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by a Dead Man

After the Allies successful campaign in North Africa during World War II, British Intelligence planned and executed an elaborate deception to fool the Germans about where the next objective would be. As Winston Churchill put it, "Everyone but a bloody fool would know it's Sicily." Sicily had to be taken, because it would be the base from which an invasion of Italy would be launched, but its rough terrain favored a defender, and the Allies needed a plan that would prevent Hitler from reinforcing Sicily's defenses. 

The fictious Major Martin
In order to direct attention away from Sicily, a bogus plan was prepared that involved an attack in the Balkans and the invasion of Sardinia. A method had to be found to allow German Intelligence to discover the plan, and that problem was solved by two junior British officers; Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu and Squadron Leader Sir Archibald Cholmondley. Both were members of the of the XX (Double Cross) Committee, the counterespionage arm of British Intelligence. 

Their proposal was to take a dead body, disguise it as a staff officer carrying fake high-level documents, and allow it to fall into German hands. At first they thought of simply dropping the body from a plane over German occupied territory with a partially opened parachute, but discarded that idea because an autopsy would reveal that the poor fellow was dead long before the incident occurred. Montagu and Cholmondley decided to make the corpse a victim of a plane crash at sea because he would be expected to have been floating in the sea for several days.

To carry out the ruse, A man who had died of pneumonia would be the best choice because he would have fluid in his lungs, and if an autopsy were performed, it would appear that he had died of drowning. They eventually found a body of a man in his early thirties who had been physically fit until his death, and received permission from his family to use the body with the understanding that his identity would never be revealed.

They quickly developed an identity for him as William Martin a captain and acting major in the Royal Marines, born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1907, and assigned to Headquarters, Combined Operations.

The corpse was outfitted in a Marine officer's uniform, complete with service ribbons, identity disks and papers. To make his identity more credible, Major Martin was given a photo of his fiancé along with a couple of love letters and even a receipt for an engagement ring. He was also supplied with theater ticket stubs, pound notes, loose change, keys, a statement from his club for lodging in London, several overdue bills, and a stern letter from his father. They chained a locked briefcase to him with official documents and letters that very subtly revealed the fake invasion plans and indicated that Major Martin was en route by aircraft from England to Allied headquarters in North Africa.

On April 30, 1943, the submarine H.M.S. Seraph, under the command of Lt. Commander N.A. Jewell, surfaced about a mile off the Spanish coast. Spain was selected because of the efficient Abwehr (German military intelligence) network in place there, and the confidence Allied intelligence had in the Spanish government's willingness to cooperate with the Germans.

Major Martin, who was encased in a special container with dry ice, was brought up on deck by the crew. Claiming that the canister held a top secret weather device, Jewell ordered everyone below with the exception of his officers. After briefing them on the situation, Jewell had Major Martin fitted with a life jacket, secured his briefcase, read the 39th Psalm, and the gently pushed the body into the sea where the tide pushed it towards shore. A few hours later he was spotted and recovered by a Spanish fisherman.

After some delay and diplomatic shuffling, the Spanish government eventually returned Martin's briefcase, apparently unopened. Once the documents returned to London, however, microscopic examination of the paper revealed they had indeed been opened, and presumably photocopied. Major Martin was buried a few days later in Huelva, Spain with full military honors, surrounded by floral tributes from his heartbroken fiancé and family. Back in London, the June 4 edition of The Times noted Martin's death in the casualty lists.

Invasion map of Sicily

The German intelligence services were completely fooled. "The authenticity of the captured documents is beyond doubt," they reported. The actual invasion commenced on July 9, 1943 with the Allies attacking the southern tip of Sicily. Montgomery's British Eighth Army and Patton's U.S. Seventh Army met limited resistance because the majority of the island's defenses were situated along the north coast, facing Sardinia. By the time the German High Command realized they had been deceived, the battle for Sicily was nearly over.

"Major Martin's" gravesite

After the war the deception was revealed, and there has been a great deal of speculation as to who Major Martin really was. His true identity was never disclosed, but in 1977 Montagu wrote: "He was a bit of a ne'er-do-well, and...the only worthwhile thing that he ever did he did after his death."


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Ken Padgett (Kenneth W Padgett, Kenneth William Padgett)
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