This is one of the finest and most significant hoaxes in history. It had a very limited audience - the German military intelligence and command structure up to and including Hitler in World War II. The hoax was perpetrated by British Naval Intelligence people. Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu, the chief hoaxer, told the story in 1953 in the book "The Man Who Never Was." Hollywood couldn't generate a better story.
The story of the hoax began in late 1942, when a young man died of pneumonia in London. His involvement in the hoax is almost too fantastic to believe.
At the same time, the Allied forces were seeing the requirement for taking
Sicily from the Germans. It was serving as a base for attacking Allied supply
convoys in the Mediterranean, resulting in serious losses in those convoys.
What would be the target of an Allied invasion? Churchill himself later said
that "anybody but a damn' fool would
The hoax entailed developing a plausible scenario that would deliver documents of significant military value to the Germans; the documents would, of course, be fake and constitute the payload of the hoax. The challenge was to make the scenario so perfectly believable that the Germans would accept the documents as genuine. The plot was given the code name "Operation Mincemeat."
The ultimate scenario can be summarized as follows.
Montagu and his team knew that, even though Spain was neutral in the war, the Abwehr (German intelligence service) was quite active there and that the Spanish were cooperative. This knowledge was important in the design of the scenario.
The letters Major Martin carried were carefully designed deceptive fakes intended to suggest that the Allied invasion would be aimed at Greece and Sardinia, NOT Sicily. The vehicle for their delivery was the stuff of legend: Major Martin was a completely fictitious character - the Man Who Never Was. He never existed. So - just who was it that washed ashore at Huelva? Remember that young man who died of pneumonia in London? Montagu needed a corpse of a young man to pose as Major Martin. After the body was discreetly (and legally?) obtained, it was put in cold storage while the plot was developed. Montagu noted that Major Martin was the only man ever to join the Royal Marines after he was dead. This made getting an ID somewhat tricky. No matter how they photographed the corpse, the results still looked dead! Montagu found another officer who looked enough like the corpse to make the ID believable.
Major Martin did not die in an airplane accident - he was already dead! The body, fitted out as a Royal Marine major, was iced down in a special container, loaded aboard a British submarine, taken to a point offshore from Huelva and placed in the water. The onshore wind carried the body towards shore where the fisherman found it. After that the Spanish did exactly as Montagu had predicted.
It's a long and fascinating story. To sum it up, the hoax worked beyond Montagu's wildest dreams. It fooled everyone in the German command, including Hitler. That letter from Gen. Nye caused the Germans to split and dilute their defenses in a catastrophic way. An important Panzer division was diverted to Greece and a large amount of resources was expended in fortifying the area. A useful naval unit was sent to the Aegean, taking it out of action in Sicily. In the West, defensive efforts were diverted from Sicily to Sardinia and Corsica. Significant parts of Sicily's defenses were moved to the northern coast to be ready for an attack from Sardinia.
The seriously weakened defenses of Sicily were unable to withstand the huge Allied assault and collapsed fairly quickly. After a few days the Germans began to suspect something, as the invasion of Sicily continued and nothing was happening at Sardinia and Greece, but it was too late to recover.
The monstrous hoax had done its job perfectly; it caused the Germans to split their defenses across Europe, ensuring an Allied success at Sicily and saving thousands of Allied lives. The pen was mightier than the sword!
If you want to know the details of the care and planning that went into this memorable hoax, you need to read Montagu's book. Copies of it are available at Amazon and Abebooks. By the way, this book is the ONLY authoritative source of information about the hoax.
For many years after Montagu's book was published the identity of the body that Montagu's team used as Major Martin was a mystery. Montagu never said who it was. Later researchers in the UK kept digging in an attempt to identify the body. The best hypothesis so far seems to be that it was a man named Glyndwr Michael. Michael apparently died of pneumonia after trying to kill himself with rat poison.