Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast #40 - The Fascinating Life, Death and After-Life of Glyndwr Michael
Nominated BEST TRUE-CRIME PODCAST at British Podcast Awards 2018. Subscribe via iTunes, Podcast Addict, Podbean, Stitcher, Tune-In, Otto Radio or Acast.
Welcome to the Murder Mile true-crime podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within one square mile of the West End.
Episode Forty: On Tuesday 26th January 1943, somewhere at the back of King’s Cross station, in an unknown derelict warehouse, Glyndwr Michael; a nobody, a nothing, a homeless man became a hero, and although he saved my life, your life and all of our lives, 80 years on, his name his hardly known.
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Ep40- The Fascinating Life, Death and After-Life of Glyndwr Michael – The Corpse Hero
Thank you for downloading episode forty of the Murder Mile True-Crime Podcast. As a treat, this week, I thought I’d bring you something a little bit different. A true-story which doesn’t contain a murder, a manslaughter, a motive, a culprit, a killer or a crime. And although a dead body was found, strangely there was no autopsy, trial or investigation. On the surface, this may seem like the simple story of an unnamed man, who died lost, unloved and forgotten, and yet, his life and death lead to one of the most remarkable stories ever told. Thank you for listening and enjoy the episode.
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within one square mile of the West End.
Today’s episode is about Glyndwr Michael; a nobody, a nothing, a homeless man who became a hero, and although he saved my life, your life and all of our lives, 80 years on, his name his hardly known.
Murder Mile contains shocks, surprises and moments of satire, as well as loud and realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there.
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 40: The Fascinating Life, Death and After-Life of Glyndwr Michael – The Corpse Hero
Today I’m standing… erm… somewhere; straight ahead is the rear of King’s Cross station, behind is the canal, to the left is the tunnel where the body of Sebastiano Magnanini was tied to a shopping trolley and dumped, where nearby two kids found the bits of Paula Fields, and ahead are three key locations in the life of The Camden Ripper - coming soon to Murder Mile - but exactly where I am is uncertain.
The appropriately named Goods Way was once one of London’s industrial hubs, as being perfectly positioned at the back of King’s Cross station and flanked by a wealth of warehouses, wharfs, grain-stores and even an ice-cellar; with its smoky sky crammed full of tall steel cranes, all carting tonnes of goods, to and from trains, onto long lines of rumbling trucks and chugging canal-boats, although Goods Way was once a big part of Britain’s economic lifeblood, today its industry has gone.
Where-as once Goods Way and Granary Square were dark dens of iniquity, where (having quaffed a pie and a pint) a workman would plunge his pathetic pecker into a prozzie’s clunge for ten bob bits and a yank on her tits; but having been recently ripped-up and poncified, now it’s so much nicer.
With its posh stone steps, outdoor artwork and wee-inducing water-features, the Granary Square of today is riddled with office arseholes, lazy lunchtime loafers and desk-bound dickheads in deckchairs, all sunning it up in the choking smog, as they scoff painfully pretentious sarnies packed full of (what is basically just) offal, seeds, weeds and old cheese, as it’s here that – without any hint of irony - the workplace wankers congregate to whore out their mouths to foodie fashion.
And where-as once, that kind of conduct was considered criminal, today the whole square swarms with open-mouthed idiots; all sucking on an artisan’s sausage, chowing-down on a clotted cream-pie, or squirting their gentleman’s relish across an over-stuffed kebab, whilst all the big knobs and fannies watch the Wimbledon tennis (on a stupidly sized screen) and fight the urge to “come on Tim”.
And although it’s a ridiculous place, it was here, on Tuesday 26th January 1943, somewhere, at the back of King’s Cross station, in an unknown derelict warehouse, that a hungry, broke and homeless man called Glyndwr Michael changed the world… forever (INTERSTITIAL).
The hero known as Glyndwr Michael started his remarkable life in truly inauspicious circumstances, as unlike those who legend says “are born with greatness thrust upon them”, being neither healthy, wealthy or educated, bold, brash or brave, from his first to his last breath, he didn’t stand a chance.
Born on 4th January 1909, in the dilapidated ground-floor flat of 136 Commercial Street; a two-storey brown-brick terraced house in the tiny mining town of Aberbargoed in the borough of Caerphilly (South Wales). As an illegitimate, illiterate and disabled child, born to an unmarried mother and a chronically ill alcoholic father, the odds were stacked against Glyndwr ever achieving greatness.
The early 1900’s should have been a time of great prosperity for the family, as with Aberbargoed being an industrial boom town and home to the ever-expanding Bargoed Colliery - a pit so prolific that by 1909 it became the largest coal mine in the Rhymney Valley and extracted a world record-breaking 4020 tonnes of coal in a single ten hour shift – the town was flooded with jobs, money and prospects, but as poverty and illness plagued the family, Glyndwr’s misfortune began before he was even born.
As a recent divorcee with two young daughters to feed, his illiterate and impoverished mother (Sarah Ann Chadwick) was forced to marry the first available unmarried man, simply to survive, and moved in with a 35 year old colliery haulier called Thomas John Michael. As a Welsh Baptist, a life-long coal-miner and a devoted father, Sarah had done okay, and although he would provide a modest income to his soon-to-be family of five and a small roof over their heads (in his tiny cramped one-roomed house at the rear of Dinas railway station), life would only get worse, as Thomas was not a well man.
Being riddled with syphilis; a sexual infection whose symptoms often begin with red rashes, seeping sores and festering legions on the mouth, genitals or anus, and end by spawning into the debilitating, disfiguring and deadly infection of the spine and brain called neurosyphilis, having gone untreated for more than a decade, Thomas passed this on, not only to Sarah, but also to their unborn son.
From birth, it was obvious that Glyndwr was different; as being crippled by a lack of coordination, confusion and concentration; with a severe weakness in his muscles, sight and movement; being constantly struck down by headaches, tremors and seizures, and debilitated by frequent bouts of depression, psychosis and early onset dementia; although he wasn’t classified as an invalid, for the rest of his life, he would suffer from the deformities in his bones, his eyes and his brain.
And so began the early life of Britain’s most unlikely hero – Glyndwr Michael.
Aged ten, as the eldest boy of five siblings, Glyndwr was forced to become a breadwinner, as his ailing father struggled to feed their ever-expanding family, but being disabled, barely literate and unfit to follow in him into the pit, Glyndwr took on any odd job which paid a penny, but it was never enough.
And as the starving family carted their few possessions from flea-infested flat to dingy derelict hovel - from prosperous towns like Aberbargoed and Taff’s Wells, to those on the fringes of economic failure like Rockwood Pit and Williamstown – being starved, ragged and unable to pay the rent, as the work dried-up, Thomas started to soak-up his sadness (and the little money they had) with alcohol.
By 1924, with their father, 51 year old Thomas being too sick to work, after three decades of his tired body being battered by alcoholism, syphilis and pneumoconiosis; a coal-miners disease which caused his lungs to rot, blood to be coughed-up and the left of his chest to collapse; being hungry and homeless, the seven members of the family were forced to squeeze into a single room at a charity hostel in Pontypridd for the county’s most desperate and destitute.
And as Thomas’ depression slowly spiralled to darker depths, just shy of Christmas 1924, fifteen year old Glyndwr watched as his thin, sickly and suicidal dad stabbed himself in the throat with a carving knife. And although he was barely a boy himself, with a broken body and a very fragile brain, Glyndwr had to commit his own father to the Glamorgan County Lunatic Asylum in Bridgend, where – having contracted both influenza and bronchial pneumonia - on 31st March 1925, Thomas John Michael died.
Having witnessed his father’s physical decline, mental collapse, suicide and death, all within the boy’s most formative years, as an impoverished boy, the only evidence that Glyndwr Michael even existed is his shaky signature scrawled in the burial register at Trealaw cemetery, as his father was interred in a pauper’s grave. But for Britain’s unsung hero, whose actions (are estimated to have) saved millions of lives, his own life was about to get even worse.
With his parents having never married, not only was Glyndwr cursed with by the stigma of illegitimacy and crippled by disability, but with his mother unable to receive any benefits befitting a widow, and the hostel they lived in going bankrupt as the country was gripped in an economic depression, with no savings or property, only debts, Glyndwr and his mother were forced to survive on charity.
And that’s how it remained for the next fifteen years; as being too poor to eat, too hungry to earn and too sick to work; trapped in a damp, dark and cramped backroom in a leaky cold coal-miner’s house at 135 Trealaw Road in the mining town of Tonypandy, lived a widowed mother and her disabled son.
But then, on 15th January 1940, aged 58, having suffered a heart attack, Glyndwr’s mother died; she was his rock, his world, his everything. He had nothing. He was a 31 year old mentally disabled man, with no parents to love him, no money to support him, no food to feed him and no home to protect him, and with all four of his siblings having married or moved-out, shortly after the burial of his beloved mother in a pauper’s grave in Trealaw cemetery, Glyndwr disappeared.
Between 16th January 1940 and 26th January 1943, for three whole years, Glyndwr simply vanished; no-one knows where he went, what he did, who he saw, or how he survived. I’d love to say that a Good Samaritan found him, saved him, trained him, and that’s how a disabled Welsh vagrant became a vital component in the allies winning World War Two, but it didn’t happen.
Ironically, barely months before his mother’s death, Glyndwr attempted to enlist in the British Army; to fight for King and country; to earn a decent living, to be fed a regular meal and to sleep in a warm and cosy bed, but (with a catalogue of disabilities) he was rejected on medical grounds.
For whatever reason, by the bitter winter of 1942, Glyndwr was living in London; dossing in doorways, begging for change and rummaging through bins, and as one of thousands of anonymous homeless drifters who struggled to stay alive in this badly-burned bombed-out city, by January 1943, Glyndwr Michael had finally reached rock-bottom and was lost, unloved and forgotten. And then, came the day that he would change world history forever. (INTERSTITIAL)
The evening of Tuesday 26th January 1943 was exceptionally cold, as a biting wind blew a thick blanket of icy snow across the city, which instantly hardened in the intense freezing frost. Being bitterly cold, wet, hungry and homeless, as the temperature dropped as low as minus ten, Glyndwr stumbled into an abandoned warehouse, at the back of King’s Cross station
After three years of isolation, malnutrition and infection, with his physical and mental health rapidly declining, and being crippled by a life-long hereditary infection which riddled his weak and weary body with tremors, seizures, migraines, depression, arthritis, blindness, psychosis, paranoia and dementia; being cold, hungry and confused, off the dusty floor, Glyndwr ate a few scraps of stale bread.
But this wasn’t a kindly gift left by a generous benefactor, or a piece of misplaced sandwich dropped by an already full night-watchman, but a trap for rats. And as Glyndwr sat, shivering in the shadows, swallowing the stale lumps of bread, he didn’t notice that the gooey residue slathered on top, wasn’t butter, jam or even dripping, but a paste laced with highly toxic white phosphorous.
Having mistakenly ingested mouthfuls of rat poison, as the deadly phosphide paste mixed with the hydrochloric acid in his gut and turned into clouds of highly toxic phosphine, the chemistry of his own body had begun to kill him. And as he lay on the cold and dirty floor of an unknown disused warehouse somewhere in King’s Cross; being wracked with cramp, fever and convulsions, as hot steamy vomit and smoking faeces spewed from his orifices as his bowel started to boil, with no-one knowing he was even there, not only was Glyndwr Michael lost, unloved and forgotten… but now he was dying.
After two days of writhing in excruciating agony, with his central nervous system poisoned, as slowly it began to shut-down his liver, his kidneys, his lungs and his heart, having been found, Glyndwr was rushed to the South Wing of St Pancras Hospital, just one street away, but having drifted into a coma, on Thursday 28th January 1943, 33 year old Glyndwr Michael was pronounced dead.
And with his heart silent, his brain empty and his blood cold, as rigor mortis set in and every ounce of life left his slowly decomposing body, his career as a war hero had only just begun.
In the bowels of St Pancras Hospital, hidden in the corner of its cold stone mortuary, Glyndwr Michael was one of several corpses brought in that day, in varying states of injury and decay, and although he was an unremarkable man, to the coroner Sir Bentley Purchase, he was perfect.
Unlike the other deaths, Sir Bentley didn’t give the dead tramp an autopsy. Unlike the other deaths, Sir Bentley didn’t inform the dead tramp’s family of his demise. And unlike the other deaths, (although entirely illegal) Sir Bentley falsified the death certificate, lied to the registrar, denied the dead tramp a burial, concealed the body and for the second time in the life of Glyndwr Michael… he vanished.
That evening, Sir Bentley Purchase made contact with two British intelligence officers; Ewen Montagu of the Royal Navy and Charles Cholmondeley of MI5 and excitedly said “I’ve found our man”.
And although Glyndwr Michael was mentally disabled, physically unfit, had no military training (having failed to enlist in the army on medical grounds) and even though he was already dead, he was about to embark on a secret mission, into enemy territory, in a truly audacious and daring scheme which would turn the tide of Second World War… and its code-name was Operation Mincemeat.
Operation Mincemeat began life on 29th September 1939, as a directive from the Director of British Naval Intelligence, Rear Admiral John Godfrey, to engineer a series of cunning ploys to deceive the Nazi’s and lure their ships either directly into allied minefields, or away from key strategic actions.
Of the thirty ideas concocted, number 28 (against which the author had written “a suggestion, not a very nice one”) was to give the Nazis access to deliberately misleading information, having concealed it on a dead body, dressed as a British officer and dumped in enemy waters. This rather grisly idea, it is believed, was written by Rear Admiral Godfrey’s personal assistant; a Lieutenant Commander who would later be more famously known for his spy novels, and his name was Ian Fleming.
By 1943, after the failure of Dunkirk, which saw the mass-evacuation of allied troops from the French coast and opened the door to a Nazi invasion of Britain, the Allies needed to re-enter Europe and regain the upper-hand. But with the bulk of Europe’s coastline being heavily defended by the Germans, the only logical point of invasion for the allies was Sicily, but everyone knew that, even Sir Winston Churchill remarked that "anyone but a bloody fool would know it was Sicily".
Nazi intelligence needed to be deceived and German troops rerouted, so Britain had to convince Hitler that an allied invasion was imminent, but not via Sicily, but 500 miles away in Greece and Sardinia. A deception was planned, Operation Mincemeat was born, and an unloved, lost and long-forgotten dead tramp from Welsh mining town of Aberbargoed would be the hero that our country needed.
Glyndwr Michael was perfect; he had no physical injuries, no medical scars and no obvious cause of death, as with the phosphine gas having dispersed, the strychnine in his hair being hardly traceable and with his lungs full of fluid (owing to pneumonia), given a cursory autopsy, the Nazis would assume he had drowned. So back in the St Pancras Mortuary, with his body kept at a steady four degrees Celsius, the life of Glyndwr Michael was erased, as he became Major William Martin.
In order to fool the Nazis, not only did Major William Martin need to have a name, a face and a body, but he also needed a life, and – for this daring deception to work – it needed to be one as real as any other persons, so Ewan Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley set about giving a dead man life.
Born in Cardiff in 1907, 35 year old Acting Major William Martin, known to his friends as “Bill”, was a recently promoted Captain in the Royal Marines, a rank senior enough to handle sensitive papers; he was five foot nine tall, with short dark hair, a neatly trimmed moustache and a slender physique more befitting a man used to desk-work than a war-zone. And being assigned to Combined Operations HQ, any queries about this fictional officer’s death would be instantly be passed to Naval Intelligence.
To legitimise his rank, Major William Martin was issued with a Royal Marines battledress, cut by Gieves & Hawkes (the military tailors at nearby Savile Row); complete with the appropriate badges, flashes, insignia, braces, gaiters, size 12 boots, a trench-coat and a beret; each piece of which was personally worn, every day, by Charles Cholmondeley to ensure that its wear and tear looked real.
With the devil being in the detail, Major Martin was decorated with what MI5 described as “pocket litter”; several pieces of small and seemingly unimportant fragments of everyday detritus which every person forgets they carry, but which completes the detail of a person’s ordinary life; such as a book of stamps, a pack of cigarettes, a box of matches, a set of keys, a silver cross, a St Christopher, a pencil, a receipt from Gieves & Hawkes for a new shirt, ticket stubs from a West End show, a bill for four nights' at the Naval & Military Club, a letter from his imaginary father, a note from his solicitor, a letter from Lloyds Bank demanding payment of his overdraft of £79 19s 2d; and even though Glyndwr was single, inside his wallet was a photograph and two love letters from his fictitious fiancée called 'Pam', and a receipt for £53 10s 6d, from S J Phillips of Bond Street, for a diamond engagement ring.
And finally, the most important piece – the letter.
To aid its authenticity, Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Nye personally composed a letter to General Sir Harold Alexander (commander of the Anglo-American 18th Army Group in Algeria & Tunisia). And although this two–page letter looked like a routine piece of correspondence between two high-ranking officers; hidden away, in a single paragraph, amongst a mess of everyday military waffle, were two very matter-of-fact sentences, which stated that with the Germans “strengthening their defences in Greece and Crete” that “…the 5th Allied Division should be reinforced by one brigade for the assault on the beach south of Cape Araxos and similarly for the 56th division at Kalamata”.
And that was it; barely thirty words, scrawled in a letter and hidden inside a briefcase, which would be chained to the arm of a dead (and entirely fictional) Naval officer, who had supposedly died in an air-crash and whose body would be found by the enemy floating in the sea, off the coast of Spain.
And given that diplomatic protocol denotes that any intercepted official correspondence must be returned unopened to its country of origin, to confirm if the document had fallen into enemy hands, inside they had placed a single eyelash. If it was missing? They knew that the Nazis had read the letter.
The plan was audacious, risky and ludicrous, but being so unbelievable was part of its brilliance.
Having been shaved, dressed and decorated with “pocket litter”, the body of Glyndwr Michael, under the alias of Major William Martin was packed into a vague metal container, loaded with nine and a half kilos of dry-ice, and filled with carbon dioxide to refrigerate and preserve the body.
On the 18th April 1943, having been loaded by Charles Cholmondeley & Ewan Montagu into the back of a non-descript black 1937 Fordson van with a V8 engine, through the night the metal canister was driven, at speed, by racing champion St John Horsfall, from King’s Cross to Greenock on the west coast of Scotland, where it was loaded on-board of an S-Class British submarine called HMS Seraph.
11 days later, at 4:15am, on Friday 30th April 1943, just off the port of Huelva on the south-west of Spain, as the dawn light glistened across a serenely calm sea, HMS Seraph surfaced. With the coast clear, the captain - Lieutenant Norman Jewell – and only his most senior of officers, placed the body of “Major William Martin” gently into the warm waters; a life-vest on, a black attaché case chained to his wrist and as the submarine’s propellers slowly pushed his dead body towards the shore, Lt Jewell read a passage from the 39th Psalm – (“hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my ears: for I am a stranger with thee and a sojourner, as all my fathers were”) - as Glyndwr Michael floated into infamy.
At a little after 9:30am, four hours later, just off the beach of La Mata Negra, a local fisherman called Antonio Rey Maria spotted the body, dragged it ashore and notified the Spanish authorities, all under the watchful eye of Adolf Klaus; an unimaginative and easily duped German spy, living in Huelva.
And yet, Operation Mincemeat still had one massive hurdle to overcome; as having discovered a body, it was standard practice for the authorities to perform an autopsy to determine its cause of death, and any deviation from this would raise suspicions, but to any trained doctor, it would obvious that this body hadn’t been dead for three days, but three months, so the autopsy had to be rushed.
Luckily, having stored the corpse in a makeshift mortuary in Nuestra Señora cemetery for more than 24 hours; as two Spanish doctors examined it, finding no injuries, no scars and its lungs full of water, as the festering body rapidly decomposed in the blistering heat of the midday sun, the autopsy was cut-short, and the death certificate was signed off as "asphyxiation through immersion in the sea".
In keeping with Spanish tradition, although there were no mourners, the very next day, Major William Martin was buried in Nuestra Señora cemetery with full military honours, and upon his headstone was an inscription which read: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”; a line from the Roman poet Horace, which translates as "it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country".
On the 5th May, the briefcase was passed to the Spanish naval headquarters in Cadiz, the letter was dried, photographed, resealed, soaked in salt water, re-inserted into the envelope and the information was passed to the Germans. On 11th May, the briefcase and all of its contents, seemingly untouched, was returned to British authorities, minus a single eyelash. On 14th May, codebreakers at Bletchley Park intercepted a German message warning of an imminent invasion via Greece and Sardinia. Brigadier Leslie Hollis – the secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee – sent a secret communique to Winston Churchill, it simply read “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker."
On the 9th July, with Hitler having redeployed 1000’s of troops from the Russian Eastern Front in Kursk to Greece, Corsica and Sardinia, having launched one of the largest amphibious assaults of the war, 400,000 American and British troops invaded the woefully undefended island of Sicily; it fell 8 days later, and opened the door to mainland Europe. Two years later, the war was over.
Glyndwr Michael was a nobody, a nothing, a mentally and physically disabled man, who died unloved, lost and forgotten, in a derelict warehouse somewhere in King’s Cross. He was a homeless man who became a hero, and although he saved my life, your life and all of our lives, almost 80 years on, with no statues in his image, no streets in his honour and no portraits in his likeness, his name his hardly known… and yet, without Glyndwr Michael, our lives would have been very different.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
Don’t forget to stay tuned to Extra Mile after the break, but before that, here’s my recommended podcasts of the week, which are Witching Hour and Murder in My Family (PLAY PROMO)
A big shout-out this week goes out to my new Patreons, who are Clare Bernardin, Daryna Tarasenko, Leslie Quinones, Sue Harrison and Nicole Graves, who all made my little chubby cheeks go all flushed with their supreme generosity, so to you guys, here’s a kiss. Don’t worry, I don’t have the lurgy.
Also a quick “hi” to Doug and Karen who booked onto my Murder Mile Walk for their 20th anniversary, because what’s more romantic than that, and Lynn and her family who came all the way from Vancouver to delve into some grisly Soho murders. Hello to you all.
Murder Mile was researched, written & performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER ***
The Murder Mile UK True Crime Podcast has been researched using the original declassified police investigation files, court records, press reports and as many authentic sources as possible including eye-witness testimony, confessions, autopsy reports, first-hand accounts and independent investigation, where possible. But these documents are only as accurate as those recounting them and recording them, therefore mistakes will be made. As stated at the beginning of each episode (and as is clear by the way it is presented) Murder Mile is a 'dramatisation' of the events and not a documentary, therefore a certain amount of dramatic licence, selective characterisation and story-telling (within logical reason and based on extensive research) has been taken. It is not a full representation of the case, the people or the investigation in its entirety, and therefore should not be taken as such. It is also often (for the sake of clarity and drama) presented from a single person's perspective, usually (but not exclusively) the victim's, therefore it will contain a certain level of bias to get across this single perspective, which may not be the overall opinion of those involved or associated.
*** LEGAL DISCLAIMER ***
Credits: The Murder Mile true-crime podcast was researched, written and recorded by Michael J Buchanan-Dunne, with the sounds recorded on location (where possible), and the music written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Additional music was written and performed by various artists, as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0. A list of tracks used and the links are listed on the relevant transcript blog here
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British podcast Awards 2018", and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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