WAR ON FILM – Operation Mincemeat

The newly released, star-studded British movie Operation Mincemeat is, on one level, about the invasion of Sicily in July 1943. On another, more profound level, it is about how people deceive one another. In its opening commentary, the film announces that ‘in every story there is what is seen… and what is hidden.’ And the film tells one of the most extraordinary deception stories of the Second World War. A story, as the commentary relates, of ‘a wilderness of mirrors… in which the truth is protected by a mirror of lies.’

The intention of the operation was to deceive the Germans into believing that, after the fall of North Africa in spring 1943, the next Allied operation would not be the obvious one, to invade Sicily, but would instead be an invasion of Greece. The hope was that battle-hardened German troops would be withdrawn from Sicily and transferred to Greece.

Operation Mincemeat is not the first time this remarkable story has been told. In 1956, Ronald Neame directed one of the finest of British 1950s war films, The Man Who Never Was (see MHM September 2013). It starred Clifton Webb as Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, who, in this telling of the story, was the central figure in the deception.

Unlike most British movies of the decade, it was not made in black and white but in lavish colour in one of the widescreen formats of the day, Cinemascope. The Man Who Never Was is a tense and gripping tale, based on the book about the operation by Ewen Montagu, and adapted for the screen by thriller writer Nigel Balchin.

Tremendously exciting though the 1956 movie was, it was only a partial telling of the story. In the early 1950s, British Intelligence still wanted to keep many elements of the deception secret.

Daring plan

The story of the Operation Mincemeat deception is that a dead body was left at sea in a strong current, off the Spanish Andalusian port of Huelva, where it was known it would wash up on the coast. The body was supposedly that of a Royal Marine major, whose plane had crashed in Spanish waters. On his person were a series of private documents and mementos that created a false identity for the major. And handcuffed to his arm was a briefcase containing fake letters to commanders in North Africa telling them about plans to invade Greece.

Although Spain was neutral during the war, Huelva had been selected because it was known that an efficient German agent operated there. It was hoped that he would get hold of the briefcase and pass on the details of its letters to his chief in Madrid, who would then inform the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence, in Berlin.

It was further hoped that the Nazi authorities would accept that the next step in the Allied campaign in the Mediterranean was not as they had expected in Sicily, but against Greece. It was a daring plan, full of risks, that could go wrong at several points. As indeed it did.

In the decades immediately after the war, British Intelligence was concerned that the Spanish might be offended at having been duped as part of the operation and wanted to keep the whole story secret. However, in 1950, Alfred Duff Cooper wrote a novel, Operation Heartbreak, featuring a plot in which a dead body with false documents was planted on the Spanish coast. This generated some frenzied rumours in the press, and the security services reluctantly decided it was best to reveal the story of Mincemeat.

Consequently, Ewen Montagu was allowed to write The Man Who Never Was, which was published in 1951. However, one of the central players in the actual deception campaign, Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley, was still operating in MI5 at the time and wanted to keep his identity undisclosed. Consequently, he does not appear in the 1956 film.

One of several other conditions imposed on Montagu was that he was strictly forbidden from revealing the identity of the corpse used in the operation. And he was not allowed to refer to the use of Ultra decrypts from Bletchley Park. It would be another 25 years before the code-breaking element of the story was revealed.

The book became an instant bestseller and was soon the object of an intense bidding war for the movie rights, which were ultimately bought by 20th Century Fox. It was Montagu’s rather limited revelation of the operation that became the central narrative of the movie The Man Who Never Was. Added to this were various entirely fictional elements to create extra drama.

The full story of the deception has only come to light in recent years. In 2010, two books were published. Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat became a bestseller. In that same year, Denis Smyth’s more academic telling of the story appeared as Deathly Deception.

Both books drew on largely the same sources, mainly released documents at the National Archives and Montagu’s personal papers. Macintyre’s book is brilliant on the extraordinary personalities involved and the twists as the deception plan unfolds. Smyth’s book delves more into the framework of the intelligence organisations on each side of the story. But both reveal how close the entire operation came to failure.

Warner Brothers acquired the rights to Ben Macintyre’s book, and this became the source for the new movie. Michelle Ashford (writer on The Pacific, executive produced by Spielberg in 2010, and on Masters of Sex, 2013) adapted it for the screen, once again inventing completely new elements to the story to add to the drama. And she made some of the female characters central to the plot.

The movie is directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, 1998, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, 2012). It was largely shot just before lockdown in early 2020, with some final scenes completed a year later.

Unlikely pair

The film begins with Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) hosting a dinner party for his wife, Iris, who is about to depart to the safety of America with their children. Clearly their marriage is in a bad way. Montagu was a successful barrister (in fact, King’s Counsel) who joined the Navy at the outbreak of war.

As far as his friends are concerned, Montagu has a routine and rather dull job in the procurement section of the Admiralty, effectively counting rivets. In fact, he has a senior role in Naval Intelligence.

In the following scenes, a series of meetings are held in which the basic plan for Mincemeat is pitched to the intelligence chiefs. In 1939, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming of Naval Intelligence (later author of the James Bond books) had come up with a set of bizarre ideas to deceive the enemy in what was called the Trout Memo.

One of these schemes was to provide the enemy with a corpse packed with fake information about the Allies’ future military intentions. Much fun is had in Operation Mincemeat with young Fleming (Johnny Flynn), who is constantly sidetracked by quirky inventions and writing his own stories.

The action moves on to the top secret Twenty Committee, known by its Roman numerals as the XX Committee, or – as one of the bright young female assistants remarks – ‘Oh, you mean the double cross committee!’

At an XX meeting, both Montagu and an RAF Intelligence Officer, Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), propose the idea of sending fake information to the enemy on a dead body. They were in reality an unlikely pair: Montagu an experienced barrister, and Cholmondeley a moustachioed eccentric who dreamed of an exotic life as a spy. But together they led the whole Mincemeat programme.

Supporting them is Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton), a loyal but formidable organiser, and a bevy of young female assistants who appear to be on loan from Bletchley Park (in fact they were regular War Office staff).

The head of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey (a steely Jason Isaacs), is sceptical of the whole idea, and convinced it will fail and undermine all the other deception plans that are being put in place at the same time.

But when Churchill endorses it, Godfrey has to go along with the plan. Churchill is played by Simon Russell Beale, who in his first scenes has an impressive stab at a part that is notoriously difficult to get right. He does a convincing impersonation of the voice and announces that he ‘applauds the fantastic’ and admits they must fool the Nazis or there will be ‘slaughter on the beaches’ of Sicily. However, in later scenes Russell Beale plays an almost comic-strip Churchill, at one point sinking into his chair and looking like a slightly mad dwarf.

Finding a corpse

The first challenge is to find a corpse. This proves no easy matter. The coroner of St Pancras, Bentley Purchase (convincingly played by Paul Ritter), finally volunteers the corpse of a poor Welshman named Glyndwr Michael. Friendless, unemployed, and possibly mentally unstable, Michael had committed suicide by taking rat poison.

The poison would be difficult to find in his body after having been deposited in the sea for a while, so Michael’s cadaver is ideal for the secret mission. It seemed that the poor man’s parents were dead and that his siblings had lost contact with him. The coroner accordingly declared that he was a ‘labourer of no fixed abode’ and handed over the body. If it had come out at the time that a body had been supplied by a public coroner, it could have discredited the entire coroners’ system.

Purchase agrees to play along, but points out that the body will begin to rot, so it will have to be utilised in the mission within a few weeks.

The next section of the film involves creating a convincing identity for the man who is to be floated into the Spanish coast. He is given the name of Major William Martin. He has just been to his tailor, from whom he carries a receipt, and he is drifting into debt and carries a letter of warning from his bank manager.

Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu [above] and Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley [below]. After the war, Montagu wrote up a non-fiction account of the Mincemeat deception, but had to keep many elements of it secret, not least the involvement of Cholmondeley.

But at the heart of the film is the invention of a love affair between William Martin and his ‘girlfriend’, Pam. The attractive Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) offers a photo of herself as a younger woman and becomes a key member of the deception team. Hester Leggett writes a moving love letter from Pam, which the corpse will carry, along with her photo, in his pocket.

Cholmondeley takes a fancy to Jean. But her affections are more focused on Montagu. They begin a sort of platonic romance, in which they act out the relationship between the fictional William Martin and his lover. But what is a game and what is reality? ‘I left childish games many years ago,’ Jean tells Montagu, as they grow closer. But in one of the finest deceptions of the war, the question is who is deceiving whom?

The corpse is finally ‘dressed’ at Q Branch by its unusual boss Charles Fraser-Smith (James Fleet). An eyelash is left inside one of the documents. If it is opened but later returned with the lash missing, then it will be known that it has been read. Ian Fleming loves his visit to the Q Branch, and the abundance of devices he finds there later translate into various Bond gizmos.

Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley.

When the body is launched into the Mediterranean from a submarine, HMS Seraph, the film then follows the story of how the Spanish respond. They do not conform to expectations that they will share the contents of the briefcase with the Germans.

The deception goes up a gear as the British have to impress on the Spanish how important the briefcase is, and how much they want it back, hoping that this will convince the Nazi agents listening in to their communications to demand from the Spanish that they hand over the documents. Finally, the Spanish in Madrid return the briefcase. It looks as if it has been unopened and the whole mission has been a failure.

However, after more surprises, it turns out that the deception has in fact worked. Two German Panzer divisions were sent to Greece, and the landings in Sicily (shot at Slapton Sands in Devon) were a success. In a surprisingly short campaign, Sicily is captured, and Italy is eventually knocked out of the war. Montagu and Cholmondeley sit on the Admiralty steps in the early morning to reflect on their achievement.

‘We saved some lives today,’ they tell each other.

Meanwhile, Ian Fleming is left tapping away on a typewriter. ‘What are you doing?’ someone asks. ‘Writing a spy story,’ Fleming replies. The Mincemeat deception will have a long legacy in the culture of British espionage.

Allied troops landing on Sicily during the opening day of the campaign, 10 July 1943. Due to the success of the Mincemeat deception, Axis resistance was less ferocious than it might otherwise have been.

Enjoyable features

There are many features of Operation Mincemeat to like and enjoy. With its several intrigues and levels of deception, the viewer has to work hard to follow the story. That makes the film really appealing. The blackout streets of London are wonderfully conveyed, mostly, it seems, shot in Chatham.

The various London clubs like Soho’s Gargoyle, where much of the planning takes place, look magnificently real. The twists and turns as the deception plays out are finely portrayed. The tension as the plan appears to go wrong creates a great sense of jeopardy.

And yet some of the parts don’t come alive. Colin Firth is wooden as Montagu, always wearing his Commander’s jacket or overcoat and looking as though it is still hanging in the wardrobe. Simon Russell Beale does not work, overall, as Churchill.

However, Matthew Macfadyen is more convincing as the troubled Cholmondeley, and Kelly Macdonald as Jean has just the right mix of down-to-earth realism and ambiguous sexuality about her.

Overall, the film deserves to succeed. It is a very 21st-century retelling of a 1950s film classic. It conveys an effective atmosphere of stuffy Britain at war, with everyone nervously puffing on cigarettes in darkened rooms, while at the same time telling a story so far-fetched that it is difficult to believe that it can be true.

Operation Mincemeat opened in British cinemas in April and comes to the US Netflix in May. Go and see it, and enjoy one of the wildest and most bizarre stories of the Second World War. •

Co-produced by Cohen Media Group and See-Saw Films for Warner Brothers, 2021. Directed by John Madden. Screenplay by Michelle Ashford, based on the book by Ben Macintyre. Starring Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, and Kelly Macdonald. In cinemas and available on Netflix in the United States from May 2022.
Images: Warner Brothers/Wikimedia Commons.