A NEW film released this month tells the strange story behind a grave that lies in a forgotten corner of southwestern Spain that is credited with changing the course of the Second World War.
In the corner of the Catholic cemetery of La Soledad just outside the city of Huelva lies a grave marked with the name ‘Major William Martin’ containing a corpse that was found by fisherman during the height of war in April 1943.
However, the true identity of the corpse within was known by only a few behind Operation Mincemeat, an audacious plan by British Intelligence to hoodwink Hitler.
It involved planting the corpse of a fictitious Major, a supposed victim of a plane crash, and his briefcase full of fake secrets off the Spanish coast with the knowledge that the Franco regime would share any intelligence with the Germans.
Papers contained within a suitcase chained to the Major’s belt contained documents that were designed to help persuade Hitler that the Allies planned to stage invasions in Greece and Sardinia and therefore divert Axis forces away from the real target in Sicily.
The corpse was transported by submarine to just off the coast of Huelva, where British intelligence knew a particularly active German spy, Adolf Clauss, was based and would likely be handed the bogus secret documents.
All went according to plan and the Allies mounted a successful invasion of southern Europe with minimal loss of life thanks to the diversion.
But the mystery as to the true identity of the grave was not revealed until years later.
When the MI5 secret files were declassified in 1996 it emerged that Major William Martin had been ‘played by’ a homeless alcoholic Welshman who died in London after eating poisoned bread.
His body had been removed from St Pancras Hospital morgue, dressed up in the Royal Marine uniform of a Major and transported on ice by submarine to southern Spain.
It wasn’t until 1997 that an inscription was added to the tombstone acknowledging the posthumous heroism and the real identity of the man within. “Glyndwr Michael served as Major William Martin, RM.”
While the well-tended grave receives the occasional curious visitor, the story will now reach a wider audience with the April cinema release of Operation Mincemeat starring Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald and Penelope Wilton.
Local campaigners hope interest generated by the new film will lead to greater promotion of the area and preservation of the tombs of other Allied heroes buried there.
For in the British Cemetery adjacent to the final resting place of ‘William Martin’ lies two other neglected graves of war heroes.
Their headstones are overgrown with weeds and they receive few visitors but this spot is the final resting place for two Allied airmen who died when their plane, a Bristol Beaufighter, went down near Gibraleon on April 19, 1942.
This is the final resting place of 27 year-old Royal Australian Air Force pilot Sergeant Geoffrey Lennox Avern and 21-year-old RAF wireless operator Sgt Philip Bernard Crossan.
“Out of respect for the two young airmen my wife and I have decided to lay flowers on their graves on the 19th April, eighty years after they met their untimely deaths,” explained British expat and local resident, Christopher Wright who is in contact with Australian and British embassies in Spain to urge them to take action to restore the cemetery.
“Action is needed now to ensure that these two young airmen are not forgotten,” Wright said.
Anyone in the area wishing to join volunteers to clear up the cemetery can email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
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