In 1944 a washed-up, boozy Australian actor named Meyrick Clifton James experienced one of the oddest career revivals in history. James was not a great actor. He could neither sing nor dance, and he had lost a finger in the trenches. When war broke out again he volunteered to entertain the troops overseas, but instead wound up in Leicester, in the Army Pay Corps Variety Troupe. However, with his thin face and grey moustache, he could do a remarkable impersonation of the top British soldier, General Bernard Montgomery.
On the eve of D-Day the failed actor found himself plucked from obscurity to play the starring role in the war’s most melodramatic deception — as the spitting image of Monty. The operation, codenamed “Copperhead”, became the basis for the 1958 film I Was Monty’s Double, but the full details and the identity of the Nazi spy who fell for it have now been revealed for the first time in newly declassified documents released by MI5.
In the run-up to D-Day the British hit on the idea of using an actor to impersonate Monty in order to give a false impression of his whereabouts. In February 1944 it was announced that the victor of El Alamein had arrived in Britain to take command of the land forces for the coming invasion of Europe. Britain’s spy chiefs knew that “from then onwards it was certain that German agents would do their best to watch his movements”.
“Supposing he were to be seen somewhere in the Mediterranean a day or two before the Normandy invasion, the Germans would take it as a certain indication that they had at least a week or more to wait before the landings.” The apparent presence of Monty in the Mediterranean would also divert German attention from the impending assault on Normandy. Gibraltar was the ideal spot to put the plan into action, in part because it was the stamping ground of a particularly unscrupulous Spanish spy in German employ, Major Ignacio Molina Pérez. He was head of information on the staff of the Spanish military governor of Algeciras, and liaison officer between the Spanish government and the British authorities in Gibraltar. In theory, Spanish officials were neutral. In reality, as the declassified material reveals, MI5 knew Molina was a Nazi spy codenamed “Cosmos”.
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The Spanish officer, while pretending to be pro-British, was “bad from head to foot”, in the words of one MI5 report. “Molina has been decorated by the German government on various occasions, and it has been proved that Molina is the prime mover in an extensive Nazi secret service organisation in Spain and Morocco.” Early in 1944 he was appointed head of the Gestapo for the Algeciras region. The British had contemplated flying him back to Britain for interrogation, but that plan was scotched by one Kim Philby, then head of MI6’s Iberian desk, who pointed out “the FO would not stand for this”. The Defence Security Officer in Gibraltar observed: “Although we know him to be a German agent, he continues to enjoy every facility to enter and leave the fortress. We have not been able to catch him in flagrante delicto. Something more must be done since at any moment he may get hold of some really valuable information.”
As a Nazi spy, Molina was the ideal target for the hoax: if he spotted a man he believed to be Montgomery in Gibraltar, the news would reach German ears swiftly. The files describe Molina as “a pretty big fish”, and if the plan worked he would be well and truly hooked.
Finding a Monty lookalike proved difficult. The first actor selected was Miles Mander, who had played Monty in the film Five Graves to Cairo. But Mander was several inches taller than the general. “This,” MI5 noted drily, “was a physical handicap it was impossible to disguise”. A substitute was found, who then “fell victim to a road accident and broke his leg”. The planners settled on Clifton James, the Australian-born lieutenant. Clifton was contacted by the actor David Niven, then a colonel in the Army Film Unit, and asked to come to London, where he was assigned to Monty’s staff, under cover as a journalist, in order to perfect the general’s speech and mannerisms. Monty was teetotal and loathed smoking. James was a heavy drinker and smoker, and missing a middle figure from serving in the First World War. He temporarily gave up drink and cigarettes, and a prosthetic finger was made out of plastic. The fake Monty trimmed his moustache, dyed his sideburns and was issued with khaki handkerchiefs with a “B.LM.” monogram. The British spread false information that Montgomery was coming to North Africa, via Gibraltar, to discuss plans for the invasion of southern France before the main invasion in the north.
On May 26, the bogus Monty landed on the Rock, where the Governor, Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph “Rusty” Eastwood, was waiting with a reception committee. A classified report described the scene: “The Governor himself was waiting for the visitor, and played his difficult part with expert skill. ‘Hello, Monty, glad to see you,” he called out as the distinctive black beret emerged.
‘Hello, Rusty, how are you?’ came the answer from James.
Molina had been invited to Government House for a meeting with the Colonial Secretary, and was left in a room with a view, where he could not fail to spot the figure in the beret being received by an honour guard. After a breakfast in which the Governor congratulated James on his performance (“You are Monty. I’ve known him for years”), the counterfeit took his leave. “This was the climax of the act,” the intelligence report records. “At exactly the right moment the pair [Molina and the Colonial Secretary] walked across the yard as His Excellency was handing ‘General Montgomery’ into his car.”
Molina was a better spy than actor and “his interest in happening on this significant scene was too great to hide”. The Spaniard quizzed the Colonial Secretary who, “with well-feigned embarrassment, was forced to confess that the commander-in-chief was on his way to Algiers”.
The Spaniard sped away in his car and was observed making “an urgent trunk call” in the Spanish town of La Línea. One British intelligence report estimated that “the material reached Berlin in 20 minutes” and was confirmed by other German spies. Molina embellished his own role, telling one of his confidants (a spy working for the British) that he had shaken hands with the British general. “The Governor introduced me to him. He seems muy simpático (very nice).” The double agent (who rejoiced in the codename “Pants”) reported that Molina “seemed to be very satisfied with himself”. Bletchley Park, the wartime decoding centre, duly intercepted a message from Madrid to Berlin which read: “General Montgomery arrived Gibraltar. Discussions held with Governor and French general.”
It was only one element in the deceptions surrounding D-Day on June 6, and the British never knew quite what impact it had. But it certainly had a dramatic effect on the players. James, who found the entire act stressful, was taken to Cairo, where he remained, with a copious supply of whisky, until the Normandy landings were under way. He drew a full general’s pay for the five-week period he played Monty, but no formal recognition.
In 1954 he wrote a book, I Was Monty’s Double, later made into a film starring John Mills, in which James played himself and Monty. When James died, in 1963, Field Marshal Montgomery said of his doppelgänger: “He fooled the Germans at a critical time of the war.”
Molina’s career as a Nazi spy came to an abrupt end. Now armed with hard evidence, the British declared him persona non grata, and excluded him from Gibraltar.
But perhaps the ultimate accolade to Operation Copperhead was paid by Spike Milligan, who incorporated the plot into a Goon Show script, I Was Monty’s Treble. “So, we need forty thousand Monty’s doubles, eh? We’ll have to form regiments.”
Sources and Additional Information:http://www.67notout.com/2010/06/general-montgomerys-double-in-ww2.html