Movies are a great way to experience the world of espionage, to include lessons for developing a spy mindset. Operation Mincemeat is a superb spy story that portrays a team of flawed yet determined individuals who changed the course of history. The story reveals, on multiple levels, the art and science of developing a spy mindset. Let’s see why.
The spy plot device at the center of the story is deception, which involves passing false information to the enemy through credible channels, to convince them to move left when you plan to move right.
In 1943, the Allies were advancing in North Africa and planning to pivot north for the final march on Germany. For a variety of reasons, the Allies opted to invade Sicily first. The problem was intelligence reports indicated Germany was expecting an invasion of Sicily, had moved forces to defend Sicily, and believed the Allies would resort to deception. How do you deceive someone who’s expecting to be deceived?
Step one of the Intelligence Cycle is Planning & Direction, which is where Operation Mincemeat begins. John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) and Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn) of James Bond fame brief Winston Churchill (Simon Russell Beale) on the “Trout Memo,” which includes options for deception. Churchill says the invasion of Sicily can’t be delayed and instructs them to convince Germany that the Allied forces will invade Greece, not Sicily – a tall order, indeed.
During a meeting of The Twenty Committee (the Roman numeral XX for “double cross”), Godfrey discusses ongoing efforts in Greece to provide hints and evidence of an invasion, but Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) highlight the importance of false information reaching Hitler himself – “deception needs a channel.” They reference Idea #28 from the Trout Memo about a dead body washing ashore with sensitive documents, the so-called Haversack Ruse.
This triggers an interesting discussion about the difficulty of deception. Spain was proposed as the location for the dead body to wash ashore because Spain was neutral and had German spies collecting information. However, an Allied body previously washed ashore near Tarifa with real classified documents, but the Germans ignored it. How would Germany respond to a second dead body – accept it to avoid embarrassment or ignore it as a ruse?
Godfrey reluctantly approves the plan. Mantagu, Cholmondeley, Fleming, and Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton) get to work, with finding a dead body the first order of business. They find Glyndwr Michael, give him a name (Major William Martin of the Royal Marines), and build a back story – education, career, interests, relationships, etc.
While developing a fictional love interest (Pam), Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald) offers her photograph in exchange for being on the team. She also succeeds in finding a man who looks like the dead man to take photographs for documents.
As Godfrey updates Churchill, the latest intelligence reports indicate that Germany still believes the Allies will invade Sicily and is still expecting deception. Churchill raises interesting points about using waterproof ink on the letters. This would be required for wet letters to be legible, but the use of waterproof ink would be unusual and might indicate deception.
Godfrey, ever skeptical, notes that even the slightest error for Operation Mincemeat would serve as proof that they plan to invade Sicily, thus negating the other deception efforts. Churchill says the ruse must be unbelievable enough to be believable. This is truly four-dimensional chess in the wilderness of mirrors. Churchill gives the green light.
Two British Naval Attachés from Spain arrive for a briefing, which includes explaining how the information will makes its way to Berlin – from Adolf Clauss (Markus von Lingen) in Huelva to Karl Kuhlenthal (Alexander Beyer) in Madrid and finally to Alexis von Roenne (Nico Birnbaum), the head of Military Intelligence in Berlin, who is suspected of plotting against Hitler.
However, beware Murphy’s law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. After the dead body washes ashore, the Spanish hide it from the Germans and offer to return it to the British. The British panic and pass information over phone calls and cables, hoping the Germans are listening and will attempt to intercept the documents before it’s too late.
When the briefcase is finally returned, there’s evidence that the letter was carefully removed from the sealed envelope, but they don’t know for sure. An intercept indicates Germany is moving troops to Greece, which suggests the ruse worked. Or is it German deception? Leslie receives an unfriendly visit from a waiter she knows who claims to be part of the German resistance. Is the whole operation blown? Who’s to blame?
One theory was that German resistance was aware of the deception and wanted Germany to act on it, to lose the war. What we do know is that Allied troops faced limited resistance in Sicily, which Churchill credited to Operation Mincemeat.
Operation Mincemeat includes multiple subplots that humanize the story in positive ways – the conflict between Montagu and Cholmondeley, the story of their brothers, Montagu’s failing marriage and sexual tension with Leslie, etc.
Most important, Operation Mincemeat shows the difficulty and complexity of developing a spy mindset for activities that shape events on a global scale. It is estimated that tens of thousands of lives were saved by avoiding heavy fighting on Sicily, all because a few heroic individuals had the creativity and fortitude to implement their plan.
We owe them all a debt of gratitude.