In the Netflix film Operation Mincemeat, Colin Firth plays Ewen Montagu, a real-life British intelligence operative whose deception of the German High Command saved literally thousands of Allied troops in 1943. With Winston Churchill determined to strike at the Nazi “soft underbelly” in Sicily and drive Italy out of the war, he needed his Naval Intelligence unit to trick Hitler into expecting a strike at another location (Greece and Sardinia) and thereby leave the real target relatively unprotected.
To achieve that goal, Montagu and his colleagues (including the young Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming) decided to use a carefully prepared corpse, disguised in the uniform of a Royal Air Force officer and equipped with highly classified (and totally fabricated) dispatches about the forthcoming British invasion of Greece. If all went well, they would deposit the body by submarine off the coast of Spain, allow German spies to recover the drowned apparent victim of a plane crash, and hope that Nazi operatives would transmit to Berlin the crucial documents he was carrying.
The film follows the fascinating process of securing an appropriate corpse from a naval hospital and inventing an entire identity for the make-believe airman, complete with love letters, a photograph of his beloved “Pam,” recent theater tickets, and more.
The real Ewen Montagu took special pride in outwitting Hitler in light of his family’s background. “Joy of joys to anyone, and particularly a Jew, the satisfaction of knowing they had directly and specifically fooled that monster,” he once wrote. Operation Mincemeat, based on Ben MacIntyre’s 2011 book, makes only the briefest mention of its hero’s Jewish identity—when Montagu dispatches his wife and two children to the relative safety of America, in view of “the nightmare that is marching this way that is only too real” and poses especially acute dangers for a Jewish family.
What the movie fails even to hint at is that Montagu’s family constituted one of the most conspicuous, powerfully connected, and philanthropically committed of all Jewish tribes in the realm, with members playing distinguished roles in politics, business, the arts, and synagogue leadership.
Montagu’s grandfather, Samuel Montagu (1832–1911), won elevation to the peerage as First Baron Swaythling, honored for his generosity to the poor, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. As a visionary banker, he advised successive chancellors of the exchequer on monetary matters and persuaded the government to exempt from “death duties” any donations to art galleries, universities, and museums. In 1885, he won election as a Liberal member of Parliament for Whitechapel until he stood down five years later. He also organized the Federation of Synagogues, representing 51 small congregations in the crowded, Yiddish-speaking East End of London. While hoping to Anglicize and uplift recent immigrants from the Russian Empire, he simultaneously supported “Lovers of Zion,” promoting resettlement of Jewish communities in Turkish-controlled Palestine.
His son Louis, Ewen’s father, married Gladys Helen Rachel Goldsmid, who was herself the daughter of an august Jewish banking family, and who became a famous philanthropist who worked directly with suffering refugees from both world wars. Unfortunately, neither she nor her husband believed that the oppressed Jews they meant to benefit actually deserved a homeland of their own, and Louis Montagu became an outspoken critic of the Balfour Declaration. Together with Lionel Nathan de Rothschild, he assembled an explicitly anti-Zionist movement known as The League of British Jews to “resist the allegation that Jews constitute a separate nationality.” At the same time, his organization pledged to “facilitate the settlement in Palestine of such Jews as may desire to make Palestine their home.” By 1929, so many enthusiastic Zionists had availed themselves of that opportunity that the League disbanded.
As for Ewen himself, while Colin Firth conveys an appropriate air of dignity and duty on screen, the film makes no effort to show its protagonist’s struggles to live up to the expectations of his extraordinary heritage. He and his brother Ivor attended Trinity College at Cambridge together and pointedly pursued more light-hearted obsessions, helping to invent the rules of table tennis and establishing a famous cheese-eaters’ club. “Our great ambition was to get whale’s milk cheese,” Ewen remembered.
Ivor went on to become a charter member of the International Table Tennis Foundation Hall of Fame and a prominent screenwriter, producer, and film critic of the 1930s, who collaborated with both Alfred Hitchcock and Sergei Eisenstein. His association with Russian cinema helped draw him into the Communist Party and raised concerns that while his brother worked as a prominent leader in the crucial intelligence unit for the Royal Navy, Ivor might have secretly spied for Stalin. These suspicions (dramatized in the new film, in which Mark Gatiss memorably plays Ivor) were confirmed after the end of the Cold War, while evidence suggests that Ewen never realized the depth of his younger brother’s leftist commitment.
Ewen’s father-in-law, the celebrated painter Solomon J. Solomon, won election as the first-ever Jewish member of the Royal Academy. He produced portraits of the most famous figures in the United Kingdom, including Queen Victoria, King George V, and Edward, Prince of Wales. Near the beginning of the movie version of Ewen’s eventful wartime service, he makes a toast to his wife, Iris, subtly alluding to her painter papa. “She has the wisdom of Solomon,” he says, obviously referencing her maiden name. He then follows by imputing to her “the strength of Samson,” invoking the most famous of her father’s works: a grand, nude Biblical scene depicting the story of Samson and Delilah.
At war’s end, Ewen Montagu resumed the career as lawyer and judge that he had pursued with great success before the disruptive global conflict. He also maintained his naval connections with the title Judge Advocate of the Fleet and began to tell the dramatic story of Operation Mincemeat as the declassification process gradually permitted it. In 1953, he reportedly spent a long weekend writing The Man Who Never Was, a book that told the startling story of the invention of an already dead airman and the cunning connivance that conned the Nazis. It won international popularity (selling a reported 2 million copies) and became a 1956 film starring Clifton Webb and Gloria Grahame. Montagu also relished the “surreal” experience of playing a cameo role as one of the admirals who disapproved of his tactic, in on-screen argument with a movie version of his former self. He continued the long family tradition of Jewish service, as president of the United Synagogue (1954–62), and president of the Anglo-Jewish Association from 1949, pressing restitution claims against Germany and promoting the welfare of Holocaust survivors. He also came to welcome and support the establishment of the new Jewish state, moving beyond the doubts about Zionism that had motivated his father and the elite but short-lived League of British Jews. He died at age of 84 in 1985.
Operation Mincemeat casts new light on this remarkable man and his remarkable story. But it also offers a new window into another unlikely, implausible, and miraculous story: the progress of British Jews, from 367 years of forced expulsion (1290 to 1657) and strictly enforced banishment, to their welcomed return at the invitation of Oliver Cromwell during the Puritan revolution. The progress of the Montagu, Goldsmid, and Solomon families highlights the extraordinary transformation of British Jewry from being the objects of utter contempt on the part of the established population to somewhat grudging acceptance to the highest levels of honor, influence, and achievement in a famously hierarchical society. Even more than Operation Mincemeat, that’s an epic story of cinematic scope and savory tang, with its own rich elements of astonishment and inspiration.
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