The True Story Behind ‘Operation Mincemeat’: How Hitler Fell for Britain’s Most Daring—And Disgusting—Deception
In July 1939, Ian Fleming was appointed assistant to Admiral John Godfrey, Britain’s director of naval intelligence (and a possible inspiration for James Bond’s MI6 boss, M). Godfrey loved fly-fishing, Fleming loved fiction, and shortly after the start of World War II, they drew from those hobbies to produce the Trout Memo—a top-secret laundry list of deception tactics that likened the art of subterfuge to the process of luring a trout to the line.
The 28th of some 50 suggestions on the memo, labeled “not a very nice one,” was lifted from a 1937 detective novel by former intelligence officer Basil Thomson. In The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, a dead man is found with forged documents that obscure his true identity. As the Trout Memo explained, “a corpse dressed as an airman, with dispatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast” of Europe, where the faulty intel would hopefully land in German hands.
What began as the memo’s most far-fetched idea would in time become an operation that fooled the biggest fish of all—Adolf Hitler himself—and bolstered the pivotal Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943.
Historian Ben Macintyre chronicled the whole story in his 2010 book Operation Mincemeat, which is the basis for Netflix’s new film of the same name. Read on for the riveting real history of the scheme and the plucky team that pulled it off.
Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for Netflix's Operation Mincemeat. Also, some people may find the historic images disturbing.
A Decent Proposal
By early 1943, Britain was wrapping up its North African campaigns and setting its sights on the Mediterranean, aiming to neutralize Italy. At the Casablanca Conference in January, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed that the best entry point would be Sicily. Unfortunately, this was so obvious that Germany and Italy would very likely flood the island with troops and be there to greet Allied forces with open arms.
Rather than charting a less ideal course, the Allies instead decided to try duping Germany into thinking they were actually plotting to invade Greece and Sardinia. A deception of this magnitude more or less involved throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. Under the codename “Operation Barclay,” British intelligence units hired Greek interpreters, stocked up on Greek money, developed the completely fake Twelfth Army to “station” near Greece, and more—all while keeping German spies abreast of the activity.
Operation Mincemeat loosely fell under Barclay’s umbrella, too, though it wasn’t specific to the Sicilian invasion when Charles Cholmondeley (played by Succession star Matthew Macfadyen) first suggested it back in October 1942. Cholmondeley was a tall, ungainly 25-year-old with a spectacular mustache and a brother who perished at Dunkirk. Originally a Royal Air Force lieutenant whose poor vision kept him from piloting, by this time in the war Cholmondeley was an MI5 agent and secretary of the Twenty Committee—a cross-section of military and intelligence representatives responsible for monitoring double agents. (It wasn’t named for its number of members, but because the Roman numeral for 20 is XX: a play on the ‘double-cross’ nature of the group.)
So it was to the Twenty Committee that Cholmondeley detailed what he’d come across in the Trout Memo and developed as his own “Operation Trojan Horse.” He may also have drawn inspiration from a recent incident in which real Allied officers had crashed off the Spanish coast, and certain intel recovered from one body got passed along to the Nazis.
Committee leader John Masterman—another novel-writing operative—authorized Cholmondeley to continue with the curious enterprise and appointed Montagu as his co-leader. Montagu was a 42-year-old career barrister who sat on the committee as a representative from the Naval Intelligence Division, where he’d spent the war serving under Godfrey. (Decades later, Montagu would describe his boss as “the world’s prize sh*t, but a genius.”)
And with that, the hunt for the perfect corpse was on.
As their fallen airman would surely be autopsied upon discovery, Montagu consulted with famed forensic pathologist Bernard Spilsbury on what causes of death beyond drowning were believable. Spilsbury reassured him that plane crashes can kill people any number of ways—even just by shock. Montagu then called upon an old chum with access to all manner of bodies: St. Pancras Hospital coroner Bentley Purchase.
Purchase started keeping an eye out for a suitable corpse, and when 34-year-old Glyndwr Michael passed away at St. Pancras on January 28, he notified Montagu almost immediately. Michael, originally from Wales, had been discovered on the brink of death in an empty warehouse two days prior. He’d consumed rat poison, either purposely or because it happened to be on food scraps he’d eaten. Spilsbury and Purchase agreed that the poison would almost certainly go undetected during an autopsy performed after the body had spent a lengthy stint in water.
Furthermore, Michael, who had a history of being hospitalized due to mental illness, seemed to lack permanent housing or any family or friends that might come looking for him. (He did, in fact, have a handful of siblings, but the Mincemeat masterminds failed to track them down at the time. Unlike in the film, there’s no evidence that a sister showed up to claim his body mid-mission.)
Purchase made another vital contribution to the operation: a timeline. Fully freezing the corpse would raise red flags during an autopsy, so Montagu and Cholmondeley only had about three months to implement the plan before decay progressed too far.
But first, they’d have to replace Trojan Horse with something from the list of military-approved operation titles. Montagu found Mincemeat too apropos to pass up. “My sense of humor having by this time become somewhat macabre, the word seemed to be one of good omen,” he wrote in his 1953 book The Man Who Never Was.
On February 4, the partners submitted an official proposal to the Twenty Committee. Operation Mincemeat, it explained, could be used to convince Germany that Sicily was merely a cover for an actual attack planned for Greece—rather than the other way around. The committee then gave them the green light and promptly began securing support from all the important parties the project would involve. The War Office, for one, would need to issue false identification papers; and the Admiralty would need to scout out a coastal spot to plant the body.
Over the next couple months, Glyndwr Michael disappeared completely—and Major William “Bill” Martin of the Royal Marines materialized out of thin air.
The Pam to Their Bill
A William Martin of the Royal Marines already existed, and not by coincidence. Montagu and Cholmondeley had chosen the name in case German officers bothered to check it against a Royal Marines roster. The real Martin was well off the radar, training U.S. pilots in Rhode Island.
But convincing Germany that Major Martin wasn’t a ruse would take more than a strategic moniker. For one thing, they needed a picture of Martin for his ID—and the pallor of Michael’s corpse looked a little too waxen in photographs, to put it kindly. After weeks of ogling every passerby for a resemblance to Michael, Montagu happened to end up in a meeting with Ronnie Reed, a BBC radio engineer moonlighting for MI5. With a few small tweaks, Reed could have passed for Michael in real life, and he consented to be photographed for the ID card. To make sure Martin’s uniform didn’t seem too new, Cholmondeley, whose stature and build were similar to Michael’s, took to wearing it around.
Joan Saunders, who worked for Montagu in the NID, recommended dreaming up a sweetheart for the ill-fated Marine. So Montagu put out a call to the young ladies of the office to fork over photos of themselves that might make for a suitable “Pam.” He personally extended an invitation to Jean Leslie, a comely 20-year-old in the MI5 secretarial unit. While Leslie’s silver-screen counterpart, portrayed by Kelly Macdonald, is a widow, she herself was not; the photo she submitted was snapped on a date just weeks earlier.
Not only did Montagu choose her photograph for the mission, but the two leaned so far into their roles as Bill and Pam that the bond did turn into a true (if possibly chaste) courtship. Montagu wrote her many letters from “Bill,” and they socialized often outside the office. Montagu didn’t hide this in letters to his wife, Iris, who was sheltering in the U.S. with their two children. (Both husband and wife had Jewish backgrounds, so escaping across the pond seemed most prudent.)
“I took a girl from the office to Hungaria [a restaurant] and had dinner and danced. She is an attractive child,” he said in one letter, the first of many in which Leslie is mentioned (though not explicitly by name).
Montagu’s fondness for Leslie doesn’t appear to have blossomed from a dearth of spousal love. He filled his letters to Iris with earnest, sentimental declarations such as “I miss you most frightfully” and “How ultra-happy our life was before this bloody business started … Bugger Hitler.” It also doesn’t seem to have caused any tension between him and Cholmondeley, who rather ineffectively competes for Leslie’s affections in the movie.
Operation Mincemeat filmmakers invoked creative license for another source of conflict between Montagu and Cholmondeley as well. Montagu’s brother Ivor actually did aid Russian communists for years, even befriending Leon Trotsky himself. But while MI5 tracked Ivor’s activity extensively, Cholmondeley isn’t known to have been tasked with investigating Ewen while they collaborated on Operation Mincemeat.
Body of Lies
The Mincemeat team spent much of their time inventing a rich backstory for Martin that would inform what “wallet litter” they’d fill his pockets with. They decided he’d be a good-time guy and a bit of a spendthrift from a relatively well-off Roman Catholic family in Wales. He liked to fish, frequented the theater, and had a niece named Priscilla. On his person they planted a St. Christopher’s medal and a cross necklace, a stamp booklet, an invitation to the Cabaret Club, a pack of cigarettes, and a letter from his stiff-upper-lipped father, among other effects. There were also emblems of his relationship with Pam: a love letter (written by Leslie’s boss, Hester Leggett), the photograph, and a bill for an engagement ring.
And then came the pièce de résistance: a missive from General Archibald Nye to General Harold Alexander, who was working under General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command in Tunisia. It would be a personal letter—as opposed to an official dispatch—that casually mentioned the Sicily decoy plot and planned invasion of Greece.
In the film, an exasperated Montagu produces many drafts that are endlessly nitpicked by Godfrey, portrayed as Mincemeat’s main overseer. In reality, Commodore Edmund Rushbrooke replaced Godfrey as NID’s director mid-operation; and it was actually Colonel Johnnie Bevan, head of the London Controlling Section, an ultra-secret deception agency, who gave Montagu grief over his syntax. The end result, however, was the same: Montagu eventually just asked Nye to write the letter himself, which he did.
On the advice of Britain’s Madrid-based naval attaché Salvador Augustus Gómez-Beare, Montagu and Cholmondeley decided to deposit Martin off the coast of Huelva, a fishing city in southwestern Spain with a heavy German influence. Cholmondeley scrapped the plan to drop the body from a plane in favor of a submarine launch, which would guarantee that it remained intact. To safeguard the corpse during the journey from Britain, he commissioned engineer Charles Fraser-Smith—widely believed to be the inspiration for Q in Fleming’s Bond novels—to design an airtight steel coffin filled with dry ice.
“All the details are now ‘buttoned up,’” Montagu wrote in a March 26 letter to Bevan, who soon got the final go-ahead from both Churchill and Eisenhower. Montagu and Cholmondeley then accompanied Major William Martin to Scotland, where, on April 19, he shipped out on the HMS Seraph.
Read Letter Day
The crew of the Seraph released Martin into the ocean before sunrise on April 30. Later that very morning, Spanish fishermen hauled him in and turned him over to the authorities. Luckily, the local coroner, possibly influenced by the worsening of Martin’s stench as the day grew hotter, concluded that he’d died by drowning without too lengthy an examination.
Making sure the area’s German spies intercepted Nye’s letter—along with a couple other fake dispatches in Martin’s briefcase—wasn’t quite so simple. Martin’s belongings had been given to the Spanish Navy, which was much more committed to due diligence than certain German-leaning local officials. To encourage Nazis to actually seek out the letters, Montagu and Cholmondeley initiated a back-and-forth with Captain Alan Hillgarth, a British naval attaché in Madrid (and one of many possible inspirations for James Bond), explaining that Martin’s briefcase harbored highly sensitive intel that should be returned immediately. They suspected that Nazis would be monitoring the cables, and they were right.
The Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence organization, grew increasingly desperate to obtain the briefcase. But it still took nearly 10 days for it to end up in the lap of a Spanish official in Madrid who let the Germans photocopy its contents. From there, things escalated quickly.
Alexis von Roenne, the head of Nazi intelligence agency Fremde Heere West (Foreign Armies West), penned a report contending that “The circumstances of the discovery, together with the form and contents of the dispatches, are absolutely convincing proof of the reliability of the letters.” Historians sometimes cite von Roenne’s failure to exercise more skepticism here as a sign that he may have secretly been working against the Nazis; he was, after all, later executed for knowing about the July 1944 conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (which von Roenne approved of). Sincere or not, his confident affirmation likely helped sway Hitler—who wholeheartedly trusted him—toward accepting the letters as genuine.
Throughout May, British intelligence received several indications that Hitler and all his highest-ranking cronies believed the Allies would target Greece and Sardinia and were mounting a resistance. Montagu and Cholmondeley, meanwhile, received Martin’s briefcase back from the Spanish Navy. While the letters’ seals hadn’t been broken, analysts confirmed that the envelope flaps had been opened just enough to insert a thin rod, wrap the letter around it, and extract it through the opening. An eyelash placed in one of the folded letters was also missing.
At that point, Operation Mincemeat had pretty much accomplished what it had intended. Only time would tell if the invasion of Sicily—codenamed Operation Husky—would, too.
Outsmarted and Outplanned
Before daybreak on July 10, British, American, and Canadian troops began landing in droves on Sicily’s southern coast. Germany had just two units stationed on the island at the time. Even with the reinforcements that eventually arrived—not to mention Italy’s own forces—the Axis powers proved no match for the Allies’ some 150,000 soldiers, 3000 ships, and 4000 aircraft. By mid-August, the Allies had overtaken the entire island, while the Germans and Italians had retreated to mainland Italy.
Operation Husky spelled the end for Italy’s Axis status. Just two weeks into the invasion, Benito Mussolini’s regime came tumbling down, and the new government started discussing peace terms with the Allies. On September 8, Italy formally surrendered (though the subsequent German invasion prevented the country from experiencing actual peace).
It’s impossible to know how these events would have unfolded if not for Operation Mincemeat. For one thing, it wasn’t the only deception tactic used to direct the Nazi gaze away from Italy. And Hitler’s fear of losing the Balkans—which provided crucial wartime resources to Germany—meant he was already actively worried about the Allies invading that region by way of Greece. At the very least, however, Operation Mincemeat helped edge Hitler into committing to a course of action he’d already favored, and it’s often mentioned as a key factor in the success of Operation Husky.
Operation Mincemeat is streaming on Netflix now.