Wednesday - 23 July 2014

Helping create the legend of the man who never was

09 December 2013Written by Tom Derbyshire

When Major William Martin of the Royal Marines left the submarine HMS Seraph in April 1943 on a top-secret mission he played the main role in one of the most successful and ingenious wartime deceptions ever attempted.

Not bad for a man who was dead at the time.

'The man who never was' has been the subject of a 1956 film and a recent book by Times journalist and author Ben Macintyre, which covered in detail the operation that had a big impact on the Sicily landings and indeed the whole war: Operation Mincemeat.

There was a lot of interest at Bosleys of Marlow on November 6, when the 'Jolly Roger' flag from HMS Seraph was sold for £14,000 against an estimate of £8000-10,000. It attracted a lot of attention from commission bidders and was bought by a UK private collector.

For Operation Mincemeat, the S-Class submarine transported the body of an unknown man who was made out to be 'Major Martin' to the Spanish coast. He was released as if he had been thrown from a crashed aircraft and manacled to his wrist was a briefcase containing top-secret - but totally false - plans which the General Staff hoped would be picked up by the Spanish, then neutral but under Franco's dictatorship, and would then find their way to German Intelligence. The ruse worked and the Germans were tricked into thinking the invasion was set for Greece.

Secret Operation

Arguments still rage over the real identity of Major Martin: a crew member from HMS Dasher, a Royal Navy aircraft carrier which exploded off the Scottish coast in March 1943, or a homeless Welshman called Glyndwr Michael perhaps?

It was certainly not the only secret operation that HMS Seraph was engaged in during the war. Commissioned in June 1942, her exploits include Operation Flagpole: carrying Eisenhower's deputy, General Mark Clark, to North Africa on a top-secret mission to persuade the Vichy French not to oppose Allied landings.

The next, Operation Kingpin, saw Seraph rescuing French General Giraud for a mission thought critical to the North African campaign. However, Giraud hated the British and refused to board an RN vessel... so Seraph hoisted the stars and stripes, pretended to be under the command of a Captain Jerauld Wright RSN (actually the RN's Lieutenant Bill Jewell) and the crew had to pose as Americans.

The vendor's father served on Seraph and as the junior rating one of his duties was to look after the Jolly Roger, measuring about 2ft 7in x 4ft (79cm x 1.22m), and update it with the various kills/emblems. A new Jolly Roger was created when the submarine had a new captain in March 1944 and the vendor's father took this original one with him.

The submarine Jolly Roger came about after Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, Controller of the RN, slammed submarines in 1901 as "underhand, unfair and damned un-English. The crews of all submarines captured should be treated as pirates and hanged". In response, when Lt Commander Max Horton sank the German cruiser SMS Helaand a destroyer in 1914 he returned to port with the Jolly Roger flying proudly aloft.

The buyer's premium was 20%.

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