The man behind Operation Mincemeat

“Alison Cholmondeley (centre) at the pre-release showing of the film at Wells Film Centre, together with the centre manager, Sally Cooper, and the Mayor of Wells, Philip Welch” Image by Carol Welch.

The film ‘Operation Mincemeat’ released over the Easter weekend, tells the exciting story of a key event in the second World War. The Germans were tricked into thinking that an attack on Europe from North Africa would start in Greece rather than the more obvious route through Sicily. Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called it “The most spectacular single episode in the history of deception”.

The design of the trick was simple, but the execution meticulous.  British intelligence arranged for a body, dressed as a British marine, to be washed up on the Spanish shore carrying fake documents. The documents suggested that the Allies would concentrate their invasion forces on Greece and Sardinia with a smaller landing targeting Sicily as a distraction. Huelva in Spain was specially chosen as the place for the presumed courier’s corpse to drift ashore, since known Nazi sympathisers there were likely to pass information to the Germans, despite Spain being nominally neutral. The plan worked, and German forces were moved away from Sicily saving many thousands of lives.

For one of our readers, Alison Cholmondeley of Wells, the film has particular resonance. Her late husband Charles, played in the film by Matthew Macfadyen, was the mastermind behind the operation. Warner Brothers, the distributors of the film, arranged a special local showing of the film for her at Wells Film Centre before its general release, at which a collection was taken for The British Legion and for Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Alison told me that Charles didn’t talk about his wartime experience. He had been trained only to tell people what they needed to know, and was of the view that trust and reliability were an absolute priority. ”Trust before training” he would say. He would certainly have shared the concerns of MI6 about Johnson appointing the son of a KGB officer to the House of Lords.

Charles spoke enough, however, to illustrate the complexities and moral dilemmas involved in military intelligence.  He explained how the Germans recruited people from countries they had conquered as potential spies – Poles, Dutch, and on one occasion, a Welshman they had come across in a prison on Jersey, loudly proclaiming his hatred of the English. Once trained as a spy and smuggled into Britain, he promptly contacted the War Office to offer his services.

Charles ran a group of such counter espionage agents. One task they had was to report where the V1 and V2 rockets fired at London were landing. The Germans already knew from timers on board the bombs when they should have landed, and our agents gained credibility by reporting this accurately.  If they hit central London, however, they reported them as landing a few miles farther north. It helped preserve key infrastructure, but places south of London, like East Grinstead, paid the cost.

Nothing could be said about this redirection of the rockets for fear of giving away what they knew. Charles indicated that there were many such dilemmas but didn’t elaborate.  Perhaps it is best not to know. It is a reminder however that among the other horrors unfolding in Ukraine at the moment, there will be very similar agonising choices.

Operation Mincemeat tells a story with clear and positive outcomes.  As Charles clearly knew, many are much more ambiguous.