Friday, October 6, 2017

Body Washed Up on Beach Reminiscent of "Operation Mincemeat"

Last week's post touched on how a recent hurricane brought forth reminders of a past war upon nearby shores.  That same storm wasn't done reminding us of the past, however, because the day after two old sea mines washed ashore at different points on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the body of a "neatly dressed man" washed ashore in Nags Head.

The writer of a newspaper story on the incident speculated, "Whales, exotic shells and even bombs wash ashore occasionally on the Outer Banks, but this might have been the first time waves deposited a human body in a bag."

Maybe so, but it is far from the first time that bodies have washed up on the shores of what has long been called the Graveyard of the Atlantic.  Hundreds of wrecks, the vast majority of them merchant vessels, leavened by a sprinkling of ill-fated warships, dot the seafloor off North Carolina.  Many of the thousands who died aboard these vessels over the last half-millennium would presumably have washed ashore.  What set this body apart from a typical victim of the sea, however, was his attire.  He was apparently dressed for a special occasion.  Investigators were to surmise pretty quickly that he was in fact dressed for a funeral; his own, it turns out.   

The unfortunate gentleman who washed ashore last week was far from the first decedent carefully dressed for consignment to the deep.  A number of private companies perform the service.  One even features a proprietary shroud that is, according to their website, "weighted with traditional cannonballs ... created by the same blacksmiths that forge the ceremonial cannonballs for the oldest commissioned warship on the planet the U.S.S. Constitution, 'Old Ironsides'"
On February 14, 2004, a deceased U.S. Navy Commander is committed to the Atlantic Ocean during a burial at sea ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). At the time, Truman was undergoing sea trials after completing a six-month Planned Incremental Availability (PIA) at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Jose L. Barrientos Jr. (Wikimedia Commons)
If one desires a newer American warship to play a role in the final disposition of a loved one (as long as they meet certain requirements), the U.S. Navy performs burials at sea on a pretty regular basis, although the deceased has typically been cremated beforehand.  After all, one doesn't want your honored veteran's final journey to make an unscheduled return trip. There's probably some truth to the old sea story about the Marine detachment that had to put a few more holes in the floating casket of the honored service member with the same rifles they had used to render honors, thus preventing it from becoming a navigational hazard.  

There have been interesting variations of the burial at sea, including the Viking funeral the U.S. Coast Guard gave a veteran of Nordic descent in 2014. From the annals of military history, however, we have the story of a corpse that was taken out into the Atlantic on a naval vessel during World War II, not to be buried, but to play a central role in a secret mission. The body was also dressed to impress a particular target audience: 


Operation Torch, the simultaneous landings in North Africa of around 108,000 British and American troops in November 1942, about 34,000 of whom originated in Hampton Roads, had been a success.  By early 1943, the Allies had a springboard from which to launch further amphibious operations into  Nazi-occupied Europe.  The island of Sicily off the Italian coast made the most sensible next target for invasion planners, but that fact wouldn't be lost on the thousands of German troops occupying the island who would be expecting the invasion.

Enter Ian Fleming, a British naval intelligence officer who would one day achieve worldwide fame as the author of the original James Bond novels.  It is widely believed that it was he who conceived of the idea to plant misleading plans on a dead body that would then be found by the Germans. The plan was actually inspired by a detective novel he had read.

The essence of what became known as "Operation Mincemeat" was a simple idea, but in order for it to work, elaborate measures had to be taken.  Just as intelligence officers commonly assume a false identity in order to conduct their work, an identity was created for an unfortunate Welsh laborer named Glyndwr Michael, who was transformed by British intelligence officers from a dead itinerant laborer into Captain (acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines.
The false identity card of Captain (Acting Major) William Martin, one of the notional documents that established the bona fides of the dead officer for Axis agents, who then passed the deceptive information he carried to Berlin. (Wikimedia Commons)
When "Major Martin" was found floating off the coast of Spain by fishermen on April 30, 1943, ostensibly as an air crash victim, he had ticket stubs, letters from his fiancee, and even unpaid bills in his pockets, but the real intelligence bait came from the secret plans contained in a briefcase chained to his trench coat that purported to show that the British were planning to surprise the Germans in Greece and Sardenia, and not Sicily. 

The decision to deposit the counterfeit major into the sea off Spain via the submarine HMS Seraph was a practical one.  Spain was officially neutral during World War II and thus its waters would not be patrolled quite as vigorously as those of occupied France or other areas under Axis control.  Dictator Francisco Franco owed his victory in the Spanish Civil War in part to Adolf Hitler's Condor Legion and the Luftwaffe, however, so it stands to reason that any important intelligence Spanish authorities found would be passed to the Nazis. 
File photo showing the prepared body of "Major Martin" 
before it was deposited into the Atlantic Ocean in April 1943. 
(National Archives of Great Britain via Wikimedia Commons)

Of course just one body washing literally out of the blue bearing supposedly secret information was not going to fool everyone in the Abwehr, and it didn't.  What Operation Mincemeat succeeded in doing, as successful disinformation operations have always done, is to inject uncertainty into an adversary's decision making process.  This sews confusion and undermines confidence in enemy leadership, wastes their resources, and chips away at their ability to make war.  

In this case, the Germans, who had lost a quarter of their strength on the eastern front by February 1943 at Stalingrad, followed by the evisceration of their Afrika Korps later that spring, could not afford to reinforce the troops they had in the Mediterranean.  They could only shuffle them around.  The spurious information imparted by the notional British major forced the precious few troops the Germans had left to be moved from Sicily to Greece and Sardinia.  Whether Operation Mincemeat alone proved detrimental to the German effort to retain Sicily when Operation Husky began in July 1943 will never be known, yet casualties during the operation were lighter than expected.  

And so it was that hundreds if not thousands of Allied Soldiers and Sailors owed their lives to an officer who wasn't even recruited until after rigor mortis set in.  

Fittingly, his final resting place was not the sea, but the grave where he was placed not long after being found by the Spanish. There he remained under his assumed name, literally, until 1997, when his true identity was finally added. 
(Wikimedia Commons)

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