Taylor Downing continues his series on great war movies by reviewing a vintage classic about a masterpiece of deception.
On 10 July 1943, 70 years ago, the invasion of Sicily was launched. Having finally thrown the Axis powers out of North Africa, it was the first Allied move against Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe’. As final victory against Rommel’s Afrika Korps became certain, one of the many challenges facing the Allies was how to disguise their intention to attack Sicily – the obvious next step once the Germans had been defeated in Tunisia.
The Allies were confident of victory against the weaker Italian forces, but were keen to minimise the numbers of battle-hardened German troops in Sicily by convincing them that an attack was coming elsewhere in southern Europe – in Greece or Sardinia, for example.
Operation Barclay was set up with plans to create the impression that an entire army group existed in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was to create a lot of noise, as though planning to invade Greece. General Henry Wilson was put in charge of this imaginary army. Double agents were to feed disinformation to the Germans about landings in Greece. Meanwhile, General Patton was apparently put in charge of an operation to invade Sardinia and Corsica. As part of Barclay, two intelligence officials came together to mastermind a brilliant additional and original aspect to the deception plan.
Flight-Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley was a lanky eccentric with a wax moustache and a member of the top-secret Twenty Committee consisting of representatives of the armed services, MI5, and MI6. He suggested the idea of depositing a dead body on the Spanish coast. With the body would be a briefcase containing elaborate plans that would deceive the enemy into thinking the Allies were about to land in Greece and Sardinia and to by-pass Sicily.
Planting a corpse
Real agents could be intercepted, interrogated, and tortured. A dead agent could not be. Lieutenant-Commander the Honourable Ewen Montagu of Naval Intelligence, a successful barrister and Kings Counsel before the war, was paired with Cholmondeley and charged with finding a dead body and constructing the details of the plan to deceive the Germans.
Cholmondeley and Montagu were an unlikely pair, but together they planned and carried out an extraordinary operation. First they had to find a corpse they could use. Then they gave the body the name of an invented Royal Marine officer, Major William Martin. Next they invented a personality and a background for Martin. Finally they had to create false letters and documents of sufficient credibility to fool German military intelligence, the Abwehr.
General Sir Archibald Nye, the deputy to the Chiefs-of-Staff Committee, was asked to write a personal letter to General Sir Harold Alexander, commander of Allied forces in North Africa, revealing details of the false invasion plan. Admiral Louis Mountbatten, chief of Combined Operations, was asked to write a personal letter to Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham again giving away key details.
The body was dropped off the Spanish coast at dawn on 30 April by HMS Seraph, a submarine that had already taken part in Special Operations and whose captain was considered entirely trustworthy. An RAF dingy was dropped in the sea nearby to suggest that the body had come down in a plane crash. It was known the tides would carry the corpse ashore.
Cholmondeley and Montagu picked the Andalusian coast of Spain near the town of Huelva because they knew a particularly energetic German agent named Adolph Clauss was operating there. They hoped he would convince the Spanish authorities to hand over the briefcase the dead man was carrying.
The plan, known as ‘Operation Mincemeat’, was full of risks. Would the Spanish realise the body had not died by drowning but had died of other causes some time before? Would they hand over the documents to the Germans? If they did, would the Germans take the bait and believe the documents were authentic?
There were severe doubts about the viability of Mincemeat, but Churchill himself, who loved these sort of cloak-and-dagger operations, gave his personal approval and the operation was on.
The deception was a complete success. But only after various unforeseen developments had nearly knocked the whole plan off course. The documents taken from the body were not seen by the German agent in Huelva but were eventually taken to Madrid. There, before being returned to British diplomats, they were handed over to the German authorities in the Spanish capital, who were given one hour to photograph them.
The documents were passed on to Berlin, where they were assessed by Intelligence Chief Lieutenant Colonel Baron von Roenne. Although he might have had his doubts, he passed them on as genuine. When they finally reached his desk, Hitler was completely taken in by them.
Two Panzer divisions were removed from the Eastern Front and one from France. All three divisions were sent to Greece. New minefields were laid off the Greek coast. Squadrons of R-boats were sent from Sicily, and, most importantly, Field-Marshal Rommel was put in charge of German forces in Greece.
British intelligence picked up details of all this by listening in to German Enigma messages and knew the deception had been a success. When the invasion did come in Sicily, for two weeks Hitler was convinced it was a cover and failed to reinforce the island. The battle for Sicily lasted a mere 39 days. Its capture led to the fall of Mussolini and the loss of Hitler’s Italian ally. Mincemeat, as it was reported in a secret telegram directly to Churchill, had been ‘swallowed rod, line, and sinker’.
The publication of Ewen Montagu’s book The Man Who Never Was proved a sensation in both Britain and in the United States. Montagu went on a lecture tour in the US and appeared on American television. It was not long before Hollywood came knocking at his door.
At an auction, 20th Century Fox bought the film rights to his book. The result was a lavish Anglo-American co-production shot in one of the cinema’s newest widescreen technologies known as Cinemascope.
The film was made in Britain but an American actor Clifton Webb played the central character of Ewen Montagu, the naval intelligence officer. Most of the other actors were British. Nigel Balchin, the acclaimed author and scriptwriter, adapted the book for the screen and Ronald Neame directed.
Neame began his career as a clapper boy in 1929 and had gone on to become a hugely successful cinematographer, shooting films like In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945) for David Lean. He also produced Lean’s two famous Dickens adaptions, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).
He had directed a few films before The Man Who Never Was, but appointing him director ensured that the film would have both a dramatic and a convincing look, with scenes ranging from the streets of wartime London to the Spanish fishing port of Huelva (where filming actually took place), and from the cramped basement headquarters of naval intelligence to the interior of submarine HMS Seraph.
The film reflected the book and told the story very much in line with the wishes of British intelligence in the mid 1950s. In the real events of 1943, British diplomats in Madrid had deceived the Spanish by pretending that the briefcase carried on the body of the dead officer was so important that they must have it back at all costs. This, of course, convinced the Spanish and the Germans that it contained something important. In 1955 the British did not want to reveal this deception, so none of this appears in the film. Also, the whole subject of Spanish collaboration with the Nazis was discreetly glossed over.
More significantly, Montagu was told that he must not reveal how the body had been obtained. The corpse had been supplied by the coroner of St Pancras in London, Bentley Purchase. It had been the body of an impoverished and illiterate Welshman who had committed suicide. He had no known family. However, stealing corpses for secret military operations was not something that anyone wanted to reveal ten years after the war.
So Montagu himself invented an elaborate deception in the book in which he claimed to have met with the man’s parents, who had agreed that the body could be used as long as his name would never be released. Montagu said that as he had agreed to these terms, he could never reveal the name of the person whose body played the central role in Operation Mincemeat.
The body in the morgue
The film gives this story a further twist by inventing a scene in which Montagu meets the man’s father (movingly played by Moultrie Kelsall) in the morgue. He agrees to his son’s body being used as long as it was treated with respect and that its identity would never be revealed.
Balchin invents a final line of dialogue to put everyone off the trail when Montagu says to the father that he can be assured his son’s body will be ‘playing for England’. The father replies dourly ‘My son’s a Scotsman – you English always say England when you mean Britain!’
The film invents a new aspect of the story that provides much of the tension in the second half of the thriller. An Irish agent, working for the Abwehr, is sent to London to investigate the personal background of William Martin from the details that had been carefully placed on the corpse.
Cholmondeley and Montagu had gone to great lengths to create a convincing portrait of Martin’s personal affairs. They had put in his pockets a letter from his bank manager warning him about his overspending; a receipt for new shirts from his tailors, Gieves of Savile Row; an invoice from his club for the last night he spent in London; and, most importantly, a love letter from the girlfriend who had just become his fiancée.
he invented Irish agent, named Patrick O’Reilly, played with a great combination of sinister menace and good humour by the Irish actor Stephen Boyd, investigates each of these cover stories one by one. He cannot decide whether William Martin is real or not. So he pays a visit to the fiancée who had written the love letter.
In reality this had been written by Montagu’s female clerk. In the film it was written by her flatmate, Lucy Sherwood, who was having an affair with an RAF flier. On the day that Lucy is told her boyfriend had been shot down, she gets home to find O’Reilly waiting for her. Barely knowing what she is saying, Lucy sobs that the man to whom she is engaged is dead. Lucy is played with un-British passion by the American actress Gloria Grahame.
O’Reilly is still uncertain about whether Martin is real or not and the film heads to its dramatic climax. Montagu was happy with this entirely invented aspect of the story because although it did not take place, he claimed ‘it might well have happened’.
The full story behind The Man Who Never Was has only come to the surface in recent years. Ben Macintyre’s book Operation Mincemeat became a best-seller (Bloomsbury, 2010). In the same year Denis Smyth’s more academic telling of the story appeared as Deathly Deception (Oxford University Press, 2010). Both books draw on largely the same sources – newly released documents at the National Archives and Montagu’s personal papers.
Macintyre’s book is brilliant on the extraordinary personalities involved and the twists and turns as the deception plan unfolds. Smith’s book delves more into the framework of the Intelligence organisations on either side of the story. Both books reveal how close the entire operation came to failing.
But it did not fail. And The Man Who Never Was is one of the finest wartime movie thrillers. Although it differs from what we now know to have been the full story of Operation Mincemeat, as long as we understand this and acknowledge the context in which the film was made, we can enjoy it for what it is, a great film about one of the most extraordinary deception plans of the Second World War.