Dad’s first beachhead in North Africa, and how Allies used a dead man to trick the Germans
Marvin A. Palecek
From: Glen Palecek, his son
Dad made his first beachhead in North Africa on June 22, 1943. A beachhead is a type of invasion where an army invades an enemy position across water, landing large numbers of men. I have found accounts of eight beachheads Dad was a part of – five across the sea and three across rivers. Here’s what Dad wrote about the beachhead in North Africa:
We made a combat beachhead assault 30 miles from Oran, but we missed the Germans retreating east along the northern shore of Africa toward Tunis and Bizerte. I was not disappointed.
We took several days of 20-mile hikes in desert conditions, ironically, “to get rid of our sea legs.” The water was so bad it was almost impossible to drink because they filled it too full of chloride. They used so much coffee to make it palatable that we got only a half of a canteen cup full, but we’d run back to the end of the line hoping for seconds. I started drinking coffee for the first time in those days.
When we marched on to Oran to get back on the ships, the weather was getting very rough. By the time we got halfway to Sicily, there were rumors that they were calling off the invasion. When we neared the assault location, all troops were locked below. Only three soldiers would get to watch the pre-attack bombardment, my two radio operators and I.
Dad did not know until later that the reason there were rumors the invasion of Sicily was called off was because the Allied leaders were doing their best to convince the Germans that the invasion would take place in Sardinia and Greece, not Sicily. Sardinia is a large island just over halfway between Spain and Italy. Sicily is also a large island. On a map, Sicily looks like a football about to be kicked by the boot of Italy. Only a mile and a half of water separate Sicily from the mainland.
I can find only a few written notes by Dad of how British leaders used a dead man to trick the Germans, but the story Dad told me goes something like this:
First, they got a British family to donate the body of a man who died of natural causes. Then, they dressed him in the uniform of a British officer. They handcuffed a briefcase of phony documents to his wrist indicating the landing to be in Sardinia and Greece, not Sicily. They added a picture of his phony “fiancé,” and even included a receipt from a jewelry store for an engagement ring. Then, they gave him a name, Major William Martin, and complete military records back home in case German spies checked.
Next, they took Major Martin via submarine near a German base on the coast of Spain. Just before sunrise, they released the body into the water and quietly slipped away.
The trick worked. A fishing boat recovered the body and turned it over to the Germans. A Spanish doctor examined the body and declared he died from drowning. The Germans assumed he must have been involved in an airplane crash in the sea. They sent messages back to Berlin that the invasion would be in Sardinia and Greece, and that the authenticity of the documents on Major Martin were “beyond question.”
As a result, the Germans set-up their main defenses in the wrong place. Thousands of mines were placed off the coast of Greece. Submarines were also sent from Sicilian waters to the Aegean Sea to ward off the invasion the Germans were sure would come. Even after the real invasion of Sicily was taking place, the Germans were convinced it was just a diversion tactic to distract them from the “real” invasion.
Thanks to the phony Major Martin, thousands of Allied lives, perhaps even my dad’s, were doubtlessly saved.
At this point, I still have a choice. I could give you a Hollywood-type script and write only about the heroics of the Allied forces and skip all the bad things that the Americans did. But, that would not do justice to the extreme efforts Dad made to hold onto his Christian faith and try to stop the American atrocities. If you only want the heroic feeling Hollywood movies give you, I suggest you stop reading this series. There is a long list of movies Hollywood made about the battles Dad was in. If you don’t want to be shocked and upset, watch them instead. Dad left accounts of things the Army tried to cover up.
Next time, my dad’s story will continue with an introduction to his experiences with, and his opinions of, General George S. Patton Jr., and an introduction to the massive D-day beachhead invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943, involving almost 3,000 ships and landing almost 500,000 troops.
For those of you who are looking for detailed combat stories, I assure you, there is plenty of that to come. Dad spent two years overseas, the majority of it in combat, or as he called it, “two years of hell.”