In 1943 the Allies faced a serious problem. Having driven the Germans out of North Africa, the next logical step was to invade southern Europe. It was obvious to any military planner that the first target in that effort would be the island of Sicily. Accordingly, the Germans were turning the island into a self-contained fortress. Any forces attempting a landing would be slaughtered. If Germany could be convinced the invasion would take place elsewhere, troops and material would be diverted and the Allies’ task would be much easier.
The Department for Naval Intelligence had a unit which specialised in just this type of “corkscrew thinking”. Their plan was codenamed “Operation Mincemeat” and became the greatest military deception since the Trojan Horse.
Working with colleague George Acres (Robert Flemyng), Ewen Montagu (Clifton Webb) develops a plan which involves placing the dead body of a Special Operations courier in the sea off Spain. Although technically neutral Spain is openly sympathetic to Nazi Germany. Any secret papers carried on the body will surely be handed to the German authorities and copied before being returned. The secret papers would not contain detailed battle plans, just enough of a passing reference to an invasion of Greece to convince the Nazis this is where the Allies will strike next.
Taking advice from Home Office pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury (André Morell) Montagu looks out for a body of the right age and type which has died from pneumonia (which has similar symptoms to drowning). The body is found and a fake identity and life story created with the help of Montagu’s assistant, Pam (Josephine Griffin), and her flatmate Lucy (Gloria Grahame) who is – unknown to her – given the role of the dead man’s fiancée.
Eventually the body of ‘Major William Martin’ is placed in the sea off Huelva in southern Spain, and all the Allies can do is wait to see if the Germans take the bait.
The first half of this film follows the actual development of Operation Mincemeat very closely and is fast-paced and absorbing. The technical details of acquiring the right body, building the false identity and creating fake documents have a documentary feel. The disposal of the body, almost in sight of a Spanish fishing fleet, is genuinely suspenseful.
Unfortunately the next fifty minutes or so are complete fiction and just seem to have been created to give Gloria Grahame something to do (having been pretty much a cipher in the earlier half).
A pro-Nazi Irish agent, Patrick O’Reilly (Stephen Boyd), lands in London to establish whether Major Martin is genuine (Hitler is convinced, but Admiral Canaris (Wolf Frees) thinks it is all too good to be true). Boyd looks so sinister as he skulks around London trying to exude Irish charm it’s a wonder he wasn’t sent back on the first boat.
Grahame’s character has fallen in love with an airman called Joe (William Russell), who has fortunately (for the film) just been shot down. When O’Reilly finally finds Lucy he is so convinced by her grief for Joe that he signals: “Martin genuine!” The message goes around Whitehall “Mincemeat swallowed whole” and the Germans redeploy masses of troops to Greece for an invasion that never comes.
The facts of Operation Mincemeat are genuinely fascinating. The body used was in fact that of a Welsh tramp, Glyndwr Michael. He had no family and the scene in which his father is convinced to allow the use of his son’s corpse, while very moving, is also fictional. Michael’s role in Mincemeat only became known with the release of official papers in the late 1990’s. In a way the film pulls off a clever double bluff as the fictional body is identified as Scottish while ‘William Martin’ is given a Welsh background (which is true to the real body’s identity).
Glyndwr Michael led a sad and lonely life but in death he really did change the course of history: where the Allies had expected 10,000 casualties invading Sicily, there were 1,400; the navy expected to lose 300 ships, they lost a dozen; the Germans cancelled a major offensive on the Russian front and allowed the Red Army to keep up its drive to the west.
The film itself really is a thing of two halves which do not really gel, but give Gloria Grahame a chance to do some decent thesping instead of being the ‘other girl’ as she always tended to be. In the lead role Clifton Webb is brisk and efficient instead of waspish, although his acting style does seem rather stagey today. There is a great supporting cast of British character actors who are a pleasure to spot when they turn up.
Trivia notes: i) Peter Sellers provided the voice for an unseen Winston Churchill; ii) the final scene at ‘Major Martin’s’ grave was filmed at the real grave in Huelva.