Military history


The Man Who Was

ABERBARGOED WAS A GRIM PLACE a century ago, a brooding village of coal-dusted sadness. The colliery opened in 1903. Before the coal was found, there was nothing at Aberbargoed, save the green valleys. With the coal came rows of pinched, terraced streets housing hundreds of miners and their families. Without coal the town was nothing. And when the coal ran out, as it eventually did, there was nothing much left. Even before the First World War, Aberbargoed was suffering and struggling.

Into this bleak world Glyndwr Michael was born January 4, 1909, at 136 Commercial Street. His mother was Sarah Ann Chadwick, his father a colliery hauler named Thomas Michael. What few records have survived of this family give a flavor of their hard, gritty lives. At the age of twenty, in 1888, Sarah had married another coal miner, George Cottrell. She signed their marriage certificate with a cross: Sarah never learned to read or write or had any use for either skill. Although two daughters resulted from her marriage to Cottrell, the relationship did not last, and by 1904 she was living with Thomas Michael in a cramped house beside the railway line at Dinas. They never married. Like his father, who died of tuberculosis when Thomas was a child, Thomas Michael had been a coal miner all his life. A Welsh Baptist, born in Dinas, he worked deep in the pits, hauling coal trucks by hand through the dark and wretched bowels of the earth. At some point before meeting Sarah, Thomas Michael contracted syphilis, which he passed on to her and which apparently went untreated. It is possible that when Glyndwr Michael was born, his parents bequeathed him congenital syphilis, which can cause damage to the bones, eyes, and brain.

When Glyn was an infant, the family moved twelve miles from Aberbargoed to Taff’s Well, next to Rockwood Pit, where another child, Doris, was born two years later. Unable to pay the rent, the Michaels moved from one dingy house to another, each more decrepit than the last, first to 7 Garth Street, and then, a few years later, to 28 Cornwall Road, Williamstown, Penygraig, in the Rhondda Valley, where Sarah gave birth to yet another child, her fifth. There was little food. The children wore shoes once a week, to church. Thomas Michael drank.

Around 1919, when Glyn was nine or ten years old, his father’s health began to decline, probably due to the delayed effects of syphilis, combined with the lung-rotting damage caused by working underground for over three decades. Soon after this, his grandmother died of “senile decay.”1Mental frailty would be a recurrent feature of the family’s medical history. Thomas Michael began to cough horribly and sweat at odd times of day. The right side of his chest began to sink inward.

By 1924, Michael was no longer able to work, and the family was forced to live on charity from the Pontypridd Union, the second-largest Poor Law authority in Britain. For a time, they became homeless and moved into a single room at Llwynypia Homes, a charity hostel. The Pontypridd Union paid twenty-three shillings for a man and wife and two shillings for each child. A family of five was now surviving, barely, on one pound and nine shillings a week. Thomas Michael became “melancholic,”2 according to a medical report, which described him as “confused and very depressed,”3 rapidly losing weight, with a racking, rattling cough.

Just before Christmas in 1924, Thomas Michael stabbed himself in the throat with a carving knife. He was rushed to Angelton Mental Hospital in Bridgend, where the wound was cleaned and stitched up. Thomas Michael was a mental and physical wreck, coughing blood and in “deep mental depression.”4 He was fifty-one years old but looked eighty. Percy Hawkins, the mental hospital nurse, described him: “Hair is grey and thin.5 Pupils are somewhat irregular, they react to light and converge. Tongue has a dry white fur. Teeth very deficient and carious. He is thin and poorly nourished. Patient coughs and spits a good deal, and sweats heavily at night.” Both lungs were riddled with disease.

At first, Thomas seemed to be recovering. He began to speak quite rationally and to notice his surroundings. But on March 13, 1925, he caught influenza, which developed into bronchial pneumonia, with “a hectic temperature,6 copious and foul smelling expectoration, very weak and depressed.” He stopped eating. On March 31, Thomas Michael died.

Glyn Michael, now sixteen years old, had witnessed his father turn from a vigorous coal miner into a diseased husk. He had seen him stab himself and then watched him fall apart in a lunatic asylum. Glyn had been born poor. Now he was a pauper. He may already have been suffering from mental illness. When Thomas Michael was buried in a common grave in the Trealaw cemetery, Reverend Overton presiding, Glyn Michael signed the burial register, in a blotted, uncertain hand, without using capital letters.

The widowed Sarah moved, with her three young children, into a minuscule flat in the back streets of Trealaw, now dependent entirely on alms for survival. The Pontypridd Union, however, was going bust, so great was the demand for charity in the struggling South Wales coalfields. A year after Thomas Michael’s death, Health Minister Neville Chamberlain told parliament that the Pontypridd Union had run up an overdraft of £210,000, and further money would be advanced only “on condition that the scale7 of relief was reduced.” As the Depression struck, the economic situation in South Wales turned from bad to catastrophic. Glyn found part-time employment as a gardener and laborer, but work was hard to come by.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Sarah and Glyn Michael were still living at 135 Trealaw Road. His two half sisters and his sister Doris had each married coal miners and now had families of their own. His younger brother had left home. Glyndwr was not considered eligible for military service, which suggests that he was unfit, either physically or, more probably, mentally. On January 15, 1940, Glyn’s mother died in her bed of a heart attack and aortic aneurism. She was sixty-six. Sarah had been his only emotional support. On January 16, Glyndwr Michael witnessed his mother’s death certificate, buried her alongside Thomas Michael in the Trealaw cemetery, and disappeared. A country at war had little attention to spare for a man who was homeless, destitute, and most likely mentally ill.

BENTLEY PURCHASE OFTEN wondered why people came to the capital to die. More than a quarter of all the cases he examined were suicides, but many of these were not Londoners. What impulse, he mused, “led men and women to London8 to end their lives? Was it because the dead from the provinces hoped that in the vastness of the capital one more tragedy would pass unnoticed? Or did they wish to spare relatives and friends the distress that would arise inevitably if they ended their lives on their own doorsteps?” Purchase was puzzled, in a detached and scientific way: “It still surprised him9 how many people seemed to be utterly friendless and unwanted when they arrived in his mortuary.”

It is not clear how or when Glyndwr Michael got to London. In the winter of 1942, he was staying in “a common lodging house”10 in west London, although he also appears to have been sleeping in vacant or abandoned buildings and undergoing some sort of treatment at a lunatic asylum. He was clean shaven, which suggests he owned a razor and was living somewhere where he could use it.

On January 26, 1943, Michael was found in an abandoned warehouse near King’s Cross and taken to St. Pancras Hospital, suffering from acute chemical poisoning. As Sir Bernard Spilsbury’s case notes attest, suicides in wartime Britain found an extraordinary variety of ways to poison themselves: with Lysol disinfectant, camphor, opium, carbolic, hydrochloric acid, alcohol, chloroform, and coal gas. Michael ingested rat poison, probably “Battle’s Vermin Killer,” a paste laced with highly toxic white phosphorus. It was assumed that Michael had killed himself intentionally. His father had attempted suicide, and self-destruction, tragically, runs in families. But it is also possible that the poisoning was accidental. Rat poison was usually spread on stale bread and other scraps: the phosphorus made it glow in the dark, so the rodents would be attracted by both the light and the smell. It is entirely possible that Michael ate rotting leftover food laced with poison, because he was hungry.

Phosphorus poisoning is a horrific way to die, as acid in the digestive system reacts with the phosphide to generate the toxic gas phosphine. The pathology follows three distinct phases. Often within minutes, the victim suffers nausea and vomiting, as the phosphorus affects the gastric tract, followed by delirium, cramps, restlessness, convulsions, extreme thirst, and two particularly horrible symptoms peculiar to phosphorus poisoning: “smoking stool” and “garlic breath.” The second phase, some twenty-four hours after the initial poisoning, is one of relative calm, when the symptoms appear to subside. In the third phase, the victim suffers a breakdown of the central nervous system, jaundice, coma, kidney, heart, and liver failure, and finally death. It took poor Glyndwr Michael more than two days to die, but he appears to have been sufficiently lucid in the second phase to tell the nurses at St. Pancras who he was and what he had eaten. He was pronounced dead on January 28, 1943.

At the age of thirty-four, Glyndwr Michael had simply slipped through the cracks of a wartime society with other concerns: a single man, illegitimate and probably illiterate, without money, friends, or family, he had died unloved and unlamented, but not unnoticed.

As soon as the body of Glyndwr Michael reached St. Pancras Morgue, Bentley Purchase informed Ewen Montagu that a candidate for the project had arrived in his jurisdiction and would be “kept in suitable cold storage11 until we were ready for it.”

Purchase carried out a swift inquest with a foregone conclusion. In a suspected poisoning, the coroner would normally have held an autopsy, but none was ordered in this case, for obvious reasons. Purchase listed Michael as “Lunatic,”12 which suggests that he had been certified insane and was undergoing treatment. The death certificate, based on the coroner’s inquest, describes him as “labourer, no fixed abode,”13 and gives the cause of death as “phosphorous poisoning.14 Took rat poison bid kill himself while of unsound mind.” Purchase informed the registrar that the body was being “removed out of England”15 for burial. In private, the coroner gave Montagu a more detailed account. The dead man, he explained, had taken “a minimal dose”16 of rat poison. “This dose was not sufficient17 to kill him outright, and its only effect was so to impair the functioning of the liver that he died a little time afterwards.” The human body normally contains traces of phosphorus, the coroner explained, and “phosphorous is not one of18 the poisons readily traceable after long periods, such as arsenic which invades the roots of the hair, etc., or strychnine.” The rat poison would leave few clues to the cause of death, “except possibly faint19 traces of chemical action in the liver.” Determining how the man had died after immersion in water would require “a highly skilled medico-criminal20-chemist who would have to weigh all the chemical compositions of every organ before he could come to any conclusion.” Purchase liked to gamble, and he was willing to “bet heavily against anyone21 being able to determine the cause of death with sufficient certainty to deny the presumption that the man had been drowned or killed by shock through an aeroplane crash and then been immersed in water.”

For a second, even weightier opinion, Montagu turned once more to Sir Bernard Spilsbury, the world’s foremost medico-criminal-chemist. They met again at the Junior Carlton Club. Sir Bernard’s verdict was as dry as his sherry: “You have nothing to fear22 from a Spanish post mortem; to detect that this young man had not died after an aircraft had been lost at sea would need a pathologist of my experience—and there aren’t any in Spain.”

Spilsbury’s answer was typical of the man. Typically self-assured, typically laconic, but also (and this was increasingly true of Sir Bernard’s lofty pronouncements) typically open to question. For Sir Bernard Spilsbury was not the forensic oracle he had once been; far from infallible, he had started to make some terrible mistakes. Today, even his evidence in the Crippen case is open to doubt. Utterly convinced of his own rectitude and adamant in his prejudices, Spilsbury helped to send 110 men to the gallows. Some, in hindsight, were plainly innocent. His theories and opinions increasingly took precedence over the facts, most notably in the case of Norman Thorne, sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend. The woman had almost certainly committed suicide, and the evidence was at best contradictory, but Spilsbury’s testimony was unwavering, despite a rising tide of protest at the way one man’s “expertise” was sending a possibly innocent man to the gallows. “I am a martyr to Spilsburyism,”23 said Thorne, shortly before his execution. By the 1940s, Spilsbury’s reputation was fading, his marriage collapsing, and his mind starting to fail. His fabled sense of smell had deserted him. He was overworked and in 1940, he suffered a small stroke. The death of a son in the Blitz affected him deeply. His answers to Montagu’s questions bore all the hallmarks of the last days of Sir Bernard Spilsbury: emphatic but questionable, and potentially extremely dangerous.

Identifying whether an individual has drowned or died by some other means is one of the oldest and most difficult medical dilemmas. In the thirteenth century, a book by Chinese physicians entitled The Washing Away of Wrongs addressed the thorny issue of suspicious death by drowning. Even today, the medical community has no universally agreed diagnostic tests for drowning. Spilsbury himself had closely studied the pathology of drowning in the spectacular “brides in the bath” case of 1915, when George Joseph Smith, a swindler and bigamist, was accused of killing at least three of his wives. In each case, the victim had been found in the bath. Spilsbury exhumed the bodies and set about proving that they could not have died by natural causes. In court, it took him just twenty minutes to convince the jury that it is possible to murder someone, and leave no marks of violence, by suddenly submerging him or her in water while bathing. Smith was hanged.

In the course of that case, Spilsbury had become intimately acquainted with the symptoms of drowning: the fine white froth, known as champagne de mousse, in the lungs and on the lips; the marbled and swollen appearance of the lungs, inflated by the inhalation of water; water in the stomach; foreign material, such as vomit or sand, in the lungs; and hemorrhages in the middle ear. A drowning person dies violently struggling, often bruising or rupturing the muscles in the neck or shoulder as he grasps and gasps for air. None of these symptoms would be present in the body of Glyndwr Michael, who had died not in water but in a hospital bed. On the other side of the coin, anyone killed by phosphorus, however small the dose, would have yellowed skin and probably gastric burns, as well as significant traces of the chemical in the body, easily detectable with the science of 1943.

The renowned forensic scientist did not examine the body of Glyndwr Michael. Instead, Sir Bernard offered his opinion, as was his habit, de haut en bas, and stuck to it, come hell or high water.

Spilsbury was also wrong in his complacent avowal that Spain contained no able pathologists. If the body was examined by a country doctor, the deception might pass unnoticed, but it was intended that the body and its documents should pass into German hands: there was at least one highly trained pathologist in Spain working for German intelligence, who would be able to spot the imposture as fast as Spilsbury himself, and probably faster. So far from offering certainty, Sir Bernard’s opinion, accepted by Montagu, represented an enormous gamble. If it failed, then the victims of Spilsburyism could number in their thousands.

Montagu would later claim that the body used in the deception had “died from pneumonia after exposure;”24 that his relatives had been contacted and told that the body was needed for a “really worthwhile purpose;”25 and that permission was duly obtained “on condition that I should never26 let it be known whose corpse it was.” None of this was true. Montagu and Cholmondeley certainly made “feverish enquiries into his past27 and about his relatives,” but only to ensure that Glyndwr Michael had no past to speak of and no relatives likely to cause problems by asking questions. Sarah was dead. Michael had two siblings, and two half siblings, all still living in the Welsh valleys. Apparently they had not looked after him in life; there was little chance they would care more for him after death. Anyway, they were not consulted. Indeed, they were not even located. In a draft, unpublished manuscript, Montagu wrote: “The most careful possible enquiries, made even more carefully than usual in view of our proposals, failed to reveal any relative.”

Montagu never did reveal Glyndwr Michael’s identity. However, he could not remove his name from the official record, and he left personal papers that also identify him. In one letter, Montagu referred to Glyndwr Michael as “a ne’er do well, and his relatives28 were not much better … the actual person did nothing for anyone ever—only his body did good after he was dead.” It was true that Michael’s life had been a short and unhappy one: he had never done well, but then, he had never had much of an opportunity. Posthumously, the ne’er-do-well was about to do very well indeed.

Bentley Purchase warned that time was of the essence. The corpse could not be frozen solid to arrest decay entirely, since fluids in the body expand as they turn to ice, damaging fragile soft tissue, which would be only too evident once the body was defrosted. The mortuary at St. Pancras had one “extra-cold refrigerator”29 which could be set at four degrees centigrade (thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit), cold enough to retard decomposition substantially, but not so cold as to prevent it entirely. The body of Glyndwr Michael was already beginning to rot. If the corpse was to be of any use, warned Purchase, it “would have to be used within30 three months.”

But before the operation could be formally launched, it needed a new code name. “Trojan Horse” had been acceptable as the initial title, but if any German agent were to stumble across it, the implication of some sort of hoax would be glaringly obvious. Code names were compiled by the Inter-Services Security Board, covering almost every aspect of the war: nations, cities, plans, locations, military units, military operations, diplomatic meetings, places, individuals, and spies were all disguised under false names. In theory, these code words were neutral and indecipherable, a shorthand for those in the know and deliberately meaningless to anyone else. Random lists of code names were issued in alphabetical blocks of ten words and then selected by chance as needed; six months after it became defunct, a code word could be reassigned and reused, a deliberate ploy to muddy the waters.

Churchill had a clearly defined policy on choosing code words for major operations: “They ought not to be given names31 of a frivolous character such as ‘Bunnyhug’ and ‘Ballyhoo,’” the prime minister decreed. “Intelligent thought will already supply an unlimited number of well-sounding names that do not suggest the character of the operation and do not enable some widow or mother to say that her son was killed in an operation called ‘Bunnyhug’ or ‘Ballyhoo.’”

The rule requiring that code words be devoid of meaning was routinely ignored, by all sides, throughout the war, for spies found the temptation to invent joking and hinting titles for their most secret projects almost irresistible. Agent “Tate” was so called because he looked like the music hall performer Harry Tate; the criminal Eddie Chapman was named “Zigzag,” since no one could be certain which way he might turn; Stalin, meaning “man of steel,” was awarded the code name “Glyptic,” meaning “an image carved from stone.” The Germans were even more culpable in this respect. The Nazis’ long-range radar system was named “Heimdall” after the Norse god with the power to see great distances; the planned invasion of Britain was code-named “Sealion,” a most unsubtle reference to the lions on the royal coats of arms and the planned seaborne attack.

Montagu was scathingly critical of the Abwehr’s “stupidity”32 in selecting such revealing code words: the code name for Britain, he pointed out, was “Golfplatz,” meaning “golf course,” while America was “Samland,” a reference to Uncle Sam. Montagu now broke his own rule that code names be chosen so that “no deductions could be33 made from them” and selected a name that had been used for a mine-laying operation in 1941 and was now up for grabs again.

Plan Trojan Horse became “Operation Mincemeat.” There was nothing haphazard about the choice. All the talk of corpses was having an effect, and Montagu’s “sense of humour34 having by this time become somewhat macabre,” a code word that signified dead meat seemed only too apt and a “good omen.”35 There was no danger of any grieving mother complaining that her dead son had been deployed under a frivolous and tasteless code word because, as the planners knew very well, in the case of Glyndwr Michael, there was no one to grieve.

Even before Bentley Purchase had completed his inquest, Cholmondeley and Montagu set to work, drawing up a formal proposal to put to the intelligence chiefs. On February 4, a week after the death of Michael and on the very day Purchase completed his inquest, they presented a draft of Operation Mincemeat to the Twenty Committee: “This Operation is proposed36 in view of the fact that the enemy will almost certainly get information of the preparation of any assault mounted in North Africa and will try to find out its target.”

The plan envisaged dropping the dead body, with fake documents, from a plane, to give the impression that “a courier carrying important37 ‘hand of officer’ documents was en route for Algiers in an aircraft which crashed.” The overall scheme should not only divert the Germans from the real target but portray the real target as a “cover target,” a mere decoy. This was a brilliant piece of double bluff, for it would ensure that when the Germans found out about genuine preparations to attack Sicily, as they must, they would assume this was part of the deception plan. Sicily could not be left out of the equation altogether, for as Cholmondeley and Montagu pointed out, if “the real target is omitted from38 both the ‘operation plan’ and the ‘cover plan’ the Germans will almost certainly suspect, as not only is Sicily a very possible target, but the Germans are believed already to anticipate it as a possible target.” Since “the Germans will be looking39 with care for our cover-plan as well as our real plan,” Operation Mincemeat would feed them both a false real plan and a false cover plan—which would actually be the real plan.

The outline did not go into specifics as to how this misinformation would be put across, nor where the body would be dropped, and warned that, once launched, it could not be delayed: “The body must be dropped40 within 24 hours of its being removed from its present place in London. The flight, once laid on, must not be cancelled or postponed.” The Twenty Committee pondered only briefly, before issuing a flurry of requests to the representatives of the different services. The Air Ministry should investigate finding a suitable plane, preferably one used by SOE; the draft plan should be shown to the intelligence chiefs of the army, navy, and RAF; Colonel Johnnie Bevan of the London Controlling Section should be asked for his approval; the Admiralty should “find out a suitable position41 for dropping the body;” and the War Office should look “into the question of providing42 the body with a name and necessary papers.” The naval attaché in Madrid, Captain Alan Hillgarth, should be informed of the plan, “so he will be able to cope43 with any unforeseen circumstances.”

Montagu and Cholmondeley were instructed to “continue with preparations44 to give MINCEMEAT his necessary clothes, papers, letters, etc. etc.” Out of the officially nameless corpse in the mortuary they must conjure up a living person with a new name, a personality, and a past. Operation Mincemeat began as fiction, a plot twist in a long-forgotten novel, picked up by another novelist and approved by a committee presided over by yet another novelist. Now it was the turn of the spies to take the reality of a dead Welsh tramp, make him into a fiction, and so change reality.

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