Operation Mincemeat: The Real WW2 History of the Netflix Spy Movie

We examine with director John Madden the real World War II history that inspired Netflix’s Operation Mincemeat.

Colin Firth and Ian Fleming in Operation Mincemeat
Photo: Netflix

This article contains spoilers for Operation Mincemeat.

Operation Mincemeat is now celebrated as “the most spectacular episode in the history of deception.” That is one of the commanding final sentences at the end of Netflix’s World War II drama, Operation Mincemeat. And barring the likely fictional story of the Trojan Horse (which is also name-checked in the new film as one of the early, poorly selected codenames for this spy game), that assertion is fairly true.

As a plan to convince Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich’s espionage service, the Abwehr, that Britain and her allies would invade Greece and the island of Sardinia—instead of Sicily—Operation Mincemeat persuasively put the Nazis on the wrong foot during a pivotal moment in 1943. So duped was the Führer about the threat to his Greek conquests and its nearby supply line in the Balkans that Hitler flatly refused Italian dictator Benito Mussolini when asked two months before the invasion to reinforce Sicily. Rather the Nazis moved multiple divisions around Europe to Greece and the Balkans, and even transferred torpedo boats from Sicily to Greek waters. British intelligence even learned that up to four hours after the invasion began on July 9, 1943, 21 aircraft were deployed from Sicily to Sardinia.

The success of this plan was a major coup for British intelligence, who likely saved tens of thousands of Allied lives, and all thanks to turning the corpse of a dead man into a convincing lure for the Germans to swallow whole. Yet so many elements about the story as presented in Operation Mincemeat seem too incredulous to be true. This goes right down to the presence of the author of the most famous fictional spy in literary history, Ian Fleming, being presented as right in the middle of it all. How much of this is fact and how much of this is fiction—and does any of it live in the gray area in between?

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We sat down with Operation Mincemeat director John Madden, who worked extensively with historian Ben Macintyre, author of the nonfiction book of the same name, to try and parse out the truth from the tradecraft.

Ian Fleming, Author of the Greatest Spy Game?

In Operation Mincemeat, James Bond creator Ian Fleming is featured prominently throughout the early stages of the operation’s genesis. Portrayed by a virile Johnny Flynn, Fleming is the lieutenant commander surprisingly credited by name and title to Winston Churchill when Rear Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) presents the “Trout Memo” to the prime minister. Further Fleming is there to provide the actual masterminds behind the execution of Operation Mincemeat, intelligence officers Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), with offices and resources to see the plan through.

While the actual emphasis on Fleming’s importance in front of the British PM, and his at least early presence in the daily work of Montagu and Cholmondeley, might have been over-emphasized due to the naval officer’s future fame as the father of 007, Fleming was instrumental in the creation of Operation Mincemeat. Historian Ben Macintyre even speculated in the nonfiction book Operation Mincemeat that the “Trout Memo,” which created the broad idea of Mincemeat and its plan to place phony papers of great importance on a corpse left for the enemy to find, bears all the markings of Fleming’s sensibility and authorial voice—right down to the allusion of this being akin to trout fishing where British intelligence will dryly reel the enemy in.

Fleming indisputably helped prepare the memo in 1939 alongside Godfrey, for whom he was a personal assistant (Godfrey would also go on to inform the literary creation of Bond’s boss, “M”). And Fleming certainly had a hand in crafting the various suggestions about how best to hoodwink the enemy.

“What is true is that Godfrey and Fleming doubtlessly took to the task with enthusiasm and produced this extraordinary document called the Trout Memo, which in and of itself encapsulates the strange world that operated in wartime intelligence with its slightly playful nature,” Operation Mincemeat director John Madden tells us during a lengthy sit down interview. “Some of [the ideas] were quite nutty and ridiculous, and involved having exploding balloons in the sea and two-dimensional armies visible off-shore. But sitting in there at [suggestion] number 28, which is the correct one, was what is basically known as the Haversack Ruse.”

The Haversack Ruse was the first attempt at an Operation Mincemeat-like espionage play wherein the British Army allowed a haversack containing alleged British battle plans to fall into Ottoman hands during World War I’s Sinai and Palestine campaign in 1917. However, as Madden notes, the way it was constructed in the Trout Memo bears a great resemblance to The Milliner’s Hat, a lurid detective novel by Basil Thompson, whom Fleming was a reader of.

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“So it is absolutely true that Ian Fleming was sitting right in the middle of all of this,” says Madden. “He was Godfrey’s assistant and it was that particular idea that Cholmondeley lit upon as an ideal vehicle for selling that information strategy.”

The filmmaker goes on to note that it was in these wartime activities where Fleming met Charles Fraser-Smith, who worked in the Ministry of Supply, which came to be known during the war as Q-Branch because of all the equipment (or “Q-devices”) designed there. With that said, Madden concedes the concept of having Fleming there until the end narrating the film’s events was an artistic conceit.

Says Madden, “The interesting breakthrough for [screenwriter Michelle Ashford] and I was the idea of framing the story around a novel Fleming had not yet written. I mean, he was 10 years away from Casino Royale at that point, but nevertheless it was the sort of breakthrough for us to realize that he might be telling the story that we’re actually witnessing.” This culminates in the fictional moment of Fleming celebrating the success of the Sicily invasion by finishing the end of his book on a typewriter in the proverbial war room.

With that said, the movie is again quite accurate in suggesting that many of the men working in British intelligence during the war were, or would become, published authors.

“Pretty much all of the people who were involved were novelistically minded in one way or another,” Madden explains. “They weren’t professional spies in the sense we now think of them as being. They were ad hoc spies recruited to a particular purpose, and they were all crossword puzzle compilers and would-be detective fiction writers… Masterman [played by Alex Jennings] was published, the character David Ainsworth [played by Nicholas Rowe] is based on was also published.”

How the Body Was Stolen

Perhaps the greatest asset the Operation Mincemeat film has is the honest depiction of how the government essentially stole the body of Glyndwr Michael, a homeless man who died (possibly by suicide) after he ingested rat poison. The government then garishly remade his remains into a heroic royal marine named Major William Martin. The ethical grayness of this action is something Macintyre brought greater awareness to in the historical community after it became public knowledge in the 1990s. Before then, the “official story,” as shared by a highly sanitized memoir written by Montagu after the war, glossed over and altered those details.

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Even Madden was only vaguely aware of them himself prior to Macintyre’s book coming into his orbit.

“I was aware of [broad details] out in the ether,” says Madden. The 73-year-old filmmaker adds with a laugh, “I was obviously too young to remember the event itself, but World War II definitely cast a shadow over my early years in the sense that rationing was a concept you didn’t have to struggle to understand.” And with Montagu’s 1953 memoir inspiring the classic British film, The Man Who Never Was (1956), the story of how the British government tricked the German high command was in the public culture, particularly for Madden whose father spent the last year of the war in Italy. Nevertheless, Madden was too young to see that film then and had little knowledge about the details until screenwriter Michelle Ashford approached him with a copy of Macintyre’s 2010 book, Operation Mincemeat.

“If it appeals, I promise you a fabulous script!” she wrote on an accompanying note.

Unlike the filmmaking team behind The Man Who Never Was (which Madden declined to watch until after his Operation Mincemeat was almost finished), Madden and Macintyre knew the sordid details about retrieving Glyndwr Michael’s corpse and the other insider information circulating around British Intelligence and its secretive Twenty Committee—the espionage apparatus designed to keep track of Britain’s double and triple agents.

Says Madden, “When Ben came to approach the material, he benefited from the fact that in the mid-1990s, the Mincemeat files alongside dozens of others from wartime intelligence were declassified… Nobody assumed you’d ever see any of these things, but the chief piece of information that was in those files was the identity of the body they used, which then became a central part of the storytelling and the way that story unfolds in our version of it.”

The approach is also fairly removed from The Man Who Never Was, which as based on Montagu’s memoir of the same name was heavily vetted by British intelligence before release. The ‘50s movie featured a far more patriotic version of events than Operation Mincemeat in regards to acquisition of a body. In fact, when the sister of the deceased comes looking for her brother’s remains in the new movie, a fictional scene has Fleming attempt to buy her off with hush money. This might’ve been a reaction to how whitewashed the grimmer details appeared in the ‘56 picture.

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“[Montagu] invented a complete fiction of how they arrived at the body,” Madden says of the 1956 film. “It involved a long scene over the hospital bed of the dead they supposedly used, and a conversation with the boy’s father who gave his blessing. It was someone who was in a vegetative state and so forth, which neatly got out of the way the moral issues that might involve what they actually did, which was steal a body at a time when bodies and the way they were dealt with in a post-war situation was incredibly sensitive.”

Brother a Soviet Spy

Another element that is strikingly not in 1956’s The Man Who Never Was is the fact that Montagu’s brother was a reluctant communist spy for the Soviet Union. But then again, the suggestion in Netflix’s Operation Mincemeat that this also cast suspicions on Montagu himself from MI5 and his superiors is not entirely accurate either.

“If you want the answer to the question of whether Ivor [Montagu] was a communist spy, yes he was,” Madden says. “His codename was ‘Intelligentsia,’ oddly enough. That was something that was not known and didn’t become clear until [after the war]. Unsurprisingly, it was not in the first account of the story!”

Indeed, Ivor Goldsmid Samuel Montagu was born the younger brother to Ewen and was a well-known British filmmaker, critic, and, strangely enough, ping-pong player after his time at Cambridge. All of which—including the then-foreign game of ping-pong—made him a person of interest to MI5 following his outspoken sympathies for communism in the 1930s. During the beginning of the war, MI5 with the approval of Twenty Committee chairman Sir John Cecil Masterman (who was also Ewen’s boss), investigated Ivor as a possible Soviet spy, compiling three volumes on the man by the start of 1942, about a year and a half out from Operation Mincemeat. However, MI5 never found evidence that Ivor was a spy, and Ewen felt no pressure by ’43 for the politics of his left-leaning brother.

Which is a lucky break since in the 1960s, U.S. intelligence finally decrypted Soviet communications from between 1940 and 1942 where Ivor was identified as a “local communist, journalist, and lecturer” who agreed to spread propaganda for Soviet intelligence.

On the flip side he also founded the English Table Tennis Association in 1921…

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The Third Act Problem

One of the most exciting scenes in Operation Mincemeat involves the third act wherein a German double agent is able to infiltrate the home of Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), an MI5 clerk who really did pose as “Pam,” the young woman who wrote a passionate love letter to the doomed “William Martin.” Yet in this climactic moment, a German spy operating inside of the UK is able to get Jean to confess at gunpoint that it was all a sham.

Suddenly, the heroes of the film are left to wonder if all their good work will be undone by German intelligence in the Abwehr or whether anti-Hitler forces within that government might bury the truth. It’s a harrowing turn of events… that also never happened.

“I felt almost a summons with the material,” Madden says while speaking broadly about the need for artistic license. “The whole story is about speculation in a way. It’s about guesswork and the creation of a fiction that is hopefully so true that it can pass as truth. So here we are making a fiction ourselves about a story you want an audience to believe in and buy, totally. So there’s a certain kind of injunction we felt to frame the story in a way that created its greatest impact, because it’s not a documentary.”

And when it came to solving what Madden dubbed to be the story’s “third act problem,” it was vital to the filmmakers to create a narrative tension for their central heroes—Montagu, Cholmondeley, and Leslie—that did not exist in reality.

Otherwise, in the grander scheme of Operation Mincemeat, their story is done after the body of “William Martin” is jettisoned out of a submarine and washes up on a Spanish beach. At that point, it became the job of British double agents in the neutral territory of Spain to help guide German spies into possession of the fake documents, and then to wait to see if Abwehr took the bait.

“The details of the wallet letter and the various circumstances allow the fiction to be as close to full proof as it could possibly be until the point where the body is launched into the Mediterranean Sea,” Madden considers. “At which point, the story is completely out of the control of the characters who created it, and most crucially, those characters aren’t even [important] in that third act. Inevitably, if you’re going to follow the story where it goes, then you’re going to somehow end up in the Abwehr, and that’s obviously a very difficult shape for the story.”

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Ironically, Madden says he realized after creating their own German double agent third act solution in Operation Mincemeat that the filmmakers of The Man Who Never Was arrived to a similar conundrum over 65 years ago when they separately came up with the conceit of an Irish spy with German sympathies infiltrating London to verify the documents on Major Martin’s person, and seeing the woman who stands in for Jean Leslie (whose name is not used in that film) from a distance in order to gauge her level of bereavement following her supposed fiancé’s death.

“Their answer to the third act was to have it be about the moment by moment verification of the wallet letter and all its details,” Madden says. “Which is a perfectly valid response to the material. Our way into it was entirely different. We suddenly realized that, actually in the end, the third act was about their inability to control and inability to know what had happened. So finally they’re presented with a situation that’s akin to existential dread where they have no idea whether they’re actually being sold a piece of disinformation by the other side, which might have completely catastrophic effects.”

The truth is there is some debate as to whether German intelligence really believed the bait or simply decided to not tell the Führer.

“Once you’re into this part of the story, there are a number of theories, and you’ll find different ones,” says Madden. But what is inarguable is varying heads of German military intelligence and the army at large participated in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. The field marshal general who was intended to replace Hitler as commander-in-chief, Erwin von Witzleben, was executed in 1944, and the head of the Abwehr, Willhelm Canaris, was executed in 1945.

Von Witzleben was Hitler’s most trusted confidant on military matters, according to Madden, “and for his betrayal he was hung on a meat hook and left to die in that state for three days or something like that. In other words, the vengefulness was beyond belief.” Still, it’s hard to say whether German intelligence was willfully working against Nazi leadership in 1943, much less in regards to the body of a British officer found in Spain. 

“This is the fascinating area you get into with this,” says Madden. “It’s still guesswork at this point. It’s true [the British] were pushing on an open door with the idea that the attack was going to come through Greece and Sardinia. And the cover plan of that supposed attack was Sicily, which is a lovely inversion. It’s true that Hitler was intensely paranoid at that point because the war machine had been completely built on materials he was getting from the Balkans, and obviously having no idea how long that conflict was going to last, that was a very, very essential factor to him. So he was probably inclined to believe this idea in some respects.”

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Still he adds, “There’s no way of really knowing the answer. And, indeed, in our film it is only offered as one possible route to what happened.”

As with the routes taken by the film’s many double and triple agents, this is a path shrouded in shadow and ambiguity. Which was the very reason the Twenty Committee and this underworld of subterfuge flourished during the Second World War.

“The importance of what’s talked about in the film is corkscrew thinking,” says Madden. “The idea that you would sell a fiction and find ways to get those fictions to lodge.”

If that is the case, the legacy of Operation Mincemeat has lodged very deeply, indeed.

Operation Mincemeat is streaming on Netflix now.