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Going through my father’s papers with Daphne du Maurier and the Mincemeat Underpants again

Tom Winnifrith
Wednesday 24 January 2024

Every now and again the Mrs. suggests that I sort out the boxes and boxes of family papers including those of my late father. If I can throw away even some of them it will make the study and a storage room underneath the stairs that little bit less cluttered. In my heart of hearts I know that she has a point. Will any of my kids be that interested in the letters of my great great grandfather Sir Courtenay Ilbert or far more obscure dead white males?  I suspect not. As a “nudge” the Mrs. sometimes leaves a book called “Swedish Death Clearing” on my pillow.

And so, the other night I turned my attention to a box of my dad’s papers. There were some, occasionally rather waspish, reviews by him of other folks books and by others of some of his books plus numerous articles written on obscure matters for obscure, long since closed, publications. Those I have kept. I am not sure why but one day I shall find a purpose for them.

Contracts with publishers and numerous letters to folks who, like him, are in a better place these days are being used, like the publication provided by the Wrexham Tories, to light the fire.  There were quite a few letters about a row he had in 1969 with the Bronte Society which was trying to stop him reading correspondence between Charlotte Bronte and a lady called Ellen Nussey. This all got quite heated and the row spilled onto the pages of the TLS where Daphne du Maurier weighed in with a letter supporting Dad and suggesting that the letters contained a bombshell.

I have those clippings from the TLS and for what it is worth Daphne was wrong. Dad got to read the letters in the end and they were as dull as ditchwater.

Also in this box were two sheets of, I think, four sheets, of correspondence between Dad and two Ilbert cousins about the most famous underpants of World War Two. That is to say the underpants of HAL Fisher, the academic and Liberal MP for Nick Clegg’s old seat who married Lettice Ilbert, Sir Courtenay’s daughter and the sister of Mora, my great grandmother. Fisher died in 1940 after being hit by a lorry in the blackout. His underpants were high quality woolen pants and were put on the body of the tramp used to fool the Germans as to the location of an allied invasion of Sicily in 1943: operation Mincemeat.

Fisher’s daughter and Robin Ilbert discuss in this correspondence what happened to the underpants between 1940 and 1943 and just why they would have been used. There is a suggestion that the son of another of the Ilbert daughters was in the secret service and might have been the underpants man. I think I might just follow up on that lead.

The things one finds among Dad’s papers never cease to amaze me.




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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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