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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 2
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 4

 p32  3  "Operation Mincemeat"

I now had to get general approval for the principle of the operation. The first step, as always before any operation, was to get a code name; except in the case of a few major operations for which the Prime Minister himself invented the names, these were always taken from lists issued to us by the Service departments and the various Commands. I therefore went to see what names had been allocated for Admiralty use, and there I found that the word "Mincemeat" had just been restored after employment in a success­ful operation some time before. My sense of humour having by this time become somewhat macabre, the word seemed to be one of good omen — and "Operation Mincemeat" it became.

I had next to decide where we were to send the body, and I chose Huelva as the best destination, if delivery there was possible. For we knew that there was a very active German agent at Huelva who had excellent contacts with certain Spaniards, both officials  p33 and others. If the body reached Huelva, the odds were very heavy that this agent would be given any papers or other objects of importance that might be with it; even if circumstances prevented that happening, there was no doubt whatsoever that he would either get copies or be given detailed information, and we could then be sure that he would alert his superiors in Madrid who would intercept the documents at a higher level. Our only risk was that the body and papers would be handed straight over to the British Vice-Consul so quickly that no one could intercept anything. But the co‑operation between the Spaniards and the Germans was so complete that such a proper procedure was most improbable; if there were a Spaniard who proposed to do that, I had little doubt but that there would be others who would step in and prevent it.

Huelva had a further advantage in that it was not too near to Gibraltar; we did not want the Spaniards to send the body for burial there. The arrival at Gibraltar of the body of an officer who did not really exist might give rise to talk which would be almost certain to be picked up by the many German agents who obtained information through the Spaniards who entered and left that area each day.

So I went to the Hydrographer of the Navy at the Admiralty and made some enquiries about weather and tidal conditions at various points off the coast of Spain at various times of the year. Our luck was holding. Although  p34 the tidal stream would not be too helpful and would set along the coast, the southwesterly wind, which would be the prevailing wind in April, would be "onshore." Indeed, the Hydrographer thought that "an object" would probably drift in towards the shore, and a body in a "Mae West" would be comparatively more affected by the wind than would the sort of object which I had led him to envisage.

So Huelva was decided on. There was practically no doubt that the body would float inshore: then, if the normal procedure was followed, the body would be handed over to the British Vice-Consul for burial. And, as I have said, we were confident that the efficiency of the local German agent would ensure that any papers, or at least copies of them, would eventually reach the Germans. Our confidence in him was not misplaced.

While we were going into the exact location for "Mincemeat's" arrival, a means of transportation had to be devised. He could not be dropped for fear of injury, which left three methods of placing him in the sea: submarine, flying boat or a temporary diversion of one of the ships which escorted the convoys up the coast of Spain. Of these a submarine could clearly get much the closest inshore without risk of detection. I therefore asked permission from the Vice-Chief of Naval Staff (Home) to discuss possibilities with Admiral Barry, the Flag Officer commanding our submarines: it was, of course, on the basis that our planning  p35 was purely tentative, so that a complete scheme could be worked out for submission to the Chiefs of Staff.

Admiral Barry readily saw the possibilities of the idea, and I had a preliminary talk with his Chief Staff Officer. He decided that "Mincemeat" could be carried in a submarine on passage to Malta, as these quite frequently took important but not too bulky articles to that island. We discussed whether the body should be transported in the casing (that is under what would normally be called the deck) or inside the actual pressure hull of the submarine. In spite of the size of the container, which would have to be some 6 feet 6 inches long and about 2 feet in diameter, he considered that it could be accommodated inside the pressure hull and brought up through the conning tower for launching at sea. This greatly eased our problem, as it meant that we would only have to get an airtight canister and not a pressure-proof container, which would have had to be much heavier and more complicated. The question remained whether the body could be kept in a plain canister for the necessary time, after removal from cold storage, with decomposition being too great — or would we have to try to get some form of enormous thermos flask?

So I consulted Sir Bernard Spilsbury once more. He took the view that temperature would be of comparatively minor importance if the body was really cold when it was put into the container. The important  p36 thing was to exclude as much oxygen as possible, as it was that which hastened decomposition. He advised that the best method for us to use would be to stand our container on one end and fill it with dry ice; as that melted into carbon dioxide, it would prevent air from entering. We should then lower the body carefully into the canister and pack it round once more with dry ice. If that was done carefully, there should be little oxygen left in the container, and the rate of decomposition would be so slowed down that, if the body was picked up shortly after launching, its condition would be consistent with a few days' immersion floating in from an aircraft crash some distance offshore.

So we arranged for a container to be made of two skins of 22‑gauge sheet steel welded together, with asbestos wool between the skins; at the top there was a similar lid which was bedded on to an airtight rubber gasket by sixteen nuts; a box‑spanner was chained to the lid, to which it was clipped when not in use; a lifting handle was provided at each end, for it would weigh over 400 pounds with the body inside.

To complete the account of this part of our preparations, I should record that later on I saw Admiral Barry again and told him that the plan was going ahead and that, if we got final approval, we would want the operation carried out at about the end of April. This would also have the advantage from the submarine's point of view of there being little or no  p37 moon, so as to render detection close inshore less likely. He decided that H. M. Submarine Seraph might be used, as she could delay her departure for Malta by a fortnight, spending the time "working up" in home waters. The chance of using Seraph was fortunate, as she was commanded by Lieutenant Jewell, and he and his ship's company had already had experience of special operations in connection with the North Africa landings; they had picked up General Giraud on his escape from captivity and it was they who had put General Mark Clark ashore on the coast of North Africa when he made secret contact with the French, and then taken him off again.​a

I had prepared tentative "operation orders" for the Captain of the submarine, and these Admiral Barry approved; but, at his suggestion, Lieutenant Jewell came to the Flag Officer, Submarines Headquarters, where he and I could talk over the whole matter.

I gave him the "operation orders," which were as follows:

Operation Mincemeat

1. Object

To cause a briefcase containing documents to drift ashore as near as possible to Huelva in Spain in such circumstances that it will be thought to have been washed ashore from an aircraft which crashed at sea when the case was being taken by an officer from the U. K. to Allied Forces H. Q. in North Africa.

p38 2. Method

A dead body dressed in the battledress uniform of a Major, Royal Marines, and wearing a "Mae West," will be taken out in a submarine, together with the briefcase and a rubber dinghy.

The body will be packed fully clothed and ready (and wrapped in a blanket to prevent friction) in a tubular airtight container (which will be labeled as "Optical Instruments").

The container is just under 6 feet 6 inches long and has no excrescences of any kind on the sides. The end which opens has a flush-fitting lid which is held tightly in position by a number of nuts and has fitted on its exterior in clips a box‑spanner with a permanent tommy‑bar which is chained to the lid.

Both ends are fitted with handles which fold down flat. It will be possible to lift the container by using both handles or even by using the handle in the lid alone, but it would be better not to take the whole weight on the handle at the other end, as the steel of which the container is made is of light gauge to keep the weight as low as possible. The approximate total weight when the container is full will be 400 pounds.

When the container is closed the body will be packed round with a certain amount of dry ice. The container should therefore be opened on deck, as the dry ice will give off carbon dioxide.

3. Position

The body will be put into the water as close inshore as prudently possible and as near to Huelva as possible, preferably to the north-west of the river mouth.

 p39  According to Hydrographic Department, the tides in that area run mainly up and down the coast, and every effort should therefore be made to choose a period with an onshore wind. South-westerly winds are in fact the prevailing winds in that area at this time of year.

The latest information about the tidal streams in that area, as obtained from the Superintendent of Tides, is attached.

4. Delivery of the Package

The package will be brought up to the port of departure by road on whatever day is desired, preferably as close to the sailing day as possible. The briefcase will be handed over at the same time to the Captain of the submarine. The rubber dinghy will also be a separate parcel.

5. Disposal of the Body

When the body is removed from the container all that will be necessary will be to fasten the chain attached to the briefcase through the belt of the trench-coat, which will be the outer garment on the body. The chain is of the type worn under the coat, round the chest and out through the sleeve. At the end is a "dog‑lead" type of clip for attaching to the handle of the briefcase and a similar clip for forming the loop round the chest. It is this loop that should be made through the belt of the trench-coat as if the officer has slipped the chain off for comfort in the aircraft, but has nevertheless kept it attached to him so that the bag should not either be forgotten or slide away from him in the aircraft.

The body should then be deposited in the water, as should also be the rubber dinghy. As this should drift at a different speed from the body, the exact position at which  p40 it is released is unimportant, but it should be near the body, but not too near if that is possible.

6. Those in the Know at Gibraltar

Steps have been taken to inform F. O. IC.​1 Gibraltar and his S. O. (I).​2 No one else there will be in the picture.

7. Signals

If the operation is success­fully carried out, a signal should be made "Mincemeat completed." If that is made from Gibraltar the S. O. (I) should be asked to send it addressed to D. N. I.​3 (personal). If it can be made earlier it should be made in accordance with orders from F. O. S.​4

8. Cancellation

If the operation has to be cancelled a signal will be made "Cancel Mincemeat." In that case the body and container should be sunk in deep water; as the container may have positive buoyancy, it may either have to be weighted or water may have to be allowed to enter. In the latter case care must be taken that the body does not escape. The briefcase should be handed to the S. O. (I) at Gibraltar, with instructions to burn the contents unopened, if there is no possibility of taking that course earlier. The rubber dinghy should be handed to the S. O. (I) for disposal.

9. Abandonment

If the operation has to be abandoned, a signal should be made "Mincemeat abandoned" as soon as possible (see Para. 7 above).

 p41  10. Cover

This is a matter for consideration. Until the operation actually takes place, it is thought that the labelling of the container "Optical Instruments" will provide sufficient cover. It is suggested that cover after the operation has been completed should be that it is hoped to trap a very active German agent in this neighbourhood, and it is hoped that sufficient evidence can be obtained by this means to get the Spaniards to eject him. The importance of dealing with this man should be impressed on the crew, together with the fact that any leakage that may ever take place about this will compromise our power to get the Spaniards to act in such cases; also that they will never learn whether we were success­ful in this objective, as the whole matter will have to be conducted in secrecy with the Spaniards or we won't be able to get them to act.

It is in fact most important that the Germans and Spaniards should accept these papers in accordance with Para. I. If they should suspect that the papers are a "plant," it might have far‑reaching consequences of great magnitude.

(Signed) E. E. S. Montagu,

Lt‑Cdr., R. N. V. R.


We then discussed the operation and filled in points of detail.

While all these things were being arranged, we had been busy over the more interesting matters. What document could we provide which could be so impressive that it would make the Germans alter their planning and disposition of forces? How could we provide the document with a sufficiently convincing background  p42 to make them accept it as genuine; for Pooh‑Bah was right when he spoke of ". . . corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

The Author's Notes:

1 Flag Officer in Charge.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Staff Officer, Intelligence.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Director of Naval Intelligence.

[decorative delimiter]

4 Flag Officer, Submarines (Admiral Barry).

Thayer's Note:

a General Giraud's submarine trip is told by G. Ward Price in Giraud and the African Scene, pp119‑122 (with Jewell mentioned on p121); and by Giraud himself, in detail, in Mes évasions, pp216‑230. General Clark's submarine passage to Algeria and his clandestine visit there are also told by Price, pp91‑102.

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Page updated: 16 Jun 21