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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Man Who Never Was

by Ewen Montagu

published by J. B. Lippincott Company
Philadelphia and New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11

 p110  10  Major Martin Lands in Spain

On the 3rd May we received a signal from the Naval Attaché in Madrid. He had been informed by the Vice-Consul at Huelva that the body of a Major Martin, Royal Marines, had been picked up just off‑shore by a fisherman on the 30th April. The body had been be duly handed over to the Vice-Consul and had been given a full military funeral, at which the Spanish Services and civilian authorities were represented, at twelve noon on the following day in the cemetery at Huelva. There was no mention in the Attaché's message of the black official briefcase or of any official papers.

There then followed an exchange of signals between the Admiralty and the Naval Attaché. If the papers had been what they purported to be, it was obvious that, when the death of Major Martin and the arrival of his body in Spain became known at Combined Operations H. Q., there would have been a realisation of the fact that a most secret document had gone astray, and reference to Sir Archibald Nye would have revealed  p111 the full measure of the disastrous "leak" of strategic information that might have taken place. In those circumstances, increasingly pressing messages would have been sent to the Naval Attaché, urging him to try to get the documents back at all costs, but warning him that he must take the utmost care not to show undue anxiety lest that should alert the Spaniards to the importance of the documents and encourage them to open or "lose" them. We naturally had to act as if the whole affair was genuine, and the signals were therefore on those lines.

We started by a signal on the 4th May stating that Major Martin had some papers with him which were of great secrecy and importance, and instructing the Attaché to make a formal demand for them. If they were not forthcoming, he should make very discreet but searching enquiries at Huelva to see if they had been washed ashore and if so, what had happened to them. If he did recover them, he was to signal to "D. N. I. — Personal" the names of the addressees; he was not to open the envelops, but to return them as quickly as possible to D. N. I.

We followed that by another signal informing him that it had been ascertained that there were three letters, of the utmost importance, and that they were believed to be in a black official briefcase with the Royal cypher on it. He was again warned on no account  p112 to arouse the interest of the Spaniards in the documents.

We learned from the Attaché, in reply to the first signal, that the Minister of Marine had informed him, in answer to a studiously routine enquiry, that the documents had been passed through "Naval channels" and would only reach Madrid via the Spanish Naval H. Q. at Cadiz. This would take some days. The Attaché had learned that the Vice-Consul at Huelva had had no opportunity to get the briefcase or other documents.

Then, on the 13th May, the Attaché informed us that the Spanish Chief of Naval Staff, in the absence of the Minister of Marine, who was away, had just given him all Major Martin's effects, including a briefcase — the latter was open with a key in the lock. The Chief of Naval Staff had said that "everything was there," and the Naval Attaché had thanked him.

Although the Attaché had gained a strong impression that the Chief of Naval Staff knew at least something of the contents of the letters, he considered that there was no reason to think that that officer would divulge his knowledge to anyone. Of course, we did not suspect that officer of any breach of faith — but if he knew of the contents it would be certain that others would also know. Things were going well — the "leak" was starting.

Our optimism was strengthened by the next message  p113 that we received from the Attaché. The Minister of Marine himself had referred to the papers when he saw the Attaché on Saturday, the 15th May. Apparently, he had heard, while in Valencia, that the papers had arrived in Madrid, and had immediately given orders to the Chief of Naval Staff to hand them over at once. He had done this lest someone might have had an unauthorised look at them, which might, he said, be a serious matter.

Nothing that had been said to the Minister of Marine before he left Madrid could have given rise to such anxiety about the documents, so we had no doubt at all that the envelopes must have been opened. That being the case, we were confident that there must be at any rate one Spaniard "in the know" who would pass the information on to the Germans. How close the co‑operation was in fact we were not to learn until after the end of the war.

Meanwhile, discreet enquiries in Huelva filled in some of the details of what had happened. We learned with absolute certainty that a fisherman had noticed a floating object and had hailed a nearby launch, which took it on board. The object, which turned out to be the body of Major Martin, was landed on the nearest beach by the launch and handed over to an officer who happened to be exercising a detachment of infantry there.

A naval judicial officer was summoned, and he took  p114 charge of all the documents and personal effects. The body, after identification, was removed to the mortuary at Huelva for medical examination by a doctor, who certified that the man had fallen into the sea while still alive and had no bruises, and that death was due to asphyxiation, through immersion in the sea since five to eight days before. An American Air Force pilot who had crashed into the sea on the 27th April was then asked to inspect the body in case he could identify it, but he (naturally) could not do so.

The man whom we knew to be the chief German agent in the vicinity had soon learnt of the landing of the body. He quickly ascertained the details, including the names of the addressees of the letters in the briefcase, and had tried to get copies of all the documents, but he was not success­ful owing to the chance fact that, as the military patrol had been present to take charge of the body, the naval judicial officer had been called in, and neither he nor his associates had the right kind of contact with that particular official.

Although we were confident that all had gone well, we wanted a final check, and we waited impatiently for the return of the documents that Major Martin had carried; eventually they reached London and were promptly submitted to scientific tests. Before sending them out, we had taken precautions, which I obviously cannot specify, which would help us to check whether the envelopes had been tampered with and, though the  p115 immersion in sea water made certainty impossible, we were now able to say with some degree of confidence from the physical evidence that the letters, or at least two of them, had been removed from the envelopes, although the seals appeared to be intact.

When we added this information to that which we had received from Huelva and from the Naval Attaché, we were quite satisfied. There was little doubt that the Spaniards had extracted the letters and knew what was in them, and that the German Intelligence Service knew of the important addressees; we could rely on the efficiency of the Germans to get all that they wanted out of that situation. We were sure that our confidence in the Spanish end of the German Intelligence Service would not be misplaced. It was now up to Berlin to play its part.

Meanwhile, we must say farewell to Major Martin. He had served his country well, and we felt that it was up to us to see that his last resting-place should be a fitting one and that proper tribute should be paid to him, even if all this had to be done under pseudonyms. We were glad to be able to show respect to him without any danger to the success of the operation in which he had played so vital a part. Indeed, by doing what our instinct required of us, we would make it more difficult for the Germans to check the Spanish doctor's verdict — a verdict with which we were entirely satisfied. Frequent visits to the grave by British officials and their  p116 representatives would at least deter any exhumation by the Germans or Spaniards before the tombstone could be laid.

First of all we got the Naval Attaché to arrange for a wreath to be placed on the grave from Pam and the family; next we arranged that a tombstone should be laid as soon as possible and, finally, I wrote to the Naval Attaché, asking him to thank the Vice-Consul at Huelva on behalf of Major Martin's family for all the trouble he had taken, and the consideration that had been shown, and asking also that photographs of the grave might be taken, as they would be treasured by the family and by Major Martin's fiancée, to whom he had so recently become engaged.

The wreath was composed of flowers from the garden of an English mining company at Huelva; the gravestone was of plain white marble and bore the inscription, "William Martin. Born 29th March, 1907. Died 24th April, 1943. Beloved son of John Glyndwyr Martin and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. R. I. P."​a

We could no more for him, although we were deeply in his debt and felt that very soon many thousands of his fellow countrymen and their American allies might owe their lives to him as they landed on the shores of Sicily. Indeed, my confidence in that probability was shared by now by those in authority: I had sent a message to Lieutenant Jewell to let him know  p117 that his part of the operation had been completely success­ful: as it was undesirable to send my message by signal, in case it aroused talk, I decided that Lieutenant Jewell would know what I meant when I wrote, "You will be pleased to learn that the Major is now very comfortable" on an ordinary picture postcard. But the Chiefs of Staff went one better; they sent a message to the Prime Minister, who was by then in Washington; it also had of necessity to be cryptic and read:

"Mincemeat Swallowed Whole."

Thayer's Note:

a Major Martin's middle name seems to have been a bow to the man whose body it actually was, Glyndwr Michael.

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