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The Corpse That Fooled Hitler

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On the morning of April 30, 1943, a fisherman working off the coast of Huelva, Spain found a body floating in the water. The corpse, an adult male, was badly decomposed and wearing a military uniform, trench coat, and boots. Floating nearby, and attached to the man’s trench coat belt with a chain, was a briefcase.

The fisherman alerted the authorities and the body was retrieved. The contents of the briefcase, a mix of military documents and personal effects, identified the man as Major William Martin of the Royal Marines. A few days later, Martin’s body was turned over to British forces stationed in Spain and he was given a burial with full military honors. Martin’s briefcase did not accompany him, though, and London sent a slew of frantic messages to their forces in Spain asking for the quick, quiet return of the sensitive documents it contained. 

Spain was a non-belligerent in the war, but Franco’s government supported the Axis Powers ideologically and materially, and German agents were able to get the Spanish to give them a peek at the case before it was returned to England. Amid Martin’s various papers—a used bus ticket, a letter from a bank demanding payment of an overdraft fee—they found a letter addressed to a senior British officer in North Africa from the vice-chief of the Imperial General Staff. A letter like that, delivered in a briefcase chained to a officer courier, would no doubt contain useful intelligence.

The German agents slid a thin metal rod through a hole in the side of the envelope, wound the letter around it and then pulled it out without breaking the envelope’s seals. They were right about the letter: It revealed the Allies’ next big move in southern Europe and explained plans for British and American forces in North Africa to cross the Mediterranean and capture Greece and Sardinia. Copies of the letter were sent to Hitler and the German high command, which strengthened its forces in the Mediterranean, and the original was slipped back into the envelope and returned to London. 

“Swallowed Whole”

Normally, Allied intelligence falling so easily into Nazi hands would have been called a disaster, but in this case, everything happened exactly as it was supposed to. The letter, the briefcase and the body were actually all part of an elaborate hoax—dubbed Operation Mincemeat—cooked up by British intelligence to mask the Allies’ real plans.

Knowing the Spanish would probably share anything they found with the Germans, two British intelligence officers, Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, hit upon the idea of letting them “intercept” false documents under the guard of a courier who’d met an untimely end in a plane crash at sea. If the plan sounds like something out of a paperback thriller, it is. Cholmondeley and Montagu got the idea from a memo written by a naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming, who’d gotten it from a pre-war detective story called The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (Fleming would also go on to write some novels of his own). 

With help from the famed forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury, Cholmondeley and Montagu sought out a specific corpse to play their courier. They needed a body that looked like it had spent several days at sea and offered few clues as to the cause of death. There were plenty fitting that description in London’s morgues, but acquiring any of them would be difficult without raising suspicion. If military intelligence asked the next of kin for a body, but couldn’t reveal what they needed it for, people would surely gossip, and who knew how far that talk might travel.

With help from a London coroner, they were able to find a man with no known relations and whose body had gone unclaimed. The man had died from ingesting rat poison, either by accident or with the intent to kill himself. The dose was small enough that it probably took him several painful days to die, but it left few clues as to what had happened to him. 

Their body secured, Cholmondeley and Montagu started on the work of building from scratch the man who it had belonged to, filling his life with little details and his pockets and briefcase with odds and ends. Their creation, Major William “Bill” Martin, Royal Marines, was born in 1907 in Cardiff, Wales. He had a fiancee named Pam, and carried a snapshot of her (really an MI5 clerk) in his pocket. Before his death at sea, he’d purchased a diamond engagement ring from a London jeweler, and still had the receipt on him. He also carried a letter from his father, ticket stubs from the theater, a receipt for a dress shirt, a hotel bill, a St. Christopher medallion, and other items. 

In the early morning hours of April 30, the submarine HMS Seraph surfaced about a mile off the Spanish coast. The crew fitted “Major Martin” with a life jacket, attached his briefcase to his coat, read Psalm 39 over his body and then set it out to drift at sea. Two weeks later, when Martin’s briefcase was returned to England, British intelligence analyzed the letter he’d been tasked to deliver and figured out that the Germans had slyly opened it. They sent a simple confirmation to Winston Churchill of their success: “Mincemeat Swallowed Whole.”

Over the next several weeks, the Germans redistributed their defensive forces in the Mediterranean. Additional minefields were laid down, panzer divisions were rerouted to Greece, and General Erwin Rommel was sent to oversee operations there. On July 9, Allied forces launched Operation Husky and struck at their true target, an under-defended Sicily.

The Real Major Martin

Mincemeat was a success, and as the story was told and retold and even turned into a movie after the war, one question was on many people’s minds: Who was Major Martin? The picture on Martin’s ID card belonged to MI5 officer Ronnie Reed, that much was known. But who was the poor soul, so hungry or so desperate to die that he’d eaten rat poison, whose body cleared the path to Sicily, and is still buried in Huelva?

There are several candidates. In 1996, a historian named Roger Morgan suggested that Major Martin was really Glyndwr Michael. Originally from Wales, Michael was an alcoholic and was living on the streets of London during the war. On January 26, 1943, he was discovered in an abandoned warehouse and taken to a nearby hospital to treat “acute chemical poisoning” that the doctors attributed to rat poison. He soon died, and his body was kept in the morgue until a family member could be located. In researching a book about Mincemeat more than a decade later, Canadian historian Denis Smyth uncovered additional, previously unseen evidence supporting Morgan’s idea. 

In 2003, filmmaker Colin Gibbon released a documentary making the case that Major Martin was really Tom Martin, a Royal Navy sailor who served aboard the HMS Dasher. In March 1943, the Dasher suffered an internal explosion and sank, losing 379 crew. In their book The Secrets of HMS Dasher, authors John and Noreen Steele claim that it was actually the body of another sailor from the ship, John Melville, who was used in Mincemeat. In 2004, a memorial service was held on another ship currently in service named the Dasher, where the commanding officer of the ship's naval squadron recognized Melville as Martin in a speech. 

Officially, the Royal Navy, Naval Historical Branch, and Ministry of Defense have long recognized Gyndwr Michael as the man whose body was used, and Martin’s gravestone in Spain reads: William Martin, born 29 March 1907, died 24 April 1943, beloved son of John Glyndwyr and the late Antonia Martin of Cardiff, Wales. Glyndwr Michael; Served as Major William Martin, RM.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

10 Not-So-Small Facts About the Volkswagen Beetle

While Volkswagen has announced—for a second time—that it's going to cease production on the Beetle, people are still singing the praises of the quirky little car. Here are 10 not-so-small things you need to know about the German car that was once named one of the top four cars of the century.


Adolf Hitler checks out a VW Beetle
Getty Images

It’s long been said that Adolf Hitler was the man behind the Beetle, and that’s sort of true. The dictator wanted German families to be able to afford a car, so he enlisted automaker Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) to make “the people’s car.” But the basis for the Beetle had been around since long before Hitler’s demand; the Bug was heavily influenced by Porsche's V series. Rumors that Hitler directly designed the car are probably false; though he was the one who reportedly said that the car should look like a beetle, because “You only have to observe nature to learn how best to achieve streamlining,” it’s likely that he was regurgitating something he had read in an automotive magazine. Still, one thing is for certain: Hitler himself placed the cornerstone for the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.


Perhaps still wary of anything imported from Germany, Americans shunned the Beetle when it was introduced in the States in 1949: Only two were sold in the first year. But after that, sales grew quickly. By the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Bugs were sold every year, topping out at 570,000 in 1970.


A pink VW Beetle

We have the public to thank for the car’s distinctive nickname. Originally known as the Volkswagen Type 1, the car’s curves and rounded top led to its later, insect-like moniker. Volkswagen must have realized they had a good thing on their hands, because they started referring to the car as the VW Beetle in the late 1960s.


The UK and the U.S. aren’t the only countries that bestowed a new name on the Volkswagen Type 1. In France, it's called Coccinellewhich means ladybug. It's Maggiolino and Fusca in Italy and Brazil, respectively, both of which mean "beetle." Mexico calls it Vocho; it's Peta (turtle) in Bolivia; and Kodok (frog) in Indonesia. 


In 1999, Advertising Age declared the car's not-so-small ad campaign to be the best campaign of the last 100 years, besting Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Nike, and McDonald’s. The quirky concept and copy—which, according to Advertising Age, “Gave advertising permission to surprise, to defy and to engage the consumer without bludgeoning him about the face and body”—was a game-changer for the entire industry.

The "Think Small" line and accompanying self-deprecating copy was written by Julian Koenig, who was also responsible for naming Earth Day and coming up with Timex’s “It takes a licking and keeps on ticking” tagline. He’s also half-responsible for daughter Sarah Koenig, whom you may know from NPR’s This American Life and Serial.


Herbie the Love Bug

Because of their distinctive aesthetic, VW Bugs have been associated with everything from the Beatles to Transformers. A few highlights:

  • The Beetle with the license plate “LMW 28IF” on the cover of The Beatles' Abbey Road album was sold at an auction for $23,000 in 1986. It is now on display at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.
  • The Fremont Troll sculpture in Seattle, a huge statue lurking under the Aurora Bridge, clutches an actual VW Beetle. An in-progress picture shows that the car was once red. It also once contained a time capsule of Elvis memorabilia, which was stolen.
  • The Herbie the Love Bug series was a big hit for Disney in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the original Herbies sold for $126,500 at an auction in 2015.
  • In the original Transformers cartoon, Bumblebee transformed from a VW Bug. The car was changed to a Camaro for the live-action movies.


The so-called “blumenvasen,” a small vase that could be clipped to the dashboard, speaker grille, or windshield, was porcelain when it was originally offered. The nod to flower power became such a symbol of the car that it was incorporated into the 1998 redesign. Sadly, it didn’t make the cut for the most recent overhaul: The vase was eliminated in 2011 by marketing execs apparently seeking to make the car more male-friendly.


When the millionth VW Beetle rolled off the line in 1955, the company capped the achievement by plating the car in gold and giving it diamante accents. They also created a Bug with a wicker body in collaboration with master basket-maker Thomas Heinrich.


After WWII, the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, was supposed to be handed over to the British. No British car manufacturer wanted to take responsibility for the company, though, saying that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car," "it is quite unattractive to the average buyer," and that "To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise." Whoops.


The last VW Bug
Getty Images

Beetle #21,529,464—the one celebrated by the mariachi band—is now at Volkswagen's AutoMuseum.


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