Military history


A Novel Approach

MONTAGU AND CHOLMONDELEY had spent much of the previous three years nurturing, molding, and deploying spies who did not exist. The Twenty Committee and Section B1A of MI5 had turned the playing of double agents into an art form, but as the Double Cross System developed and expanded, more and more of the agents reporting back to Germany were purely fictional: Agent A (real) would notionally employ Agent B (unreal), who would in turn recruit other agents, C to Z (all equally imaginary). Juan Pujol García, Agent “Garbo,” the most famous double agent of them all, was eventually equipped with no fewer than twenty-seven subagents, each with a distinct character, friends, jobs, tastes, homes, and lovers. Garbo’s “active and well-distributed team1 of imaginary assistants” were a motley lot, including a Welsh Aryan supremacist, a communist, a Greek waiter, a wealthy Venezuelan student, a disaffected South African serviceman, and several crooks. In the words of John Masterman, the thriller-writing chairman of the Twenty Committee: “The one man band of Lisbon2 developed into an orchestra, and an orchestra which played a more and more ambitious programme.” Graham Greene, a wartime intelligence officer in West Africa, based his novel Our Man in Havana, about a spy who invents an entire network of bogus informants, on the Garbo story.

Masterman, writing after the war, declared that “for deception, ‘notional’3 or imaginary agents were on the whole preferable” to living ones. Real agents tended to become truculent and demanding; they needed feeding, pampering, and paying. An imaginary agent, however, was infinitely pliable and willing to do the bidding of his German handlers at once and without question: “The Germans could seldom resist4 such a fly if it was accurately and skilfully cast,” wrote Masterman, who was also handy with a fly-fishing rod.

Maintaining a small army of fake people required concerted attention to detail. “How difficult it was,”5 wrote Montagu, “to remember the characteristics and life pattern of each one of a mass of completely non-existent notional sub-agents.” These imaginary individuals had to suffer all the vagaries of normal life, such as getting ill, celebrating birthdays, and running out of money. They had to remain perfectly consistent in their behavior, attitudes, and emotions. As Montagu put it, the imaginary agent “must never step out of character.”6 The network of fake agents enabled British intelligence to supply the Germans with a steady stream of untruths and half-truths, and it lulled the Abwehr into believing it had a large and efficient espionage network in Britain, when it had nothing of the sort.

Creating a personality to go with the corpse in the St. Pancras Morgue would require imaginative effort on an even greater scale. In his novel The Case of the Four Friends, Masterman’s sleuth, Ernest Brendel, observes that the key to detective work is anticipating the actions of the criminal: “To work out the crime7 before it is committed, to foresee how it will be arranged, and then to prevent it! That’s a triumph indeed.” With Masterman’s help, Montagu and Cholmondeley would now lay out the clues to a life that had never happened and frame a new death for a dead man.

The fictitious agents so far invented by the Double Cross team all spoke for themselves, or rather through others, in wireless messages and letters to their handlers, but they were never seen; in the case of Operation Mincemeat, the fraudulent individual could communicate only through the clothes on his back, the contents of his pockets, and, most important, the letters in his possession. He would carry official typed letters to convey the core deception, but also handwritten personal letters to put across his personality. “The more real he appeared,8 the more convincing the whole affair would be,” reflected Montagu, since “every little detail would be studied by the Germans.”

The information he carried would have to be credible, but also legible. “Would the ink of the manuscript9 letters, and the signatures on the others, not run so as to make the documents illegible?” Montagu wondered. Waterproof ink might be used, but that would “give the game away.”10They turned to MI5’s scientists, and numerous tests were carried out by using different inks and typewriters and then immersing the letters in seawater for varying periods to test the effects. The results were encouraging: “Many inks on a freshly written11 letter will run at once if the surface is wetted. On the other hand, a lot of quite usual inks, if thoroughly dried, will stand a fair amount of wetting even if exposed directly to the water. When a document is inside an envelope, or inside a wallet which is itself inside a pocket, well dried inks of some quite normal types will often remain legible for a surprising length of time—quite long enough for our purpose.”

The precise form of the deception would be decided in time: first they needed to create a credible courier.

It is no accident that Montagu and Cholmondeley were both enthusiastic novel readers. The greatest writers of spy fiction have, in almost every case, worked in intelligence before turning to writing. W. Somerset Maugham, John Buchan, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, John le Carré: all had experienced the world of espionage firsthand. For the task of the spy is not so very different from that of the novelist: to create an imaginary, credible world and then lure others into it by words and artifice.

As if constructing a character in a novel, Montagu and Cholmondeley, with the help of Joan Saunders in Section 17M, set about creating a personality with which to clothe their dead body. Hour after hour, in the Admiralty basement, they discussed and refined this imaginary person, his likes and dislikes, his habits and hobbies, his talents and weaknesses. In the evening, they repaired to the Gargoyle Club, a glamorous Soho dive of which Montagu was a member, to continue the odd process of creating a man from scratch. The project reflected all the possibilities and pitfalls of fiction: if they painted his personality too brightly or were inconsistent in the portrait, then the Germans would surely detect a hoax. But if the enemy could be made to believe in this British officer, then they were that much more likely to credit the documents he carried. Eventually, they came to believe in him themselves. “We talked about him until12 we did feel that he was an old friend,” wrote Montagu. “He became completely real to us.” They gave him a middle name, a nicotine habit, and a place of birth. They gave him a hometown, a rank, a regiment, and a love of fishing. He would be furnished with a watch, a bank manager, a solicitor, and cuff links. They gave him all the things that Glyndwr Michael had lacked in his luckless life, including a supportive family, money, friends, and love.

But first he needed a name and, more important, a uniform. It was originally intended that the dropped body should appear to be that of an army officer ferrying important messages to the top brass in North Africa. An army officer could wear battle dress, a normal combat uniform, rather than a formal fitted uniform. Army officers did not carry identity cards with photographs when traveling outside England, which obviated the need to obtain a mug shot of Glyndwr Michael for a fake card. The director of Military Intelligence, however, pointed out that if the courier were an army officer, then the discovery of the body would have to be reported to the military attaché in Madrid and the information passed from there to London, increasing the number of people in the know and the danger of a leak. Since the idea had originated in Naval Intelligence, it was more sensible to make him a naval officer, thus keeping the secret within naval circles. A naval officer, however, would be unlikely to carry documents relating to the planned invasion, and such officers always traveled in full naval “display” uniform, complete with braid and badges of rank on the sleeve. The idea of getting the corpse measured up by a tailor was too ghoulish (and too dangerous) to contemplate. The secret services contained men of varied talents and occupations, but no gentlemen’s outfitters.

After much discussion, it was decided that the body would be dressed as a member of the Royal Marines, the corps that forms the amphibious infantry of the Royal Navy. Marines always traveled in battle dress, made up of beret or cap, khaki blouse, trousers, gaiters, and boots. This uniform came in standard sizes. Since the Marines, unlike the army, traveled with photographic identity cards, one of these would have to be faked. This raised an additional problem. Although there were thousands of British army officers currently serving, the number of Royal Marine officers was comparatively small, and their names appeared on the Navy List, of which German intelligence undoubtedly possessed a copy. One of these would need to “lend” his name to the dead body.

Casting his eye down the list of serving naval officers, Montagu noticed a large block of men with the surname Martin. No fewer than nine of these were Royal Marines, eight lieutenants and one captain, who had been promoted to acting major in 1941. The ferrying of important documents would be entrusted to a fairly senior officer, so Captain William Hynd Norrie Martin was unknowingly press-ganged into the job. The real Norrie Martin had joined up in 1937, becoming one of the Fleet Air Arm’s best pilots. In 1943, he was instructing American aircrew at Quonset Point, Rhode Island, and thus unlikely to get wind of what was being done with his name. By pure coincidence, the real Martin had served aboard the aircraft carrier Hermes, which had been sunk by the Japanese in April 1942, with the loss of more than three hundred men. A death notice for the fake William Martin would need to be posted in the British press; the Germans would believe this referred to the body carrying the documents, but the real Major Martin’s friends and colleagues would probably assume he had died in the sinking of the Hermes, with his death only belatedly confirmed.

Major William “Bill” Martin was duly issued identity card number 148228 by the Admiralty. He was made four years younger than Glyndwr Michael, but Cardiff was chosen as his place of birth, just ten miles from Michael’s birthplace in Aberbargoed. The card assigned Martin to “Combined Operations,” the force set up to harass the Germans by combined navy and army operations and directed by Lord Louis Mountbatten. The identity card was suspiciously shiny, so as an added precaution it was endorsed “issued in lieu of No. 09650 lost.” This was Montagu’s own identity card number, to ensure that anyone investigating this nonexistent officer with the fake identity card would eventually come to him. Losing an identity card was a serious lapse in wartime Britain, but as well as explaining its newness, the replacement card provided the first plank in the personality of Bill Martin: he was accident-prone. Montagu signed the card, the first of many occasions when he would stand in for Bill Martin.

All that was needed to complete the card was a photograph. Glyndwr Michael had never had a passport or any other form of photographic identity card, and trying to obtain a recent photograph, if such a thing existed, would have involved contacting the Michael family. Montagu and Cholmondeley repaired to the St. Pancras mortuary with a camera and a tape measure. While Cholmondeley measured Glyndwr for the Royal Marine battle dress and boots, Montagu prepared him for his photograph. It was the first time they had seen the body: the face seemed thin and sickly, rather different from the strapping young warrior they had already framed in their minds. Still, as Montagu remarked, “He does not have to look like13 an officer—only like a staff officer,” and these were seldom the most impressive physical specimens. This was possibly the first time Glyndwr Michael had ever been photographed. The morbid modeling session was a “complete failure.”14 After only a few days, the eyes of a corpse in cold storage begin to sink into the skull and the facial muscles start to sag. It is simply impossible to take a photograph of the face of a dead person that looks anything other than entirely, unmistakably dead. Michael had been emaciated before he died. Every day he spent in the St. Pancras Mortuary, he looked slightly deader. No matter at what angle he was photographed, and under what light, the newly named William Martin resolutely refused to come alive for the camera. Back in the office, and in the street, Montagu and Cholmondeley surreptitiously scanned the faces of friends and strangers alike, in the hope of spotting someone who might stand in as Bill Martin’s double. Glyndwr Michael’s face was unremarkable, with graying hair, thinning in front. It was not, thought Montagu, an “appearance that would have15 singled him out in a crowd.” Yet finding someone who even vaguely resembled him was proving extraordinarily difficult.

While Montagu searched for the right face, “rudely staring at anyone16 with whom we came into contact,” Cholmondeley went clothes shopping. Glyndwr Michael had been tall and thin, “almost the same build”17 as Cholmondeley himself. Cholmondeley first bought braces, gaiters, and standard-issue military boots, size twelve. Then, having obtained permission from Colonel Neville of the Royal Marines, he presented himself at Gieves, the military tailors in Piccadilly, to be fitted for a Royal Marines battle dress, complete with appropriate badges of rank, Royal Marine flashes, and the badge flashes of Combined Operations. The uniform was finished off with a trench coat and beret. The clothes would need the patina of wear, since if they were too stiff and new, the Germans might suspect a plant. So Cholmondeley climbed into the uniform and wore it every day for the next three months.

Underwear was a more ticklish problem. Cholmondeley, understandably, was unwilling to surrender his own, since good underwear was hard to come by in rationed wartime Britain. They consulted John Masterman, Oxford academic and chairman of the Twenty Committee, who came up with a scholarly solution that was also personally satisfying. “The difficulty of obtaining18 underclothes, owing to the system of coupon rationing,” wrote Masterman, “was overcome by the acceptance of a gift of thick underwear from the wardrobe of the late Warden of New College, Oxford.” Major Martin would be kitted out with the flannel vest and underpants of none other than H. A. L. Fisher, the distinguished Oxford historian and former president of the Board of Education in Lloyd George’s Cabinet. John Masterman and Herbert Fisher had both taught history at Oxford in the 1920s and had long enjoyed a fierce academic rivalry. Fisher was a figure of ponderous grandeur and gravity who ran New College, according to one colleague, as “one enormous mausoleum.”19 Masterman considered him long-winded and pompous. Fisher had been run over and killed by a truck after attending a tribunal examining the appeals of conscientious objectors, of which he was chairman. The obituaries paid resounding tribute to his intellectual and academic stature, which nettled Masterman. Putting the great man’s underclothes on a dead body and floating it into German hands was just the sort of joke that appealed to his odd sense of humor. Masterman described the underwear as a “gift;”20 it seems far more likely that he simply arranged for the dead don’s drawers to be pressed into war service.

Montagu and Cholmondeley were both, in different ways, adapting themselves to the part of Bill Martin. Montagu had forged his signature. Cholmondeley was wearing his clothes. Slowly, the personality of Major Martin was coming into focus, a character that would have to be revealed by whatever was in his wallet, pockets, and briefcase. Martin, it was decided, was the adored son of an upper-middle-class family from Wales. (His Welshness was virtually the only concession to the real identity of the body.) He was a Roman Catholic. Catholic countries were known to be more reluctant to carry out surgical autopsies, and this reluctance would presumably be compounded if the body was thought to be that of a coreligionist. The William Martin they conjured up was clever, even “brilliant,”21 industrious but forgetful, and inclined to the grand gesture. He liked a good time, enjoyed the theater and dancing, and spent more than he had, relying on his father to bail him out. His mother, Antonia, had died some years earlier. They began to ink in his past. He had been educated, they decided, at public school and university. He was a secret writer of considerable promise, though he had never published anything. After university, he had retired to the country to write, listen to music, and fish. He was something of a loner. With the outbreak of war, he had signed up with the Royal Marines but found himself consigned to an office, which he disliked. “Keen for more active and dangerous22 work,” he had escaped by switching to the Commandos and had distinguished himself by his aptitude for technical matters, notably the mechanics of landing craft. He had predicted that the Dieppe raid would be a disaster, and he had been right. Martin was, they concluded, “a thoroughly good chap,”23 romantic and dashing, but also somewhat feckless, unpunctual, and extravagant.

The first witness to Martin’s fictional character was his bank manager. Montagu approached Ernest Whitley Jones, joint general manager of Lloyds Bank, and asked him if he would be prepared to write an angry letter about an overdraft that did not exist, to a client who was also imaginary—a request that is unique in the annals of British banking. Whitley Jones was, perhaps predictably, a cautious man. It was not, he pointed out, normal practice for the general manager of the bank’s head office to perform such a mundane task. But when Montagu explained that he would rather not “bring in” anyone else, the manager relented. Such a letter “could sometimes come from head24 office,” he said, “especially when the general manager was the personal friend of the father of a young customer whose extravagance needs some check and the father does not want to nag his son.”

14th April, 1943


Major W. Martin, RM

Army & Navy Club

Pall Mall

London SW1

Dear Sir,

I am given to understand that in spite of repeated application your overdraft amounting to £79.19s.2d still outstands.

In the circumstances, I am now writing to inform you that unless this amount, plus interest at 4% to date of payment, is received forthwith we shall have no alternative but to take the necessary steps to protect our interests.

Yours faithfully,

E. E. Whitley Jones,

Joint General Manager

The dunning letter was addressed to Major Martin at the Army and Naval Club in Pall Mall. This, it was decided, would be Martin’s home when in “town.” Cholmondeley obtained a bill from the club, made out to Major Martin.

Having imagined Martin’s father, Montagu and Cholmondeley now decided this anxious parent deserved a larger part in the unfolding drama. Enter John C. Martin, paterfamilias, “a father of the old school,”25 in Montagu’s words, who may well have been modeled on his own father: affectionate, but formal and controlling. The letter itself was probably written by Cyril Mills, a colleague in MI5. Mills, the son of the circus impresario Bertram Mills, had taken over the circus business after his father’s death in 1938 and was now one of the key operatives in the Double Cross team. Mills knew how to put on an impressive show. The resulting letter, pompous and pedantic as only an Edwardian father could be, was “a brilliant tour de force.”26

Tel. No. 98

Black Lion Hotel


N. Wales

13th April, 1943

My Dear William,

I cannot say that this hotel is any longer as comfortable as I remember it to have been in pre war days. I am, however, staying here as the only alternative to imposing myself once more upon your aunt whose depleted staff & strict regard for fuel economy (which I agree to be necessary in war time) has made the house almost uninhabitable to a guest, at least one of my age. I propose to be in Town for the nights of 20th & 21st of April when no doubt we shall have an opportunity to meet. I enclose the copy of a letter which I have written to Gwatkin of McKenna’s about your affairs. You will see that I have asked him to lunch with me at the Carlton Grill (which I understand still to be open) at a quarter to one on Wednesday the 21st. I should be glad if you would make it possible to join us. We shall not however wait luncheon for you, so I trust that, if you are able to come, you will make a point of being punctual.

Your cousin Priscilla has asked to be remembered to you. She has grown into a sensible girl though I cannot say that her work for the Land Army has done much to improve her looks. In that respect I am afraid that she will take after her father’s side of the family.

Your affectionate


Cholmondeley and Montagu were now enjoying themselves, warming to the task of invention, the depth of detail, the odd plot twists: the exasperated father sorting out his son’s financial affairs, resentful of his sister-in-law’s rule over the family house and of having to stay in a second-class hotel; niece Priscilla, sensible but chunky, with, it was implied, a slight crush on her older cousin Bill; the hints of wartime deprivation and rationing; the artful ink splotch on the first page. Montagu’s acidulous sense of humor ran through every word of the forgeries.

While the larger themes of Martin’s life were being sketched out, Cholmondeley also began to gather the smaller items that a wartime officer might carry in his pockets and wallet, individually unimportant but vital corroborative detail. In modern spy parlance, this is known as “wallet litter,” the little things everyone accumulates that describe who we are and where we have been. Martin’s pocket litter would include a book of stamps, two used; a silver cross on a neck chain and a St. Christopher’s medallion (to emphasize his Catholic piety), a pencil stub, keys; a pack of Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes, the traditional navy smoke; matches; and a used twopenny bus ticket. In his wallet they inserted a pass for Combined Operations Headquarters, which had expired, as further evidence of his lackadaisical attitude to security. The members of Section 17M, all of whom were party to the secret, added their own refinements. There was much discussion over exactly which wartime nightclub Bill might favor. Margery Boxall, Montagu’s secretary, obtained an invitation to the Cabaret Club, a swinging London nightspot, as proof of Martin’s taste for the high life. To this was added a small fragment of a torn letter, written to Bill from an address in Perthshire, relaying some snippet of romantic gossip: “… at the last moment27—which was the more to be regretted since he had scarcely ever seen her before. Still, as I told him at the time …” The handwriting is that of John Masterman.

Two identity discs, stamped “MAJOR W. MARTIN, R.M., R/C” (Roman Catholic), were attached to the braces that would hold the dead man’s trousers up. A bill for shirts from Gieves, paid in cash, was crumpled up in preparation for stuffing into a pocket. Bill Martin would be carrying cash on his final journey: one five-pound note, three one-pound notes, and some loose change. The banknote numbers were carefully noted. As with all money that might be passed to, or received from, the enemy, the currency was carefully tracked in case it might reappear somewhere significant. If the money disappeared after the body arrived in Spain, it would at least prove that the clothes had been searched.

Nothing was left to chance. Everything the body wore or carried was minutely inspected to ensure that it added to the story, on the assumption that the Germans would make every “effort to find a flaw in28 Major Martin’s make-up.” And yet something was missing from Martin’s life. It was Joan Saunders who pointed it out: he had no love life. Bill Martin must be made to fall in love. “We decided that a29 ‘marriage would be arranged’ between Bill Martin and some girl just before he was sent abroad,” wrote Montagu. Though he might refer nonchalantly to “some girl,” Montagu already had a girl firmly in mind.

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