April 30, 1943, off the coast of Spain.
World War II had been raging for nearly five years, but the Allies were finally starting to gain the upper hand. Both sides knew that the next logical battlefront would be an Allied invasion of somewhere in Southern Europe. The Germans were on high alert for any advance knowledge of the Allies’ plans. Late that night, a Spanish fisherman found a body floating in shallow water – wearing a British Royal Marines uniform with a locked a briefcase chained around its waist – and reported it to local police. Spain was officially neutral but informally allied with Germany, so the find soon ended up in the hands of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency.
The briefcase contained documents identifying the late soldier as Major William Martin. Martin’s briefcase also contained a letter from a high-ranking British army officer, addressed to another, with instructions to Martin to hand-deliver. The letter covered a number of topics, but most importantly for the story, described in detail the planned Allied invasion of Greece. When Hitler read the letter, he ordered more than 5,000 German troops to Greece to repel the invasion, along with fighters and U-boats to support them.
Thanks to this move, the Allies encountered little resistance in their invasion of Sicily.
Which of course was the plan all along.
And thus, presenting the man who saved Europe: Major William Martin.
Except he wasn’t.
He really did save Europe, but he really wasn’t Major William Martin. He was really Glyndwr Michael (first name pronounced GLIN-dor), a homeless man from Wales who died from eating rat poison. It was either a tragic accident or a suicide – we’ll never know for sure. Either way, he had no living relatives, so he was perfect for the plan; no living relatives means no one to ask where the body went.
British intelligence agents dressed Michael in a Major’s uniform, provided him with fake documents (including fake love letters from a fake fiancée), and published a fake obituary in the London Times. They included the all-important letter, which contained a mix of easily-verifiable truths and completely fictional invasion plans. Then they loaded Michael/Martin’s body onto the submarine HMS Seraph. At 4:15 AM on April 30th, the Seraph surfaced, its commanding officer led a service of burial at sea, and the crew lowered the body into the water. The fisherman found the body the same day, and the rest is history.
After the war ended, the body of Michael/Martin was returned to the British and buried in the British section of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad Cemetery in Huelva, Spain, not far from where it was first found.
There the story remained until 1953, when the British decided to reveal the truth. The commanding officer of the intelligence operation wrote The Man Who Never Was, which became a movie of the same name. But even in those works, the identity of “the man who never was” was not revealed. Finally, in 1996, an amateur historian identified the body as Michael’s. And in 1997, the British took the unprecedented step of carving a new message into the gravestone:
Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM
And soon after, this man who would have likely been forgotten got a memorial in his hometown, reading:
THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS
In recognition of services
to the allied war effort
4 February 1909 – 24 April 1943
Thanks to one of my Internet Heroes, Tom Scott, for introducing me to this story thanks to his Things You Might Not Know video series: