Friday, November 5, 2010

The tale of Glyndwr Michael

The previous book I recommended is probably not a good choice for beginning history readers, so I thought I'd offer another recent read that might have wider appeal. If you're interested in World War II, or like spy stories, or are just looking for a good read, give this one a try: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre.

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied VictoryThe story of Glyndwr Michael (pronounced "Glin-dower") makes awfully good reading considering the sad life he led. He was born January 4, 1909 in the Welsh coal-mining village of Aberbargoed. His life was one of poverty and possible mental illness, and on January 28, 1943 he was pronounced dead from ingesting rat poison. It's not clear if it was a suicide or hunger (rat poison was "usually spread on stale bread and other scraps"), but in death Glyn Michael became Major William Martin and likely saved the lives of many thousands of soldiers in the July 1943 invasion of Italy.

British secret intelligence officers Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced "Chumley") conceived a plan to fool the Germans into believing that the planned Allied invasion was actually going to take place in Greece. They arranged for a recently dead body with fictitious documents to wash ashore in Spain where authorities were sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Michael became the corpse dressed in a British military uniform and retrieved by Spanish fishermen with a briefcase full of information. Ben Macintyre tells how MI5 put this plan into action, detailing their preparations in creating an identity and trail of information that would foil efforts to discount the existence of Major Bill Martin. He covers the operation itself and the submarine commander who was tasked with putting the body in the ocean where it was bound to be discovered by those most likely to turn the information over to the Germans as well as the snags the plan ran into. And he follows up with the influence upon the German army and the allocation of so many troops to the Balkan Peninsula where they expected an invasion which arrived elsewhere to less opposition than otherwise would have been expected.

The story of "the man who never was" is surprisingly interesting. Macintyre doesn't overstate the effect of the ruse, but points out the unusual success it achieved in both drawing German troops away from Italy as well as the Eastern front against the Russians. The personal touch Cholmondeley and Montagu put into the operation to make it convincing was fascinating, and Macintyre has a way of telling a good story. There's a decent amount of detail, as any good history should have, but it's not overwhelming. And I hope Glyndwr Michael, who was rejected for military service in life for unspecified 'unfitness' and now lies under a monument in Spain bearing both his names, was pleased with his role and accomplishment in Operation Mincemeat.


  1. My heart bleeds for the sad life endured by glyndwr michael, no person on this earth should endure the pain and loneliness of a life such as his, unloved ,fatherless and poverty stricken ! This man in death is owed so much by so many , In my eyes heroism is possible in many ways ! I believe glyndwr in death demonstrated this quality, who knows what deeds he would have been capable of had he been loved and cared for and accepted into society ! we will never Know but i know one thing , ive never heard of this man until today and im aged 49 and i shall never forget him ! god rest your soul glyndwr michael. .

    1. Thanks for your comment and well-said! It's the same thought I have when I hug my kids and hope other parents are hugging their's as well. I hope you'll look for the book. Glyndwr Michael is but one facet of the story, but it's a really interesting story!