The photo that hoodwinked Hitler and saved a thousand lives | History | News

Operation Mincemeat creates a cast-iron cover for secret agents (Image: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The candid snap captured a moment of happiness between two young people escaping the anxieties of the Second World War. Once developed, she put the sepia-toned photo in a drawer and forgot all about it, until the day the Secret Service asked young women working for M15 to submit personal photographs for a top secret project.

She couldn’t have known it then, but the secretary’s carefree picture was destined to help save thousands of lives. It would also forever link Jean Leslie to a Welsh vagrant she had never met, hoodwink Adolf Hitler and help create one of the most audacious deception plots in British military history.

The fantastical plan, codenamed Operation Mincemeat, involved creating a cast-iron cover story for the most unlikely of secret agents: a dead man outfitted in a British military uniform whose body would be found in the Mediterranean carrying a briefcase padlocked to his waist.

Inside, a set of fake documents would appear to indicate the vast Allied armada about to invade mainland Europe in 1943 was aiming for Greece and not Sicily, as the Germans assumed, and thereby prevent a potential massacre on the Italian beaches.

But his uniform and briefcase also contained a selection of personal items – “pocket litter”, as the secret services call the detritus we carry around in our wallets and bags, things like receipts from the dry cleaners or ticket stubs, that would make identity compelling to the Nazis. Also included was a picture of his girlfriend from him – Jean Leslie’s holiday snap.

Ewen Montague

The entire plan was carefully curated by two gifted intelligence officers, Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley of MI5 and Commander Ewen Montagu, left, of Naval Intelligence, who had been a brilliant barrister before volunteering his services to British intelligence when war broke out.

The pair are played by Matthew Macfadyen and Colin Firth respectively in a compulsive new film about the remarkable ruse that also stars Kelly Macdonald as Jean Leslie.

“Operation Mincemeat was probably the most successful military deception operation ever carried out. It was an attempt to put the Nazis off the trail and it was done in the most extraordinary way,” says author Ben Macintyre, on whose bestselling book the new film is based.

The challenge for the architects of this daring disinformation strategy – which had the backing of Prime Minister Winston Churchill – lay in convincing the

German high command that the body planted in Nazi territory by submarine was that of a downed Royal Marine, the fictitious Major William “Bill” Martin, an expert in amphibious warfare.

In fact, Martin was a homeless man, named in 1996 as Glyndwr Michael, who had died after eating rat poison and whose body was kept in the morgue while his fictitious existence was concocted.

As part of the bold plan, Jean Leslie became “Pam”, a girl working in a government office who had met Major Martin five weeks earlier.

And her photograph – inscribed with the message, “Till death us do part. Your loving Pam” – was part of the subterfuge, which also included fictitious love letters to her beau.

Leslie’s contribution was further enhanced by Montagu in his bid to create a real identity for Major Martin.

“He was Willie, I was Pam,” Leslie recalled years later. “We went to clubs, films and dinner – always keeping ticket stubs.”

The protagonists were fully alive to the absurdity of what they were doing, says Macintyre: “They were all frustrated novelists assisted by the brilliant barrister Montagu.”


Hitler (1889-1945) was fooled by Operation Mincemeat (Image: Getty)

Colin Firth was awed by Montagu’s strategic thinking. “He thought his way into his opponent’s mind, and he did that with incredible vision,” he said.

“It proved invaluable in this case because he was constantly able to put himself in the shoes of the person on the other end of the deception.”

However, one of the most significant challenges the real-life Montagu faced was the procurement of a suitable corpse.

“It proved extraordinarily difficult,” says Macintyre. “People were dying all the time. But you had to find a body that looked as if it had drowned at sea and had come from a plane crash.”

The original idea for the deception came from the Trout Memo, a brainstorm of highly creative ideas for deceiving Germany written soon after the start of the war.

Number 28 on the list was titled: “A Suggestion (not a very nice one)”; it was an idea to plant misleading papers on a corpse that would be found by the enemy.

Incredibly, the plan would come to fruition. The body was set adrift off the coast of Spain by a British submarine, HMS Seraph, and the drowned “officer” was picked up by a sardine fisherman.

The Spanish authorities, while ostensibly neutral, enjoyed close links with Germans and the contents of the briefcase were leaked to Nazi intelligence.

When the briefcase was returned to MI5 in London, spooks were able to confirm the fake plans had indeed been read by the Germans.

While some in German intelligence had their doubts, Hitler was fooled and ordered the reinforcement of Greece and Sardinia, taking his eye off the real target, Sicily.

Of the 160,000 Allied soldiers who took part in the invasion and conquest of Sicily, more than 153,000 were still alive at the end. Following the landings on July 9, 1943.

The photograph of Jean Leslie that was used with fake documents to trick Hitler

The photograph of Jean Leslie that was used with fake documents to trick Hitler (Image: The National Archives)

Churchill received a triumphant telegram: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.” Macintyre explains: “That so many survived was due, in no small measure, to a man who had died seven months earlier. It was a spectacular con trick.”

For years, the Trout Memo – so-called because it compared the deception of an enemy in wartime to similar approaches utilized in fly fishing – was credited to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence. However, Macintyre came across evidence that suggested it had been written by Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, who went on to write the James Bond novels and is portrayed on screen by Johnny Flynn.

“I didn’t find the Fleming connection until the Admiralty declassified their wartime files in 1996,” Macintyre recalls.

“I knew he had been involved in Operation Mincemeat and had worked with Godfrey, but I didn’t realize Fleming had framed this hilarious list of ideas. This discovery was one of those spine-tingling moments for a writer.

Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming would go on to create James Bond (Image: Bela Zola)

“I was astonished, but he was all over these documents, which were never intended to see the light of day.

Godfrey went on to become immortalized as ‘M’ in Fleming’s James Bond novels, while some of the other ideas on the Trout Memo ended up in the books.”

But as Macintyre points out, Fleming himself had borrowed idea number 28 from another author.

“It came originally from a novel by a man named Basil Thomson. No one reads Thomson any more. But someone who did was Ian Fleming. And so this idea was born almost entirely out of fiction.”

During the course of his research, Macintyre spent a considerable amount of time with Jean Leslie, and even took her back to the Thames-side spot in Oxfordshire where her photograph had been taken.

Cholmondeley and Montagu driving the corpse of 'Major Martin' to Scotland in 1943

Cholmondeley and Montagu driving the corpse of ‘Major Martin’ to Scotland in 1943 (Image: The National Archives)

“I pushed her wheelchair and asked Jean, several times, ‘Did you have a relationship with Ewen Montagu?’ She was tremendously flirtatious and would only say, ‘Oh, I’m not talking about that now’.

She never denied it, so it was at the very least a flirtation although I suspect they were sort of in love, in a kind of imaginary way.

“The way the team worked might be described as ‘method espionage’,” he adds, in a nod to the immersive acting technique favored by stars including Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert de Niro.

“They tried to live the parts they were imagining and it was clear that Montagu’s wife got pretty alarmed as her husband and Jean continued to write to each other in character.”

The ideas framed officer Fleming, on to James Montagu was not the only man Macintyre believes was in Leslie love with Jean Leslie.

The man who never was

“There was clearly a ‘tendresse’ between Cholmondeley and Jean. Love affairs bloomed very quickly and dramatically at a time when everyone thought they were going to die.”

After the war, Montagu was eventually given permission to publish a sanitized version of the operation because journalists were digging around.

The story was serialized in the sunday expressheadlined “The man who never was”, which became the title of Montagu’s 1953 book a few months later.

It sold two million copies and became the basis of a hit 1956 film but it wasn’t until Macintrye’s 2010 book that the full story was finally revealed.

During his own research, Macintyre enjoyed a convivial lunch with Montagu’s son, Jeremy, an expert in Baroque musical instruments.

“He was an extraordinary man, who’d been a lecturer, and very sweetly after lunch, he said I might be interested in a trunk of documents under the bed,” recalls the author.

“It was a heart-stopping moment: a treasure trove. At the end of the war, his father had lifted an entire cache of documents which he used to write his own book.”?

Operation Mincemeat opens in cinemas on Friday

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