Spoilers ahead, though there are still some mysteries… read on for the ending of the film, what happened to the real Jean and Ewen, and whether the body used was Glyndwr Michael’s at all… (if you’re after my review it’s here)
That ending: does the ruse work?
The deception does work, despite the hoped-for inexperienced local Spanish coroner turning out to have been replaced with an expert from the University of Madrid — a man whose speciality is investigating drownings! The last third of the film sees much toing and froing in Spain, with Ewen’s team waiting nervously back in London, hoping the fake letters in Martin’s bag will somehow get from the Spaniards to the Germans — and then that their contents will be believed.
Eventually the bag is returned to the British. The letter’s seal is still intact, indicating the Spanish (who during WW2 are supposedly a neutral country) have respected ownership and simply sent everything back untouched, which would be a disaster. However forensic examination indicates the letter has been opened without disturbing the seal, rolling it so it could be removed and read. The British work this out by re-soaking the letter and seeing how the paper behaves, indicating it has indeed been rolled. Additionally, an eyelash added to the letter before sealing has gone — more evidence that it has been read.
Messages are intercepted indicating that the Germans have begun moving significant numbers of troops away from Sicily and towards Greece. When the Allies invade the island, in July 1943, they encounter less resistance and casualties are not significant.
What happens to Ewen and Jean?
Jean and Ewen do not fall in love! In the film, Jean leaves her job, seeking a different kind of war work. She’s hoping she might end up working as a courier, which would fit with her choice to live life to the full since her husband’s death. Ewen’s wife Iris leaves for America with their two children at the start of the film — the Montagus are Jewish and fear what would happen to a prominent Jewish family if the Nazis manage to invade. Ewen and Iris’s marriage is already on very shaky ground when she leaves and at that point there is no guarantee that they will actually see each other again.
The film Operation Mincemeat is based on the 2010 book of the same name by Ben Macintyre.
What actually happened to Ewen and Jean?
Title cards at the end of Operation Mincemeat tell us that the real Ewen reunited with his wife Iris at the end of the war, and that Jean, a widow, did later remarry, to a man who had fought in WW2.
In real life, while Operation Mincemeat was deemed a huge success, it may be that, as Hitler was already obsessed with Greece and the Balkans, the paperwork found on Bill Martin’s body worked more as a kind of confirmation bias for him — perhaps it told him what he wanted to think.
What’s in a name? (1)
The film takes the line that the body was Glyndwr Michael’s. However there is actually still doubt over whether this was the case. Ewen Montagu wrote a book in 1953, The Man who Never Was (which was also made into a film), but did not name him. In 1996 an amateur historian named Roger Morgan found evidence that the body used was Glyndwr Michael, and in 1997 Michael’s name was added to Bill Martin’s grave in Huelva in Spain.
However there are, as they say, other names available, and reasons to consider other options. The age and likely deterioration of Michael’s corpse by the time of the ruse, the likelihood that a coroner might realise the drowned victim hadn’t actually drowned, and the strange London to Scotland drive to deliver the body to Scotland’s Holy Lock submarine base add uncertainty.
Admiral Lord West, writing in The Telegraph (paywalled) states that Norman Jewell, commander of the submarine HMS Seraph, which carried the body to waters off the Spanish coast, never believed it was Michael; he told Navy News during his retirement that “I don’t believe the claims about the body’s identity.”
Good old Wikipedia has an interesting overview of the real Operation Mincemeat, including the belief of pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury — who was brought in to help with the real-life plot — that the lack of seawater in the body’s lungs wouldn’t actually be a problem. Still, if you check out its separate page on “Bill Martin” here it lists two other potential candidates for the fake officer’s identity:
- In 2003 writer Colin Gribbons suggested the body used was actually Tom Martin, who drowned along with over 300 seamates when HMS Dasher went down in the Firth of Clyde in March 1943.
- In 2004, John and Noreen Steele claimed that the body might have been that of John Melville, a sailor who also went down with the Dasher.
A body from a recently drowned, reasobably fit serviceman would be less likely to raise questions, which might lead to more questions about the deception. It only takes one loose thread for something to unravel, after all.
These are all very good arguments. Still, I think there’s something about the story of Glyndwr Michael — who suffered such poverty as a child and lost his father young to suicide — that makes me want to believe it’s him. The real Ewen Montagu commented about the then-unnamed vagrant that “the only worthwhile thing he ever did he did after his death”, an unnecessarily harsh statement from someone himself working in the shadows, who knew how much is kept hidden and how much we never know about other people. But even if Montagu was correct about Michael’s life, to have such an important role, and more importantly to be seen, even after his death, gives Glyndwr Michael back his dignity (even if the process of turning his corpse into Major Bill Martin was anything but dignified).
What’s in a name? (2)
Yes, Charles is correct. You really do pronounce Cholmondeley as Chumley.
The “Good Germans”
In the film, Jean comes home to find a man has broken in to her flat — it’s Teddy, who works at Ewen’s Gargoyle private members’ club. He forces her to tell him what she knows about Operation Mincemeat. Is he one of the “good Germans” mentioned earlier in the film, actively trying to bring down Hitler? In the movie it’s made clear no one really knows if such people exist or if it’s just a ruse created by the Germans, more smoke and mirrors giving the Allies what they’d like to think is true. There was, though, an assassination attempt made against Hitler in 1944. Called Operation Valkyrie, it failed; Hitler was barely injured, and nearly all the 200 plotters were executed. You can find out more about this on history.com.
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