Hackney’s role in a wartime escapade, remembered with a plaque

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The new plaque in Hackney Mortuary. Photo: Courtesy Goodman PR

On a cold spring day in 1943, a nondescript building on a back street in Hackney played a key role in a war deception that was to save thousands of lives.

The body of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless man found dead in King’s Cross, was taken to the Hackney morgue and disguised as a fictional war officer, Acting Major William Martin.

Forged documents intended to deceive the enemy were hidden in his clothing.

Letters from senior military officials were also placed on his body – suggesting that the Allies were planning to invade Europe via Greece. In fact, the real plan was an invasion of the Italian island of Sicily.

Hackney’s role in this deception has not yet been highlighted.

If it sounds like spy fiction, it could be because James Bond writer Ian Fleming was involved in the scheme.

But he was nowhere near the cold and forbidding morgue on Mare Street on the edge of St. John’s Churchyard.

That role was played by two intelligence officers – Commander Ewen Montagu, a Jewish attorney who later became a noted judge, and the wealthy aristocrat Flight Lt. Charles Cholmondeley. You were involved in planning the deception.

The role of Hackney Mortuary will also reach a wider audience thanks to the determination of historian Martin Sugarman, archivist for the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women.

“No one knows why Hackney Morgue was used,” said Mr Sugarman, who firmly believed his role in war history was being celebrated. “The morgues could have been full because it was war.

“If Montagu’s role had been known, he would have been a target for agents. He would have been in danger. “

The secret of the morgue is now revealed with a freshly placed plaque.

Montagu in uniform. Photo: Wikicommons

Montagu and Cholmondeley were accompanied on the confidentiality of the London medical examiner Bentley Purchase and a racing driver, who brought the officers and a special container for the corpse filled with dry ice to a submarine base in Scotland.

The body was dumped off the Spanish coast and eventually washed up nearby, with the forged documents discovered and their contents sent as far as Berlin.

This meant that German soldiers, tanks, planes and artillery were diverted from Italy and Sicily to Greece and that the Allied landing on the island in July 1943 – one of the turning points of the war – resulted in fewer casualties.

The bold story is called in a movie next year. brought to the big screen Operation minced meat, based on the 2010 book of the same name by journalist Ben Macintyre.

Colin Firth will play Ewen Montagu and Matthew Macfadyen will play Charles Cholmondeley.

Montagu published his account of what happened in the 1953 book: The man who never waswhich was also made into a film.

However, many details had to be kept secret because of the Official Secrets Act.

The new plaque on the morgue wall was funded by Jerry Klinger of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, UK Branch, following the work of Martin Sugarman and the Hackney and Stamford Hill Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women of the UK (AJEX). .

The Hackney Council and St-John-at-Hackney Church take care of it.

Sugarman, born in Hackney, is a former senior high school principal at Clapton School and has taught at other schools in East London.

He is the author of five books on the Jewish contribution to World War II.

“I contacted Montagu’s family about another war-related matter and learned of the Hackney connection through Ben Macintyre’s book,” he said.

“It was the only place where the four main actors came together – the corpse, the racing driver, the coroner, and the two Secret Intelligence officers. I went to the morgue and they knew all about it.

“It is an important event and it has saved thousands of lives.”

He said it was “critically important” to celebrate your role in Jewish war history as it “shows the diversity of the war effort”.

“In terms of Jewish history, part of the process is opposing anti-Semitism,” he added.

Montagu played an important role in overseeing naval fraud involving special agents.

After the war he was involved in a public health project and was President of the United Synagogue.

He died in 1985 at the age of 84.

Hackney is now celebrating its central and so far top secret role in war history.

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