activity in London between the 18th and 24th April 1943. To make everything look more realistic Charles wore the uniform for weeks to make it look worn in and Ewan kept rubbing an identity card created for Captain Martin on his trousers to give it a used sheen.
Next what was needed was deception documents to fool the Nazis.
Ewen devised that criteria for the documents should contain details of falsified plans to land in Greece and the Balkans without being clearly identified and that Sicily should be named as a cover location. One of the documents included a joke about Sardines in the hope that the Germans would see it as a reference to a planned invasion of Sardinia. A single eyelash was placed within one of the letters to check if it had been opened by the Germans or Spanish. Much effort was made to ensure that the documents were only folded once. The documents were to be place into a briefcase but how could they be sure that the briefcase would stay with the body? They decided to equip Captain Martin with a chain, such as was used by bank and jewellery couriers to secure cases against being snatched, therefore Ewen obtained a chain to keep the briefcase secure to the body.
Ewen and Charles gave a lot of consideration to the location of where to deliver the body and after taking advice from a hydrographer of the Royal Navy regarding tides and currents they decided on Huelva on the coast of southern Spain. They knew that there was a very active German agent there who had excellent connections with Spanish officials and also because the British vice-consul in the city was known as a reliable and helpful man who could be relied upon.
The body was supposed to be the victim of an aeroplane crash. After seaplanes and ships were dismissed as being too risky and problematic a submarine was chosen as the method to deliver the body. To transport the body by submarine they needed a canister which would remain airtight to keep the corpse as fresh as possible throughout its journey, which would be labelled "Handle with care: optical instruments" to distract the crew from what was contained inside.
After getting the go ahead final approval was needed from Winston Churchill who gave his approval but who delegated the final confirmation to General Eisenhower who was the overall military commander in the Mediterranean. The final confirmation was received on 17th April 1943.
In the early hours of 17th April 1943 the corpse of Glyndwr Michael was dressed as Captain Martin. The pocket litter was placed on the body and the briefcase was attached. The body was placed in the canister which was filled with 9.5kg of dry ice and then sealed. The canister was placed in a van with a MI5 driver and together with Ewen and Charles the body was driven through the night to Scotland where the canister was taken onboard the submarine HMS Seraph whose commander told his men that the canister contained a top secret meteorological device to be deployed off the coast of Spain.
On the 19th April 1943 the submarine set sail and arrived just off the coast of Huelva on the 29th April. At 4:15 am on the 30th April the submarine surfaced and after having the cannister brought up on deck its commander sent all his crew down below except the officers. They opened the canister and lowered the body into the water. Afterwards the commander sent a message to the Admiralty saying "Mincemeat completed".
The body was found at around 9:30am on the 30th April by a local fisherman and thereafter it was taken by Spanish soldiers and was handed over to a Spanish judge. The British vice consul was informed by the Spaniards and he reported back to the Admiralty that the body and briefcase had been found.
After a autopsy was undertaken by Spanish doctors a death certificate was signed for Major William Martin for asphyxiation through immersion in the sea. The body of Glyndwr Michael was released and Major Martin was buried in the cemetery of Huelva with full military honours.
The Spanish Navy retained the briefcase which was eventually forwarded to Madrid. The contents were photographed by German sympathisers beforehand but the letters were not opened. Once the briefcase arrived in Madrid it became the focus of attention of one of the most senior German military intelligence service agents in Spain who tried to intervene and persuade the Spanish to surrender the documents. Acceding to the request the Spanish carefully removed the still damp paper. The letters were photographed before being re-inserted into their envelopes without the eyelash that had been planted there by the British. The copies and information were then passed to the Germans on the 8th May which was then taken in person to Germany.
On the 11th May the briefcase was handed back to the British vice consul who forwarded it to London. On its return to London it was forensically examined and it was noted that the eyelash was missing and that the paper had been refolded more than once. To allay any potential German fears that their activities had been discovered the British Vice Consul leaked the news to the Spanish, knowing full well that the information would be relayed to the Germans, stating that the letters had been examined but had been deemed as unopened. Final proof that the Germans had been passed the information from the letters came via a decrypted message warning that the invasion was to be in the Balkans.
A message was sent to Winston Churchill that read "Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker".
On the 14th May 1943 in a meeting Adolf Hitler informed Benito Mussolini that Greece, Sardinia and Corsica must be defended at all costs and that German troops would be best placed to do the job. German torpedo boats were moved from Sicily to the Greek islands in preparation and German divisions were transferred to Greece and the Balkans. German aircraft left Sicily to reinforce Sardinia. Hitler was fooled and in all he moved 90,000 soldiers to Greece leaving a mostly Italian force behind in Sicily.
On the evening of the 9th July and early hours of the 10th the Allies invaded Sicily and the island fell to them on 17th August 1943.
Operation Husky achieved it goals as set out by the Allied planners driving the remaining Axis air, land and naval forces from the island and the Mediterranean sea lanes were opened for the Allied ships for the first time since 1941. Mussolini was toppled from power in Italy and the way was layed opened for the invasion of Europe via Italy.
Whilst there were other plots and deceptions going on in relation to the invasion of Europe it would be great to think that a homeless man that had no family and felt he had no purpose in life had become a hero and had helped with the invasion of Sicily.
In 1977 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission took responsibility for Major Martin's grave in Huelva and in 1997 the commission added to the stone "Glyndwr Michael served as Major William Martin".
To discover the full story I highly recommend reading "Operation Mincemeat" by Ben Macintyre and to read about Operation Husky "Sicily 43" by James Holland. I thank and credit both these books and authors for the research I have been undertaking.
Through my Blog I receive many wonderful and sometimes tear inducing emails and messages from followers who have and had relatives who served in Sicily.
To learn more about Operation Husky in Sicily a visit to the 'Museo Storico dello Sbarco Sicilia 1943" is a MUST visit when in Catania and please do ask me about Day Excursions and Custom Small Group Tours with an authorised World War 2 expert guide discovering the beaches of the Allied landings and the battlefields where the conquest of Sicily unfolded. Visits to the Commonwealth cemeteries can also be arranged.
This Blog post is dedicated to all the souls who lost their lives in battle in Sicily.
God bless them and their families.
Save the Date
"Operation Mincemeat" the film adaption of Ben McIntyre's novel adapted by screenwriter Michelle Ashford starring Colin Firth is set for release in UK and Ireland in January 2022.
Watch this Space.
Operation Mincemeat by Ben McIntyre
Sicily 43 by James Holland
are available to order on www.amazon.com
This week I went on a research mission to the Imperial War Museum in London
The museum's collections include archives of personal and official documents, photographs, film and video material, oral history recordings, an extensive library, a large art collection and examples of military vehicles and aircraft, equipment and other artefacts dating from the First World War to present day. The museum is currently being transformed with a new Second World War gallery coming later this year.
On my visit I was delighted to get up close and personal with a spitfire and British General Montgomery's Humber staff car which he used to visit troops fighting in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.
If you enjoyed this Blog post then you might enjoy these ones from my Blog archive:
"Eastern Sicily ... The Legacy of Invading Powers" https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2018/03/eastern-sicily-legacy-of-invading-powers.html
"Taormina ... The British Legacy" https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2017/09/taormina-british-legacy.html
"Lunch at The Ashbee Hotel Taormina" https://whitealmond-privatesicily.blogspot.com/2017/06/lunch-at-ashbee-hotel-taormina.html
and KEEP POSTED for more WW2 in Sicily posts coming soon
Thank you for following me at White Almond Sicily
as seen in
The Essential Guide to Sicily by Essential Italy
Weddings and Honeymoons in Sicily by Wedaways©
and My Lemon Grove Summer by Jo Thomas
I am also a contributor to www.timesofsicily.com
For NEW Blog updates and all things Sicilian
follow me on the Socials at
For Travel Tips, Trip Advice and Recommendations
Email me at email@example.com
or fill out my Blog Contact Form