ONE morning in April, 1943, with the Second World war at its height, a fisherman brought ashore a body he found floating in the sea off the coast of southern Spain.
The body was identified as that of a British Royal Marine officer, Major William Martin.
A leather briefcase secured to his belt contained top secret Allied invasion plans which appeared to be an intelligence goldmine for the Germans.
But Major Martin was not what he appeared to be.
In fact, he had never existed, and the body was actually that of a Welsh tramp.
Every document found on him was a fake, painstakingly created by a dedicated team of British intelligence officers.
And among the papers was a two-page letter written on notepaper bearing in its top left-hand corner the printed address ‘Black Lion Hotel, Mold, N. Wales’.
The fascinating tale of how and why it got there is revealed in a best-selling book, Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre.
Early in 1943 the Allies were anxious to build on their stunning military successes against Nazi Germany in North Africa.
The Anglo-American high command decided their next target should be Sicily from where they could leapfrog to the toe of Italy, fighting their way northwards into the heart of Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
But the Allied leaders also knew that invading Sicily presented a huge challenge and could easily end in a massive bloodbath if the German and Italian defenders knew the island was the target.
British intelligence officers were therefore given the task of coming up with a plan to persuade the Axis powers that Greece – and not Sicily – was the invasion target.
If the enemy could be persuaded to fall for this ruse they would then send reinforcements to the wrong place and the invaders of Sicily would face a much easier time.
A small team of British spies, based in Whitehall, had to create a deception that could potentially save the lives of thousands of Allied troops.
At its head was peacetime barrister and Royal Navy Commander Ewen Montagu and his deputy, Charles Cholmondeley, a highly intelligent yet eccentric RAF officer.
Their idea was brilliantly simple yet fiendishly difficult to make work.
They would dump a dead body on the coast of Spain, which would apparently be that of a British officer.
He would have been acting as a courier for the Allies when the plane in which he was travelling crash-landed in the sea.
The body would carry a sheaf of fake confidential letters between top Allied officers which made reference to an invasion of Greece by British and American forces.
Spain was chosen as the place to have the body found as, although officially neutral, many of the rulers of the Fascist-controlled country were in fact highly sympathetic to the Nazis.
The part of the Spanish coast – at Huelva – was also known to be a hotbed of German spies who, it was hoped, would make sure the documents found their way into the hands of their masters.
The book describes how the elaborate deception plan – known by the codename Operation Mincemeat – came together after winning the approval of Winston Churchill.
A suitable body, that of a homeless man in his late 30s, was found by the team with the unofficial help of a coroner in London.
Glyndwr Michael had been born into a poor family in Aberbargoed in South Wales and wandered into a hopeless existence.
He eventually drifted to London and died – either by suicide or by accident – by taking rat poison.
Montagu and Cholmondeley then spent weeks preparing his body for its service to the war effort.
They came up with a name – Major William Martin – and around it wove an elaborate but completely fictional life history.
One important aspect of this was Major Martin’s ‘family’, which would include his father, John G. Martin.
To make the discovery of the body as authentic as possible, Major Martin would not only be carrying the top secret correspondence between the British generals but also personal letters, including one from his father.
It would be penned just days a few days before his son’s death and refer to routine family matters.
It would also have to be sent from a hotel rather than a fictitious home address which Germans agents in Britain might be able to check as being the residence of a J. G. Martin.
The place chosen was the Black Lion in High Street, Mold, then a thriving hotel and now, according to the author, the site of the Halifax Bank.
Dated April 13, 1943, the letter began: “My Dear William, I cannot say that this hotel is as comfortable as I remember to have been in pre-war days…”
It went on to outline how Mr Martin intended to meet his son in London about a week later when he hoped the two men could discuss complaints from the bank about the way the major was handling his personal finances.
It ended: “Your affectionate Father.”
Major Martin’s body was cast adrift from a submarine and was found by fisherman Jose Antonio Rey Maria.
As predicted, the Mold letter and other documents were soon passed to the Nazis who dutifully arranged for massive reinforcements to be sent to Greece.
The invasion of Sicily went ahead with limited loss of life and achieved all its objectives, meaning Operation Mincemeat had been a dazzling triumph.
The official history of the Second World War later described it as “perhaps the most successful deception of the entire war”.
However, in its postscript the book describes how at one stage the men who put together the ruse must have had doubts about the Black Lion part of the plan.
They realised that if German agents were to check out the contents of the letter, they might send someone to Mold. A look at the hotel register for the time Mr Martin was supposed to have stayed there would reveal this completely fictitious character had never signed in.
To ensure this would not happen – and put the whole operation at risk – the author speculates one of the team must have travelled from London to North Wales to cover their tracks.
He believes this was the case because, soon after his book was published, he was shown a copy of the register by the un-named person who now has it in their possession.
And there on the appropriate page is the signature of a J G Martin.
In this plan, nothing had been left to chance.