Ground Meat Operation– a historical drama chronicling a daring World War II plot by British intelligence to dupe the Nazis – drops to Netflix on May 11. With Colin Firth and Succession‘s Matthew Macfadyen, the film depicts a mission that played a crucial role in turning the tide in favor of Allied forces in the final years of the war.
What may surprise many viewers is that despite its wacky plot – which features a corpse with a false identity, a briefcase stuffed with fake documents, and James Bond creator Ian Fleming – the film is largely faithful to the true story events. Here is the real story behind Ground Meat Operation.
What is Operation Mincemeat?
In 1943, Allied forces comprising Britain, France, Canada, the United States and Australia planned to launch an offensive on the Italian island of Sicily to overthrow the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, who supported the Nazis during the war.
To ensure the success of the invasion, two British intelligence officers hatched an elaborate plan to deceive the Nazis and draw their allied armies away from Italian shores. Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) and Captain Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) have decided to plant a corpse disguised as a member of the British Royal Navy off the coast of Spain. At the time, Spain was ruled by dictator Francisco Franco, and although it was officially neutral during the war, the country shared intelligence with the Nazis. The corpse had a briefcase filled with what appeared to be top secret documents suggesting the Allies’ next target would be Greece – which had been occupied by the Italians and Nazis since 1941 – and another Italian island, Sardinia.
But the dead marine, called Major William Martin, and the documents he held were entirely fabricated. The corpse was actually Glyndwr Michael, a 34-year-old man who became homeless after moving to London from Wales and died after ingesting rat poison. With the help of a London coroner, Cholmondeley and Montagu chose Michael because he had no known relatives looking for him – his identity was not publicly revealed until the 1990s.
The briefcase also contained a photograph of Major Martin’s alleged fiancée, a receipt for an engagement ring and a theater ticket stub, all planted to suggest authenticity. When the Spaniards found the supposedly drowned marine, British authorities rushed to recover the briefcase he was found with to convince the Nazis of the validity of the attached documents.
Matthew Macfadyen and Colin Firth in “Operation Mincemeat”
Giles Keyte/Courtesy of See-Saw Films and Netflix, and Haversack Films Limited
Did Operation Mincemeat Work?
The Nazis recovered the briefcase from the Spaniards and a copy of the forged documents allegedly went directly to Adolf Hitler himself. Fearing the Allies’ supposed plan to retake Greece, he redirected Nazi troops to defend the territory. Following false information, the Nazis were caught off guard when in July 1943, 160,000 Allied troops invaded Sicily and took control of the island in just over a month. The British leader is said to have received a telegram informing him of the success of the operation, saying: “The minced meat swallowed the rod, the line and the sinker.
The successful invasion was seen as a turning point in the war, hastening 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 secondment to the Royal Air Force Intelligence Unit, although he apparently never flew. Montagu, played by Firth, had been a lawyer before moving into naval intelligence during the war. Together they led a team known as Section 17M based in a basement room at British Naval Headquarters in London.
Cholmondeley and Montagu had worked for the British Secret Service’s Secret Committee XX, where they regularly dealt with double agents, counter-intelligence, counterintelligence and disinformation.
Both Montagu and Cholmondeley received military awards for their roles in the operation.
What parts of the film are composed?
In the film, suspicion falls on Montagu as British intelligence believes his brother Ivor, played by Mark Gatiss, is a Russian spy. Cholmondeley is enlisted to spy on Montagu during the operation to assess the threat his brother might pose.
In reality, Montagu’s brother, Ivor, was a committed communist and had once worked for the Russian secret service. While the British distrusted him and even tapped his phone, his impact on the operation was considered limited. There is also no evidence to suggest that Cholmondeley was spying on his colleague.
Another embellished subplot of the film is a love triangle between Cholmondeley, Montagu, and Jean Lesley, played by Kelly Macdonald. Lesley worked as a secretary for the British Secret Service, and her photo was planted in the briefcase as the fabricated Marine’s “fiancée”. Although Lesley knows the two men, there is no evidence that they competed for her affections.
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How was James Bond author Ian Fleming involved?
The film is narrated by Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), the James Bond author who worked for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during the war.
At the time of Operation Mincemeat, Fleming was assistant to Admiral Godfrey, the Chief of Naval Intelligence. Fleming suggested the corpse plot to Godfrey as a clever way to fool the Nazis after he read a similar story in a novel. Cholmondeley and Montagu ran with the idea, expanding it to the fantasy scale depicted in the film.
Inspired by his time in the intelligence unit, Fleming went on to write 14 novels around the fictional spy, James Bond. It has been suggested that Admiral Godfrey was Fleming’s base for Bond boss ‘M’, while another operative involved in Operation Mincemeat, Charles Fraser-Smith, inspired fellow gadget-maker of Bond, “Q”. Fraser-Smith designed a special container to hold the faux marine’s corpse while it was in the water, which was later released back into the sea by a British submarine.
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