Grandma and The Man Who Never Was

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.

Grandma was full of funny sayings & superstitions

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.

HAL Fisher [Source: Ancestry]

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.

False papers of Major William Martin, RM [Source: Wikipedia

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.

Grave of The Man Who Never Was, island of Huelva, Spain [Source: Wikipedia]

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

International Women’s Day: Lettice Fisher

Educator, economist, suffragist and founder of the National Council for the Unmarried Mother & Child (later to become known as the charity, Gingerbread).

Lettice Fisher, the eldest daughter of Sir Courtney Peregrine Ilbert came from a political family.  Born 14th June 1875 in London, her father was responsible for the drafting of parliamentary bills and was later to become Clerk to the House of Commons.  Her mother, Jessie, was a daughter of the Reverend Charles Bradley and her great-grandfather, another Reverend Charles Bradley was instrumental in the abolition of slavery.  At the time of Lady Ilbert’s death in 1924, she was described as “one of the most remarkable political women of her time.”  It was to this background of politics and campaigning that the young Lettice grew up.

Lettice Ilbert (image: Wikipedia)

Educated in London and at Somerville College, Oxford, Lettice later returned to Oxford in 1902 to teach history at St Hugh’s College.  Whilst at Oxford she also taught economics to women and became an active suffragist.  For two years from 1916 she was Chair of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

It was during WW1 that Lettice became involved with the women munition workers of Sheffield.  Disturbed by the increase in wartime illegitimacy, the difficulties and prejudices the women faced, as well as the higher death rates of their babies, she founded in 1918 the National Council for the Unmarried Mother & Child.  Campaigning for the reform of the discriminatory Bastardy Acts and Affiliation Orders Acts, the council gave advice and assistance to single mothers.  Lettice remained in her role as first chair of the council until 1950.  Much later in its history the council merged to become known as the charity, Gingerbread.

Lettice Ilbert married Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher (known as HAL Fisher), her Oxford tutor in early July 1899.  They had one daughter, Mary – later Mary Bennett – who became principal of St Hilda’s College, Oxford.  After HAL’s untimely death in 1940, Lettice moved from Oxford to Thursley, Surrey where she died from heart failure in 1956.  Her ashes are interred at New College, Oxford where HAL had been warden for many years until the time of his death.

The theme of this year’s United Nations International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world.”  I’m not qualified to write about current matters but I am quite certain that Lettice Fisher embraced the qualities that are still needed today.  One hundred years ago, Lettice Fisher found that the terrible aftermaths of World War and the ‘flu epidemic which caused even greater deaths and hardship, only hardened her resolve to tackle women’s rights, prejudice and injustice.  Sadly, in many places in the world, these issues are still very much outstanding.

Why my interest in Lettice Fisher?  Lettice Fisher (nee Ilbert) is an ancestral cousin through our mutual descent of the Bradley family.