Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Operation Mincemeat

In Netflix’s new movie, Colin Firth dresses up a corpse to fool the Nazis. Here’s what really happened.

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu, and Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming, in Operation Mincemeat
Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu, and Johnny Flynn as Ian Fleming, in Operation Mincemeat. Giles Keyte/Netflix

Operation Mincemeat, available on Netflix as of Wednesday, tells the story of the most successful trick Britain played during World War II. The context for this story begins in January 1943, even before the Allies had fully driven the Germans from North Africa, when Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in Casablanca, Morocco, to plan the invasion of Europe. The Soviets had withstood the nearly undivided might of the German war machine for a year and a half. Justice and strategy demanded that the other Allies open a western front. But where?

Advertisement

Greece was a particular focus of Churchill’s. He’d ordered an attack there in spring 1941—a choice of dubious wisdom, and ultimate failure. Invading France, on the other hand, demanded more landing capability than the Allies could muster in 1943, though some in the U.S. and U.K. still pushed it. For their part, the Germans expected a cross-channel attack at some point and would respond with a buzzsaw. Sicily was less than 150 miles northeast of Tunis. It was an easy skip from there to the Italian mainland. Meanwhile, Sicily’s airfields could host bombers and air escorts. Sicily, then, offered the obvious answer.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

And that was the problem: The idea was obvious to everyone who could read a map. Axis guns and troops could pour in, dig in, and wait at their leisure. Anything that might move German eyes across the map to another location, anything that could draw defenders elsewhere, would save Allied lives. The invasion of Europe must come soon if the Soviets were to stand a chance of reversing—not just withstanding—the Axis tide. The date was set for midsummer 1943. Would the invaders meet the buzzsaw? Or would the trick work?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Adm. John Godfrey and Lt. Cmdr. Ian Fleming

British Naval Intelligence took up the task of creating a diversion, and one of their heads, Adm. John Godfrey (played by Jason Isaacs in the film), along with his assistant, Lt. Cmdr. Ian Fleming (played by Johnny Flynn—yes, this is the same Fleming who would go on to become a writer and create James Bond) were well suited for it. Early in the war, they’d shared a long memorandum with other offices called the “Trout memo.” The trout fisher casts and casts and waits patiently, it argued, and so too should British intelligence cast ideas, doubt, and suspicion into the minds of the enemy and see what turned up. The memo included a list of ideas, from the cunningly simple, to the wacky, to the morbid. One morbid idea, which they described as “not very nice,” was to plant false invasion plans on a corpse that would somehow appear in enemy territory. (Just as the film depicts, this was a reappropriated storyline from a cheap detective novel, Basil Thomson’s The Milliner’s Hat Mystery.)

Advertisement
Advertisement

This idea morphed into “Operation Mincemeat,” which was, like all mission names, randomly drawn from a list of meaningless operation titles and not, as the film implies, picked because of its gruesome nature. The plan was to place false mentions of a July 1943 invasion of Greece on the genuine corpse of a fictional Royal Marine major named Martin who would—thanks to the tides and the wash of a submarine’s propellers—drift onto the beach in neutral but fascist-leaning Spain (more on the identity of the corpse below).

Advertisement
Advertisement

Isaacs’ Adm. Godfrey plays the role of a foil in the film, but there’s little evidence for the character’s opposition to the Mincemeat idea, and none for his machinations to stop it, in the historical record. After all, the real Godfrey placed the Trout memo in Ewen Montagu’s hands when Montagu (played in the film by Colin Firth) joined the Twenty Committee (Roman numerals XX? Get it? Double cross?), which was tasked with naval misdirection. Observers did, however, describe Godfrey as (I paraphrase) damned cussed ornery. The real Godfrey was sent to India midway through Mincemeat planning, replaced by someone less damned cussed. Flynn’s Ian Fleming, meanwhile, brings some welcome dash, but the film’s character Fleming is more involved in the action than the historical Fleming was.

Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley

The heroes of the tale include Ewen Montagu, a barrister who joined the Royal Navy Reserve in 1938. When war came, he caught the eye of Godfrey for his intellect and rose quickly. He was hardly a newbie in the world of intelligence when attending his first Twenty Committee meeting, as was depicted in the film. In fact, by then, Montagu ran his own subunit—Room 13—where he had access to Britain’s other, greater secret: Enigma deciphers, care of Bletchley Park’s computers. Montagu’s unit sorted and made sense of the sometimes-opaque deciphers and then passed them down the line to the right Royal Navy office. Some of Montagu’s forebears had been some of the most successful politicians in the land, pioneers of Jewish success in Britain; others were tremendously wealthy bankers, a wealth hinted at in the film.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Ewen Montagu partnered with Matthew Macfadyen’s Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), another member of the Twenty Committee. Cholmondeley was an eccentric among eccentrics: 6-foot-3, tremendously nearsighted, sporting a broad moustache ending in waxed points. Lower-upper-class, he was a Royal Air Force flight lieutenant, but his poor eyesight and long legs denied him his lifelong dreams of adventure. He was clearly ingenious, however—a quality that landed him on the Twenty Committee, where he helped manage double agents before Mincemeat.

Advertisement

The film makes artful use of Cholmondeley’s thwarted dreams of action and service. Macfayden’s character mentions that his gangly frame has grounded him, and makes no secret that managing Operation Mincemeat is his one chance at heroism. The real Cholmondeley had a brother who died in the retreat to Dunkirk in spring 1940, adding to a sense that he had been cursed by fate to be left on the sidelines in this war. The filmmakers change this to a brother who’s died more recently, on the India-Burma frontier (still over a year too early, given the actual timeline of events). This provides a totally fictional subplot built around Cholmondeley’s desire to repatriate his brother’s remains for the sake of his mother, who’s pressuring him to pull strings to bring his brother, the real hero, home. That, in turn, gives Godfrey-Isaacs a bargaining chip—he can pull any string and get the remains home—with which to tempt Cholmondeley to spy on Ewen Montagu, a perfectly fictional part of the film. Montagu, you see, has a Red brother.

Ivor Montagu

Ivor Montagu was extraordinary, even in a family of famous and extraordinary people. He was a filmmaker and critic, a champion table tennis player, a conservationist, and a philanthropist. He was also a devoted Communist and made no secret of it, giving talks on the subject and supporting communism on film. The presentation of Ivor’s communism is an area in which the film veers from history for the purpose of dramatic tension. American audiences might not realize that in the U.K., being a Communist in this period wasn’t something shocking. So, when Isaacs’ Godfrey reveals this information to an appalled Cholmondeley, it’s a false note.

Advertisement
Advertisement

As he was a wealthy and influential public admirer of the Soviets, and a former friend of Leon Trotsky’s, Ivor was tracked by British counterintelligence—something the real Ewen knew, according to Ben McIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat, which formed the basis for this movie. Historians disagree, but Ivor was probably an informant and sometime-recruiter for Soviet intelligence, though it’s not clear he had access to great secrets, even his brother’s. Ivor was married and did not live with Ewen, as depicted in the film.

Jean Leslie

The film would have been just a lot of upper-class men playing out their spy story fantasies had the screenwriter not created a heavily fictionalized role for Kelly Macdonald as Jean Leslie. The real Jean Leslie was smart, lower-upper-class, and employed by an MI-5 subunit—not Room 13 as in the film—compiling and collating the interrogations of enemy informants. In an interview a few years before her death, she told of how, to her great distress, she’d discovered inconsistencies in a Belgian man’s interrogation that probably led to his execution.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The historical Jean Leslie was a sharp, effective person in a society that left women little room to thrive on their own terms. But in fact, the real Leslie was not brought into the scheme, unlike the film character, who plays an active role. Instead, the 20-year-old caught the eye of a 42-year-old, the married Ewen Montagu, who sought out her photo, which beat out the photos of the women working in Room 13 itself to win the role of Pam, invented sweetheart of the invented Maj. Martin. Montagu told Leslie that the photo would be planted on a corpse, but apparently no more. He also took her to dinners, about which he wrote his wife, casting them as a joke. Montagu’s mother, meanwhile, wrote to her daughter-in-law, Iris, that the situation wasn’t very funny, having found, for example, a lovingly inscribed photo of Pam/Leslie on Montagu’s dressing table.

What Was Churchill’s Role in This?

Simon Russell Beale’s Winston Churchill is in on the scheme from the first moment in the film. This is fiction, not fact. The character mentions his taste for fantastic schemes. This is fact, not fiction. These are connected. Churchill had a reputation as a romantic, an adventurer, a dreamer of dreams, which made him a great writer but made the professional soldiers and administrators around him quite nervous. They always feared he’d back a wild, symbolic plan that would end in disaster, like the Raid on Deippe, mentioned in the film. They also knew he got excited about small clandestine operations and feared he’d get too hands-on. So the coordinating office above the Twenty Committee held off telling the actual Churchill about the impending Operation Mincemeat until the last moment, two weeks before its launch. He was, as they knew he’d be, excited.

Did Mincemeat Deliver Sicily?

It’s the filmmakers’ role to convince the audience that the stakes of Operation Mincemeat were incredibly high. The film doesn’t exaggerate the fact that, had the Axis heavily reinforced Sicily, casualties from the Allied landing would have been much higher. Sometimes the film’s characters suggest the “fate of the world” hung in the balance, but we can read that as saying the “fate of the world” depended on the Allies’ ultimate success in the invasion of Europe. True enough.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s a matter of historical record that all kinds of intercepted German talk confirmed that they’d swallowed Mincemeat. Was it because the scheme had absolutely bamboozled Hitler, or because Hitler already believed Greece would be the invasion point in 1943? That’s a harder question to answer, and some think Mincemeat just reinforced what the “infallible” Führer already thought he knew.

The film takes an unnecessary diversion down a subplotline suggesting that German intelligence officer Alexis von Roenne figured out the scheme but told Hitler he believed Mincemeat’s documents were legitimate in order to hasten the end of the war. This is pure speculation, and is unnecessary to account for the scheme’s success. Von Roenne was, in fact, one of the July 20 Plotters who fomented a plan to blow up Hitler—but none of those men actually wanted Germany defeated.

Who’s Buried in Glyndwr Michael’s Grave?

The last scene of the film shows the tombstone of Glyndwr Michael, who “Served as Major William Martin,” in Huelva, Spain. The filmmakers deal with the unfortunate Glyndwr Michael relatively respectfully, offering scenes of his last moments that were probably more comforting than his real, painful death. This is a far better treatment than Michael has received elsewhere, where he’s called a “tramp” or dismissed and dehumanized as a “vagrant.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

In fact, Michael was the Welsh-born son of a father who died by suicide, and whose mother was dead too. As a young man he ended up in London, unhoused and hungry enough to eat crusts of bread laced with an incredibly deadly poison intended for rats infesting a St. Pancras warehouse. The film also invents a sister who eventually appears to claim his body and stand up for a brother whose body was exploited without his permission. The addition is thoughtful but undermined by a scene, meant to be funny or disgusting, of Michael’s leering corpse being photographed for Maj. Martin’s ID, something the historical actors did indeed attempt before finding a living model.

Advertisement

Some refuse to believe that Glyndwr Michael actually played the role of Maj. Martin, believing, instead, that the conspirators used a more recently deceased corpse of a Royal Navy drowning victim. According to this theory, it was too horrible, from a PR standpoint, for the schemers to use the corpse of a fallen sailor, so the Twenty Committee claimed it was that of Michael—more acceptable, as he was a mere “vagrant.” This idea seems like a solution in search of a problem, however, as the Mincemeat team successfully kept the identity of the body donor a secret for a long time.

Advertisement