It’s 1943. The Allies are determined to break Hitler’s grip on occupied Europe.
Operation Mincemeat, the compelling new film by the acclaimed director John Madden, tells a factual story that is far stranger than fiction. This real-life event proved a vital turning point in the Second World War. It is fair to say that it fundamentally altered the future of Europe.
As the Allies prepared to invade mainland Europe in 1943, they were desperate to avoid the slaughter of their troops by the German forces that they knew would mass in southern Italy. So they hatched an astounding plan to dupe the Nazis into believing that they would land in Greece rather than Sicily. They came up with a deception which defies belief and which has now been turned into an absorbing movie, written by Michelle Ashford and featuring Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald , Penelope Wilton and Johnny Flynn. As Ashford so rightly puts it, “The story is absolutely the star of this film!”
Ben Macintyre, the bestselling author on whose book of the same name the film is based, explains why this scarcely credible episode was such a pivotal moment in the global conflict. “Operation Mincemeat was probably the most successful military deception operation ever carried out. What the deceivers had to do was to try to persuade the Germans that black was white and white was black. And they did this in the most extraordinary way. It now sounds like it comes straight out of fiction, which is exactly where it came from.”
Ashford emphasises how this episode was a game changer in the progress of the war. “It’s absolutely true that Operation Mincemeat changed the course of the war. If the Allies had not been able to access Europe, they would have been sunk. At that time, Europe was very heavily defended by the Germans. If the British had not been successful with Operation Mincemeat, there would have been a ghastly bloodbath. Without that brilliant plot, there is no way they would have won the war.”
Macintyre fleshes out the details of the ostensibly hare-brained British scheme that in 1943 outfoxed the Nazis and changed the entire course of the Second World War. “The British decided that the plot would be to get a dead body and to give that body a completely false identity by disguising it as someone totally different. They would dress the body up in a military uniform and pretend that he was a special courier who had come down in a plane crash in the Mediterranean.”
The British plotters aimed to float the body off the coast of neutral Spain, in the certain knowledge that it would be picked up by Nazi spies there. Those agents would then report the false information planted on the body directly to Adolf Hitler in Berlin. Macintyre continues that, “Crucially, the British would give the body an attaché case containing fake documents that would appear to indicate that the vast Allied Armada about to invade mainland Europe was aiming for Greece and not for Sicily. So it was an attempt to put the Nazis off the trail.”
The fictional origins of the plot, which was codenamed Operation Mincemeat, are very strong. It was conceived by none other than Ian Fleming (played in the film by Johnny Flynn), who of course went on to create the immensely successful James Bond novels. Macintyre goes on to say that, “The plot actually did come from fiction. It came originally from a novel by a man called Basil Thompson. No one reads Thompson anymore. But someone who did was Ian Fleming. He was the assistant to Admiral Godfrey, who was the head of Naval Intelligence during the war and later became the model for M in the James Bond stories. Fleming proposed the idea from Thompson’s novel to Godfrey. And so this idea was born almost entirely out of fiction. It came from novels.”
However, because it was so fantastical, Operation Mincemeat was extremely hard to pull off. Working out of a dingy basement in central London, the top secret Twenty Committee of Naval Intelligence led by Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) was presented with almost insurmountable challenges. Macintyre reflects that, “It proved extraordinarily difficult because, believe it or not, in wartime it was actually very hard to get hold of a dead body. People were dying all the time. But you had to find a body that looked as if it had drowned at sea and had come from a plane crash.
“The meat of the story – the mincemeat of the story, if you like – was trying to find a body and then to go through the incredibly complicated system of inventing a completely different character, a new person who’d never existed. And so, they set about it as if they were constructing a novel. And that’s the key to the story: how do you create somebody who never existed?”
But it is the very incredibility of Operation Mincemeat which makes it such a mesmerising story. Director John Madden outlines what drew him to this tale. “It is a completely wild story, so precarious and so unlikely and so whacked out in every possible sense. Speaking as a filmmaker, that is what’s irresistible about it.
“The stakes were so high that if Operation Mincemeat had gone wrong, it would have been a catastrophe that would be forever imprinted on everyone’s mind, in the same way that D Day or the Battle of Britain or these other famous wartime events are. It had to work, or it would be a catastrophe. And the idea of this fragile, highly implausible, and very, very difficult-to-pull-off plot sitting against that level of odds is where the power of the story comes from.”
The apparent impossibility of successfully executing Operation Mincemeat renders the film especially riveting. Kelly Macdonald, who plays Jean Leslie, an indispensable figure in concocting the plot, says that, “People will be really interested to see the human element of the story. When you think about the Second World War, you think about the soldier on the ground. So it’s really refreshing to focus on these people in a basement in the middle of London coming up with quite ridiculous ideas about how to trick the Germans. It’s just unbelievable that it was true and that it worked.”
In watching Operation Mincemeat, there is also a genuine thrill in witnessing the unalloyed genius of the people who outwitted the Germans at this crucial moment in the war. Johnny Flynn amplifies this idea. “It takes the brilliance of these minds that were at the heart of this happening during the war to think of everything.
“They made sure that no stone was left unturned in terms of executing this plan and trying to imagine how the opposition was thinking, in order to undermine and deceive them. It sends the hairs up on the back of my neck and gets me feeling really emotional because these people took real risks for our sake. At this point in history, we’re living with the benefit of what they did back then.”
Audiences will be equally struck by the ingenious nature of the characters in Operation Mincemeat. The figure of Montagu is a case in point. Colin Firth comments that, “Ewen Montagu was a brilliant barrister who used those skills to anticipate other people’s thinking. He didn’t deploy a strategy because he liked it; he thought his way into his opponent’s mind, and he did that with incredible vision. It was clearly a skill he had in the courtroom. But it proved invaluable in this case because he was constantly able to put himself in the shoes of the person who was on the other end of the deception.”