Episode 1

A Question of Deception

A Question of Deception

Ben Macintyre - author of Operation Mincemeat - meets former British Intelligence Operative Julian Fisher as they unpack the real story behind the Netflix movie Operation Mincemeat, starring Colin Firth. Presenter Rory Bremner uncovers a world of daring do, bluff, and bluster which featured some of the biggest names in spy history including an early outing for James Bond author Ian Fleming. 
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The Spying Game, Episode 1: A Question of Deception

JODHI MAY: From the SPYSCAPE Podcast Network. This is The Spying Game

RORY BREMNER: Hello and welcome to The Spying Game. I'm Rory Bremner, comedian, mimic, spy enthusiast, and professional liar. During this season of The Spying Game, I'm going to be joined by a mix of experts in the field of deception and fellow enthusiasts from the world of entertainment as we sought the Moscow Rules from the Hollywood fabrication. This time on The Spying Game, it's A Question of Deception.

BEN MACINTYRE: Winston Churchill after dinner was telling this story to everybody who would listen. 

JULIAN FISHER: Where does reality stop and fantasy start? The best deception is always based in reality, and reality sometimes is fantastic. 

BEN MACINTYRE: We'll get a dead body, we’ll equip it with a new identity. We will then furnish it with completely false papers, and we'll leave it somewhere where the Germans will find it. 

JULIAN FISHER: If you're not able to come up with a good story, a convincing story, make it sound credible, make it sound believable. You're unlikely to go very far in the world of espionage. 

BEN MACINTYRE: As it continued, and they began to realize that it was not going according to plan, the level of stress and jeopardy involved began to mount up. They began to realize that instead of actually helping the war effort, they might have launched the worst possible negative operation that would, in fact, lead to a bloodbath on the shores of Sicily. It came from Ian Fleming himself. It came from the master of spy fiction. 

RORY BREMNER: Today, I'm talking to two guests who live their lives on the line between truth and fiction, the hidden world where truth comes armed with a bodyguard of lies, where stories are interwoven, some true, some false, and where at any moment, real life can upset the best-laid plans. I'm joined by an author, documentary maker, and broadcaster who's told some of the most amazing stories in modern history. His books include Agent Sonya, A Spy Among Friends, Double Cross, and Agent Zigzag. He's the man behind Operation Mincemeat. And now, of course, it's a Netflix film. It's historian Ben Macintyre. Hello, Ben. 

BEN MACINTYRE: Hello, Rory. 

RORY BREMNER: You must be the busiest person in the world at the moment, because now, as I speak, Operation Mincemeat, which you wrote some years ago, has now come to the screen. Are you pleased with the results and the attention it's getting? 

BEN MACINTYRE: Oh, I'm absolutely delighted with it. It's fantastic. I mean, it's quite frantic at the moment, but it's wonderful. They've done an unbelievable job. It's a complicated story, Operation Mincemeat. I know we'll talk about it but to have turned it into two hours of scintillating cinema is absolutely extraordinary and it is such a wonderful feeling watching your words turned into a completely different tale, really, while being very true to the reality of the story itself. 

RORY BREMNER: Yes we'll come on to that because I'd love to know, you two, how much is embellished because, of course, in your books, there is so much detail there and so much color and so much flavor. And you sometimes say, “Oh Ben, how did you know that they were twiddling their mustache when they were saying that?” But a film, of course, brings that very much to life. So we're going to explore that in just a moment. We're also lucky enough to be joined by a man who's seen it all up close and personal. You may recognize him from Channel 4’s Spies. Hopefully, you don't recognize him from his time as a British intelligence operative. It's Julian Fisher. Hi Julian. And thank you for joining us. So, is that right? Can I call you an intelligence operative? How would you describe yourself? A security specialist? An intelligence specialist? 

JULIAN FISHER: I'd be happy with intelligence operative, intelligence specialist, any of those things. 

RORY BREMNER: What drew you into this world? How did you get started? Was it something you'd always wanted to do at school, or were you a lover of spy fiction? 

JULIAN FISHER: Not at all. Actually, I think I was drawn into it completely by accident. I certainly didn't seek it out, and it may be in some ways that actually the best operatives are those who aren't looking for it. I was at the wrong university from the point of view of being a spy in that I was at Oxford rather than Cambridge, that led inexorably as one of that generation of peers who are now running the country. I say ‘running’ in inverted commas. That led me inexorably into the city, which bored me stiff. And then I was looking for more excitement in overseas work through the Foreign Office and one thing led to another. 

RORY BREMNER: As it so often does. 

BEN MACINTYRE: Well, of course, there was an Oxford spy ring, actually. I mean, they just -  I speak as a Cambridge man - they just weren't very good. They were all recruited by that extraordinary NKVD recruiter, Arnold Deutsch, who recruited the Cambridge Five. But he also recruited a couple at Oxford; they just didn't come to very much. 

RORY BREMNER: I love the Cambridge Five and the Oxford Four. I thought the Cambridge Five was a boat crew, no that's the Cambridge Eight, isn't it? Today's episode of The Spying Game is dedicated to the story which revels in deception and fake news. I suppose just very, very quickly we should just sketch what we're talking about with Operation Mincemeat. This is the operation in 1943 where the Germans were already preparing for the Allies to invade Sicily. And the idea was that we had to divert them from that. 

BEN MACINTYRE: That's exactly right. I mean, this vast armada had assembled on the North African coast for the invasion of Fortress Europe, Nazi-occupied Europe, that everybody knew was coming. The Germans knew it was coming. The Allies obviously knew it was coming. And the question was, where was it going to land? And the obvious target - which, as Churchill said, anyone with an atlas could probably have worked out - was Sicily, because if you control Sicily, you control the central Mediterranean. And if you've got air supremacy there, the subsequent invasion of Italy becomes doable. So the job of the spooks was to try to convince the Germans that instead of attacking Sicily, this huge armada of troops was heading for Greece. That's it in a nutshell. It was an incredibly complicated, overall deception plan of which Operation Mincemeat was the central element. 

RORY BREMNER: The fascinating thing about that, about the film and your book, is how it interweaves the narratives about real stories and fake stories. And Operation Mincemeat, which is originally entitled I think Operation Trojan Horse itself came from a piece of writing, didn't it? The Trout Memo. 

BEN MACINTYRE: I mean, it's one of the wonderful things about this story is that it was fabricated by both novelists and would-be novelists who set about to create a kind of real fiction if you like. And it actually originated - and this is one of the things I discovered when I was writing the book - it came from Ian Fleming himself. It came from the master of spy fiction, who in 1943 and had been from the beginning of the war, was assistant to the head of Naval Intelligence, Admiral Sir John Godfrey, who would become the model for M in the James Bond stories. And it was Ian Fleming and Godfrey who drew up something called The Trout Memo, which contained a list of really quite bonkers ideas for trying to baffle the enemy. And this particular idea itself came from another novel. No one reads him now called Basil Thompson who was a particularly bad sort of detective novelist before the war. He'd been a tutor to the King of Siam and would go on to become head of the Criminal Investigation Department. But at this point, he was writing novels and he wrote one called The Milliner's Hat Mystery, which contained at its core the idea that a dead body could be made to appear to be someone else. And that was lodged in Fleming's mind. And he put it in The Trout Memo. And the way he described it was Number 28, an idea. Not a very nice one. Let's get a dead body. Let's give it a false identity and make it look as if it is an airman who drowned at sea and let it wash up somewhere with false papers where the Germans will find it. And this idea has sat dormant in The Trout Memo for several years. It was there for at least two and a half years until it was picked up again by these two characters who went by the unimprovable names of Montagu and Cholmondeley, who were operatives within the sort of secret world at that point, and they ran with it. So that is the essence of Operation Mincemeat. We'll get a dead body, we’ll equip it with a new identity. We will then furnish it with completely false papers, and we'll leave it somewhere where the Germans will find it. 

RORY BREMNER: Fantastic. 

BEN MACINTYRE: I mean, some of those outlandish ideas that Fleming framed in The Trout Memo would go on to become plots in some of the James Bond stories. That's, it is the interweaving in a way of reality and fiction in this story that makes it so compelling. And they've caught it brilliantly in the film because these were people who were inventing a parallel world. And in a way, that is what novelists do. And it's also actually - and Julian will have a view on this - it's what spies do to some extent. I mean, there is no accident, I think, that some of the greatest novelists of the 20th century were also spies. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, John le Carré. The first thing Stella Remington did when she stepped down as head of MI5 was to start writing novels, inventing a real-world or an apparently real world, artificially, and luring other people into it. That's the essence of spycraft in some ways. It's also the essence of novel writing. So I think the fact that you've got this group of would-be writers and some published writers trying to create a false world, a false identity, a false person, is the essence of what Operation Mincemeat was about. 

RORY BREMNER: There's that wonderful line in the film from the Matthew Macfadyen character, Charles Cholmondeley, where he says, “Is anybody here not writing a novel?”

BEN MACINTYRE: It's brilliant, isn't it? And the other line that I completely love is when he says, “Shh. They're everywhere.” And the person sitting opposite says, “What? Spies?” And he says, “No, novelists.”

RORY BREMNER: So, Julian, have you come across many operations that drew their inspiration from the fictional world? 

JULIAN FISHER: Well, first of all, I have to say that Montagu and Cholmondeley sound rather like a high-end travel agency to me and fantastic characters. And the point about spying is it tends to attract fantastic characters. But I have to say, Ben, you took the words out of my mouth. The inspiration for novels. Inspiration for fiction. Inspiration for operations comes from the same place, doesn't it? It all comes from human imagination. If you're not able to come up with a good story, a convincing story, make it sound credible, make it sound believable. You're unlikely to go very far in the world of espionage. So it's not really, it's not a surprise at all that you have this very strong crossover actually, not just between espionage and novel writing, but espionage, novel writing, and acting. There's a recently published book, Stars and Spies, co-authored by Julius Green. Christopher Andrew explores exactly that. And it's all about the presentation of an alternate reality, as Ben says. 

RORY BREMNER: And the extraordinary thing time and time again, we've been making this series, is how real life is more unbelievable than any fiction. I mean, during the course of the series we're talking to Ben about your own Agent Sonya. I mean, here's this Cotswold housewife who cycles back, and she's got a shed at the end of her garden where she is sending secrets to the Russians about the American bomb. We've got thousands of Jewish refugees who are evacuated from Sudan through a totally fake Red Sea diving resort. And we've got a Russian agent in America who has the FBI moving in next door. Real life somehow manages to be even less believable. I think there's a line where Churchill says, “This has got to be unbelievable enough to be believable.” And that's really that interplay is at the heart of Operation Mincemeat and often at the heart of what you do. 

JULIAN FISHER: Where does reality stop, and the fantasy start? And that's one of the questions I've grappled with over the years. And the best deception is always based in reality, and reality sometimes is fantastic. So an over-planned operation, which looks perfect and looks somehow as though it's not bedeviled by day-to-day life, is probably likely to be less believable than one that is, to some degree, slapdash. And one of the great things about Mincemeat is that some aspects of it were actually pretty poorly planned operationally such as leaving a paper trail for Martin's father, who had apparently stayed in a hotel that hadn't been stayed in and that was patched up later on. But in some ways, actually, I think that the slightly slapdash nature of it makes it almost more believable. So it's got to be fantastic, but it's also got to be at some level flawed. 

BEN MACINTYRE: I think that's absolutely right, Julian.

RORY BREMNER: At any level, though, it could go wrong from finding a body in the first place and Ben they make a lot of this in the film, you got to find a body, but without relatives. And then a relative turns up. I don't know if that was an embellishment, we’ll come straight back to that. But you've got to use waterproof ink. But it's not going to be detectable as being waterproof ink because if you're putting a body in the water with the papers on it, it's not going to work if all the writing has just disappeared into the waves. It relies on a very poor local coroner not looking too deeply into how this person died because obviously, he didn't drown. He was a dead man put into the water. The coroner turns out to be a leading expert in drowning from Madrid who's sent in there to take over from the local coroner. I mean, how many of those were embellishments? 

BEN MACINTYRE: Well, all of those things that you've identified were actually true. I mean, one of the fascinating things about Operation Mincemeat was that they thought they thought of everything. I mean, they really did. They were very assiduous in trying to make sure that actually there weren't too many loose ends. They got it right. But life is not like that. Life doesn't fit the accepted pattern. And one of the things that happened in Operation Mincemeat was it began as a sort of game, a caper, as it continued and they began to realize that it was not going according to plan. The level of stress and jeopardy involved began to mount up and toward the end of it, when after the body had been launched, they began to realize that instead of actually helping the war effort, they might have launched the worst possible negative operation that would, in fact, lead to a bloodbath on the shores of Sicily. And as Julian has said, they genuinely feared that the evidence that appeared to be coming in that showed that the Germans were following this ruse could well have been itself a ruse. They were terrified that they were being fed the biggest deception ever by the Germans. So you've got this wilderness of mirrors, as they described it, where one sort of reality is reflecting another and you don't quite know where you are in it. I mean, one of the elements that they did was that they felt they had to create a full personality and backstory for this character, William Martin of the Royal Marines, who, of course, never existed. One of the ways they did that was to furnish him with a great deal of wallet litter, which is the spy jargon for all the stuff that you have in your pockets that shows who you are. And one of them was, as you've mentioned, this letter from his father, from the headed notepaper from the Black Lion Hotel in Mold. The letter itself is an extraordinary letter from an Edwardian father saying his father's son is spending too much money. That was fine. But when I read that and I saw the letter, I thought, “God, that's a real hostage to fortune because had there been a German spy in Britain, he could have gone to the Black Line Hotel in Mold, seen that there was no John Martin staying there and realized the whole thing was a hoax.” So I wrote this in the book and then after it came out, I got a call from a man and he said, “Actually, I've got the hotel register from the Black Lion Hotel in Mold. And if you look on this day you'll find the name John Martin has been written into the register.” So it was one of those moments where they realized they'd made a mistake and thought retrospectively, right, we'd better do something about this. And poor old Cholmondeley was sent off to the Black Lion Hotel to falsify the hotel register. 

RORY BREMNER: That's extraordinary because this stuff all had to get back to German high command. And again, we see in the film, they say the Spanish are very keen to just give it straight back to the British, and the British say, “No no, no. You've got to go through that.” I mean, there is a comic and there's something deeply serious about this. The success of the operation saved thousands of lives. Julian, looking at it from your perspective as an intelligence expert, would you have launched a plan like that, or were there too many things that could go wrong? 

JULIAN FISHER: Well, I mean, circumstances are always the thing that determines exactly how you approach a particular problem. But so it's impossible to say whether that particular type of operation would be appropriate in specific circumstances unless you know the circumstances that you're facing. And then what you're dealing with is second-guessing, the second-guessing, and then the second-guessing is second-guessing your second-guessing. And this goes on forever. Hence that rather wonderful phrase, ‘the corkscrew mind’. Which is what every successful intelligence officer needs to have. But at some point, you'd need to stop going around in circles, because we were concerned that the Germans were mounting their own counter-deception. And you can't rule that out. I don't know how much historical information is available from the perspective of what the Germans were doing, what the Abwehr was doing, and what stories might emerge from coups that they pulled off against us. I mean, we'd like to think that they didn't manage anything of that sort, but I suspect the reality is rather different. And what you've got is this battle of wits trying to work out what the other wits are doing. At some point, you just have to say, “Okay, we thought about it as much as we possibly can but we've just got to press go and see what happens.” And yes, of course, the stakes couldn't have been higher. But there is a stage where you just have to say, “We've tried to dot every i and cross every t, but we can't do everything.” One other example of that was the letter that Martin was carrying from his notional fiancee, Pam, which had a telephone number and an address on it, very easily checked out. Now, I don't know whether they put backstops in place to ensure that anybody calling that property would be given an appropriate story. But it looks like a glaring hole in the operation and they're going to be everywhere. Ex-post facto pretty much any operation you look at you'll be able to pick holes in it. And what's amazing about Mincemeat is that it got top-level clearance to go ahead, despite the fact that it was so complicated and so open, in fact, to being compromised. 

RORY BREMNER: I think Churchill was drawn to it by the fact that it was so fantastic. He said he preferred the fantastic over the mundane. And he gets the corkscrew metaphor, doesn't he, I think. Simon Russell Beale, one of you, said about the trouble, “If you were going round and round like a corkscrew, you end up looking up your own arse.”

JULIAN FISHER: Exactly. It's a brilliant way of putting it. And that plays to my point that at some point you just have to say, ”Right, we're going to give this a go.” And yet the margin for error is huge. 

RORY BREMNER: The film itself is a veritable Who's Who of spydom, both on and off the screen. You've got Colin Firth from Tinker, Tailor and The Kingsman, Matthew Macfadyen from Spooks and Enigma, Mark Gatiss and Penelope Wilton, and Jason Isaacs. I mean, you couldn't fail to be overheard by a former spook on the set. Our narrator is none other than Ian Fleming himself. What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Ian Fleming when you were researching Mincemeat? 

BEN MACINTYRE: Well, it was just how closely involved he was with every aspect of naval intelligence at that time. He really was right at the center of it. He used to mock himself in later life as having been a sort of ‘chocolate sailor’, which was the way he described himself. But he had in common with a lot of the other characters in this story that he was someone who was itching, really, to be at the front line. He longed to be in the action. But in a way, because Fleming knew so much, he was much too valuable to be risked. He wanted to go on the raid. He wanted to be behind the lines. He was that sort of person, but he wasn't allowed to be. Godfrey wouldn't let him go. And so, in a way, exercising his imagination was the way that he got around the fact that he couldn't really pick up a gun. And that is true of Montagu and Cholmondeley. I mean, Montagu was a barrister who was really too old to serve on the front line, and Cholmondeley was an RAF officer who was too tall to fit into a cockpit. And so he described himself as this flightless bird. And so they were all these sort of frustrated warriors in a way who nonetheless ended up fighting this secret war. And that gives the book and the film a kind of special quality because, in a way, we're very familiar with the other kind of war, the war of guns and bombs and bullets and tactics and generals and so on. We're much less familiar with this hidden war that takes place in this case, quite literally, beneath the streets of London. They are in a subterranean cave, really. It's called Room 13 beneath the Admiralty. It's a lot less spacious than it looks on the film. It's now a sort of broom cupboard in the Admiralty. But it was… they were really operating in secrecy. And this is a story that no one ever really expected would be told. And that does give it a very particular quality, I think. 

JULIAN FISHER: It's fantastic to be able to read in such detail about these types of operations. Now we're beyond the constraints of the Official Secrets Act and so forth with WWII operations. But doubtless, the same thing is going on today was the war on terror. For instance, if you look at the events leading up to the capture of and killing of Osama bin Laden, there's a fantastic story in the background as well. And Ben puts his finger on something which I think is very realistic: that officers in intelligence services are sometimes frustrated military personnel. They have the same mindset. There's a great commonality of mindset between spies and the military. And it is quite frustrating in some sense because you're getting out there, leading the charge with a revolver, (it) has a certain dash and panache about it, which can't ever really be captured in the world of espionage. And I think it's very interesting in the closing chapters that Ben explored Montagu's frustration that he wasn't recognized for what he'd done. The person, I think, who emerges as the real hero in all of this is Cholmondeley because actually, he was the one who was absolutely determined that his fantastic achievements wouldn't be recognized. And that's a particularly extraordinary mindset, in my opinion. 

RORY BREMNER: Yes. I mean, the irony of the person who says in the film, “Is anybody not writing a novel?”. And he was the one who wasn't. And the story was actually written several times and quite, quite soon after it actually happened. Tell us a little bit about the different variations the story went through. 

BEN MACINTYRE: Well, what I love about this is that, of course, it emerged after the war as a novel. I mean, it was Duff Cooper who was the Minister for Information who decided the only way to get around the Official Secrets Act was to present it as a novel. So he wrote a thing called Operation Heartbreak, which is a kind of fictionalized version of the case. And his justification for doing that was that Winston Churchill after dinner, was sort of telling this story to everybody who would listen. And so therefore he said, “Well, if he can do that, then I can write the novel.” Once the novel was out, that was then Ewen Montagu's excuse was saying, “Well, if there's a novel there, then I can do a nonfiction version.” So he wrote his own version, which is called The Man Who Never Was. But that itself was partly deceptive. That book contained, at its heart, a massive, great falsehood, which is that Montagu maintained that the body had been obtained with the permission of the family and that he had given his solemn word to the family that he would never reveal the identity. This is what is commonly termed in law a ‘lie’ because, in fact, they'd done no such thing. They'd simply stolen the body illegally from a coroner with the collusion of one of the most senior coroners in England and Montagu covered it up, and then it became a film, The Man Who Never Was made by Ronald Neame starring Clifton Webb. But again, it's set in train, this kind of strange mystery about the identity of the body. And it's something that people still today continue to carry on speculating about, even though we know for a fact that the body was that of a homeless Welshman called Glyndwr Michael, and that was not revealed until the files, the Mincemeat files were declassified starting in 1996. So what I love is the various iterations of this story. And there's even now a musical called Operation Mincemeat as well. So it's been through just about every stage. So it has these extraordinarily different iterations between reality and fiction that I completely love. And it's also at its heart, it is itself a fiction. 

RORY BREMNER: How did you get to it, though? 

BEN MACINTYRE: The truth is, I just got really lucky, Rory. I mean, they began releasing the Mincemeat files at a time when I was becoming really interested and fascinated in this stuff. And the Mincemeat files are extraordinary. I mean, they stand four feet high. There's something like 8,500 documents in it and it's an absolutely dense history. It is wonderful warp and weft stuff from moment to moment, literally almost minute to minute. You can follow the action. And what's wonderful about those files is that they are honest in a way that most government files really are not. Most government files are written with the expectation that they will be made public at some point, and therefore the writers tend to frame themselves in particular ways. I won't say they're actively deceptive but they kind of massage the impact of these things. That's not true of spy files because spy files are never meant to be read by anybody except the people involved in the operation. And so, they're honest in a way. So when it goes wrong, when Mincemeat starts to go wrong, they actually write in the margins of these notes, “We're going to hell in a handcart here. This is a complete cock up. We are finished here.” And so you really do get, I mean, you were saying at the top of the program if somebody scratches their nose and you put that in the book, is that true? Absolutely. I mean, the reality here is that there was so much in fact, I ended up not using quite a lot of stuff in the Mincemeat files because there just wasn't room to get it all in. And so, that's the lovely thing. If I say they were panicking, they were definitely panicking. 

JULIAN FISHER: In those files. Was there a great deal that was redacted? 

BEN MACINTYRE: Almost nothing by the time I got to them. I mean, one or two real names because, as you know Julian, I mean, the rule is MI5, not MI6. MI6 will never release its files, I suspect. But MI5 can release its files after 50 years if there is no impact on national security or privacy. The only bits redacted in the Mincemeat files as they currently exist are one or two names, which in 1996 referred to people who were still alive and they didn't want to compromise their privacy. Everyone involved in Operation Mincemeat is now passed on, although thankfully some of them were still alive when I was researching the book and that was absolutely fascinating. But in fact, all of those have now been publicly identified. 

RORY BREMNER: Later in this series, we'll be talking to Philippe Sands about The Ratline, which is a wonderful, totally absorbing podcast about the Nazis fleeing immediately after the Second World War, finding themselves in Italy, and then being turned from being fleeing Nazis to working an operation in Los Angeles with the Italians against the communists. Extraordinarily story, but Philippe comes across this, the first episode is the Secrets in the Castle, where he finds himself with the son of the main character. Was it Ewen Montagu's son who you encountered and opened the door and almost said, “Come in, Mr. Macintyre, I've been expecting you”?

BEN MACINTYRE: Well, it's one of those moments that sounds completely filmic, and that is exactly what happened. I contacted Jeremy, who appears in the film as a young boy, and I said, “Did your father leave any papers?” And he was a lovely man. Jeremy said, “Yes, I think there is something upstairs.” And we went upstairs and he pulled a trunk out from under the bed. And it sounds as if I've made this up and I promise I didn't. 

JULIAN FISHER: A tip for foreign intelligence agencies: look under the bed first. 

BEN MACINTYRE: Always under the bed, covered in dust. He pulled this thing out and it was absolutely stuffed with papers that Montagu had lifted from MI5 at the end of the war, which is exactly as Jeremy will attest, what you're not supposed to do as a spy. You're supposed to send all this stuff back. I think Montagu knew right from the get-go that he was onto a fantastic story here that would make him extremely well-known and would. So I think he knew what he was doing, but it contained extraordinary things that had never been published, including a whole set of photographs of the operation as it was taking place. They were taking photographs of each other on the great drive north with the body in the back of the truck as they're about to get onto the submarine. That was all photographed and none of those photographs had ever been seen before, so that was an absolute treasure trove and extraordinary. 

RORY BREMNER: Julian, we've been saying how utterly fantastical the whole plot is. Looking at it from your professional perspective with the work you're doing now, I mean, how would you react? 

JULIAN FISHER: Occasionally I advise on adaptations of spy novels onto the screen, and you can imagine that I'm presented with a number of scripts, some of which are so fantastical as to be not even believable on the silver screen. I think if I were to be presented with Mincemeat before reading Ben's book, I'd have just said, “Don't be ridiculous. That can't possibly, possibly come across as a believable story.” And I think that's at the heart of it. That's its beauty, in fact. 

BEN MACINTYRE: I have a lovely fantasy of what would happen if you did try to present it today. I mean, the thought of what Health and Safety would say about the idea of …” Let's get a dead body. Let's keep it gently rotting on ice.” I mean, just you can imagine there's a panic. 

JULIAN FISHER: And I always, I felt throughout reading your book, Ben, and watching the movie, that one of the central aspects of this - and it's a testament to the humanity of the individuals involved - was this embarrassment they had about the fact that they were using somebody's body. And for all of the postmortem recognition of Glyndwr’s service, at the heart of it, there's something quite unpleasant as noted in the original Trout Memo. And I don't think anybody involved has ever quite got over that, have they? 

RORY BREMNER: Well Cholmondeley was keen in the film certainly to show due respect to the fact that they were dealing with a real person. And I think the film is not a spoiler because this is a story that has been told many times, but that he was finally recognized in the cemetery in Huelva, [Spain] in the final scene in the film, where actually that's very late on, was it 1997? I think. 

BEN MACINTYRE: It was after the name had come out in the official files that the British government decided to add a postscript physically, a carved postscript to the gravestone itself. And it's an extraordinarily poignant and touching place, Huelva cemetery. There's something very ghostly about it. And that gravestone has become a site of pilgrimage, actually, for a lot of people. I mean, one of the things that I hope the film does, and the book certainly attempted to, was to try to restore to that character, to Glyndwr Michael, some semblance of humanity and character, because he was really the man who never was up until that point. He had been written out of history as a faceless hero. But actually, he was a real person who had lived a really tough and tragic life. And it's, we were talking earlier about people who can serve in different ways. And I mean, he is unique in a way in the annals of military history, as he's a warrior who managed to serve when he was already dead. And that is - it sounds absurd - but it's also a little window into lots of people served in this story, including women whose roles have never really been appreciated. 

RORY BREMNER: Yes. I mean, this was the man who never was, but so often in these films, there's the women who never were because their story isn't told. And in this one, there's a quartet at the heart of the film, and two of those are the women played by Penelope Wilton and Kelly Macdonald.

BEN MACINTYRE: Well, the Penelope Wilton character is absolutely one. It can't be absolutely true to life, but she's very, very close to the real Hester Leggett [sometimes spelled Leggatt], who was a senior secretary in MI5. MI5 did not allow women to go above the role of secretary, but she was absolutely pivotal to the running of Operation Mincemeat. Absolutely front and center. 

JULIAN FISHER: Actually, the role of women in deception operations and sabotage operations in the Second World War was extraordinary. And you only have to look at the Special Operations Executive: three of the first George Cross medals ever presented to women went to members of the Special Operations Executive and some of those operatives behind enemy lines faced the most horrendous torture and the most complex of operations and discharged them with extraordinary credit. And I think it's not recognized enough, actually, how much women did in, particularly in deception, but more likely in the Second World War. 

BEN MACINTYRE: I think that's absolutely right. And it's one of the reasons why MI5's decision, I think, to declassify its files is such a clever and intelligent and right thing to do in the 21st century. And I just hope MI6, the external service, the Secret Intelligence Service, will also eventually realize that secrecy is a double-edged sword. And while it is absolutely vital to all intelligence operations, retrospective secrecy denies some people the credit they deserve in these sorts of stories. And I think the women's role in the Second World War, as Julian says, is absolutely ripe for another look. 

RORY BREMNER: Beneath all of this, the sort of very granular level, it comes down to convincing people that you're something that you're not. And does that get to the heart of being a spy for you, Ben? 

BEN MACINTYRE: Yes, I think it does. I mean, we're all fascinated by the double life. That, I think, is one of the reasons why spy fiction and nonfiction are so popular. Deeply embedded in our sense of reality is the idea that we could be someone else, that we could be we could frame ourselves as someone completely different. And I think that is the essence of a certain sort of spycraft and it's probably also why spies make such good novelists, I think, their sense of their own drama. A lot of the spies and ex-spies that I've known in my life have a sense of their own role in a wider picture, in a wider story. And they are imaginative people who see themselves in certain roles. So I think that is absolutely central. But I mean, the idea that somehow this is sort of antique and it doesn't work that way today is not true. I mean human intelligence is as important as it's ever been. Believe it or not, there is a training program at GCHQ, the communication center called Operation Mincemeat, that is used to train people to create false identities online because of course, if you are trying to penetrate a terrorist cell in Raqqa, let's say, and you need to do so under a false identity, that false identity has to be just as believable as the wallet litter that Montagu and Cholmondeley put into the dead man's pockets. But it has to be done digitally. There has to be a Facebook past. There has to be family. There have to be emails. There has to be text. There has to be something that somebody who is good with this stuff could dig up and say, “Actually, this is a real person.” So the whole idea of Operation Mincemeat is still current. It hasn't gone away. 

RORY BREMNER: It's very much your world, isn't it Julian? 

JULIAN FISHER: The concept of digital wallet litter is a fascinating one, but it's got to stand up to scrutiny by the likes of organizations such as Bellingcat, who are experts in decoding what's seen online. And they've solved many a mystery. And today's world is extraordinarily difficult to create and defend and backstop a new identity. And it's only going to get more difficult with facial recognition technology. 

RORY BREMNER: Everything that we do, we leave digital marks, don't we, now? 

JULIAN FISHER: Absolutely. So imagine you're trying to create a second identity. First of all, you need to get rid of your primary identity because even a reverse Google search image lookup could play somebody's legend. It's a whole new set of challenges. But I want to come back to that question about whether deception, acting, is the heart of espionage. And without wanting to contradict Ben at all, I look at it slightly differently, actually. I think at the heart of espionage is persuading other people to do things that you want them to do occasionally against their better judgment, and certainly in many cases in a situation where they might be in danger. A deception is a part of that, but it's not the full story by any means. In fact, sometimes the relationship between an officer who is very clear about what he's doing and an informer is better than the one shrouded in deception. 

BEN MACINTYRE: Yes, a very good point, of course. 

RORY BREMNER: Julian, I mean, there's a wonderful scene in the movie where they're trying to get the wording right on a letter that has to be absolutely convincing. And they go through 14 drafts before they think, “Oh, why don't we actually get the person who's meant to be writing this letter to write it themselves?” I mean, does that have a ring of truth about it? Do you find yourself trying to go to these extraordinary lengths to achieve tasks that are very mundane? 

JULIAN FISHER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, we talked earlier about the risk of over-engineering. And I think looking at some of those earlier drafts of the letter, that was where they were going. They were trying to make it too perfect. And actually, something that looks too perfect is usually too perfect. In a way, the real cleverness of a good framer of an operation is to engineer something that looks a little bit slapdash. 

RORY BREMNER: That's back to where we started, isn't it, about Churchill in the film's drawn to it because of the very unbelievability. 

JULIAN FISHER: But life is unbelievable, isn't it? And if presented with, I can well imagine psychologically there's some very fine brains in German intelligence at the time there were some flawed characters and we've played into their need, their desire to believe something. And as Ben makes very clear, we were helped by certain individuals within Hitler's coterie who actually wanted him to believe it because they thought it was untrue. So there's a whole series of factors at play there. In one sense, the fact that it could be seen through was quite helpful because somebody who wanted it to be untrue but was willing to present it as true to Hitler himself played on that fact. Now, whether or not that was thought through during the creation of the operation. I mean, I suspect it wasn't. But also, what a happy coincidence. What serendipity. 

RORY BREMNER: Was that true, Ben, as well? Because I thought it might just be a plot device that you really do think that the whole thing is going to fall apart? 

BEN MACINTYRE: No, that's all true. Well, it's true in essence. One of the great mysteries in this story is the chief analyst of the Abwehr whom Hitler completely trusted. Alexis von Roenne was himself an anti-Hitler plotter, and he was executed by Hitler after the July plot. He was deeply involved in it. And we know that before the D-Day deception, he deliberately exaggerated material that he knew to be false in order to try and ensure that the D-Day landings worked. And there is strong circumstantial evidence that he did exactly the same thing with Operation Mincemeat, that he was too sharp to know that this was true. And indeed, the report that he then subsequently sent on to Hitler was in journalistic parlance, he had ‘put the bellows on it’. He had given it more air than it really deserved. So was that him deliberately inflating something that he knew was not true? We'll probably never know. But he was certainly an anti-Hitler plotter and he was in an absolutely pivotal position to give this deception, if he knew it was a deception, the push that it needed. So that's just that extra element. And there's a wonderful line in the film where Colin Firth says something is either true or it is something that we want to be true. And that's true of every form of deception and it's true of human life. What we believe is very often not something that is true. It's what we hope for. 

RORY BREMNER: And again, that draws us to spy fiction and to your books indeed, Ben. You just mentioned the character there, but you must have difficulty deciding who to write about next because there are so many characters. It could take you in so many different directions. 

BEN MACINTYRE: It's an extraordinarily fertile area. And yes, it's rather wonderful at the moment. I mean, more and more of these stories seem to be emerging from the past, and indeed plenty in the present, too. Anyone who thinks that military deception is not absolutely part of our modern world isn't following the conflict in Ukraine closely enough because that is all about smoke and mirrors and false trails and false flags and stories that may or may not be true. So we are deep in this world. And I think it does address something that we all feel quite strongly about, which is where does the truth end and where does fiction begin? 

RORY BREMNER: Ben you mentioned Ukraine there. I mean, from your perspective and having studied these characters and wartime, what is your perspective on Ukraine? 

BEN MACINTYRE: Well, I don't want to overlink this to Operation Mincemeat because of course, Operation Mincemeat was filmed and made and written long before there was any possibility, we thought, of there being yet another ghastly war in Europe. I'd hate it if it seemed that Operation Mincemeat was somehow being marketed on the back of that tragedy. But the links are absolutely undeniable. This is partly an intelligence war. This is partly a war of fake news and misrepresented news. And that happens on all sides. I mean we've got that extraordinary situation. And it seems to me that one of the elements, and I would love to hear Julian's view on this, about the Ukraine story is that Putin went in there on reports from his own spies, the FSB, that told him this was going to be a walkover, that this was going to be easy, that the Ukrainians would welcome them with open arms. Well, this is what happens if you have an intensely hierarchical intelligence system where you don't want to tell the boss what he doesn't want to hear. I mean, you've only got three very nasty options there. If you tell him what he doesn't want to hear, he fires you if you tell him the truth. And if that turns out to be right, he fires you. So your only option really is to tell him what you hope will be the truth. And he wants to hear and pray that you get away with it. And it appears, really, that that's one of the central elements of what has happened in Ukraine. Putin himself may have been the victim of a sort of deception. 

JULIAN FISHER: One of the points about espionage is that officers are there to do the bidding of their political masters. And so there is, of course, a great temptation all the way down the chain to go as far down as the person on the ground supplying you with information. There's the temptation to present information that fits into the narrative and the really good service will weed that out. 

BEN MACINTYRE: And that one that takes us full circle because the plot of Our Man In Havana, one of the great spy books of all time by Graham Greene, is about somebody making up what the bosses want to hear because that's the temptation. 

JULIAN FISHER: Absolutely. And I think we've seen some cases of that which are now coming out in the public domain in more recent history. But what's fascinating about Ukraine, from my perspective, is it started, I think, with the invasion of Iraq, where intelligence was reduced in a public forum as a casus belli or as a basis for an operation. And that's something quite new. And I don't think I've ever seen quite so much reference to what intelligence is telling us and what we're saying that we know about intelligence on the Russian side as well. And that's fascinating because you've got a whole new hall of mirrors there because, what we're being told is true and is not true in that crossover between propaganda and intelligence, is a fertile area for exploration. But good luck to anybody who tries to get to the bottom of it. 

RORY BREMNER: I suppose in both cases, in a sense, the decision has been made to act, to go to war, and then you need the intelligence to back that up. And in a sense what you're looking for, and you know what you want. And people perhaps will give you, like with the dossier, they will present you with the evidence that you want to carry out an invasion in the case of Iraq or in the case of Ukraine as well that you were already planning to do anyway. 

JULIAN FISHER: Yeah, because the media is only too happy to pick up on anything that has the word ‘intelligence’ or ‘espionage’ attached to it. And so they will run with stories of questionable veracity because it makes for a very, dare I say it, sexy reading. 

RORY BREMNER: I didn't ask you, actually, Julian. Ben said very eloquently earlier on what draws people into this whole thing of stories of spying in the past, and of course, the fiction all around it, Ian Fleming and James Bond and all of that. What is it to your mind that draws people into this? What is it about spies that people find so intriguing? 

JULIAN FISHER: We all want to know the secret, don't we? I mean, I asked Ben earlier whether there was much that was redacted in the Mincemeat papers that he was going through. And what I always find very interesting about the release of government papers is that as soon as they're released to a certain extent - and this obviously doesn't apply in this case - but to a certain extent it becomes uninteresting apart from that bit that lies behind the redactions. So we're all fascinated by what we can't know. And this is one of the... I've long said this is one of the problems that anybody writing or making films about the real world of espionage, is a problem that they face is that as soon as it's made clear, as soon as everybody's let into the secrets, like an old film negative, it fades in the light and becomes much less interesting. 

BEN MACINTYRE: Absolutely right. And I think secrecy is a kind of drug, too. 


BEN MACINTYRE: And it's very addictive. And once you have lived in the secret world, it's a club in a strange way. You have a set of people with whom you can share the secret and others that you definitely can't. And I think - someone once described it to me, and I think this is sort of both unfair, but also quite true that in some ways - espionage and intelligence is the ruthless exercise of private power. You are standing next to somebody on the 47 bus and they don't know what you know. That is very addictive; it's a strange feeling. And it's actually, in my tiny way as a historian, it's the little thrill that I get when I open those files and I see something. And I think, “My goodness, no one knows that.”

RORY BREMNER: It's funny because David Frost always used to say that he always loved to ask people the question privately, “What are the secrets that you will carry to the grave? Are you going to tell me?” And Ben, it goes without saying we'd recommend watching Operation Mincemeat on Netflix and indeed reading the book if you're diving deeper and that both are excellent. Outside of your own work, is there anything from the spy world you think we should be looking out for? 

BEN MACINTYRE: Well, in spy fiction, I mean, I yes. I mean, gosh, there is some great spy fiction. I'm loving the Mick Herron adaptation Slow Horses. I think that's utterly wonderful. And there are some brilliant writers of spy fiction around, many of whom are former practitioners of the trade. I'm thinking of Charles Cumming, for example, who I think is absolutely brilliant. But he himself was a part of MI6. There's definitely a link, thank goodness I was never recruited. I think my grip on reality would never have borne the test. 

RORY BREMNER: Julian, have you still got books to write? Are you tempted by that? Or if not, are there authors that you follow in particular? 

JULIAN FISHER: Well, I mean, I've certainly taken pen to paper, but we've explored that theme a lot. I think it's pretty much impossible to think of anybody who's worked in that world who doesn't want to write about their experiences, at least in novelistic form. Because in novelistic form you do have a little bit more leeway. Of course, I'd never dream of publishing anything that didn't get authorization and authorizations are easier to get for people at Stella Remington's level, for instance, than those that are more lowly. But there's a great cathartic outlet in just writing fictional espionage stories. But as for other recommendations, I agree absolutely with Ben that Charlie Cumming is a go-to. I think I'm right in saying I don't think we've seen any of his novels so far adapted for the screen which is a great shame. But it'll come in time. Somebody said of Charlie that he gets under the skin of modern espionage like no other novelist. I think that's true. On the nonfiction side, Ben is absolutely fantastic, if I may say so - Ben turning nonfiction into almost novel-like gripping drama. And that's a particular skill that you exercise. But somebody else who is, I think, brilliant in the field, a little less well known, sadly at the moment, is Henry Hemming, who wrote M about Maxwell Knight and Our Man In New York. It's a very different style, but it's absolutely just as gripping. And finally, I've already mentioned, I think, that fascinating book called Stars And Spies, which explores the crossover between the world of celebrity and the world of espionage, which is a greater overlap than you might expect. So there's some fantastic stuff out there. But Charlie, definitely on the fiction side, stands out in a very crowded field. A field that was created by the likes of me trying to get published. 

RORY BREMNER: So there you go spy fans. Here are your recommendations for this week. There will be many other recommendations as you pass through the series. And actually, I'd really like to invite both of you to come back and do a podcast in 30 years' time when we can talk about the things that are actually going on as we're speaking now, which I'm sure will be amazingly fascinating as well as this world endlessly is. Thank you so much for your time, Julian Fisher and Ben Macintyre. Thank you so much and thank you all for listening to The Spying Game

Guest Bio

Former British Intelligence operative Julian Fisher (pictured) worked with British intelligence in a specialised branch of the Diplomatic Service in Africa before becoming an intelligence consultant.

Ben Macintyre is a columnist and associate editor for The Times of London. He has worked as the newspaper's correspondent in New York, Paris, and Washington. He is also the author of many spy books including Agent Sonya and Operation Mincemeat.

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