The True Story Behind Netflix’s Operation Mincemeat
Operation Mincemeat—a historical drama chronicling an audacious World War II plot by the British intelligence services to dupe the Nazis—drops on Netflix May 11. Colin Firth, Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen, the movie dramatizes a mission that played a crucial role in turning the tide in the Allied forces’ favor in the war’s later years.
What may come as a surprise to many viewers is that despite its far-fetched plot—which features a corpse with a fake identity, a briefcase stuffed with false documents, and James Bond creator Ian Fleming—the movie is largely faithful to the real historical events. Here’s the true story behind Operation Mincemeat.
What was Operation Mincemeat?
In 1943, Allied forces comprising Britain, France, Canada, the U.S., and Australia planned to launch an offensive on the Italian island, Sicily, to topple Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime, which supported the Nazis in the war.
Two British intelligence officers devised a complex plan to trick the Nazis and divert their armies from the Italian coast in order to ensure that the invasion was successful. Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen), and Captain Ewenmontagu (Colin Firth), devised a plan to hide a body as an officer of the British royal marines, off the Spanish coast. Spain at the time was under the control of dictator Francisco Franco. The country was also neutral during the war but shared intelligence with Nazis. The corpse had a briefcase stuffed with what appeared to be top secret documents suggesting that the Allies next target would be Greece—which had been occupied by the Italians and Nazis since 1941—and a different Italian island, Sardinia.
However, Major William Martin (the dead marine) and all the documents that he had were completely fabricated. Glyndwr, a 34-year old man who moved to London from Wales after becoming homeless and then died of poisoning by rat poison, was actually the corpse. With the help of a London coroner, Cholmondeley and Montagu chose Michael as he had no known relatives looking for him—his identity wasn’t revealed publicly until the 1990s.
The briefcase also contained a photograph of Major Martin’s supposed fiancée, a receipt for an engagement ring, and a theater ticket stub—all planted to suggest authenticity. When the Spanish found the supposedly drowned marine, the British authorities scrambled to retrieve the briefcase he was found with to convince the Nazis of the enclosed documents’ validity.
Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, and Colin Firth participate in Operation Mincemeat
Giles Keyte/Courtesy See Saw Films and Netflix, as well as Haversack Films Limited
Did Operation Mincemeat work?
The briefcase was recovered by the Nazis from Spain, and an original copy of the false documents was reportedly sent to Adolf Hitler. Fearful of the Allies’ supposed plan to take back Greece, he redirected Nazi troops to defend the territory. In July 1943, 160,000 Allied troops entered Sicily, taking control of the entire island in just over a year. The British leader reportedly received a telegram informing him of the operation’s success, saying: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”
The successful invasion was considered a turning point in the war, accelerating Mussolini’s downfall later that month and supporting the Allies in their eventual victory in Europe in September 1945.
What were the roles of Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen’s characters?
Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”), played by Macfadyen, was an eccentric secondee to the intelligence unit from the Royal Air Force, despite having reportedly never flown. Firth played Montagu. Montagu was a lawyer who had signed up for naval intelligence before the war. The team they headed was known as Section 17M and it was located in the basement of London’s British naval headquarters.
Cholmondeley and Montagu had worked for the secret XX Committee in the British secret service, where they were regularly confronted with double agents, counter-espionage, counter-intelligence, and misinformation.
For their part in the operation, Montagu as Cholmondeley received both military awards.
How are the different parts made of the movie?
As the British intelligence agency believes that Montagu’s brother Ivor is Russian spy, suspicions are placed on him. Cholmondeley joins the mission to monitor Montagu’s movements and assess any threat his brother might pose.
In reality, Montagu’s brother Ivor was a committed communist and had once worked for the Russian secret service. The British were skeptical of Montagu and even tapped his mobile phone. However, their impact was limited. There’s also no evidence to suggest that Cholmondeley was spying on his colleague.
Kelly Macdonald plays Jean Lesley in a romantic triangle that is another subplot. Lesley worked as a secretary for the British secret service, and her photograph was planted in the briefcase as the “fiancée” of the fabricated marine. Although Lesley knew the two men, there’s no evidence that they were vying for her affections.
For more of TIME’s culture coverage, subscribe to our entertainment newsletter, More to the Story, by clicking here.
What was Ian Fleming’s involvement as a James Bond writer?
Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), James Bond’s author, narrates the movie. He was a British Naval Intelligence Division officer during World War II.
Fleming, who was then assistant to Admiral Godfrey (head of naval intelligence) at the time of Operation Mincemeat. Fleming, who had read a similar plot in a novel, suggested that Godfrey use the corpse plan to deceive the Nazis. Cholmondeley & Montagu took the idea and expanded it to the incredible scale shown in the film.
Fleming was inspired by his experience in intelligence units and went on to create 14 novels about James Bond. It’s been suggested that Admiral Godfrey was Fleming’s basis for Bond’s boss, “M”, while another agent involved in Operation Mincemeat, Charles Fraser-Smith, inspired Bond’s gadget-making colleague, “Q.” Fraser-Smith designed a special container to preserve the fake marine’s corpse during its time in the water, which was then released into the sea from a British submarine.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME