Military history


Dulce et Decorum

ALL MORNING the body lay in the dunes, beneath the pines, where the fisherman José Antonio Rey María had carried it. As the sun rose, the sand grew hotter and the smell grew worse. A series of important visitors came to look at the dead man.

The officer in command of the First Company of the Second Battalion of the Seventy-second Infantry Regiment (in charge of coastal defense around Huelva), who had been drilling his men on the beach before the body was brought ashore, sent word to the police at Punta Umbria. The police duly informed the port authority at Huelva that a drowned soldier had washed up on the beach at La Bota. The case therefore came under the military jurisdiction of the port. In late morning, the rotund figure of navy lieutenant Mariano Pascual del Pobil Bensusan, second-in-command of the port and acting military judge, appeared at the beach in a canoe paddled by two Spanish seamen. Lieutenant Pascual del Pobil was sweating profusely and he wanted his lunch. With some distaste, he made a cursory examination of the body, noting the military uniform and the attaché case with the crest “G VI R and the royal crown”1 attached to the dead man by a chain “which had penetrated the muscles2 of the neck as a result of the swelling.” He also extracted the wallet and noted Major Martin’s name from his identity card. Pascual del Pobil then unclipped the locked case from its chain, ordered that the body be taken to Huelva, and climbed back into his boat, taking the case with him. He did not think to look in the dead man’s pocket for a key. The next to arrive, on foot, was a local doctor, José Pablo Vázquez Pérez, who came to certify that the body was really dead. The stench wafting from under the pines suggested this was not strictly necessary.

There was no road to the dock at Punta Umbria, merely a sandy track winding five miles through the dunes. The body was loaded onto a donkey, which set off, led by a child, through the sweet afternoon scent of wild rosemary and jacaranda. Two infantrymen followed behind. In the late afternoon, the grim little procession arrived at the infantry headquarters by the dock, too late to arrange transport of the body across the estuary mouth. The corpse was placed in an outhouse, ready to be taken over to Huelva in the morning.

Lieutenant Pascual del Pobil had by now sent word to the British consulate that a dead British officer, found on La Bota beach, would be arriving by motor launch at Huelva dock the next morning. Francis Haselden was profoundly relieved. For the last forty-eight hours the British vice-consul had been waiting anxiously, unaware that the delivery of the body had been delayed by the weather.

Gómez-Beare had left Haselden with very specific instructions: as soon as he received word that the body had come ashore, the vice-consul “should telephone to him at Madrid3 and inform him of the finding of the body, its particulars, etc.” Gómez-Beare would then verbally instruct Haselden to arrange the burial while he notified London. A few days later, “when a signal from London might be expected to have reached him,” Gómez-Beare would call again to ask if anything had washed ashore with the body. The assistant naval attaché “would say that he could not talk4on the phone but would come down to Huelva. He would then do so and make discreet inquiries whether any bag or paper had been washed ashore.” Gómez-Beare knew that the telephones at the Madrid embassy were bugged. It was likely that Adolf Clauss also had spies inside the consulate and that anything said on the telephone there would be reported back to the Germans. At the same time, Alan Hillgarth in Madrid would send cables to Huelva backing up the story, again in the knowledge that these would be intercepted at their source and relayed to Karl-Erich Kühlenthal and his colleagues at Abwehr headquarters in Madrid. The entire performance was for German benefit: London and the embassy in Madrid should appear to be increasingly agitated about the loss of top secret documents. Parallel to these “breakable” messages, Hillgarth would dispatch “a separate series in his personal cipher,5 keeping London in the picture of what was going on.”

Haselden must play the part of a harassed official under mounting pressure from his bosses to trace a missing briefcase. The role required nuance. Haselden would have to make inquiries, with increasing urgency, for the missing papers, but he must not do so too “energetically,”6 as this might lead to the documents’ actually being returned before they reached the Germans. In that case, Operation Mincemeat would have failed.

Here lay an additional but crucial consideration. The British did want to get the documents back, intact, once the Germans had had a good look at them. Under international law, as a neutral country, Spain was obliged to return any property belonging to a British national who had died in Spain. The precedent of Lieutenant Turner suggested that the briefcase would, eventually, be returned by the Spaniards. But in reality, if top secret plans really had fallen into enemy hands, and the breach of security was detected, then those plans might well be abandoned, or at least substantially altered. The Germans must be made to believe that they had gained access to the documents undetected; they should be made to assume that the British believed the Spaniards had returned the documents unopened and unread. Operation Mincemeat would only work if the Germans could be fooled into believing that the British had been fooled. All of this would require the most careful stage management.

Francis Haselden was not an actor. Nor was he a spy, novelist, or fly-fisherman. He did not even particularly want to be a vice-consul but had inherited the post after the sudden death of his predecessor in 1940. He was a gentle, civilized, sixty-two-year-old mining engineer and businessman, who had settled in Huelva two decades earlier and might reasonably have expected to spend the rest of his life playing golf and running his mine supplies company, a pillar of the community in a small and sunny British outpost. War had made a new man of Haselden: he now ran an underground network helping escaped prisoners of war, harbored downed Allied pilots, monitored the nefarious doings of Adolf Clauss and his agents, and did everything he could to help the Allied secret services respond in kind. In most parts of Spain, Franco was content simply to monitor the espionage battle between the Germans and the British and leave the two sides to get on with it. But in Huelva the civilian governor, Joaquín Miranda González, was a keen member of the fascist Falange, strongly pro-German, and keen to help his friend Clauss root out British spies. To Haselden’s annoyance, three members of Huelva’s British community had already been expelled on suspicion of spying, including Montagu Brown, the head of a local railway company, and William Cluett, the manager of a British-owned electricity company. Here, then, was Haselden’s opportunity to strike back at Clauss and his Spanish allies by playing—but not overplaying—the part of a worthy functionary looking after the interests of a dead British serviceman. He rose to the occasion magnificently.

Emilio Morales Candela, Huelva’s undertaker, was waiting at the jetty when the ferry from Punta Umbria pulled in the following morning, carrying a handful of passengers and one dead body. Beside him stood Francis Haselden, who had asked Candela to transport the body to the cemetery. The vice-consul had also, as instructed, made the first telephone call to Gómez-Beare in Madrid informing him that a dead British officer had washed ashore. The body was lifted into a wooden coffin and loaded onto the horse-drawn cart provided by La Magdalena funeral services of Huelva. (It would be another decade before the town had its own motorized hearse.) Pulled by an ancient horse and steered by Candela, the square wooden funeral carriage, locally known as the “Soup Bowl”7 (La Sopera), set off up the hill toward the cemetery, with Haselden following in his car. The route to Nuestra Señora de la Soledad cemetery led through the area of Huelva known as Concepción, little more than a cluster of fishing huts surrounding the ancient Torre de Vigilancia, one of the circular brick watchtowers built to spot sixteenth-century pirates. News spreads fast in a small town, and word that a dead British soldier had been found at La Bota traveled ahead of the slow-moving cortège. A small knot of people gathered outside the church of Nuestra Señora de Lourdes to watch it pass. Several made the sign of the cross. The priest, Father José Manuel Romero Bernal, muttered a prayer. The carriage continued through the center of the town and past the Teatro Mora, which was showing Pygmalion, starring Leslie Howard. The sun was already baking.

The cemetery of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad sits on a small hill just outside Huelva, a high-walled compound surrounded by fields of sunflowers. Alongside it is the much smaller British cemetery, in which members of the Protestant German community, in a strange alliance of religion in defiance of politics, were also interred. The horse was sweating by the time the lumbering funeral carriage reached the cemetery. Waiting at the gates were Lieutenant Pascual del Pobil, the naval judge, with the briefcase under one arm. Alongside him stood Dr. Eduardo Fernández del Torno and his son, Dr. Eduardo Fernández Contioso, who would together carry out an autopsy. The final member of the reception committee was a young American pilot called Willie Watkins.

Three days before the body was brought ashore, an American P-39 Airacobra plane had crash-landed in a field in Punta Umbria. The pilot was Watkins, a twenty-six-year-old from Corpus Christi, Texas, who had been flying from North Africa to Portugal when his plane ran out of fuel. Unable to open the cockpit cover, Watkins had come down with his plane, escaping with only minor injuries. He had been taken into custody by the infantry detachment guarding the coast, briefly lodged at the Hotel La Granadina in Huelva, and then transferred to the home of Francis Haselden, the refuge of all Allied soldiers, since there was no American consulate in Huelva. Lieutenant Pascual del Pobil had requested that the American pilot be brought to the cemetery in case the dead body and the downed plane were connected in some way and Watkins might be able to identify the body.

The coffin was carried to the small building on the edge of the cemetery that served as a morgue. Glyndwr Michael’s body was lifted out and placed on the raised marble slab. Methodically, the mortuary attendant went through the pockets, extracted the contents, and laid them out on the table beside the locked attaché case: cash, sodden cigarettes, matches, keys, receipts, identity card, wallet, stamps, and theater ticket counterfoils. Pascual del Pobil barely glanced at these. Lunch was already beckoning. Haselden did his best to seem uninterested. The Spanish officer now turned his attention to the briefcase, which he unlocked with one of the dead man’s keys. The contents were soaked, but the writing on the envelopes was still clearly legible. Pascual del Pobil carefully “examined the names on the envelopes”8 and motioned Haselden over to look. Haselden had been told only the outline of Operation Mincemeat. But from the red seals and embossed envelopes, these were clearly confidential military letters. Pascual del Pobil also seems to have registered their importance, for he now did exactly what Montagu and Cholmondeley had hoped would not happen. He gestured toward the case and asked Haselden if he would like to take it. Since these items would have to be returned to the British eventually, would the vice-consul like to take custody now? Pascual del Pobil liked the English vice-consul; he believed he was doing Haselden a favor; and he wanted his lunch and siesta.

Haselden knew he had to “react swiftly.”9 Indeed, he had mentally prepared himself for the possibility that Pascual del Pobil would cut corners and simply hand over the attaché case. With as much nonchalance as he could muster, he said, “Well, your superior might not like10 that, so perhaps you should deliver it to him, and then bring it back to me, following the official route.” Pascual del Pobil shrugged and closed the briefcase.

Willie Watkins had observed this exchange. Although he spoke little Spanish, it was clear what was going on. Haselden’s “attitude, in refusing the briefcase,11 struck him as odd.” The American pilot was now beckoned over by Pascual del Pobil and asked if he could identify the dead man. Needless to say, he could not, and said so. The dead man’s life belt, he pointed out, was “of an English pattern,12 whereas he himself had flown an American plane, which carried a completely different type of life-belt.” Pascual del Pobil stated the obvious: “There are clearly two13 completely unconnected accidents.”

Packing up the briefcase, wallet, and other possessions, the naval judge explained that these would be formally handed over to his commanding officer, the naval commander of the port of Huelva. The tubby Spanish officer departed, taking the case and other items with him. Haselden casually announced that he would stay to watch the autopsy. If it seemed odd to Watkins that the British vice-consul should decline the offer of the briefcase, it was surely even odder that he should choose to remain in a broiling hut with a tin roof while two Spanish doctors cut up a half-rotted corpse. The American pilot was only too happy to escape the fetid room with its stench of death and smoke a cigarette in the shade of the willow tree outside.

The autopsy would usually have been carried out by a military pathologist, but since he was away, the task fell to Dr. Fernández, the civilian forensic pathologist, and his son Eduardo, a recent medical school graduate. Contrary to Spilsbury’s dismissive remark about the poor state of Spanish forensic expertise, Fernández was a good and experienced pathologist. A native of Seville, he had studied medicine at Seville University and then spent many years working as the company doctor for a large mining concern. Since 1921, he had been senior pathologist for the Huelva area. Fernández may not have been in Spilsbury’s forensic league, but he had a wide practical knowledge of dead bodies in general and, given his coastal location, of drowning victims in particular.

Haselden later described the autopsy. “On the first incision being made,14 there was a minor explosion, for while the body externally was in good preservation, the inside had deteriorated badly.” The lungs were filled with fluid, but given the state of decomposition and without further tests, Dr. Fernández would have been unable to say whether this was seawater. He examined the ears and hair of the corpse and its strangely discolored skin. Haselden knew nothing of the real circumstances surrounding the body, but he knew enough of the plot to realize that the more detailed the autopsy, the more likely it was that the pathologist would find some clue to the real cause of death. The British vice-consul was friendly with the Spanish doctor. The stench of putrefaction in the room was now almost overwhelming. With what was later described as “remarkable presence of mind,”15 he decided to intervene. “Since it was obvious the heat16 had done its worst,” he said, there was no need for a detailed autopsy. “On receiving this assurance17 from the VC that he was quite satisfied, the doctor, not without relief perhaps, agreed to call it a day and issued the necessary certificate.”

The postmortem verdict was straightforward: “The young British officer fell in the water18 while still alive, showed no evidence of bruising, and drowned through asphyxia caused by submersion. The body had been in the water between eight and ten days.” The body was returned to its plain wooden coffin and formally transferred into the care of the British vice-consul.

Fernández had missed the telltale discoloration of the skin, indicating phosphorus poisoning. He made only a cursory examination of the lungs and took no samples from the lungs, liver, or kidneys for testing. Yet there were other aspects of the case that troubled him. The doctor had examined hundreds of drowned fishermen over the years. In every case, there was evidence of “nibbling and bites by fish19 and crabs on the earlobes and other fleshy parts.” The ears of the British officer were untouched. On bodies that have been in seawater for more than week, the hair on the head becomes dull and brittle. “The shininess of the hair20 did not correspond to the time which he had supposedly spent in the water,” and there was also, in Fernández’s mind, some “doubt over the nature of the liquid21 in the man’s lungs.” Privately, Fernández also noted something peculiar about the clothing. The man’s uniform was waterlogged, but it had not attained the shapeless, soggy form of clothing that has been in seawater for a week. “He seemed very well dressed22 to be in the water for so many days,” the doctor reflected. The two doctors had also compared the photograph on the identity card with the dead man but concluded that these were “identical.”23 Yet even here there was room for doubt, for the father-and-son medical team noted “that a bald patch on the temples24 was more pronounced than in the photograph.” The William Martin in the photograph had a thick head of hair, but the one on the mortuary slab was thinning on top. Fernández concluded that “either the photograph was taken25 some two or three years ago or the baldness on the temples was due to the action of sea water.” This was an odd conclusion: seawater has many effects on the human body, but male-pattern baldness is not one of them. It is impossible to know how many of Fernández’s doubts found their way into his final report: the autopsy was passed to the port authority, filed in the archives by Pascual del Pobil, and then destroyed in a fire in 1976.

There was one additional, far more glaring inconsistency, which Fernández did spot, although he did not realize its significance. The degree of decomposition, according to Fernández, indicated that the body had been at sea for a minimum of eight days, and possibly longer. According to the evidence in Major Martin’s pocket, he had flown from London late on April 24; and the body was retrieved in the early hours of April 30. The decayed state of the body was simply inconsistent with a body submerged in cold seawater for only a little more than five days. Fernández, of course, was unaware of the supposed timing of Major Martin’s death. That evidence was contained in his wallet, which was now in the possession of Captain Francisco Elvira Álvarez, commander of the port of Huelva and, as it happened, the best friend of Ludwig Clauss, Huelva’s elderly German consul.

At eight thirty that evening, Francis Haselden sent a cable to Assistant Naval Attaché Don Gómez-Beare in Madrid: “With reference to my phone message26 today body is identified as Major W. Martin R.M. identity card 148228 dated 2nd Feb. 1943 Cardiff. Naval judge has taken possession of all papers. Death due to drowning probably 8 to 10 days at sea. I am having funeral Sunday noon.”

Normally, in such circumstances, the naval attaché would have sent a message to the Admiralty in London, with the name and rank of the dead man. In this case, no such marine officer existed, and if the cable was distributed through normal channels someone in London might well spot the anomaly. Hillgarth had arranged that just before he was ready to send the telegram reporting the death of Major Martin, he would send a separate message, in code, to “C” at MI6, “so that the action for suppressing27 it could be taken.” The plan went wrong. The message to “C” duly arrived, but by the time MI6 got around to acting on it, the signal from Hillgarth had already begun to be distributed to various Admiralty departments: one of these might well be conversant with the names of Royal Marine officers and start making embarrassing enquiries. A flurry of telephone calls to the heads of the departments that had received the message ordered “the suppression of the signal28 on the excuse that the individual in question was not a naval officer, but had, with the authority of the First Sea Lord, been given the cover of rank in the Royal Marines when he was setting out on a secret and very special mission abroad. … The secrecy of his task rendered it necessary that the signal should be suppressed and no action taken on it.” In a way, the excuse was true.

Haselden’s message was addressed to “Sadok,” Gómez-Beare’s cable name, but its intended recipient was Adolf Clauss, the senior Abwehr officer in Huelva and the man identified by Montagu as the “super-super-spy” most likely to intercept the documents. Clauss was living up to his billing, for he was already fully aware that the body of a British officer carrying letters had washed up in his bailiwick. It may have been Lieutenant Pascual del Pobil himself who told the German agent about the body and its accompanying briefcase, or the harbor master, or the mortuary attendant, or even Dr. Fernández, who had conducted the autopsy. Whoever it was, by the time the British vice-consul informed Madrid that the papers had arrived, Clauss had already mobilized his extensive spy network to intercept them.

This was proving rather difficult, for the briefcase and its contents had fallen, from the point of view of both the British and the Germans, into the wrong hands. Had the case simply been handed over to the Huelva police, as the British intended, then Clauss would have obtained it within hours. The same thing would have happened had the documents ended up in the possession of Huelva’s civilian governor, the harbormaster, or the army authorities, for these, too, were in the pay of Clauss. Instead, the Spanish navy had them, and this was an altogether trickier nut for German espionage to crack. Montagu himself later admitted that the fact that the documents were “taken into naval custody”29 very nearly derailed the entire operation. Many Spanish naval officers were pro-British, and there was a tradition of mutual respect between the British and Spanish navies. The Navy Minister, Admiral Moreno, was a personal friend of Alan Hillgarth, who had made a point of cultivating naval officers: “The Spanish navy is not in German30 hands,” Hillgarth wrote.

Clauss’s first approach was the most direct one: he instructed his father, the elderly consul, Ludwig Clauss, to ask his friend and golfing partner, Captain Francisco Elvira Álvarez, to hand over the documents. Captain Elvira refused. Politely, he explained that these documents were now locked away in his safe at the navy office at 17 Avenida de Italia, where they would remain until he received orders from Cádiz about what should be done with them. Elvira was a cheerful, garrulous, and sociable man. He liked Clauss, was happy to eat the dinners laid on by the German consul, and enjoyed the hospitality he provided at Huelva Golf Club. But there is no evidence he was on Clauss’s payroll. Elvira was also a stickler for the rules, “a rigid disciplinarian,”31 and a firm believer in hierarchy. He would await instructions from above.

At midday on May 2, 1943, a group of mourners, official and unofficial, public and secret, gathered for the funeral and burial of Major William Martin. It was a day of “suffocating heat,”32 according to the local newspaper, yet the turnout was impressive. Representing Britain were Francis Haselden, the vice-consul, and Lancelot Shutte, a British mining company executive who had been expelled from Spain once already by Governor Miranda on suspicion of espionage. Here, too, was the Frenchman Pierre Desbrest, a Gaullist and close friend of Haselden. Officially, Desbrest was the representative in Spain of a French-owned pyrites company. Less officially, he organized an underground route for Free French forces from occupied France through Spain to North Africa and conspired with Haselden against the Germans. The port commander, Elvira, and the naval judge, Pascual del Pobil, attended in full naval uniform. The military governor of Huelva was in Seville meeting General Franco but sent an army lieutenant to represent the Spanish armed forces.

Glyndwr Michael had died without a single mourner. His funeral, as someone completely different, was carried out with full military honors and all the ceremony and solemnity Huelva could muster. In addition to the officials and military brass, a small crowd of civilians also gathered at Nuestra Señora de la Soledad cemetery: the curious, the pious, and the clandestine. Haselden does not seem to have spotted the tall, cadaverous figure of Adolf Clauss among the crowd. Clauss would later claim that he had only come to the funeral in his capacity as German vice-consul, “as a mark of respect33 to the fallen soldier.” In truth, of course, he was there to observe, to see if he might pick up any useful information about the dead man and his intriguing briefcase.

The death certificate, filled out by funeral director Candela, formally marked the passing of “W. Martin, aged between 35 and 40,34 native of Cardiff (England) [sic], officer of the British marines, found on the beach known as ‘La Bota’ at half past nine on April 30th, 1943. Death by drowning.” After a brief funeral service in the cemetery chapel, the coffin was carried along a cobbled path, down a neat avenue of cypresses, to the section of the cemetery known as San Marco. Swallows dipped and dived among the palm trees, and the strong scent of jasmine trees rose in the midday heat. The funeral procession passed the large and imposing mausoleums of Huelva’s wealthiest Spanish families, marble tombs surrounded by iron railings. Here was the grave of Huelva’s most famous son, Miguel Biez, “El Litri,” a bullfighter famously gored to death in 1929. El Litri’s huge and ostentatious tomb depicted the matador wearing the “suit of lights.” As the procession neared the northwest corner of the cemetery, the graves grew smaller and humbler. The San Marco section was where the poor and ordinary folk of Huelva were buried. Haselden had ordered a “Class Five”35 burial, the cheapest available: total cost, including coffin, being just 250 pesetas. The British consulate contracted to pay the cost of renting and maintaining the grave in perpetuity. Major Martin was not the first tenant of grave number forty-six, in the fourteenth avenue of the San Marco section backing up to the cemetery wall. In 1938, a ten-year-old girl named Rosario Vilches had been buried there, but her parents had been unable to keep up payments on the plot, and two months earlier the body had been removed and reburied elsewhere.

At half past twelve, the coffin was lowered into the grave. Of the official mourners, only Francis Haselden knew that the man inside had not died at sea, and even he was ignorant of the full scale of the imposture taking place: a Welsh Baptist in a Spanish Catholic grave, a derelict who had never worn a uniform accorded rank and honor, a man with no relatives (at least none who cared) invested with a parent to mourn him and buried with full military pomp by a grateful nation. Glyndwr Michael had probably killed himself on the spur of the moment, possibly as a result of insanity or by accident. The fatal dose of rat poison had carried him five hundred miles, into another country and another personality. The inscription on his tomb would eventually read, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” the line from Horace’s Odes: “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country.” There was nothing remotely decorous or patriotic about the way Glyndwr Michael had died. Yet in a way, the epitaph was apt: Michael had, indeed, given his life to his country, even if he had been given no choice about it.

The officials climbed into their hot cars, the gravediggers began to fill in the hole, and the mourners trailed away down the hill toward the town. Adolf Clauss watched them leave and then headed back to the German consulate on foot. He did not sign the mourners’ book, and he spoke to no one, but his presence did not go unremarked. Among the other mourners was an innocuous-looking middle-aged man in a nondescript suit. The Spaniards had assumed he must be part of the official delegation. The officials assumed he was a local Spaniard. From the shade of a cypress tree, Don Gómez-Beare watched Adolf Clauss leave the cemetery and then quietly slipped out and followed him down the hill.

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