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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Man Who Never Was

by Ewen Montagu

published by J. B. Lippincott Company
Philadelphia and New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3

 p26  2  Preliminary Enquiries

We had talked glibly of "getting a body," but we had realised that there would be difficulties; we had yet to learn how difficult it would actually be. None of us, indeed, entirely liked the idea, for even in the stress of war one's natural respect for the sanctity of the human body remains a power­ful instinct. But for us that instinct was overcome by a realisation of the lives that could be saved by the temporary use of a body that we were confident would eventually receive a proper and decent burial. The difficulty with which we were immediately faced was that imposed by security. How could we go to relatives in their hour of sorrow and ask to be allowed to take without explanation the remains of the son or husband or brother whom they mourned? And if we had to explain, what could we say? In fiction one could, perhaps, expect that we would meet a man who happened to be the sole relative of someone who had just died a death suitable for our plan — a man of that rare type who would just agree  p27 to our taking the body and would ask no questions as to why we wanted it. In fiction, perhaps, but not in real life!

Before we started our search, we had first to make sure what kind of body we needed. If the Germans were to accept the body as that of the victim of an aircraft crash at sea, we would have to present them with someone whose body did not afford signs of a cause of death inconsistent with that.

It seemed to me that the best approach to this question would be from the point of view of the man who would do the post mortem. What would a pathologist expect to find and what would he expect not to find in the body of a man who had drifted ashore after an aircraft had been lost at sea? For, after all, the aircraft need not have actually crashed.

My thoughts at once turned to Sir Bernard Spilsbury. No one had more experience of pathology than he had, and I felt that no better security risk existed: one could be certain that he at any rate would not gossip or even pass what I said to him on "in confidence to someone whom he could trust." In this respect, there had never been any difference between Sir Bernard and an oyster. And he had one even rarer quality: I felt sure that he would not ask any questions other than those needed for the solution of the problem put to him: he would just take the fact that we wanted the Germans and Spaniards to accept a floating body as  p28 that of a victim of an aircraft disaster, and would neither ask me why nor seek to find an answer elsewhere.

So I rang up Sir Bernard and we arranged a meeting at his club, the Junior Carlton. There, over a glass of sherry, I put our problem to him. After a moment or two of thought, he gave me one of those concise, yet complete, expositions that had convinced so many juries — and even so many judges. His advice gave me hope. If the body was floating in a "Mae West" when it was recovered, we could use one of a man who had either drowned or died from any but a few of the "natural causes"; victims of an aircraft disaster at sea sometimes died from an injury received in the crash, and some died from drowning, but many died from exposure or even from shock; our field of search was less narrow than I had feared it might be.

My opinion of Sir Bernard was fully justified; that extraordinary man listened to my questions and gave me his answers without ever for a moment giving vent to the curiosity which he must have felt. He asked me some questions which bore on the pathological problem that I was putting to him, but never once did he ask why I wanted to know or what I was proposing to do.

But even then the quest was not easy. We could not make any open enquiries — at all costs we had to avoid anything which might start talk. We could not risk  p29 anyone remembering that someone had been trying to obtain a dead body, and such a search was just the sort of thing that is likely to start gossip: "Have you heard? It's frightfully odd. So‑and‑So was asking Such-and‑Such the other day where he could get a dead body." And so, very quietly, our search went on. There we were, in 1942, surrounded all too often by dead bodies, but none that we could take. We felt like the Ancient Mariner — bodies, bodies, everywhere, nor any one to take! We felt like Pirandello — "Six officers in search of a corpse."

At one time we feared that might have to do a body-snatch — "do a Burke and Hare" as one of us put it; but we did not like that idea, if we could possibly avoid it. We managed to make some very guarded enquiries from a few Service medical officers whom we could trust; but when we heard of a possibility, either the relatives were unlikely to agree or we could not trust those whose permission we would need not to mention to other close relatives what had happened — or two some other snags, such as a complication in the cause of death.

At last, when we had begun to feel that it would have either to be a "Burke and Hare" after all or we would have to extend our enquiries so widely as to risk suspicion of our motives turning into gossip, we heard of someone who had just died from pneumonia after exposure: pathologically speaking, it looked as if  p30 he might answer our requirements. We made feverish enquiries into his past and about his relatives; we were soon satisfied that these would not talk or pass on such information as we could give them. But there was still the crucial question: could we get permission to use the body without saying what we proposed to do with it and why? All we could possibly tell anyone was that we could guarantee that the purpose would be a really worthwhile one, as anything that was done would be with approval on the highest level, and that the remains would eventually receive proper burial, though under a false name.

Permission, for which our indebtedness is great, was obtained on condition that I should never let it be known whose corpse it was. It must therefore suffice for me to say that the body was that of a young man in his early thirties. He had not been very physically fit for some time before his death, but we could accept that for, as I said to a senior officer who queried the point, "He does not have to look like an officer — only like a staff officer."

As a precaution, I had another chat with Sir Bernard Spilsbury. He was quite satisfied: the pneumonia was a help, for there would tend to be some liquid in the lungs, as might well be the case if the man had died while floating in a rough sea. If a post mortem examination was made by someone who had formed the preconceived idea that the death was probably due to  p31 drowning there was little likelihood that the difference between this liquid, in lungs that had started to decompose, and sea water would be noticed. Sir Bernard closed our talk with the characteristically confident statement: "You have nothing to fear from a Spanish post mortem; to detect that this young man had not died after an aircraft had been lost at sea would need a pathologist of my experience — and there aren't any in Spain."

So we arranged for the body to be kept in suitable cold storage until we were ready for it.

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Page updated: 13 Dec 20