When London authorities discovered the feverish body of a homeless man, in a derelict warehouse located near King’s Cross train station, nothing could hint that he was about to change the course of history. Transferred with all urgency at the St. Pancras hospital, without any family by his bedside, the stranger passed away two days later.
The following investigation soon revealed his sad story: born to poor Welsh parents, Glyndwr Michael lived off part-time jobs in his home country. His father committed suicide, and he left Wales for London, where he started begging in the streets and sleeping on park benches. On a stormy day, he took shelter in an abandoned building where, hungry and desperate, he ate rat poison… He was only 34 when he died on his hospital bed, completely anonymously, without anybody in the world to be sorry about it.
His death was nevertheless a decisive step towards turning him into a war hero.
Welcome to Great Britain in early 1943. With WW2 in full swing, Londoners were quite used to shelter themselves in underground bunkers and deal with food rationing. Stuck up across the capital city, the famous poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ pretty much summed up British civilians’ bravery in the course of the war. Churchill, at the helm, had met with President Roosevelt in January; both secretly prepared the invasion of Italy, which the Prime Minister considered “Europe’s soft underbelly”. Shaking the Axis union could, according to them, mean a first step towards final victory.
However, Italy was at the time a strategic shield for Nazi forces – and Hitler had good knowledge of it: hence the deployment of several German divisions across the territory to strengthen the Italian ranks. More specifically, Sicily was very well-defended, as the southern island represented a front door to Italy which could open the Mediterranean to Allied forces. Considering its strategic significance, Churchill made Sicily his priority spot for Allied landings; nevertheless, he first had to divert Hitler’s attention not to throw his divisions into a bloody battle.
Enter Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, two British intelligence agents, appointed with one purpose: to get the Führer to believe that the Allied offensive would come from the eastern Mediterranean – through the Balkans and Greece. Both agents were inspired by a 1939 document known as ‘Trout memo’ listing deception tactics. (Interestingly, the man behind that document was no other than Ian Fleming, the future creator of the James Bond novel series, who during WW2 worked in the British secret services.) The 28th proposal, genuinely entitled ‘A suggestion (Not a very nice one)’, immediately grabbed their attention.
“The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that had failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.”
Montagu and Cholmondeley thus had to find a body whose missing would not raise any suspicion. This is where we cross again the path of Glyndwr Michael, who sadly passed away at the St. Pancras hospital in January 1943. Informed by the local coroner that a suitable body could be used, both intelligence agents got their hands on the corpse – the man had no family, plus, phosphorus (which rat poison contained) was almost undetectable into the body. That meant they could invent the cause of death that suited their plans the most: they opted for drowning.
This marked the beginning of an afterlife journey for the Welsh homeless, whose new identity was crafted entirely by the British intelligence department. Named William Martin, enrolled within the Royal Marines with the rank of captain, Michael’s dead corpse was dressed as a (not much talkative) aviator and numerous items were placed into his pockets to authenticate the body. The picture of a fictional girlfriend named Pam – a MI5 employee posed for the occasion – along with two love letters from her, the receipt from a jewelry shop, an overdraft warning sent by the Lloyds Bank, a London-based hotel bill for four nights as well as theatre tickets… among various other objects granting the dead body with a genuine personality.
Meticulousness was required, so as not to raise the enemy’s suspicion. Three fake IDs were also designed – using the picture of another MI5 employee, as cadavers do not enjoy photo booth – which Montagu has been carrying around for weeks to pretend they had been used over a long time span. What’s more, the ink used for the paper documents was scientifically engineered to withstand long stays underwater.
Following the design of a brand new identity for Michael, British officers were also asked to contribute to the scam in writing the official, top secrets documents to be carried by the aviator. The point was to simulate that the Allied would land in the Balkans and invade Italy from Greece. One of the fake papers read:
“We have recent information that the Bosche have been reinforcing and strengthening their defenses in Greece and Crete and C.I.G.S. felt that our forces for the assault were insufficient. It was agreed by the Chiefs of Staff that the 5th Division should be reinforced by one Brigade Group for the assault on the beach south of CAPE ARAXOS and that a similar reinforcement should be made for the 56th division at KALAMATA.”
Then it was time to take the plunge. Personal items were placed on Michael’s body, while top secret information was stored into a leather briefcase clutched to his wrist. In the early hours of April 17, 1943, Operation Mincemeat (as the deception tactics was called) received Churchill’s and Eisenhower’s green lights. The body, embarked aboard a British submarine in the morning, would be released in the waters off the shores of Huelva, southwest of Spain, on April 30. A few hours later, it was found by a local fisherman.
The trap was set. There was only a big question mark hovering over Cholmondeley’s and Montagu’s initiative: how would the Spanish authorities act upon the discovery of an apparently-drown British aviator?
Fortunately for the agents, Franco’s regime had been quite favorable to Nazi Germany (after all, German pilots had assisted him in the course of the Spanish Civil War a few years back, leading for instance to the bombing of Guernica) which meant that exchange of secret information about Allied positions was common. The classified info was thus transmitted to the German embassy in Madrid, and from then all the way to the Nazi headquarters. Meanwhile, British intelligence agents faked panic when sending coded messages warning they had lost precious documents – which of course, they knew Germans would be able to crack – so Nazis were definitely caught out by the scam.
On May 14, British authorities received the proof that Operation Mincemeat had succeeded: they intercepted a German message warning of an imminent Allied landing in the Balkans. A few hours later, Prime Minister Churchill received the following telegram: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker”. It was time for the general staff to prepare the Sicilian landings in deepest secrecy.
In July 1943, Allied soldiers invaded Sicily, where – though they weren’t welcome – they did not face much opposition. As a matter of fact, Mussolini’s fascist regime fell dramatically two weeks later. The Italian campaign kept on nevertheless, until the German surrender, in May 1945. This is how the body of a Welsh homeless, who died in the streets of London of eating rat poison, contributed to shift the balance of power in the course of WW2.
The lives of Glyndwr Michael show how cruel fate can sometimes be. During his lifetime, he lived as an outcast, begging for food and shelter, without family or friends; but his death brought him all he desired. A responsible position, a loving girlfriend who wrote him heartwarming letters, and enough means to afford jewelry and nice evenings at London theatres… Sometimes the destiny of heroes is forged after their death.