Thursday, January 31, 2008

Interesting People: Captain William Martin

In my "interesting people" series, I've tried to focus on notable individuals forgotten in history. This is not a hard and fast rule though: I've blogged about a sports team, which at best is a group of people, the Washington Generals. Now I'm going to mention an interesting guy who didn't really...what's the word...exist.

William Martin was a soldier born in the English region of Wales. He was a Captain in the British Royal Marines during World War II, had a girlfriend back home he hoped to marry, a father who wrote him long letters, and some spare change. Martin was an important man, carrying top-secret plans for an invasion of Nazi-controlled Italy, plans the Nazis were lucky to get their hands on. However, this full life was entirely false; "William Martin" was a story made up by British spies using the body of a criminal and lots of planning.

When the British and their allies got ready to invade Italy, it was pretty obvious where their first choice would be. As British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, "everybody but a bloody fool would know it's Sicily." So two British secret agents of the XX Committee (not twenty...double cross) were told to make it less manifest. Their plan: "accidentally" give the Nazis "secret" plans to invade the island of Sardinia instead. They couldn't be too obvious about the adventure, so the English decided to give the plans to a man supposedly shot down over water.

The spy team did several things to make the story believable. A recently deceased man was selected. He was in good physical shape and in his early 30s – typical condition for the military. They even made sure that he had died of pneumonia, so he would the fluid in the lungs common to drowning victims. The body was dressed in a full uniform, given ticket stubs, some money, and even a receipt for an engagement ring. Most importantly, he was given a locked briefcase with the plans to invade Sicily.

In Spring 1943 local newspapers announced the recent death of a William Martin of the English Royal Marines. In a short time, a submarine quietly let the outfitted body float away near the coast of Spain, a Nazi ally. The Germans clearly went through the briefcase before returning it to the English and probably photocopied the plans. The body was given a funeral and burial in England, while the army of Britain and its allies prepared to invade Sicily. When they got there, most of the German weaponry was on the coast facing Sardinia. While southern Sicily wasn't exactly unprotected, there's reason to believe that Martin's presence had a slight impact on Nazi plans.

(As for the identity of the body himself, that has been closely guarded. British officials have said, though, that he was "a bit of a ne'er-do-well", strongly implying that his service in death was greater than service to follow man in life.)

The story is a delightfully odd one, inspiring a 1950s movie. My main source is the indefatigable Bathroom Reader, specifically the first "Plunge into History".

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