Grandma was full of sayings that either puzzled us as children, made us laugh or made us think “silly, old Grandma” – often it was all three. One was that you should always go out wearing clean underwear in case you got run over by a bus. The story below just goes to prove that, as always, Grandma was right, well almost right.
Herbert Fisher (HAL Fisher), husband of Lettice Ilbert – whose own, remarkable story can be read here – was on his way to work during a WW2 blackout. Warden of New College, Oxford and Chairman of the Conscientious Objectors Tribunal, he was in London for the latter when hit, not by a bus but by a lorry. He died in hospital several days later on the 18th April 1940. Little would he have thought, or Grandma for that matter, that his underwear would play a prominent part in the history of defeating Nazism.
About the same time as Fisher’s demise, in south Wales, the mother of Glyndwr Michael also died. Michael had always lived with her but now homeless, he made his way to London. It was here, aged 34 and depressed, penniless, and hungry, that he was found two years later in an abandoned warehouse. He was dying from having eaten rat poison, the bait having been left, smeared on bread. The phosphorus in the poison when ingested reacts with the naturally acting stomach acids to produce phosphine gas. The slow death made his body ideal for the purpose that lay ahead.
The British Security Service had been waiting for some time to obtain a body that could be used in an elaborate hoax against the Germans. Operation Mincemeat, as the top-secret plot became known, intended to release false papers on the body of a drowned officer of the British Army. The aim was to deceive the German Military Intelligence into believing plans for the invasion of Greece and Sardinia, whereas in reality, the intention was to invade Sicily. However, it was not felt possible to use the body of a serving officer whilst maintaining the secrecy required.
Major William Martin RM, as Glyndwr Michael’s corpse was to become, was released into the sea off the coast of Spain on the 30th April 1943 for the tide to carry him ashore. About his person were various personal effects: letters and a photograph from his fiancée, theatre tickets and identity papers. A briefcase had been attached to him carrying the false invasion plans, all with the purpose of making the Germans believe that he had been drowned at sea whilst delivering documents to a British General. The ruse worked and the invasion of Sicily was carried out with considerable ease.
Major Martin was buried with full military honours on the island of Huelva, Spain, the deceit engraved into the grave’s headstone. Over the years that followed rumours spread about the true identity of the body. In 1996, an amateur historian Roger Morgan, discovered documents in the Public Records Office and it was later confirmed that the body was indeed that of Glyndwr Michael. Soon after, an additional inscription was added to the headstone: Glyndwr Michael Served as Major William Martin, RM. Back in his hometown of Aberbargoed, Wales his name was added to the war memorial along with the name in Welsh by which he had become known – The Man Who Never Was.
Back to Grandma’s warning and HAL Fisher. One of the problems in maintaining the secrecy of Operation Mincemeat was how to find clothing for Major William Martin. Army uniform was not a problem to obtain but how could they find undergarments of suitable quality for someone of middle rank yet without risking a breach of security? HAL Fisher’s New College rooms had been left untouched since his death where items of the required quality could be removed without raising suspicion. If Grandma had lived long enough to have heard the tale, she would have been even more surprised, that HAL Fisher had married into her grandson’s family. He may only have been a distant cousin of my father, but I can imagine her kvelling with pride and nodding with satisfaction. There is no doubt that she would also have given a huge sigh of relief that HAL had heeded her advice.
Sources: Wikipedia, Ancestry, Commonwealth War Graves Commission