On its 70th anniversary, I visited the grave and beach where the body of Major W Martin came ashore at Huelva, Costa de la Luz. This event inspired the war time film, 'The Man That Never Was'!
On the morning of the 30th April 2013, I stood on La Bota beach, Punta Umbria, near to the fishing port of Huelva on the Atlantic coast of Spain. It was the 70th anniversary of when, in 1943, a body dressed in the uniform of a British Royal Marine officer was found floating off-shore by a young fisherman called José Rey María. This event, which had such profound implications for the outcome of the 2nd World War, stirred my imagination as a young man having watched the film, ‘The Man that Never Was’.
Since then, I was determined to visit the beach and the 70th anniversary seemed an ideal opportunity. So armed with the superb book by Ben Macintyre, ‘Operation Mincemeat’, the secret war time code word for the operation, I flew to Malaga to join up with my daughter and son in law before driving across to the Atlantic coast.
It felt strange to finally stand on that beach amongst holiday makers, being the very day when the body came ashore 70 yrs earlier. The discovery of the body that had been deposited off-shore by submarine the evening before, starting a train of events masterminded hundreds of miles away back in the UK, hoping the Spanish assumption being that a military plane had crashed en route to Algeria from London. The body had identification papers suggesting it was a Major W Martin, and attached to his wrist by a chain, a briefcase containing misleading documents and personal letters prepared in a secret Whitehall basement. These hinted that the coming Allied invasion of Southern Italy was not to be the obvious beaches of Sicily, where Hitler had built up strong defences, but via Crete; London desperately hoping the false papers would be read by German spies. In the end Hitler did swallow the bait and hurriedly ordered divisions of German troops across to Crete, leaving the way clear for the allied forces to make a successful landing in Sicily!
After a super sardine lunch at the beach cafe we crossed the river bridge to the nearby town of Huelva where the body of Major W Martin lies buried in the Nuestra Señora de la Soledad cemetery. We found his grave, No. 46, at the far end of the central walk where the ‘wall of tombs’ surrounds the cemetery. I had seen pictures of the grave so many times and easily recognisable. I laid one symbolic flower to represent each individual life who survived the Sicily landings because of him. There were some faded plastic flowers at the far end of his grave, but sadly no other sign to indicate the 70th anniversary and it certainly fulfilled my special journey to be there...no he’s not forgotten!
Punta Umbria is a typical seaside town along the Costa de la Luz where many Spanish seem to head for their holidays, perhaps in preference to the built-up and overcrowded Mediterranean coast. As it was early season, a number of cafes and restaurants were closed, but there was active preparation opening up for the coming visitors. The town has a picturesque estuary with its hive of colourful fishing boats and of course the beautiful beaches. We had a good last minute booking for our overnight stay at the comfortable Ayamontino hotel which is very spacious and clean, friendly staff and useful overnight public parking nearby.
This is the area from where Christopher Columbus first set sail in 1492, so the next morning we headed to the nearby museum, Muelle de las Carabelas, www.muelledelascarabelas.com where there are replicas of Christopher Columbus’s three ships, the Santa Maria, Pinta and Niña, built to their exact size and floating within a man-made lagoon. It’s astonishing how small they were to make such an epic voyage. The kids will love clambering over them.
We then headed on to beautiful Seville where we had also made an excellent booking staying at a two bed apartment belonging to the 4 star hotel Murillo just a few steps away. An excellent choice being in the centre of the old district. It is very clean and comfortable with parking only 5 minutes walk. We then spent the next few hours exploring the extraordinary Alcazár de Seville next to the Cathedral. That evening, we explored old Seville and also took advantage of the hotel’s lovely rooftop bar, having a late drink whilst taking in the view of the floodlit Cathedral. Both our hotels having free wifi and also the use of a reception computer.
The next morning we travelled back to Malaga, diverting to visit the Flamingo reserve at Laguna de Fuente de la Piedra Natural Reserve. Because of the wet winter, the mudflat water level was high and difficult for feeding, so there were only a few to see. The centre suggested we should return later in the summer when the water would be lower, encouraging the return of these spectacular birds. The area is vast and beautiful and the spring flowers were starting to show their colours, encouraging lots of walking throughout on discreetly positioned footpaths.
Huelva is easily accessible by car from Seville, Jerez and Faro in Portugal. At Jerez you could catch up with a tour of the world famous sherry bodega www.gonzalezbyass.com/en/intro.htm along with the equally world famous riding school display www.realescuela.org.
Footnote: We now know that the body, posing as Major W. Martin, was really a homeless man, who died in London from rat poison whilst rummaging for restaurant food scraps. Later, his real name of Glyndwr Michael was added to the foot of the tombstone; he was 34 years old. The ironic twist to this story is that the German authorities in Hueva have undertaken to maintain the grave for the UK.
A satisfying trip, confirming a previous visit I made several years ago, that the southern Alantic coast of Spain does not have the same pressures as the Mediterranean coast. Punta Umbria is an excellent, clean holiday area with superb wide beaches, super climate and well worth a family holiday....Great!