Netflix on Operation Mincemeat: Did They Get It Right?

Netflix on Operation Mincemeat: Did They Get It Right?

Excerpt­ed from, “Oper­a­tion Mince­meat” first pub­lished by the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. For the orig­i­nal text please click here.

Update: Whose Body?

Mincemeat
HMS Dash­er. (Impe­r­i­al War Muse­um, pub­lic domain)

The body used to deceive the Ger­mans may not have been that of Glyn­d­wr Michael but of Roy­al Navy sailor John Melville. Admi­ral Lord West raised this like­li­hood in the Dai­ly Tele­graph on 16 April 2022. Thanks to David Bol­er for alert­ing me to his article.

By the time of Mince­meat, West writes, Michael’s body was too dete­ri­o­rat­ed to fake that of a recent­ly drowned sailor. More recent­ly deceased was John Melville, one of 379 sailors drowned when the escort car­ri­er HMS Dash­er sank in the Firth of Forth on 27 March 1943. (A news black­out pre­vent­ed the sink­ing being known pub­licly.) Lt. Nor­man Jew­ell, com­man­der of the sub­ma­rine HMS Ser­aph, who com­mit­ted the body to the waters off Spain, stat­ed he did not believe the body was that of Glyn­d­wr Michael.

Lord West admits that with­out exhuma­tion and DNA test­ing, there is no way to ver­i­fy the true iden­ti­ty, but the Roy­al Navy appears to accept his the­o­ry. In 2004, a memo­r­i­al ser­vice for John Melville was held aboard the cur­rent HMS Dash­er. Melville’s daugh­ter, Iso­bel Mack­ay, who was only three when her father died, told The Scots­man: “I feel very hon­oured if my father saved 30,000 Allied lives.” All hon­or to the mem­o­ry of John Melville, who served his coun­try in life and death.

A stirring documentary

A new Net­flix dra­ma por­trays a wartime intel­li­gence decep­tion plan which Churchill first doubt­ed but ulti­mate­ly wel­comed. How impor­tant Oper­a­tion Mince­meat actu­al­ly was is uncer­tain, but the pre­sen­ta­tion is well done.  Christy Lemire ably sum­ma­rizes the gen­er­al opinion:

Imag­ine Week­end at Bernie’s set dur­ing World War II, with a dash of romance sprin­kled in amid the spy craft and phys­i­cal gags, and you’ll have some idea of the tricky tonal bal­ance this film improb­a­bly achieves. Oper­a­tion Mince­meat takes its title from the real-life mis­sion that tricked Hitler into believ­ing the Allies were going to invade Greece, rather than Sici­ly, in 1943. Ben Mac­in­tyre’s non-fic­tion book of the same name also pro­vides the basis for tele­vi­sion vet­er­an Michelle Ash­ford’s sprawl­ing script. But while the film as a whole may seem dense and restrained, the per­for­mances and atten­tion to detail con­sis­tent­ly bring it to life.

Mincemeat
John­ny Fly­nn (Ian Flem­ing), Pene­lope Wilton (Hes­ter Leg­ett), Matthew Mac­fadyen (Charles Chol­monde­ley) Col­in Firth (Ewen Mon­tagu), Kel­ly Mac­Don­ald (Jean Leslie), Jason Isaacs (Adm. John God­frey) lead Mincemeat’s tal­ent­ed cast. (Pho­to: Netflix)

 

Naval intel­li­gence offi­cer Ewen Mon­tagu was often cred­it­ed as the the prin­ci­pal Mince­meat plan­ner. Net­flix cor­rect­ly spreads the cred­it around—including Ian Flem­ing, whose James Bond nov­els were inspired by his wartime intel­li­gence work. There is dra­mat­ic license, but it is accom­pa­nied by faith­ful­ness to real­i­ty. This is not always the case in TV dra­mas. The result is a film respect­ful of history.

“You’ll have to take him on another swim…”

mincemeat
The Hills­dale edi­tion of “Road to Vic­to­ry” is avail­able hard­bound and as an ebook: https://amzn.to/3QE0olU.

Mar­tin Gilbert cov­ered Op Mince­meat years ago in Road to Vic­to­ry 1941-1945.Hav­ing dri­ven Rom­mel from North Africa, the Anglo-Amer­i­cans eyed Sici­ly as a spring­board to Europe. (They also con­sid­ered Sar­dinia, but Churchill snort­ed: “I absolute­ly refuse to be fobbed off with a sardine.”)

The Ger­mans were expect­ing a Sici­ly attack. Mince­meat plan­ners con­ceived of drop­ping a corpse near a Span­ish beach, plant­ed with false papers nam­ing Greece as the tar­get and Sici­ly a diver­sion. If the Spaniards passed the papers to the Ger­mans Hitler might shift his defens­es to Greece.

Mar­tin Gilbert wrote that Mince­meat was con­ceived by Flight Lieu­tenant Charles Chol­mond­ley, pro­nounced “Chum­ley” (played by Matthew Mac­fadyen). He was a RAFVR* liai­son offi­cer with Col. John Bevan‘s decep­tion team, the Lon­don Con­trol­ling Sec­tion. Bevan lat­er direct­ed anoth­er ruse, Oper­a­tion Body­guard, which deflect­ed ene­my atten­tion from Nor­mandy as the tar­get for D-Day.

John Bevan took “Mince­meat” to Churchill, who had reser­va­tions. “Of course,” he said, “there’s a pos­si­bil­i­ty that the Spaniards might find out that this dead man was in fact not drowned at all from a crashed air­craft, but was a gar­den­er in Wales.” Min­is­ter of Labour Ernest Bevan (no rela­tion to John) thought winds and tides might not wash the body ashore. Churchill replied, “Well, in that case you’ll have to take him on anoth­er swim, won’t you?” (Road to Vic­to­ry, 405. See update above on the iden­ti­ty of the corpse.)

Key fakery or a side issue?

It is notable that Oper­a­tion Mince­meat was large­ly the work of vol­un­teer offi­cers. Mar­tin Gilbert explained that Cholmondley’s idea was passed for action to Naval Intel­li­gence Divi­sion* Capt. Ewen Mon­tagu RNVR*. (Mon­tagu is ably played by Col­in Firth, a con­vinc­ing King George VI in The King’s Speech.) Gilbert cred­its Mon­tagu with “indis­pens­able sup­port” for the suc­cess­ful plan.

Churchill lat­er believed Mince­meat had worked, but he was always a fan of intel­li­gence oper­a­tions. Gilbert, Mac­in­tyre and Net­flix said it did, each in their own way. Net­flix men­tions the trans­fer of Ger­man troops from Italy to Greece. But Ger­man mine­fields and port defens­es in Greece did not need resources from Sici­ly. Some motor tor­pe­do boats were trans­ferred, but they did not sig­nif­i­cant­ly weak­en Sicily’s defenses.

Among his­to­ri­ans, views are mixed. One writes: “It may be just a good sto­ry that exag­ger­ates the impor­tance of the decep­tion, as intel­li­gence oper­a­tives and offi­cers invari­ably do. But to do more than sug­gest that would require research in the mil­i­tary intel­li­gence files, to detect just what the effect of the decep­tion real­ly was.”

“Corporal Schicklgruber*”

For­tu­nate­ly, the Spaniards found the washed-up body. After some hes­i­ta­tion they con­veyed the fake papers to the Ger­man High Com­mand. Among the ene­my there was one scoffer: Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni, who insist­ed Sici­ly was the real tar­get. Of course, Mus­soli­ni had his own rea­sons for want­i­ng the Ger­mans in Italy. But Hitler appar­ent­ly fell for the ruse. Admi­ral Karl Doenitz wrote: “The Führer does not agree with the Duce that the most like­ly inva­sion point is Sici­ly.” Hitler sent his crack Gen­er­al Erwin Rom­mel to Greece, a sign that he seri­ous­ly thought it was the real target.

If all that is so, it was anoth­er bad mis­take for Hitler. And we must tote one up to Mus­soli­ni, who was not renowned for his mil­i­tary per­spi­cac­i­ty. The sto­ry is remind­ful of what Churchill told Par­lia­ment in Sep­tem­ber 1944, after Hitler had sur­vived assassination:

When Herr Hitler escaped his bomb on July 20th he described his sur­vival as prov­i­den­tial; I think that from a pure­ly mil­i­tary point of view we can all agree with him, for cer­tain­ly it would be most unfor­tu­nate if the Allies were to be deprived, in the clos­ing phas­es of the strug­gle, of that form of war­like genius by which Cor­po­ral Schickl­gru­ber has so notably con­tributed to our victory.

*Notes

NID: Naval Intel­li­gence Divi­sion, found­ed by Churchill as First Lord of the Admi­ral­ty in 1912. It was merged into the com­bined Defence Intel­li­gence Staff in 1964.

RAFVR: Roy­al Air Force Vol­un­teer Reserve, estab­lished 1936 by the Air Min­istry to bol­ster pre­pared­ness. The war’s soar­ing demand for air­crew soon saw the RAFVR become the chief path­way for per­son­nel to enter the RAF.

RNVR:  Roy­al Navy Vol­un­teer Reserve, nick­named “Wavy Navy” for the undu­lat­ing stripes on uni­form sleeves. Cre­at­ed 1938, the RNVR saw hero­ic ser­vice from the Sec­ond World war to the war in Afghanistan.

Schickl­gru­ber: Adolf Hitler’s father Alois, the ille­git­i­mate son of Maria Anna Schickl­gru­ber, changed his name to Hitler before Adolf was born, but the well-known ances­tral name was irre­sistible to Churchill.

More Churchill and Secret Intelligence

Churchill, Hen­ry Ford and Sid­ney Reil­ly: Anti-Bol­she­vik Col­lab­o­ra­tors?, 2022

3 thoughts on “Netflix on Operation Mincemeat: Did They Get It Right?

  1. Anoth­er excel­lent arti­cle. I am look­ing for­ward to view­ing the film. I read McIntyre’s book, after a kind work colleague—we fight fraud—gave me a copy, know­ing my inter­est in Churchill, WW2 and, by con­nec­tion with our voca­tion, “decep­tion”! It’s huge­ly enter­tain­ing, as is The Irreg­u­lars. No doubt there’s some jour­nal­is­tic license, but what stories! 

    It’s inter­est­ing that three of my all time heroes, Churchill, Ian Flem­ing and Roald Dahl, were all involved in plot­ting a rel­a­tive­ly suc­cess­ful US charm offen­sive. That too should be the focus of a film, surely? 

    I’m glad to see you ref­er­ence the inspi­ra­tion behind the Bond nov­els. More should be made of Fleming’s obvi­ous appre­ci­a­tion of Churchill. The front dust jack­et flap of Live and Let Die, which quotes Churchill direct­ly, per­fect­ly sums up the enter­tain­ment fac­tor pro­vid­ed by this fer­tile peri­od of high lev­el espionage: 

    “In the high­er ranges of Secret Ser­vice work the actu­al facts in many cas­es were in every respect equal to the most fan­tas­tic inven­tions of romance and melo­dra­ma. Tan­gle with­in tan­gle, plot and counter-plot, ruse and treach­ery, cross and dou­ble-cross, true agent, false agent, dou­ble agent, gold and steel, the bomb, the dag­ger and the fir­ing par­ty, were inter­wo­ven in many a tex­ture so intri­cate as to be incred­i­ble and yet true. The Chief and the High Offi­cers of the Secret Ser­vice rev­elled in these sub­ter­ranean labyrinths, and pur­sued their task with cold and silent pas­sion.” —WSC, “My Own True Spy Sto­ry,” Nash’s Pall Mall, Sep­tem­ber 1924, reprint­ed as “My Spy Sto­ry” in Thoughts and Adventures.

    The jack­et blurb con­tin­ues: “It is in these high­er ranges of Secret Ser­vice work that James Bond oper­ates on the very out­side edge of dan­ger, and, in this sto­ry, among haz­ards no read­er will eas­i­ly forget.” 

    Indeed. And as always, WSC’s words leave me shak­en and stirred! ✌️

  2. Fas­ci­nat­ing story
    I read Oper­a­tion mince­meat in 1981 and looked with new respect at my father sur­viv­ing 6 years in RAF. 1939 to 1945. I will be tun­ing in to Netflix

  3. Here’s a sil­ly lit­tle sto­ry, typ­i­cal­ly Eng­lish, prob­a­bly apoc­ryphal, and not at all rel­e­vant to your arti­cle. But may be amus­ing. It is with regard to Chol­monde­ley being pro­nounced “Chum­ley.”

    In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry there was a one-time high-pro­file Lib­er­al MP called Hor­a­tio Bot­tom­ley. His career was, inci­den­tal­ly, a roller-coast­er one and end­ed up with him being impris­oned for fraud.

    How­ev­er, at some point before that, the sto­ry goes, he had an appoint­ment to see Chol­monde­ley and arriv­ing at the Lon­don res­i­dence he told the but­ler he had come to see Lord C. Being of hum­ble ori­gins, he took delight in pro­nounc­ing C’s name phonetically.

    “It’s Chum­ley, sir”, the but­ler respond­ed. “Very well” said H.B., “tell him Mr. Bum­ley is here to see him.”

    Great, thanks.

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