Reflections on Seeing Operation Mincemeat

Went to the cinema to see Operation Mincemeat yesterday. Here are some “reflections” prompted by what I saw.

Operation Mincemeat is a 2021 British film directed by John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love and Captain Morelli’s Mandolin.

It’s set mainly in London in 1943, at a crucial turning point in the war. The western allies have defeated the Germans and Italians in North Africa and are now preparing to strike on the continent of Europe.

After Tunisia, Sicily Is The Obvious Next Step

The obvious next step after having liberated Tunisia is to invade Sicily (just have a look on a map of the Mediterranean and you’ll see what I mean).

Operation Mincemeat was a deception designed to cause the Germans to expect the allies to strike in Greece and Sardinia instead of Sicily.

The idea was to dress up a suitable corpse as a British officer who happens to be carrying a letter from one British general to another in which details about the allies “real” (i.e. fake) intention to invade Greece are mentioned.

The corpse is then packed in a cannister of dry ice, and taken by submarine to be dropped off the sea just off the coast of Spain. The idea is that it will appear as if the victim drowned at sea after the aeroplane he was travelling in was shot down.

The tide and the prevailing wind waft the corpse onto the Spanish beach, with a little help from the turbines of the submarine as it moves away.

All of those details actually happened in 1943, and as expected, the body was picked up by a Spanish fisherman and handed over to the Spanish authorities. They returned the effects found on the body to the British authorities, and the supposed “Captain (acting Major) Martin” was duly given a funeral and buried in Spain.

The crucial document, the fake letter, appeared to have been unopened, however…

Well, if you are not familiar with the story and haven’t seen the film, I suppose I had better not give any more of the plot, so here’s the trailer, however, to whet your appetite instead:

The Man Who Never Was (1956)

That was not the first film about Operation Mincemeat. In 1956 a British film titled The Man Who Never Was was released and it is interesting to compare how the story is handled by the two films.

Here is the trailer for The Man Who Never Was:

I found a dodgy full-length version online and had a look at it this afternoon. I shall leave you to do your own research on that score, but what follows are my reflections on the two films – as if they were two mirrors pointed at each other, with the Operation Mincemeat located between them. Each reflects the same events but from a different angle.

Here are some examples of what I noticed:

1. The Proximity Of The War

Both films are set mainly in London, but what I noticed about the 1950s film was how bomb damaged buildings were prominent features of the panoramic views.

Also, the scene in which the corpse was being dressed was taking place during an air-raid with the sound of sirens and then the thump of bombs and ack-ack fire going on in the background.

Note: On 3rd March 1943 a Luftwaffe air-raid caused civilians (mainly women and children) to rush to the Bethnal Green tube station where many were crushed to death at a blocked entrance. So air raids were certainly still happening over London during the period when Operation Mincemeat was being planned.

In short, the war seemed closer, not only in distance but in time, having ended barely ten years before the film was made. Close enough for Erwin Montague, the man behind the plan, to appear in a cameo role as the sceptical Air-Vice Marshal in The Man Who Never Was. A nice touch!

The Man Who Never Was 1 – 0 Operation Mincemeat

2. The Main Characters

The strong point of the film Operation Mincemeat is the interplay between the main actors in the preparations for the deception.

Of course, in Operation Mincemeat it helped that Colin Firth was playing Erwin Montague while the second brains behind the plan, Squadron Leader Charles Cholmondely, was played by Matthew Macfadyen.

In The Man Who Never Was, the role of Cholmondely is completely eliminated, either because so much more of the details was still classified at that time, or for simple economy of story-telling.

Indeed, tellingly, the older plot does not focus on the back-story or latent vulnerabilities of the operational planners at all, whereas the interactions of the two main male characters of the film Operation Mincemeat pretty quickly reveals them each to be flawed and vulnerable.

On the other hand, the female staff is rightly given more prominence in the latter film, the doughty office manager Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton), and her young protege, Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), who supplies the photo of (herself as) “Pam, the fake girlfriend” which will be found along with a love letter or two in the corpse’s pocket.

I appreciated the greater depth of focus on the “professional relationship” side of the planning compared to the earlier film.

The Man Who Never Was 1 – 1 Operation Mincemeat

3. The Love Interest

That’s all well and good, but the stalled love-triangle between Jean and the two operational officers was for me the least satisfactory part of the film, Operation Mincemeat.

That’s not so much because the romance didn’t get anywhere, but because the initial attraction seemed lame and unconvincing to me as it was portrayed in the film, even though (if my research is valid) it seems clear from his correspondence with his wife that the “real life” Montague was quite attracted to his young colleague.

Indeed, I thought the “love interest” of The Man Who Never Was was rather more interesting and dynamic. In that film, Jean lives with an equally attractive flatmate who is dating a dashing Mosquito pilot whereas Jean herself prefers to avoid romantic dalliances for fear of falling in love in a time of war and uncertainty. The choice for young women between fleeting love affairs and emotional loss or dull and self-protective avoidance is quite sensitively dealt with and plays a key part in moving the operation forward and protecting its security.

Thus, although The Man Who Never Was has a more dynamic plot and rather less complex main characters, it does nevertheless deal sympathetically with its young female characters, at least in my opinion!

By the way, for those who like to look into the backstories of the historical characters, this account of Jean and Hester is quite interesting and, if true, reveals some interesting divergences with the details of the two films:

The Man Who Never Was 2 – 1 Operation Mincemeat

Well, there is a lot more to say, but this blog post has already taken up a lot of my day, so I will leave it there with The Man Who Never Was victorious!

However, I do recommend that you see Operation Mincemeat if you have the chance, especially if you have enjoyed other recent “Britain at War” type films such as Dunkirk, 1917, . Perhaps I ought to go and see it again to do it justice.

Wait A Minute…! One Enjoyable Detail…!

4. Minor Character Commentary

I almost forgot… There is a very enjoyable minor role in Operation Mincemeat that is not in The Man Who Never Was – probably because he was not yet so famous at that time… The fellow is a younger member of the planning staff who provides some nice commentaries on what’s going on that are very droll if you know who he is – and there are plenty of hints in the film!

The Man Who Never Was 2 – 2 Operation Mincemeat

A score draw!

And on that note, I shall leave you.


David Hurley


P. S. Here’s another “reflection” promped by the film which took me down…

Memory Lane

Thinking about Operaton Mincemeat caused me to reflect on my ill-spent youth consuming endless numbers of war comics and military magazines regularly supplied by my Dad (who always read them first of course)!

I first heard about Operation Mincemeat when I was a school boy, around the age of 12-15 I suppose. At that time my Dad used to buy me a war comic called Battle Picture Weekly and one of the numbers ran a feature about espionage in World War Two which included some details about the operation.

Back then, like a lot of school boys, I was a World War Two nut – well, still am now too if truth be told.

Sadly, a web search did not pull up an image of the Operation Mincemeat story that I read, but here’s the cover of the very first issue, which I remember well. I plastered my school briefcase with those free stickers!