A wartime spy caper which tricked the Nazis by Richard Jones

Even though we’re nearly eight decades past the end of World War 2 there’s still no shortage of movies about the massive conflict. One of the latest involves a clever scheme dreamed up by behind-the-scenes special secret British agents to convince Hitler and his generals that the Allied were planning a 1943 invasion of Greece as their spearhead into re-taking Europe. Not Sicily and then mainland Italy as was the case involving a huge land and sea operation which remained an ultra-secret.

And so Operation Mincemeat was conceived, a grisly search for an appropriate dead body which would be dressed in full military uniform with a brimming briefcase full of fake, but intact, documents in one of his hands. And then dropped off the coast of Spain, but not too far from the beach and the incoming breakers so that marine scavengers wouldn’t dispose of it before the corpse’s landfall.

Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondely (Matthew Macfadyen) are the British intelligence officers behind the plan which has to go right to the top, onto Prime Minister Chuchill’s desk, to obtain approval. First of all they have to obtain the right corpse, one not too decomposed but still reasonably ‘fresh’. They pick the body of a homeless Welshman Glyndwr Michael who had died from ingesting rat poison.

Once that’s all done the man’s fictional identity – he becomes Major William Martin – and the backstory has to be created without a single flaw. That’s where clerk Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) and secretary Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton, you’ll recognise her straightaway if you’re a regular viewer of BBC and ITV series) become prominent as they offer very snappy comments at the regular planning sessions.

Of course there’s got be a little bit of romance tied in with all this. Montagu had sent his wife and children to the US because he and wife have Jewish backgrounds. He becomes very keen on Jean, who’s a widow, but fails to properly understand that Cholmondeley also has feelings for Jean.

Director John Madden doesn’t let all this burgeoning romance blur his vision, though.

We go back to Spain where the corpse has been investigated by Spanish and German forensic experts and the documents verified. The information is passed back to London by a double agent in Spain who has been briefed by his empty-headed male lover who’s a Spanish secret service man.

We even get to see the documents laid out on the desk of a senior Field Marshall in Hitler’s inner circle, clearly just before he informs the Fuhrer of the allies planned Greece landings.

The one item which might have alerted the Germans to a subterfuge – a photo of Jean purporting to be “Major Martin’s” girlfriend – wasn’t uncovered by German intelligence. Apparently they also swallowed the background story of Martin’s angry father and a bossy bank manager.

The film script comes from London journalist and writer Ben Mcintyre’s book. He also recently pennd the life story of Ian Fleming, creator of the legendary James Bond, which I read recently.

So along with Montagu and Cholmondeley we have Lieutenant Commander Fleming (Johnny Flynn) clacking away on his typewriter and providing a bit of background narration. Which is quite correct as Fleming worked in military intelligence during WW2 before heading off with his typewriter to the West Indies to pen a series of James Bond adventures.

The epiloge, one of my favourite items in many films, tells us that Montagu reunited with wife Iris after the war, Jean married a soldier, Cholmondeley stayed with MI5 until the early Fifties, and Hester continued on as boss of the Admiralty Secretarial Unit.

We also saw Major Martin’s/Glyndwr Michael’s headstone in Spain. An addition to the name on the headstone was placed in the late Nineties to advise mourners of the dead man’s correct identity.

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