April 30th, 1943 – The Fish Story
At 9:30 in the morning, José Antonio Rey María was fishing for sardines off the west coast of Spain when he saw a strange object floating in the distance. As he drifted closer, adrenaline would course through his veins as he realized that it was a corpse, dressed in a British Royal Navy uniform.
Spain was neutral in World War 2. Though chaos surrounded their country at all times, and at times domestic strife threatened to tear it apart from within, the nation was able to experience a kind of peace amidst the massive conflict. That was about to change: they had done their best to stay out of the war, but fate had other plans. What José Antonio Rey María was unaware of was that this body, and the contents it possessed, would alter the course of WW2.
As the Spaniard and the corpse arrived back at the port of Huelva, people crowded around to get a glimpse of his unusual catch. It was assumed that this dead body was the result of a boat or plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean.
In the midst of some hectic chatter and morbid curiosity, calls were made to the Spanish Navy to come and secure the body. Once secured, the next logical step was to contact the Local British Vice-Consul, Francis Haselden. They soon identified the body as Captain William Martin of the Royal Navy.
Soon Haselden was locked in frantic communication with the British Navy concerning not the body, but the briefcase that had been found securely fastened to Major Martin’s belt. In fact it was chained to him, as if to say that he would die before letting in the hands of another.
Encrypted British messages flooded the airways, begging Spain for the return of this briefcase. Each message was intercepted, and the German agents who received these messages quickly cracked the encryption code; they were listening to every word.
In short time, a questionable decision was made by Vice-Consul Haselden. The Spaniards offered to let him directly transport the briefcase back to London, where it would be safely back in the arms of the Brits and the Allied Forces. But he declined, requesting it go through the "formal channels.” Whose side was he on?
The Germans now saw their chance to get an advantage in the War: they needed to get that briefcase before it got back to Britain. The race was on.
German officers swiftly made contact with Spain and made an official attempt to get their hands on whatever was in that sea-soaked leather case. Spain resisted, at least at first.
In Huelva an autopsy was performed to confirm the cause of death of the young Captain. From the contents of his pockets they would learn that Captain William Martin was Catholic, his father was a pompous jerk, he was engaged to a beautiful young woman named Pam, he had unpaid bills, he smoked cigarettes, and he had recently lost his Royal Navy identification card and had been issued a new one.
Not long into the autopsy, the day grew miserably hot and the smell of the decomposing flesh was becoming unbearable. Vice-Consul Haselden requested they stop the autopsy and take lunch. Everyone in attendance agreed, and the body was tagged as “Died from asphyxiation through immersion in the sea.”
Captain William Martin was buried with full military honors on May 2nd in Huelva, Spain.
May 5th, 1943 – The Chase for the Briefcase
The briefcase was then sent to Madrid, in accordance with the formal channels by which a situation like this was supposed to have been handled. In the Spanish capital, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris of the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service) was determined to get his hands on that briefcase. It wouldn’t take long for him to convince Spain to allow Germany to get the information that was sealed in the now-brittle envelope tucked in the center of the briefcase, sealed away by the British. Germany had won the race as soon as it had started.
The challenge, now, was that the letters would have to be extracted from the envelope without breaking the seal or looking tampered with. They knew that the documents would have to be returned to the British, and they would have to look untouched so that they would think that their information was safe and still confidential.
In a stroke of genius, the Abwehr agent stuck a small metal rod into the envelope, slowly rolled the paper into a cylinder, and pulled it out of the gap in the side. At last, they had what they needed. The papers were dried, photographed, and then soaked in seawater for 24 hours to make them look untampered with.
Once examined, these copied documents were deemed so important that the senior agent delivered them back to Germany himself.
The Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy) knew that the Allied forces had recently secured Northern Africa and would soon make their way across the Mediterranean Sea. The looming question had been: where would they strike?
Finally, in their hands, the answer they were waiting for: the extracted letters detailed the upcoming British battle plan, now laid before Adolf Hitler and his legions.
The last step in the Axis’ plan was to return the briefcase and all of its contents safely back into the hands of the Allied forces. And not long after they released the briefcase back to Spain, Germany intercepted the last message they would need, settling that Britain had the documents safely back in their hands, and they had been deemed unopened and untampered with. Germany was in the clear.
The extracted letter was from Lieutenant General Archibald Nye written to General Harold Alexander. It disclosed the Allie’s plans to make a feint on Sicily as a decoy while the main attack would be in the Balkans. There was also a clumsy joke in the letter about “sardines,” which Hitler keenly recognized as code for Sardinia.
The plan was understood, and it was time for action.
The Axis Powers would soon move seven divisions of troops to Greece and twelve to the Balkans, including two armored panzer divisions. Over 10,000 troops were waiting for the invasion, as well as a small fleet of fighter aircraft in Sardinia. They were ready for war.
Though Mussolini believed the attack would be on Sicily and fought to advise Hitler against his newly formed plan, Hitler knew better. They were in a game of chess, and Hitler had the advantage of knowing his opponent’s next move. It was almost too good to be true.
On July 9th, 1943, the Allied forces attacked Sicily, just as expected. Raising his confidence in the plan even more, Hitler continued to move forces out of Sicily to Sardinia—four hours into the Sicily attack.
In the Balkans and Sardinia, anxious troops awaited the onslaught of attack…but it never came.
On August 17th, Sicily would fall to the Allied forces, which gave them the ability shortly after to secure the rest of Italy.
As one historian wrote, looking back at this event, “Hitler would be on his back-foot for the rest of the war.”
How could this have happened? What went wrong? Hitler and the German Intelligence were so certain that their stolen intel was what would win them the war—but ultimately, it led to their defeat.