The Man Who Never Was (1956)
I remember this film. At the time, I thought it was fiction, but now has been proven true. And wouldn’t you know it: Ian Fleming may have written the plot.
In 1943, Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) devises a scheme to deceive the Nazis about the impending invasion of Southern Europe. It entails releasing a corpse with a fictional identity off the coast of Spain. The strong currents would almost certainly carry it ashore near where a known German secret agent operates. The non-existent Royal Marine, Major William Martin, would appear to be a plane-crash victim carrying falsified letters about a forthcoming Allied invasion of German-occupied Greece, rather than Sicily, the more obvious target. Montagu receives approval to carry out Operation Mincemeat.
Following a medical expert’s advice, Montagu procures the body of a man who died of pneumonia so it appears he drowned. After proper preparations, the corpse is placed in a canister packed with dry ice and transferred to a waiting submarine. The body is released in the Mediterranean where it washes ashore on a Spanish beach. The local authorities, observed by German and British consulate staff, process the body. After the attaché case containing the letters is returned to London, a forensics expert confirms the key letter, describing the (false) Allied invasion in Greece, was cleverly opened, photographed, and resealed.
Hitler is convinced the document is genuine, though Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, is skeptical. The Nazis dispatch Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd), a pro-German IRA spy, to London to investigate. O’Reilly investigates Martin’s “fiancée”, Lucy Sherwood (Gloria Grahame), who is the roommate of Montagu’s assistant, Pam (Josephine Griffin). O’Reilly arrives at their flat, posing as Martin’s old friend, on the same day Lucy received news that her real boyfriend was killed in action. Her genuine grief mostly convinces O’Reilly. As a final test, however, he gives Lucy his north London address, telling her to contact him if she needs anything. He then radios his German contacts saying that if he does not send another message in one hour, it means he has been arrested. As Montagu, General Coburn (Michael Hordern) of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and police officers are en route to O’Reilly’s flat, Montagu realises why he left his address. Montagu convinces a reluctant Hordern to let O’Reilly go. After no one arrives to arrest him, O’Reilly sends a “Martin genuine!” radio message. The Germans then transfer most of their Sicily-based forces to Greece, making the Allied deception successful.
After the war, Montagu leaves his OBE medal at the grave of “the man who never was”.Plot from Wikipedia
Interesting, isn’t it that the name remained the same when the film was made?
In September of 1939, the man who would go on to write the James Bond novels was practically working as a spy himself. Specifically, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming was the personal assistant of Admiral John Godfrey, Britain’s wartime director of naval intelligence. As one might expect, Fleming had quite the flair for the dramatic, and the internal memo he likely wrote that September (although sent out under Godfrey’s name) was full of outlandish schemes of deception and fiction-telling.
Yet perhaps none of these plans was quite as outlandish, or quite as macabre, as number 28 on the list, a half-formed idea called “A Suggestion (not a very nice one).” It described how one might pass false information to the enemy by dressing a corpse as a military officer and dropping it in enemy territory. It was an idea pulled straight from a spy novel (literally), and like most of the other suggestions in the memo, it probably seemed destined to fizzle out before it was ever put into practice.
In a bizarre twist of fate, however, this particular suggestion would end up providing the spark for a plan whose effects would be felt at every level of every military in World War II, a plan that would fittingly go on to be called Operation Mincemeat.Operation Mincemeat and the Lure of Fake News
The rest, as they say, is history.
I’m certainly pleased, some seventy years after the fact, that ‘Mincemeat’ worked. I myself would have tried to get the Axis high command that the attack was aimed at Sardinia, since I would have lobbied for an ACTUAL attack on Sardinia. Take Sardinia and Corsica, you threaten the French south coast and the west (or is it south?) coast of Italy. Then again, for that matter, the Allies had taken both of those islands, along with Sicily, by the end of 1943.
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