“The only thing he did that was worth doing was after he died.”
British intelligence officer Ewen Montagu’s opinion of Welsh Glyndwr Michael may seem very harsh.
After all, after his death at the age of 34, Michael helped end World War II earlier than he would, saving hundreds of thousands of lives in the process.
To read in particular on BBC Africa:
In April 1943, the Welshman’s corps was used by British intelligence agents in the “Mincemeat” operation, considered the most daring of the entire conflict.
The British plan succeeded in deceiving the Germans, who redeployed entire regiments from Sicily, Italy, Greece and the Balkans.
Historian Ben Macintyre’s book on this joke, titled “Operation Mincemeat” (no Portuguese version), gave rise to a Warner Bros film that just came out in the UK. In Brazil, the film was titled “O Soldado que Não Existiu” (“The Soldier Who Does Not Exist”) and will be released by Netflix in May.
“Glyndwr Michael is probably the most unlikely hero of all of World War II,” Macintyre said.
“He fled Wales for London to escape extreme poverty during the Great Depression of the 1930s. His father took his own life after the mine collapsed.”
The historian explains that Michael’s body was found in a shed in the King’s Cross area of London and that, according to the forensic report, he had taken poison.
But the historian believes that the act was not a suicide.
“I think Michael must have been so hungry that he ate poisoned bread by mistake,” he said.
A story worthy of James Bond
Whatever the cause of Glyndwr Michael’s death, his remains were turned over to coroner Bentley Purchase.
The expert had been warned of the need to find a body whose injuries were similar to those of a victim of a plane crash, where the parachute did not work as expected.
The body was then entrusted to the care of agents Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu. Thus began the transformation of Glyndwr Michael into Commander William Martin.
The idea of using a corpse to deliver false plans into enemy territory was conceived in the 1930s by Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond spy novels.
Fleming worked during World War II as an assistant to John Godfrey, director of the British Navy’s naval intelligence division.
In late 1942, the Allies’ success in a campaign in North Africa allowed them to turn their attention to other German-controlled areas in southern Europe.
Sicily, in Italy, was the most obvious place to launch an operation, as domination of the island meant control of navigation in the Mediterranean Sea.
The problem is that the choice of this location was too obvious.
The man who never was
“Everyone, except a madman, knows that the operation will take place in Sicily,” explains Winston Churchill, then British Prime Minister.
This does not prevent the Allies from wanting to take Sicily as a springboard for Italy. And to do this, they performed a spectacular act of distraction.
Agents Cholmondeley and Montagu began to work out details that would make the deception more credible in the eyes of the Germans.
They gave the fake officer a complete identity and background, starting with the choice of the name William Martin, which is relatively common among British Marines.
They also gave the alleged military the rank of captain, which they considered high enough to carry secret documents, but not important enough to be a familiar face to the enemy.
The officers then chose everyday objects that anyone could take with them. In Martin’s case, it consisted of keys, postage stamps, cigarettes, matches, a St. Christopher’s medallion, theater ticket stubs, a receipt for a new shirt, a letter from his father, and even a check from the bank.
All documents were written with a special ink, which did not flow into the water.
Ewan Montagu spent months creating the identity of the fake officer. But according to Ben Macintyre, the most compelling piece of the puzzle was Martin’s girlfriend, a young woman named Pam, actually a British intelligence officer named Jean Lesley.
“The level of detail they achieved was incredible – they even dressed Martin’s alleged uniform and underwear so they looked like they were being worn just the right size,” the historian details.
I was lucky enough to meet “Pam” (Jean Lesley) when I was 80, and she took me across the Thames where she and “William” are supposed to be engaged.
At the time, Montagu’s wife was convinced he was having an affair. “
A huge mistake
Cholmondeley and Montagu prepared the body and loaded it into a container filled with dry ice for a trip to Scotland. The vehicle was driven by a pre-war racing champion.
In Scotland he was waiting for a submarine called HMS Seraph. The vehicle took 10 days to reach the “delivery point”.
It must be said that the submarine crew was unaware of the mission objective. As soon as the officers left Martin’s body in the water, the engines were turned on so that the current pushed him towards the Spanish coast.
In the early hours of April 30, 1943, a Spanish sardine fisherman found the alleged British officer drowned near the city of Huelva.
German military intelligence fell into the trap and a copy of Martin’s letters outlining plans for an allied operation in Greece landed on Adolf Hitler’s desk.
At the same time, in a dark basement of the Navy Building in London, the men and women of the British secret services celebrate by beating on the tables and jumping for joy at the interception of the message intended for Hitler by the allied military installations.
One last Welsh connection
Macintyre says another Welsh connection eventually convinced Hitler that the body was authentic.
“One of Martin’s father’s letters had to be written from a hotel in Mold (a town in Wales),” the historian explains.
“When I was researching my book, I went back to the original hotel register and there was indeed Mr. Martin’s name written in the exact date of the letter. The details of the story are incredible.”
The British pretended to be disappointed by sending a telegram to the easily intercepted Spaniards, asking for the return of Martin’s briefcase as soon as possible.
“Secret documents probably in a black suitcase. Information you need as soon as possible. Must be retrieved immediately. Care must be taken that it does not fall into the wrong hands,” read the telegram.
Within 38 days of the Allied invasion of Sicily on 10 July 1943, the island was conquered by the Allies. Shortly afterwards all of Italy fell, leading to the fall of the Benito Mussolini regime.
Glyndwr Michael was buried in Huelva with full military honors.
To find out more about World War II: