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Interview with Ben Macintyre

Ben MacintyreQ: What inspired you to write about this little-known story from World War II?
A: I first came across the story while researching my last book, Agent Zigzag, about the British criminal and double agent Eddie Chapman. One of his case officers, Ewen Montagu, was the mastermind behind Operation Mincemeat. The more I dug, the more information emerged about this true story, for so long shrouded in myth and mystery.

Q: Was it difficult to make contact with Ewen Montagu's family, and were they helpful in your research?
A: The members of the Montagu family were easy to find and hugely helpful; indeed, this book could not have been written without them. After the war, Ewen Montagu retained most of the official papers relating to Operation Mincemeat. After he died, they were put in a wooden trunk, and almost forgotten. In 2007, the family gave me full access to the papers, including the official records, but also memos, letters, photographs, and a 200-page memoir written by Montagu himself.

Q: What was the most interesting/surprising detail that you uncovered as you were gathering information for Operation Mincemeat?
A: The most extraordinary aspect of Operation Mincemeat, to my mind, is the way that the organizers approached this elaborate, many-layered deception operation as if they were writing a novel, imagining a version of reality and then luring the truth towards it. Indeed, the talents required for espionage and fiction-writing are not so very different. At the center of the plot was the fictional figure of William Martin: he was equipped with not only false papers but an entirely false personality and past, including a fiancée, complete with love letters.

Q: There are a number of fascinating figures in Operation Mincemeat. Which person were you most intrigued by, and why?
A: I was particularly fascinated by Charles Cholmondeley, the RAF officer seconded to MI5 who first dreamed up the plan to use a dead body to plant false information on the Germans. Cholmondeley had a long, waxed, air-force mustache, a shy personality, and a very strange mind, but he was a genius at deception work, and the unsung hero of Operation Mincemeat. Unlike other participants, he was modest about the achievement, never told anyone what he had done during the war, and ended up selling lawn mowers in a small town in rural England.

Q: Where did you conduct most of your research, and did you encounter any difficulties or roadblocks along the way?
A: This book took me to Spain, France, and the U.S., but most of the research was conducted in British archives and interviewing survivors from that time. Despite Britain's draconian Official Secrecy Act, rather than hindering or obstructing my research, MI5 and MI6 (the security service and secret intelligence service) were extraordinarily helpful. Perhaps the main impediment was time: the events described in the book are now on the furthest tip of living memory, most of the participants are now dead, and in some ways the research was a race to capture the memories of the living before they, too, are gone.

Q: In the book, you hint that Ewen Montagu (playing Bill) and Jean Leslie (playing Pam) may have taken their roles as "lovers" too seriously. What is your belief about their relationship?
A: Whether the imagined courtship between "Bill" and "Pam" was ever more than merely flirtatious banter is unknown, and likely to remain that way. Certainly Ewen was "smitten" with Jean (her word), and they both played along with their allotted roles. Wartime Britain was filled with fear and danger, but for those in the spying game, it was also a time of great excitement and romance. If the imagined love affair overlapped with reality, that would fit with the story, in which the framers invented a deception so real they began to believe it themselves.

Q: Did you have the opportunity to visit the gravestone of Glyndwr Michael/Major William Martin in Huelva? How do you think his family would have felt if they had known the unexpected and important role their son played in the outcome of World War II?
A: I did visit the grave in Huelva: it is a most atmospheric and tranquil place, looking down over the port and the shoreline where the body of "William Martin" was found in 1943. Glyndwr Michael's family was a troubled one, crushed by poverty and with a history of mental illness. I think they would have been astonished and delighted in equal measure that Glyndwr played such a crucial role in history, albeit posthumously, and through no choice of his own.

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