"I had never realised quite how close it came to disaster": Ben Macintyre on Operation Mincemeat
Ben Macintyre, acclaimed historian and author of Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II speaks to Jonny Wilkes about an incredible act of espinage that fooled Adolf Hitler
Ben Macintyre is an acclaimed historian, author and columnist. His bestselling book about Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley’s hoax, Operation Mincemeat, has been adapted into a feature film of the same name, which releases in April 2022. Speaking to Jonny Wilkes, he explains how his novel came about, and his involvement with the 2022 film
When was the existence of Operation Mincemeat first brought to light?
The story of Operation Mincemeat was first told by Ewen Montagu in his 1953 book The Man Who Never Was [subsequently adapted into a film in 1956]. However, it was the release of the classified MI5 ‘Mincemeat files’ in 1996 that enabled a complete account to be written for the first time.
What, for you, was the most intriguing aspect of the operation?
The sheer level of jeopardy. The danger was not merely that it might not work; if the Germans had rumbled what was going on, they would have realised that they were being made to think Sicily was not the target of the Allied invasion, and that therefore it was. They would have poured troops onto the island and made it virtually impregnable. Before digging into the MI5 files, I had never realised quite how close it came to disaster.
Were you able to talk to any of the figures involved in the original operation as part of your research?
I had the huge pleasure of taking former MI5 clerk Jean Leslie, then in her wheelchair, down to the very spot on the Thames where the famous photograph of ‘Pam’ was taken. I also met several of the staff from Room 13 who could tell me exactly what it was like to prepare the deception. Alas, all are now dead.
How involved were you in the making of the Operation Mincemeat film, and what was the most enjoyable part of seeing your book come to life?
I was closely involved with [director] John Madden and [screenwriter] Michelle Ashford in helping to shape the script at the beginning, and the historical detail, but they were responsible for bringing it to life on screen. This is the first of my books to be made into a film, and the process of seeing facts and events that I thought I knew well turned into another form has been utterly mesmerising, and hugely enjoyable. I thought I knew these characters. It is like meeting them all over again.
How significant do you think this episode was to the outcome of WW2? What might have happened had the Germans not been duped?
‘What if’ history is always dangerous. But I think it is fair to say, at the very least, that without Operation Mincemeat, Adolf Hitler would not have diverted troops to Greece, making the invasion a great deal harder and slower – if not impossible. Had the deception been exposed as such, the outcome might well have been catastrophic, and altered the course of the war.
This content first appeared in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed. Ben will also be talking about the film, and the real history behind it, in an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast that releases on Tuesday 19 April
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.