This tale of two different dead men is, on the surface, a sharp contrast in lives and personalities. On one hand, there was a homeless man from Wales named Glendwr Michael. Let’s look at him, first. This was during World War 2, and Michael was living in London. He had been born in south Wales in a coal mining town (no surprise there) and into poverty in 1909. By the time World War 2 started, Michael had lost both his parents and was jobless. He made his way to London and lived on the streets. What he could find to eat he got by begging. One description of him said he was friendless, homeless, and depressed. His issues kept him from being suitable for service in the war, and that pained him as well.
Someone found Michael seriously ill in a warehouse not too far from King’s Cross railway station in the city. He had eaten rat poison, and it is believed that he ingested it accidently. You see, the rat poison had been put in paste that was put on the crusts of bread. As someone who was nearly starving, Michael probably couldn’t believe his luck; he quickly ate the bread crusts and became violently ill. Two days later after being found, he died of the rat poison in St. Pancras Hospital. The poison had interacted with his gastric acids and produced a gas that effectively killed him by shutting down his liver and lungs. His date of death was January 28, 1943 at the age of 34.
Now, for the other dead man, only the story of his death is more, well, glorious, for lack of a better word. His given name was William Martin. Martin was an acting Major in the Royal Marines. Martin’s date of birth was listed at 1907, and his death date as shown on his tombstone is April 24, 1943. Like Michael, Martin was also from Wales. Unlike Michael, Martin was a hero. His body was hauled out of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain by a local fisherman. His cause of death was listed as drowning. On one of Martin’s wrists was a pair of handcuffs; the other end of the handcuffs was attached to a briefcase. The fisherman notified the Spanish authorities, and they, in turn, told the British authorities in Spain. Martin’s body was taken by the British, and he was buried there in Spain with full miliary honors.
Now, Spain was ostensibly a neutral country during World War 2, but the fascist Franco regime was definitely pro-German. Between the time the fisherman found Martin’s body and the time the British authorities buried the man, it was determined that the briefcase attached to Martin’s body had been opened and the contents examined.
What was in the briefcase, you ask? Why, there were top secret papers detailing the upcoming Allied attacks on Nazi-occupied Greece and the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. The British were convinced that the Germans had been shown the information by the Franco government before the British were able to handle Martin’s body.
In fact, the British were counting on that happening.
You see, the papers in the briefcase were fakes. They were designed to throw off the Germans into thinking that the Allies were planning to attack elsewhere in the Mediterranean rather than their goal–Sicily. And the ruse worked. Based almost exclusively on the “top secret” information found on Major Martin, the Germans diverted troops from Sicily, and that made the later Allied invasion of that island so much easier.
So, you can see a large difference between the deaths of Glendwr Michael and Major William Martin. One died a bum, a homeless drifter. And the other one died a hero for his nation.
Except for one thing. The British had created Major Martin from the corpse of Glendwr Michael. The British knew that the body of a homeless person with no family would not be missed. And this fabrication saved the lives of perhaps thousands of lives of British and American servicemen.
Glendwr Michael had served his nation after all.