Operation Mincemeat: The Startling Story of the Deception that Fooled Hitler and Helped Win the War | Movies

In a small underground office of the Admiralty, a group of men and women wait in an agonizing state of expectation. Allied forces land in Sicily, and this small group of intelligence agents have just bet the invasion – tens of thousands of lives – on a wacky spy involving the body of a homeless man disguised as a pilot, carrying false news of an attack on Greece. He’s a WWII legend whose true story is no less bizarre than the mythos that surround him – and something about it clearly caught the zeitgeist.

On Tuesday, a new British film revisits the story of one of the greatest deceptions of the war, with an all-star cast and an Oscar winner at the helm. Directed by John Madden, of Shakespeare in love Fame, Ground Meat Operation stars Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu, the former king’s adviser who oversaw the extraordinary plan, alongside an ensemble cast of some of the country’s most beloved actors, from Penelope Wilton and Simon Russell Beale to Jason Isaacs and Kelly Macdonald.

At the end of the month, meanwhile, a very different take will be seen on the banks of the Thames, at Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. SpitLip’s Ground Meat Operation may share the same title as the movie, but it certainly doesn’t share the same approach, nor a budget that can stretch to subs stuffed with extras. In their musical, which began life on the fringes, all roles are played by the five-person company, with gender-swapped roles and songs that include a tribute to Beyoncé in the MI5 typing pool and a creepy pathologist channeling Cabaret.

The actual plot was anything but simple. In 1943, Britain and its allies were preparing to land an invasion force in Sicily – but it was an obvious target, and Germany was known to expect the attack. As part of a campaign to trick the German high command into diverting troops elsewhere, two naval intelligence officers, Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, hatched a plan to feed false information back to Hitler.

British troops in Catania, Sicily, in 1943: the disappointment of Operation Mincemeat facilitated their advance. Photography: ClassicStock/Getty Images

After finding a corpse – that of a homeless man who died from eating rat poison – they created a false identity for the corpse and transported it to the Spanish coast in a submarine. Dressed as “Major William Martin”, he was released to wash up on shore with sensitive documents confirming that the invasion was indeed to take place in Greece. German spies in neutral Spain were expected to fall for false intelligence and spread the word to Berlin. It was a high-stakes plan, and its execution was fraught with fumbles, twists and turns – but it ultimately succeeded, allowing the Allies to land their troops in Italy with minimal resistance.

The sudden resurgence of interest in this war tale is, in a sense, pure happenstance. The productions were conceived entirely independently, and both were put on hold for two years by Covid. But neither would have been possible without the declassification of secret files that revealed the true circumstances of the operation – or the publication in 2010 of a book by Ben Macintyre that brought together the different son. It was Macintyre who revealed how close to disaster the operation had come, along with the identity of Glyndwr Michael – the man whose body was actually stolen and used as a decoy.

The book was used as the basis for the film; Macintyre is delighted that the story – which has been turned into a post-war propaganda film, The man who never was, in 1956 – is told for a new generation. “One of the reasons it lends itself to being reimagined in so many different ways is because the whole plot was imagined,” he says. “What appeals to me is that it’s full of people making it up – they were all frustrated novelists.”

It became a central theme of the new film, which highlights Ian Fleming’s role as the originator of the idea, before following Montagu’s team – which included his spy partner, Cholmondeley, the head of the secretarial division Hester Leggett and his protege. Jean Leslie – as they develop their plan into an increasingly labyrinthine deception. “They became completely obsessed with it, really,” Macintyre says. “They began to reconcile more and more with William Martin, including a girlfriend, a bank manager and an angry father, forever adding to the plot.” At one point in the film, Cholmondeley – played by Matthew Macfadyen – claims that he is surrounded by them. Germans? someone asks. “Writers,” he replies.

Two men in military uniform and a doctor in a white coat look at the body of a man on a slab
A scene from the story’s 1956 film, The Man Who Never Was. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

What makes an 80-year-old event that gained almost folkloric status feel relevant today is that we know this kind of extreme misinformation is once again being manufactured in the context of a war. European. “Deception works if it pleases the person being deceived in some way,” Macintyre points out. “So they created one designed to appeal to a romantic sensibilities on the other side.

“It has a dark modern resonance. Smoke and mirrors, trying to command the narrative and persuade the other side that something is happening that isn’t happening, or something isn’t happening is happening. This is at the heart of what is happening in Ukraine. But it’s an art as old as war.

“All the terrible things we see people doing, the Brits did first,” admits David Cumming, who plays Cholmondeley in the musical version. When his SpitLip collaborator Natasha Hodgson brought the idea to the collective, Cumming initially resisted: “I was like, really? A musical about the war? Who still needs to talk about the war? But the more he delved into the details, the more he saw both the opportunities and the merits of a modern narrative. “We didn’t want the kind of jingoism inherent in a ‘beat the Boche’ story, so it was important that our show didn’t consist of five white men saying, ‘Isn’t that great? We have won the war”.

Instead, the comic power of the stage show rests in its ability to subvert expectations and provide revisionist commentary on establishment figures endowed with both the freedom and the extraordinary self-confidence necessary to carry out what still seems like a ridiculous plan.

Montagu is played by Hodgson herself, which adds a layer of meta-theatrical significance to its bold swagger. “It’s a quietly queer show,” Cumming says, “in that you read this level of entitlement as something that’s been learned, not something inherently male.” Meanwhile, the female characters – Leggett, who wrote the love letters that helped convince the enemy that Martin was a real man, and Leslie, whom Montagu continued to flirt with – are given their own stories. It is also specified where the barriers begin and where their agency ends.

Establishment is of course not a popular concept, either in politics or in culture at the moment. When SpitLip first staged Ground Meat Operation at a small North London venue in 2018, audience reactions were vastly different to those they have received since their post-Covid return. “It was really interesting to do it while Boris was prime minister,” says Hodgson. “People react so strongly to these characters. When we first staged it, the comedy of these fancy guys running the country seemed more slapstick and silly, whereas now it feels more like satire. It only shows you how stupid politics have become.

You certainly don’t get that kind of commentary in Madden’s somewhat conventional movie – after all, you can’t hire a much stiffer upper lip than Firth’s – but it does at least give a nod to the movie. ethical ambiguity of the government’s requisitioning of a man’s body without obtaining the consent of his family (another thing the spectacle is candid about). “With a lot of war stories that you inherit, there’s the good guys and the bad guys, and war isn’t really like that,” Macintyre says. “Good people do bad things for the best reasons. It allows us to see him in a more human light, through flawed and complicated individuals.

“It’s about asking the question: what would you do? Which of these people would you have been? And it’s an eternal question.

Cumming agrees: “It conjures up the feeling that something huge, outside of you and from afar is happening and you feel hopeless and useless and don’t know what to do. We have felt it with the pandemic and it is rushing scarier towards us with the war and the horrible things that are happening there.

There’s a number in the show that manages to combine goofy rap lyrics with the sobering message that fascism hasn’t disappeared since 1945 — that its ideologies are still being sold, with growing success.

No one on either Ground Meat Operation project might have known that their work would emerge at a time when the fate of Europe once again felt in the balance, but the work of Montagu, Cholmondeley, Leggett and Leslie clearly didn’t just alter the course of history. military: his legacy lives on. There’s even a GCHQ training program called Operation Mincemeat, which teaches intelligence operatives how to create a fake online identity – with a believable backstory, of course.

About Victoria Rothstein

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