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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 8
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 10

 p102  9  The Launching of the Body

There then came a period of anxiety; I had never had any qualms about the success of the operation, but now that its execution was out of my hands I kept thinking of things that might go wrong. Oddly enough, I still did not worry whether the Germans would see through the deception. I was confident that they would not. My anxiety was confined to the launching of the body. Could we really be sure that the body would float ashore or would I have to confess, after all the effort, that the whole thing was a complete flop? And, in my worst moments, I visualised the Seraph getting into trouble off Huelva, where she had gone only because of my plan. Still, I had more than enough to do with my other duties not to have much time for worry, and we did have at least one very cheerful evening during this period.

It had seemed absurd to waste the tickets, the stubs of which Major Martin had in his pocket. So we had, as I have recorded, bought four tickets, and we took  p103 care to give Major Martin the stubs of the middle two seats of the four.

George and I then invited "Pam" and Jill, the girl who had arranged for the writing of the love letters, to "Bill Martin's farewell party." We started at the Prince of Wales' Theatre, where the manager let us in after he had inspected the block of tickets and we had explained that some had torn the stubs off the centre pair "as a joke" — we did not tell him that the joke was on the Germans.

After the theatre we went on to the Gargoyle Club for dinner. There we were shown to one of the side tables which had a banquette faced by two chairs. I suggested that the two girls should take the more comfortable banquette, but Jill turned to George and said, "Considering Bill and Pam are engaged, they are the least affectionate couple I know. They don't even want to sit together at his farewell party before he goes abroad." At this the couple at the next table looked round and pricked up their ears.

I "explained" to Jill that even if Pam and I were engaged we had only known one another for a few days (obvious disapproval of war weddings registered at the next table), and then added, as an afterthought, that it would be different when Pam and I knew one another better, for my boss had said (in the letter that she had seen)​1 that, although I was quiet and shy at  p104 first, I really did know my stuff. At this the couple at the next table registered even stronger disapproval and got up and danced.

I might interpolate another result of this joking identification of Bill Martin with me. Pam followed it up by giving me a larger copy of the photograph that was on its way to Spain in Bill Martin's wallet, and signed it "Till death do us part. Your loving Pam" — a safe inscription, as "I" was already "dead." At that time I was staying with my mother, and to see her reaction I put the photograph on my dressing table. I was disappointed — she said nothing. About a year later, when my wife returned from America, where she had been doing a job in our Security Co‑ordination Service, I showed her the photograph, and she astonished me by saying, "So that was why your mother started writing in her letters that she felt that I should come home as soon as my job allowed it"!

While we were waiting in London, the Seraph was having an unevent­ful passage to the coast of Spain. The first news that we got was from the pre‑arranged signal which informed us, on the 30th April, that "Operation Mincemeat" had been completed. This was followed by a letter sent by Lieutenant Jewell from Gibraltar:

 p105  Most Secret and Personal

From: The Commanding Officer, H. M. Submarine Seraph.

Date: 30th April, 1943.

To Director of Naval Intelligence.

Copy to F. O. S.

(for Lt.‑Cdr. The Hon. E. E. S. Montagu, R. N. V. R.) personal.

Operation Mincemeat

Weather: The wind was variable altering between S. W. and S. E., force 2. It was expected that the sea breeze would spring up in the morning, close inshore, as it had on the previous morning in similar conditions.

Sea and swell — 2:0 — Sky overcast with very low clouds — visibility was patchy, 1 to 2 miles — Barometer 1016.

2. Fishing Boats: A large number of small fishing boats were working in the bay. The closest was left, about a mile off, and it is not thought that the submarine was observed by them.

3. Operation: The time of 0430 was chosen as being the nearest to Low Water Lisbon (0731), which would allow the submarine to be well clear by dawn. The canister was opened at 0415 and the body extracted. The blanket was opened up and the body examined. The briefcase was found to be securely attached. . . . The "Mae West" was blown up very hard and no further air was needed. The body was placed in the water at 0430 in a position 148° Portil Pillar 1.3 miles approximately eight cables from the beach and started to drift ashore. This was aided by the wash of the screws going full speed astern. The rubber dinghy was placed in the water blown up and upside down about half a mile further south of this position. The submarine  p106 then withdrew to seaward and the canister, filled with water and containing the blanket, tapes and also the rubber dinghy's container, was pushed over the side in position 36°37′30 North 07°18′00 West in 310 fathoms of water by sounding machine. The container would not at first submerge, but after being riddled by fire from Vickers gun and also .455 revolver at very short range was seen to sink. Signal reporting operation complete was passed at 0715.

A sample of the water close inshore is attached.

N. A. Jewell,


This letter included a description of the condition of the body; there was rather more decomposition than we had expected (perhaps due to oxygen trapped in the clothing and blanket), but not more than was to be expected had the body been floating half immersed in the sea for some days.

Later I got a more detailed account from a member of the ship's company — I got it at secondhand and, as my go‑between was a journalist by profession, the picture that is conjured up by his account is much more vivid than anything that I could record. I therefore give it just as I received it:

As the Seraph slid from the shadow of her depot ship and down the Clyde, the commander — he was only twenty-nine — saluted from the conning tower, then went below.

Of the five officers and fifty ratings on board, only he knew the secret of his odd piece of cargo.

 p107  Wisecracks

The cylindrical metal canister now rested in a forward chamber of the submarine.

Because of its weight and shape, the six ratings who manoeuvered it into place joked about "John Brown's body." And there was many a wisecrack about "our new shipmate, Charlie."

To‑day, ten years later, those fifty ex‑members of the Seraph's crew will be shaken to learn how close to the truth they were.

They had been told in the briefing for the trip that the metal canister contained a secret weather-reporting device to be floated experimentally off the coast of Spain. It was actually marked "Handle with Care — Optical Instruments — for special F. O. S. shipment."

For ten days the Seraph sailed and her crew saw nothing of the sun. Surfacing only at night, she was off Huelva, on the south-west coast of Spain, undetected and according to schedule, on April 30.

The spot selected for floating "Major Martin" ashore was 1,600 yards off the mouth of the Huelva river.

In the afternoon the Seraph ventured an inshore reconnaissance. The periscope revealed a fishing fleet of about fifty vessels. But the prevailing mist and a mile detour helped the submarine to escape detection. Then she went back to the sea bed for the rest of the day.


Zero hour was 4.30 in the morning. When the Seraph surfaced again it was dark as pitch. The new moon had set and the ebb tide was just on the turn.

 p108  Through the conning tower went the five officers, and the submarine was trimmed down until an inch of the calm sea lapped over the casing. The mysterious canister was hauled aloft.

Only then, with all ratings below, did Lieutenant Jewell let his officers into the secret. Lieutenant Jewell told them that the canister at their feet contained a corpse. The operation, he said, was part of an Allied plan to deceive the enemy into drawing his defensive forces away from the spot selected for the main thrust of the Mediterranean invasion.

Phoney invasion plans were to be "planted" on the enemy through the medium of the body of this man purporting to be "Major Martin," victim of an air crash at sea.

Huelva had been chosen for the "plant" because it was known that the German agent there was being well fed with military intelligence by local collaborators.

What a story to be sprung on you suddenly in the middle of the night with the Atlantic lapping round your boots. But if the junior officers were shaken by their commander's dramatic and gruesome revelation, they did not betray it.

Only reaction was the comment from one of them: "Isn't it pretty unlucky carrying dead bodies around?"


Then quickly and quietly the five set about their task. While three kept watch, the other helped Lieutenant Jewell to unlock the bolts of the canister with the spanner attached to the case. Ten minutes they worked before the lid came away.

Then the blanketed body was slid gently from its vacuum coffin. For a moment the tension was relieved as the officers stiffened with silent respect in the presence of death.

 p109  On his knees again, Lieutenant Jewell plucked at knotted tapes and the blanket fell away.

There followed the final check. Were the Major's uniform and badges intact? Was his hand gripping the handle of the all‑important despatch case? Was the case securely strapped to his belt?

Everything in order, Jewell bent low to inflate the Major's "Mae West."

Only one thing remained — though it was not in the routine instructions. Four young officers bent bare heads in simple tribute as their commander murmured what prayers he could remember from the Burial Service.

For them, sworn to secrecy, these words from Psalm 39 held a special significance:

"I will keep my mouth as it were with a bridle: while the ungodly is in my sight. I held my tongue and spake nothing: I kept silence, yea, even from good words; but it was pain and grief to me."

A gentle push and the unknown warrior was drifting inshore with the tide on his last, momentous journey. "Major Martin" had gone to the war.

The risk that Lieutenant Jewell had taken in going so close to the shore had given us every possible chance of success. We could now only wait to see how Major Martin would carry out his part of the job.

The Author's Notes:

1 Lord Louis Mountbatten's letter to Admiral Cunningham.

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