On April 30, 1943, the battle for North Africa was winding down, and the Axis had defeat staring it in the face. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the tactical genius, had exited the theater in poor health nearly two months before. In fact, the final offensive against the depleted Panzers (Operation Strike) was just a week away. Tunis and Bizerte were certain to fall, and if they did, the Germans were facing a loss of men and equipment that could rival Stalingrad.
But on this day, Allied war planners weren’t thinking about the “here and now”. They were looking ahead to the next target…Sicily. The trick, however, was to get Adolf Hitler and his military leadership thinking about a place other than Sicily.
And that’s where Operation Mincemeat came in. This involved making the German government believe that it had captured top-level, top-secret documents outlining a planned invasion of Greece and Sardinia. But the Germans were pretty intelligent in their own right, and fooling them wouldn’t be easy. Plus pretty much everyone knew that, after Africa, the next step would be Italy, and Sicily make the perfect stepping-off point. This would have to be quite the ruse.
The idea was to have a body, dressed up like a mid-level officer, wash ashore on the Spanish coast. British Intelligence believed that the Spanish, with their close ties to Germany, would immediately report the discovery, and things would progress. So the body of a man that recently died of poisoning was found, and a stash of phonied documents of the operation in Greece was placed in a briefcase and strapped to him, along with a major’s uniform and some old receipts and a made-up wife-to-be.
The submarine HMS Seraph then carried the body in a canister filled with dry ice. As the dry ice evaporated, the carbon dioxide consumed the oxygen and preserved the body without refrigeration (which would have been a dead giveaway to German doctors).
At 4:30am, the Seraph off-loaded the body and the intelligence services watched and waited to see if their trick worked.
To say it succeeded would be an incredible understatement. The Germans bought it, hook, line, and sinker. Field Marshal Rommel, now in better health, was sent to Greece and given overall command of its defenses. Additional reinforcements were directed away from Sicily and to Greece and Sardinia instead. A Panzer Division was moved from France and, more importantly, two Panzer Divisions were moved from the Eastern Front, a move that would have a big benefit for the Russians at Kursk.
And when Allied forces stormed the beaches of Sicily in July of 1943, Hitler and his generals still believed it to be a feint, and continued their focus on Greece. By the time they figured out they had been tricked, Sicily was all but lost.
So I guess that just like Michael Knight, one (dead) man can make a difference.
Recommended Reading: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory – It’s probably dangerous to recommend a book that, as of this writing, has yet to hit the presses. But I’m anxiously awaiting getting my hands on it.