As the date for D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, approached, the Allies launched Operation Bodyguard, an intelligence operation designed to keep the Nazis from discovering the location of the coming assault on Fortress Europe.
One of the problems the Allies faced was the appointment of Montgomery as ground commander for the invasion. British intelligence knew German spies would be watching the colorful, publicity-seeking general’s every move, hoping to determine the location of the coming invasion. How could they keep Monty out of sight of Nazi agents?
Dudley Clarke, an operative with the London Controlling Section responsible for Operation Bodyguard, found the answer while watching the movie Five Graves to Cairo, which featured an actor playing Montgomery. Why not use an actor to impersonate Monty and make the Germans believe Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion, would occur in another part of France?
In 1944 an Australian actor named Meyrick Clifton James experienced one of the oddest career revivals in history.
Actually, James has never been a great actor. He could neither sing nor dance, and he had lost a finger in the trenches during World War I. When war broke out again he volunteered to entertain the troops, winding up in Leicester, in the Army Pay Corps Variety Troupe. With his thin face and grey moustache he could do a remarkable impersonation of the top British soldier, Bernard Montgomery.
On the eve of D-Day the failed actor was plucked from obscurity to play the starring role in one of the war's most melodramatic deception: as Monty's double.
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 been revealed for the first time in newly declassified documents released by the British intelligence agency MI5 only recently, in 2010.
In the run-up to D-Day the British hit on the idea of using an actor to impersonate Monty 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", according to the documents.
"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 presence of Monty in the Mediterranean also would 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, Ignacio Molina Perez.
He was head of information on the staff of the Spanish military governor of Algeciras, and liaison officer between the Spanish government and 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.
Molina, 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 organization 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 external intelligence agency MI6's Iberian desk, who pointed out "the FO [Foreign Office] would not stand for this".
The defense 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."
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.
Finding a Monty look-alike proved difficult.
The first actor selected was Miles Mander, who had played Monty in the film Five Graves to Cairo. But Mander was much 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 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, to perfect the general's speech and mannerisms. Monty was teetotal and loathed smoking. James was a heavy drinker and smoker, and missing a finger. He temporarily gave up drink and cigarettes, and a prosthetic finger was made. The fake Monty trimmed his moustache, dyed his sideburns and was issued with khaki handkerchiefs with a BLM 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, Ralph "Rusty" Eastwood, was waiting. 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 said 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.
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 report records. "At exactly the right moment the pair walked across the yard as his excellence 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 left in his car and was observed making "an urgent trunk call" in the Spanish town of La Linea. One British intelligence report said that "the material reached Berlin in 20 minutes".
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 simpatico [very nice]." The double agent reported that Molina "seemed to be very satisfied with himself". Bletchley Park, the wartime decoding centre, intercepted a message from Madrid to Berlin that read: "General Montgomery arrived Gibraltar. Discussions held with governor and French general."
The German high command believed Pérez and diverted valuable troops away from Normandy to meet the nonexistent threat of Meyrick Clifton James in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile the real General Montgomery was masterminding the D-Day landings on Gold, Sword and Juno beaches.
Definitely, that was only one element in the deceptions surrounding D-Day on June 6 and the British never knew quite what effect 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 supply of whisky, until the Normandy landings. He drew a full general's pay for the five weeks he played Monty.
In 1954 he wrote a book, I was Monty's Double, later made into a film in which James played himself and Monty. When James died in 1963, Montgomery said of his double: "He fooled the Germans at a critical time of the war."
Molina's career as a Nazi spy came to an abrupt end. Armed with hard evidence, the British declared him persona non grata and excluded him from Gibraltar.
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