I always dreamed of visiting the fishing village of Palos de la Frontera, along the south facing Atlantic coast of Andalusia. This sun drenched region has been a crossroads of cultures since the Phoenicians arrived a thousand years before Christ. The Romans mined copper here, and stained the Tinto River red with their refuse. In 1492 the unwilling citizens were pressed into service as crew for Christopher Columbus' voyages. The beaches here even captured some of the flotsam of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October, 1805. And at about 9:30 in the morning of April 30, 1943, off Shady Point (Punta Umbria), Frontera fisherman José Antonio Rey Maria pulled a body out of the sea, and secured a role in an adventure worthy of a James Bond thriller.
Ian Flemming (above), the man who invented James Bond, invented this one, too. Shortly after World War Two began in September of 1939, he and a friend named John Godfrey applied to join the Twenty Committee, so named because it's title in Roman numerals would be “XX”, which would also be its mission - double cross. Their application became known as the Trout Memo, because in it Godfrey compared espionage to fly fishing. It listed 54 possible ways to tempt the Nazi's to swallow false ideas. Number 28 was to drop a dead body carrying false papers from an airplane over Germany. But that idea was rejected because the Germans would be suspicious of top secret papers carried over Germany, itself.
That objection became moot by the fall of 1941, after Nazi Germany had conquered all of Northern Europe, and, along with their Axis ally Italy, controlled most of the Mediterranean as well. The only land left unoccupied along that central sea was Spain, ruled by the fascist dictator Franco, and the outpost of Gibraltar, the tiny island of Malta, and Egypt – the latter three tenuously occupied by British forces. And then the tide turned. In the winter of 1942 British and American forces had cleared Axis troops from all of North Africa. Their problem now was succcintly detailed by Prime Minster Winston Churchill; “Anyone but a bloody fool would know” he said, that the western allies' next target must be Sicily.
The object in fly fishing is not to get the trout to swallow the hook, but to follow its natural inclination and swallow the fly, which hides the hook. In this case the Twenty Committee considered what the world must have looked like to their fish - Adolf Hitler. He was obsessed with the east. The vast majority of his army was locked in battle with Russia, and the oil which powered his armies came mostly from eight refineries around the Romanian town of Ploisti. An allied invasion of Greece made little sense to the western allies, but it would threaten both Hitler's oil supplies and outflank his armies in Russia. So the fly would be an Allied invasion of Greece. But where to cast the fly?
That problem fell to Twenty Committee member Lt. Commander Ewen Montagu (above), who chose Ian Flemming's invention number 28. Montegu realized that a floating body left in the Mediterranean would arouse suspicion for the same reasons as one found over German territory. But Allied aircraft were required to fly around the Iberian peninsula to reach Gibraltar. And eighty miles to the north of that British outpost was the Spanish regional capital of Huelva, where a German agent, Adolf Clauss, had shown himself to be particularly ambitious and generous in bribing Spanish officials. A fly dropped in front of Clauss would surely elicit a response. What Montagu needed first, was the fly - a dead body.
Having consulted pathologists, Montegu knew he was looking for a man in his mid thirties who had died of pneumonia. The body they drafted was that of a 34 year old Welshman named Glyndwr Michael. His father had died twenty years earlier, and his mother was three years passed. With no family, Glyndwr had become lost, alcoholic, and drifted into homelessness. He was found barely alive in an abandoned warehouse near the King's Cross underground station on January 26, 1943. He was rushed to the hospital suffering from walking pneumonia and “accute chemical poisoning”, probably from swallowing a large dose of “Battle's Vermin Killer”, a commercially available rat poison. The poison attacked his central nervous system, eventually produced a coma, and then kidney failure. He died on January 28th. As he had no family, his body was drafted by Lt. Montegu, and frozen in the hospital morgue, until the rest of plan was ready.
Glyndwr's corpse was to impersonate Captain (acting Major) William “Bill” Martin - and he was a pure invention. The name was chosen because there were several Major Martin's in the Royal Marines who Montagu could use as camouflage. Martin was to be carrying a personal letter from Lt. General Sir Archibald Nye of the Imperial General Staff, to General Sir Harold Alexander, commander 8th Army Group, Alexandria, Egypt. Amongst a handful of other items the letter discussed landings to be made on two Greek beaches, under the code name Operation Husky. It also mentioned a diversionary attack, “Operation Brimstone”, to be made against Sardinia. Wrote General Nye, “We stand a very good chance of making the Boche think we are going for Sicily.” In fact, Husky was the code name for the actual invasion of Sicily, and the code name was used here in case the Germans intercepted communications using it. General Nye even wrote this letter in his own hand, should anyone in German intelligence compare the penmanship.
But did the fly look real? Montegu gave Major Martin a girlfriend, complete with photo, love letters, and a bill for an engagement ring (above), ticket stubs from a London show dated April 24, 1943, and notice of an overdraft in his bank account. He carried a “pompous” cold letter from his father, and a St; Christopher's medal. And so the entire packet did not look too perfect, his membership card in the officers' club was out of date. Everything was checked and double checked, even down to his underwear..
With an OK from Churchill, on April 19th , the body, dressed in a uniform and trench coat, with the letters in a briefcase strapped to his wrists, was sealed in a metal tank with dry ice, and driven 147 miles to the Royal Naval base at Holy Loch, Scotland. There Major Martin was loaded aboard the submarine HMS Seraph (above).
On April 30th, at 4:30 in the morning. a mile off Punta Umbria, Major Martin was fitted into a life jacket and slipped gently into the cold Atlantic waters. As planned, the currents carried him inshore and about five hours later, José Antonio Rey Maria pulled the body on board his fishing boat. Shortly thereafter Jose' handed the body over to a Spanish Army officer. He passed the corpse to a Spanish naval officer, who sent it to the morgue in the regional capital of Huelva, four miles up the Tinto estuary.
After waiting three days the British Vice-Counsel to Spain asked the local coroner, Eduardo Del Torno, to preform an autopsy on the corpse, and requested the return of the documents he was carrying. The doctor reported Major Martin had drowned and the body had been in the sea for from three to five days. Since Major Martin was a Catholic, and Spain was a Catholic nation, just three days later, on May 4th, Major Martin was buried with full military honors about 2 miles outside of Huelva, in the "Nuestra Señora de la Soledad” cemetery - Grave 14, San Marcos Section. When the Twenty Committee examined the returned letters under a microscope, it was discovered they had been refolded, indicating they had indeed been read. Now, had the trout really swallowed the bait?
The briefcase and its letters had originally been passed to General Alto Estado Mayor, who appears to have lost them for awhile. Luckily for the British, Nazi Agent Adolf Clauss heard a rumor about the letters, and as expected he told his superiors. It was when the the head of the German Secret Service, Admiral Canaris, personally inquired about them, that the brief case and letters were found and handed over to the Germans to be quickly photographed and returned. But the way they had almost been lost only made their contents more believable to the Germans.
Over the next two months three German armor divisions, one from France and two from Russia, were transferred to Greece, and placed under the command of Erwin Rommel (above), the Desert Fox who had driven the British mad for two years in North Africa. A squadron of coastal patrol torpedo boats were also sent, and aircraft, and three new minefields were sown in the waters off the beaches. When Italian dictator Benito Mussolini expressed concern about the lack of troops on Sicily, he was told by General Alfred Jodl, head of the German Army, “You can forget about Sicily. We know it's Greece. “ Then on July 9, 1943 Operation Husky landed 160,000 troops on Sicily. The Germans did not accept it as the real invasion for another three days, by which time the only reinforcements they could provide was a single parachute regiment. Thirty days later the island was completely in Allied hands, at the price of less than 25,000 casualties, compared to 170,000 Axis forces killed, wounded and captured.
This story inspired the book and film “The Man Who Never Was”, but it was sixty years before the identity of the the man laying in grave 14, under the the sun of Andalusia, would be correctly identified on his tombstone. But the principles of espionage (and fly fishing) have not change since. To catch a fish, you must merely encourage the fish to do what it wants to do.
It is something the George Bush administration ought to have remembered in the spring of 2003.
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