Operation Mincemeat

This week I went to see the musical Operation Mincemeat at the Fortune Theatre in London. It was glorious and I laughed, cried and generally had a whale of a time. This was a delight – and a great relief.

To be honest, by the time the day came round, I was torn about going at all.

For one thing, my now plated right wrist, though exercised/massaged five times a day, sometimes hurts enough to make me yelp, especially if someone bumps into it. The prospect of a crowded  theatre raised my anxiety levels.

hooded mystery manFor another – well, my customary theatre companion had rejected the idea of seeing Operation Mincemeat with conviction abhorrence. Its subject, he said, had been too important to turn into a comedy musical.

I disagreed with the idea that anything could be too important for comedy. But – well, I admit; he worried me.


The plot was to send a dead body, to all appearances a British courier, into the orbit of German intelligence with false information on Allied plans. This was to occur in neutral Spain where, under Fascist General Franco, German spies were tolerated and even sometimes supported. The corpse was to carry secret papers  to mislead the German high Command as to the entry point for the intended Allied invasion of German-occupied Europe.

The outline of the idea came from a list initially proffered by Ian Fleming, then a junior Naval Intelligence Officer. It was a long list and he admitted that this one was particularly unpleasant. He called it the Trojan Horse, because the information would be welcomed by German Intelligence.



J. C. Masterman, Chairman of the Twenty Committee,

This is a story that I seem to have known all my life. I can remember a friend of my parents talking about it (albeit with what I now know to be somewhat scrambled detail). At the time, I was too young to be in the room and they had forgotten I was there.

Operation Mincemeat itself was a secret British plan to convince the Abwehr that the 1943 summer military military objective, the start of the campaign to liberate Europe from Nazi rule, would NOT start in the obvious place i.e. by invading Sicily.

This mission was a run by the Twenty Committee. (In itself, this was a jolly latinate joke by the public-school educated white male hierarchy, since it effectively meant the Double Cross –  XX – Committee.) The committee which produced a raft of counter intelligence measures throughout the war, including double agents.


Masterman eventually published his account of the Twenty Committee in 1973, with clearance from the UK Government and a foreword by Norman Holmes Pearson. Pearson had been Head of the American Office of Strategic Services in London during the war. He was instrumental in setting up the CIA after it.

Operation Mincemeat itself was developed and managed by Committee member Lieutenant Commander RNVR Ewen Montagu.  He was a peace time barrister and, post war, eventually a judge.

Montagu was  the first to go into print, with his book The Man Who Never Was, first published in 1953. And even that publication has the smack of undercover operations about it.

1940s man looking at the sky on the cover of the DVD of The Man How Never WasBasically, former Minister of Information (1940-43), Duff Cooper, by then Ambassador to France, published a spy novel called Operation Heartbreak in 1950. It was clearly based on the essentials of the Mincemeat mission. (In my view, that was pretty low on pretty much every count. And this was the man who had the gall to impugn PG Wodehouse’s patriotism. I spit me of him!)

The Intelligence Services decided the best thing to do to counter the rumours and speculation instigated by this book was to get Montagu to write an authorised account. The details were then carefully filtered.  The general intention seems to have been to make the mission look like a one-off jeu d’esprit, maybe even imply it was run by mavericks.

Montagu allegedly turned his book out over a weekend. It sold 2 million copies and inspired the 1956 movie of the same name, with a screenplay by Nigel Balchin.


Newstad Abbey, seat of Lord Byron

By Andy JakemanCC BY-SA 2.0, Link

I loved it from the first moment with its joyous spoof School Song of an opening chorus “Born to Lead” introducing the well-born, posh-schooled chaps who run MI5. “Fortune favours bravery and a fortune’s what I’ve got.”

The plot is basically the shenanigans involved in dumping duplicitous information into the hands of German spies in Spain, but floating in a dead body of a supposed courier with top secret papers in a briefcase chained to his wrist. Some of it was as farcical in real life as it is on the stage. But the musical doesn’t run away from the real risks and anxieties involved..

Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron's loverThe character of Ewen Montagu is the smooth, cool, charming born OIC who effortlessly jumps queues, pinches ideas, and makes everyone believe in him while he does it. Even I believed in him, dammit. I certainly believed in the officer class, blinkers, squabbles, buck passing and all.

And the inspired gender-blind casting reinforces both the surreal fiction of the show and the individuality of each character.

What I thought was extraordinary, though, was the sudden moments of deep feeling – the love letter that a senior secretary writes for the imaginary courier to carry with him; the sailors setting off in their submarine to launch the body with his crucial misinformation into the sea off Spain.

Call me soppy, if you like, but I teared up over their sea shanty Sail-on, Boys.

If it’s down, it’s down together.
If it’s up, it’s up as one.
So sail on, boys, through stormy weather
Soon the journey will be done.


raincloudsI’ve taken a special interest in the The Man Who Never Was, because I’m writing a series of novels set over the course of World War 2. The bit that I remembered from my childhood is the reckless racing driver who took the body north. (My parents’ friend, at least as I remember it, reversed the journey as if the body was being brought south, but she got the non-London end right – Scotland. Holy Loch to be precise.) The documentary based on Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat (2010) explains exactly how hair-raising that ride was for Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, his second in command. The chauffeur was the fastest racing driver in Britain!

Several studies have concentrated on precise details left out by Montagu and Masterman, which in turn notably inspired a truly excellent BBC documentary and yet another fictional movie starring Colin Firth as Montagu. Both are called Operation Mincemeat.

inner reader, mystery womanThe documentary includes an interview with Jean Leslie, the girl whose photograph was placed in the supposed courier’s breast pocket.

She was only 19 at the time and remembers that Ewen Montagu got more and more involved with the character he was creating for “Major William Martin”, even to the point of almost falling in love with “Pam”, the imaginary girlfriend.

Maybe with hindsight, she seems less involved herself. But she said that Montagu’s obsession became sufficiently worrying that his wife, already evacuated with their children to across the Atlantic, came hot-footing it back to bring him to his senses.

glorious beach in north-west Scotland

But most striking of all, to me, is Lieutenant Bill Jewell, the Captain of the submarine HMS Seraph, speaking in 2003.

His voiceover recalls dawn, April 30th 1943. A fishing fleet passed over the submarine as they prepared to surface.

When the fishing boats had passed, they surfaced. They opened the canister, checked that the body had his papers still on him. Then the captain “said what I could remember of the funeral service over him”.

And they sent him off towards the coast of Spain.


The programme is clear about how weird it was for the company “to want to make a comedy musical out of an obscure World War II intelligence mission, centring largely around a homeless corpse.”

But, of course, the original mission was not obscure.

Nor, though the corpse gets very proper respect and attention from the musical, as it does in the documentary and MacIntyre’s book, is it about the vagrant who played the key role in the deception.

This is a story about fiction. About collaborative fiction.

The whole department was involved in providing the “wallet litter”, the detritus of bills and bus ticket and letters about overdrafts . That detritus was to convince the German interrogators that this courier was real. In the words of one of its best songs, they combined their experience and their feelings in this project about Making a Man. 

Almost the most extraordinary element of the whole enterprise is that the audience, in the shape of Operation Mincemeat’s superfans, stood up and contributed too.

footprints on sandy beachA major contributor to the script of the musical is Hester Legatt. She was the senior secretary in MI5 who wrote the love letter from Imaginary Pam to her lover Imaginary Bill Martin. Her words are quoted in the show. They are very moving.

But unlike Montagu and Fleming and members of the Twenty Committee, she had left no footprint on history.

The #FindingHester project set out to rectify that.

Volunteers researched sources in the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum and elsewhere. By last December they had uncovered her story. She died in 1995. But they found her family. They even invited her great nephew to the unveiling of a plaque in her honour at the Fortune Theatre. So the musical has, not changed, but made history.

It is, truly, inspiring. (And a damn good evening out, too.)

Sophie Weston Author


12 thoughts on “Operation Mincemeat

  1. lesley2cats

    Thank you for this, Sophie. I was very puzzled when I first heard about the musical project, but I’ve heard so many good things since that I would really love to see it. Thanks for the rather more in depth review.

  2. Liz Fielding

    I remember seeing the original film, Sophie and enjoyed the more recent Colin Firth movie, too. I was really interesting learning more of the background details and I’m delighted that you had such a wonderful evening at the theatre.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I’ve only just seen the Colin Firth movie. It has some really interesting aspects and a wonderful performance from Penelope Wilton as Hilda Legatt. But overall, I didn’t find it terribly satisfying.

      I suspect the theatrical performance, weird as it is, just does crisis and catharsis better.

      1. Joanna

        I haven’t seen the Colin Firth movie and I didn’t know about the musical until you did this. Sadly I’m too far away to go but it sounds great fun. And mind-broadening too, perhaps.

        1. Sophie Post author

          Well, they keep extending the run – so maybe a jaunt to London and a Girls Expotition to see it later in the year?

  3. Jan Jones

    Thank you for this. I was fascinated by the documentary a few years ago and found the whole concept splendid. I follow one of the cast members on social media and have been cheering them on vicariously. I do love the way musicals have the ability to transcend genre and make all sorts of stories accessible

    1. Sophie Post author

      Have to admit that I’m always cautious with musicals because of the amplification, Jan. I remember having to run out of The Woman in White because it made me feel sea sick.

      But you’re right. At their best they are pure magic. And they really can capture A Moment brilliantly.

      Please give your social media chum an added cheer from me too!

  4. Sarah Mallory

    Thank you Sophie, for the review and all that information. So interesting. I have seen the most recent movie and the documentary but had my doubts about the musical until I read this – now I want to see it, too! I love musical theatre and you have convinced me this is the genre at its best, pulling at our heartstrings to get a message over.

    1. Sophie Post author

      So glad you enjoyed reading this, Sarah. Maybe we should all see it together? I’d certainly be up for another visit.

  5. Elizabeth Bailey

    How wonderful, Sophie. I loved the film of The Man Who Never Was and saw it again a few years ago. The final lines quote a poem, ending “And I think that man was I” which absolutely gripped me. I’m glad to hear the musical had its poignant moments. Fascinating background and thank you for doing all the research.


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