"Mincemeat": a play which names the man who fooled the Nazis opens in London

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Some war heroes have films made about them. Others languish in obscurity. Then there’s a third class of heroes who have films made about them even as they remain hidden from history. Which is where the homeless people’s theatre company Cardboard Citizens come in. “It seems a pity,” their director, Adrian Jackson, says, “that a man who helped us to win the Second World War hasn’t been acknowledged at all.”

That man is now the hero of Mincemeat, which Jackson’s cast of professional and formerly homeless actors perform in an East London warehouse later this month. He was also the hero, after a fashion, of the Bafta-winning 1956 film The Man Who Never Was and of the postwar pot-boiler Operation Heartbreak, a novel by a former First Lord of the Admiralty, Duff Cooper. Both were based on a real-life wartime disinformation plot, codenamed Mincemeat, that led Germany to believe that the Allies would invade Sardinia rather than their actual objective, Sicily, in 1943. This was achieved by casting ashore on the coast of Spain the drowned corpse of a Royal Marine carrying a briefcase full of secret Allied war plans.

The operation was a glorious success. The con was meticulous: a complete identity was established for the body, that of “Major William Martin”, whose case carried love-letters from a fictional girlfriend and ticket stubs from the music hall dated several evenings before his supposed drowning. The Times even included his name in the “roll of honour” for war casualties. “I think they knew they were involved,” Jackson says. “I’m pretty sure that the War Office in those days thought you simply couldn’t lie to The Times.”

So celebrated was the operation that after the war, Cooper and the intelligence officer responsible, Ewen Montagu, both rushed versions of the story into print. But, in the fanfare surrounding Mincemeat’s success, few thought to ask: who supplied the corpse? In Montagu’s account, Jackson says, he claimed “to have sworn to the [deceased’s] relatives never to reveal the body’s identity. But it’s pretty clear from all of the theories that abound now that no relatives were ever told.” The closer you look at Mincemeat, the more suspicious its stink. “You have to wonder,” Jackson says, “why the body’s identity was kept secret for so long. Was there some dirty dealing which led to the need for concealment?”

Jackson first encountered the story in the late 1990s. Papers had just been released by the Public Records Office, and an amateur historian, Roger Morgan, claimed the body to be that of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless Welsh alcoholic who died (presumably by his own hand) of ingesting rat poison. “The symptoms had to mirror drowning,” Jackson says. “It had to involve the lungs being filled with fluid.” According to Morgan’s theory (and — as the play makes clear — it isn’t the only one), the “man who never was” was in fact a vagrant, whose body was assumed by the War Office to be there for the taking.

To Jackson, this was theatrical gold dust, a rip-roaring story about homelessness that lent itself perfectly to theatre. What attracted him was “the rich idea of a nobody becoming a somebody. And the theatricality of the deception. These intelligence officers had to invent a person, and their job — like in the theatre — was to make that invention credible.”

The play, scripted by Jackson and Farhana Sheikh, pays homage to the Second World War movie A Matter of Life and Death, as “Major Martin’s” identity is pieced together before he can enter Heaven. Much of it remains speculative, Jackson admits, but that’s partly the point. The play asks who we are, he says. “What gives us value? How do you make someone valuable? You give them stuff. You give them a partner. You give them a uniform.” Without those things, people such as Michael too easily seem “disposable”, Jackson says: like, well, mincemeat...

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