Operation Mincemeat: Major Martin’s Royal Marines Battledress

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in Operation Mincemeat (2022)


Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley, Flight Lieutenant (temporary), RAF Intelligence and Security Department, seconded to MI5

London, Spring 1943

Film: Operation Mincemeat
Release Date: April 15, 2022
Director: John Madden
Costume Designer: Andrea Flesch


It was 80 years ago this week when a corpse identified as Major William Martin of the Royal Marines was discovered by Spanish fishermen off the Andalusian coast on the morning of Friday, April 30, 1943. Of course, sardine spotter José Antonio Rey María had no idea that the putrefying body in uniform that he brought to shore and delivered to the nearby regiment of Spanish shoulders was not a decorated British officer but instead a pawn in one of the most famous acts of wartime deception, known internally as Operation Mincemeat.

Though formally set in motion about four months earlier, the tactic originated in a memo circulated by Admiral John Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, in September 1939, just weeks after Germany declared war on England. “It was issued under Godfrey’s name, but it more all the hallmarks of his personal assistant, Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming, who would go on to write the James Bond novels,” alluded author Ben Macintyre in his volume Operation Mincemeat, which was recently adapted into a Netflix film of the same name.

Known as the “Trout Memo” for its metaphor comparing counterespionage to trout fishing, the memorandum offered a total of 51 proposed plans for “introducing ideas into the heads of the Germans.” Listed as number 28 was “A Suggestion (not a very nice one)” which Godfrey and Fleming freely admit was borrowed from colorful author Basil Thomson’s novel The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, consisting of “a corpse dressed as an airman,” with his pockets and belongings detailing falsified plans for an invasion.

While the literary-influenced idea sounds nothing short of fantastic, it found a foothold in “the corkscrew mind” of Charles Cholmondeley, a young, shy, and somewhat eccentric Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve officer who served as secretary for the top-secret XX Committee, so named as the Roman numerals for twenty also form a “double cross”… which should provide some hint into both the type of work conducted by the group as well as the minds that directed it.

Cholmondeley reworked Fleming’s “not a very nice” suggestion into a plan he understandably called “Trojan Horse” while outlining both its relative merits and issues to the XX Committee in the fall of 1942. As the body would be washing ashore, the operation was considered one of naval concern so Cholmondeley was tasked to work with Lieutentant Commander Ewen Montagu, a whip-smart workaholic lawyer and naval reservist representing the Naval Intelligence Department on the XX Committee.

The 2022 film Operation Mincemeat stars Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen as Montagu and Cholmondeley, respectively, the latter an almost perfect likeness for the charmingly awkward 6’3″ officer who mentions living in the wake of his heroic late brother and describes himself as “a penguin… RAF pilot and officer with big feet and bad eyes which means I’m—in effect—grounded. Flightless bird.”

Left: Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen as Montagu and Cholmondeley, respectively.
Right: The real Cholmondeley and Montagu on April 17, 1943, dressed in topcoats for their top secret work of transporting “Major Martin” to the submarine HMS Seraph.

Of course, having two actors who portrayed Mr. Darcy in the same movie may have provided too much temptation to avoid adding a romantic subplot, so the film Operation Mincemeat upgrades what were mere flirtations—and the occasional dinner date—in real life to a full-scale romantic triangle as the married Montagu and the bachelor Cholmondeley vie for the affections of Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald), the bright MI5 secretary whose swimsuit-clad photograph was chosen to be among Major Martin’s possessions.

Which brings us back to the mysterious Major Martin… “the man who never was,” as immortalized by Montagu’s own memoir of the mission that became a film of the same name starring Clifton Webb as Montagu. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s when the true identity of “William Martin” was revealed to be Glyndwr Michael, and indigent and unfortunate Welshman who died in late January 1943 after ingesting rat poison—likely means to end his own life. The late Michael was “introduced” to Montagu and Cholmondeley by trusted coroner Bentley Purchase, who was aware of the age and physical parameters of the corpse they needed to effectively portray an active Royal Marines officer, even if Purchase was blissfully ignorant of the gambit itself.

Montagu and Cholmondeley’s small team spent the next three months or so with Michael’s corpse preserved while preparing his personal effects and the falsified documents meant to convince the Germans that the Allies would commence their invasion of Europe via Greece and Sardinia, rather than Sicily as planned.

Colin Firth in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Montagu attempts to photograph Michael’s corpse—clad in Royal Marines battle dress—to create identity papers for the fictitious Major William Martin.

Montagu, Cholmondeley, and Purchase spent the early morning of April 17, 1943 completing the effect by dressing Michael’s corpse as Major Martin—including the grisly task of defrosting his feet to fit into the boots—with the personal effects (“pocket litter”) put into place and the briefcase with its false invasion documents attached to his wrist. The corpse was placed in a canister filled with dry ice which was then loaded into a 1937 Fordson van, accompanied by Montagu and Cholmondeley with racing champion St. John “Jock” Horsfall at the wheel to speed through the night to western Scotland, where it was loaded onto the submarine HMS Seraph commanded by Lt. Bill Jewell.

The Seraph surfaced off the coast of Huelva in the early hours of April 30, when Jewell and his trusted officers lowered “Major Martin” into the water. Jewell then ordered the Seraph engines to “full astern”, propelling the corpse behind it toward the shore. After taking efforts to destroy the canister several more miles offshore, Jewell telegraphed the Admiralty: “Mincemeat completed.”

The planners were then forced to wait and watch as their network of spies reported on the body’s discovery and whether the plans were discovered—and, more importantly, believed—by the Germans. Indeed, Hitler pulled troops from across Europe to defend the Balkans against a potential invasion… leaving Sicily considerably under-defended when the Allies landed in July 1943, considered to be a major milestone in the tide of World War II turning toward the Allies.

What’d He Wear?

Since the idea had originated in Naval Intelligence, it was more sensible to make [Martin] a naval officer, thus keeping the secret within naval circles. A naval officer, however, would be unlikely to carry documents relating to the planned invasion, and such officers always travelled in full naval display’ uniform, complete with braid and badges of rank on the sleeve. The idea of getting the corpse measured up by a tailor was too ghoulish (and too dangerous) to contemplate. The Secret Service contained men of varied talents and occupations, but no gentlemen’s outfitters with experience of dressing the dead.

After much discussion, it was decided that the body would be dressed as a Royal Marine, the corps which forms the amphibious infantry of the Royal Navy. Marines always travelled in battledress, made up of beret or cap, khaki blouse and trousers, gaiters and boots. This uniform came in standard sizes.

— Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat, Chapter 6: “A Novel Approach”

One aspect that makes Operation Mincemeat so interesting from a sartorial perspective is the level of detail that had to go into the fictional Major Martin’s Royal Marines uniform. The movie introduces the subject during one of a planning session at the Gargoyle Club, where Montagu determines that “now all we need in his photograph.”

“In Royal Marine blues,” adds Hester Leggett (Penelope Wilton), head of the secretarial unit.

“No, no, Marines travel in battledress, and our Marine will be traveling,” Cholmondeley corrects her. “And the uniform cannot appear new, it must be broken-down; it must have exactly the right patina of wear.”

To achieve the latter end, Cholmondeley himself wears the appropriated Royal Marines battledress during the weeks of planning to follow, when his official duties don’t require him to wear his own Royal Air Force service uniform.

Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

While Montago wears his own RNVR uniform, Cholmondeley appears in “Major Martin”‘s Royal Marines battledress as the make the case to Admiral Godfrey for continuing the operation.

While Montagu searched for the right face, “rudely staring at anyone with whom we came into contact”, Cholmondeley went clothes shopping. Glyndwr Michael had been tall and thin, “almost the same build” as Cholmondeley himself. Cholmondeley first bought braces, gaiters, and standard issue military boots, size 12. Then, having obtained permission from Colonel Neville of the Royal Marines, he presented himself at Gieves, the military tailors in Piccadilly, to be fitted for a Royal Marines battledress, complete with appropriate badges of rank, Royal Marines flashes and the badge flashes of Combined Operations. The uniform was finished off with a trench coat and beret. The clothes would need the patina of wear, so Cholmondeley climbed into the uniform, and wore it every day for the next three months.

— Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat, Chapter 6: “A Novel Approach”

As in the other branches of the British armed forces, the Royal Marines introduced battledress during World War II, in both khaki and blue varieties. Cholmondeley wears the former for “Major Martin”‘s uniform, made from brown wool serge. Battledress evolved through three basic patterns over the course of World War II, all of which consisted of a waist-length blouse with a shirt-style collar, two chest pockets, and a self-belted waist.

Cholmondeley wears the earliest of these three, designated “Battledress, Serge” but also known colloquially as the “1937 Pattern”. The covered five-button fly, brass buttons on the shoulder straps (epaulets), and box-pleated pockets with flaps that close through a concealed button are characteristic of both the 1937 and 1940 patterns, though Cholmondeley’s unlined collar and simplified belt buckle identify it as the earlier model. (The “Austerity” Pattern, introduced in 1942, is most visually differentiated by the exposed buttons on the front, cuffs, and non-pleated pockets.)

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Hester Leggett helps Cholmondeley into the battledress blouse they selected for “Major Martin”.

On each shoulder strap, Cholmondeley wears the brass insignia of a Royal Marines Major (OF-3), thus “promoting” himself one rank higher than his Royal Air Force rank of Flight Lieutenant (OF-2). At the top of each sleeve, he wears the rectangular branch flash embroidered “ROYAL MARINES” in red-on-black above the round Combined Operations badge flash, depicting an albatross with a submachine gun over an anchor to reflect the three service arms that comprised the Combined Operations department: the RAF, British Army, and Royal Navy.

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Cholmondeley wears the khaki cotton drill service shirt and olive-drab cotton tie that tonally compliments the brown serge battledress blouse and trousers.

Authorized for British Commonwealth armed services, these shirts are designed with a button-down point collar that neatly secures in place with two hidden buttons. Cholmondeley never removes his battledress blouse on screen, but we can presume that his long-sleeved shirt also features the two box-pleated chest pockets that each close through a button-down flap with mitred corners. The shirts also have six brown plastic buttons on the front placket and button-fastened cuffs.

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Cholmondeley’s brown wool serge trousers are consistent with the first pattern of “Battledress, serge” to match his jacket. Held up by suspenders (braces), these flat-front trousers have a long rise to the wearer’s natural waist, where they’re rigged with large belt loops and a trio of buttons across the back that fasten to a cotton drill tab concealed along the back of the blouse, keeping both pieces harmoniously in place.

All battledress trousers have a button fly, straight side pockets, a dressing pocket on the right hip, and a map pocket on the left thigh with a closable flap that modern audiences may call a “cargo pocket”. Cholmondeley clearly and correctly wears the first pattern trousers, most identifiable by the single-pleated dressing pocket as opposed to the large, box-pleated, button-through pocket of later designs.) Like the pockets on his blouse, the map pocket and back-right pocket each have a flap that closes with a concealed button.

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Battledress trouser bottoms were plain-hemmed and typically rigged with square-ended tabs that closed through a button to adjust the fit over each ankle.

The size 12 boots that Cholmondeley wore and passed along to “Major Martin” appear on screen to be the storied ammunition boots (or “ammo boots”), so named for having been originally procured by the Master Gunner and the Munitions Board at Woolwich when they were first authorized for British military wear in the 1860s. Over their century of service, these unlined derby-laced ankle boots varied between black and brown grain leather uppers, between plain-toe or cap-toe styles, and in the number of hobnails on their hard leather soles. As Martin would be a Royal Marine, Cholmondeley correctly procured for him a pair of plain-toe ammo boots in the shade of brown leather often known as “British tan”.

Operation Mincemeat (2022)

The corpse of “Major Martin” is transported to Huelva, with his feet in their hobnailed ammo boots hanging off the back of the local fishermen’s wagon.

Cholmondeley completes Martin’s uniform with the coat and hat that would accompany him on his journey to the Spanish coast.

The all-khaki serge peaked service cap has a flat and round crown, a brown leather chin strap secured at each end by a brass Royal Marines button, and the bronzed “King’s Crown” cap badge worn by the Royal Marines, consisting of a crowned lion perched atop a larger king’s crown, positioned above a relief of the Earth encircled by laurels.

Following a pattern worn by the British Army and Royal Marines from World War I through the 1950s, the long brown melton wool double-breasted greatcoat has eight gilted shank buttons in an 8×4-button configuration that tapers from the shoulders down to the waist, creating broad-flapped lapels that can be fully closed over the chest and locked with a small throat latch at the neck. Cholmondeley wears his Royal Marines Major insignia on the shoulder straps, echoing the battledress blouse beneath it. There are flapped pockets slanted at each hip, and the set-in sleeves are banded at each cuff. The back has an inverted pleat down the center, a long single vent, and partial self-belt at the waist attached to a gilt button at each end.

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

“Cholmondeley gazed at the world through thick pebble spectacles,” writes Ben Macintyre in Operation Mincemeat. These are represented on screen through a handsome set of round tortoise-framed glasses with narrow gold arms.

He wears a plain-featured stainless steel wristwatch with a tan dial on a brown leather strap, similar to contemporary examples worn by RAF officers by the likes of Jaeger-LeCoultre, Longines, and Omega, with features not bound to the black-dialed stipulations of the “Dirty Dozen” watches authorized by the Ministry of Defence for the British Army.

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

When in his regular uniform, Cholmondeley exclusively wears the RAF’s No. 1 Service Dress blue serge uniform, consisting of a belted single-breasted jacket with his Flight Lieutenant rank insignia banded around the cuffs and the “VR” badges on his notch lapels indicating his membership in the Volunteer Reserve.

For what it’s worth, his naval colleagues like Lieutenant Commanders Ewen Montagu and Ian Fleming also wear the “wavy Navy” rank insignia of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, as opposed to the “straight rings” worn by regular Royal Navy officers.

Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Lieutenant Commander Montagu and Flight Lieutenant Cholmondeley wear uniform devices indicating service in their respective branch’s Volunteer Reserve.

What to Imbibe

Operation Mincemeat depicts Montagu regularly inviting Cholmondeley and Hester Leggett—and, eventually, Joan Leslie—to the Gargoyle Club in Soho for drinks and discussion of the operation, though the wisdom of this locale grows increasingly suspect given the proximity of their discussions to waiters like Teddy (Jonjo O’Neill).

Montagu pours himself drams from a bottle of Highland single malt Scotch whisky, Hester is served a cloudy concoction described as “gin and lemon”, and Cholmondeley enjoys the stalwart Martini, garnished always with a single olive.

Colin Firth, Matthew Macfadyen, and Penelope Wilton in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Scotch for Montagu, a martini for Cholmondeley, and “gin and lemon” for Hester Leggett.

“Major Martin” Battledress

Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley in Operation Mincemeat (2022)

Let’s imagine that you too have been recruited by British Intelligence to plant a uniformed corpse to fool the enemy. The below formula has worked before, it may work again for you! (In the spirit of comprehensiveness, note also that Montagu and Cholmondeley also borrowed flannel underwear from a deceased Oxford don—given the relative scarcity of quality underwear under wartime rationing.)

  • Brown wool serge “Battledress, serge” uniform:
    • Waist-length blouse with unlined shirt-style collar, covered five-button front fly, two box-pleated chest pockets (with covered-button pointed flaps), button cuffs, shoulder straps/epaulets, and self-belted waist
      • Royal Marines shoulder flashes
      • Combined Operations sleeve flashes
      • Major rank insignia
    • Flat-front trousers with large belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, single-pleated dressing pocket on right hip, flapped map pocket on left thigh, flapped back-right pocket, and button-adjustable plain-hemmed bottoms
  • Khaki cotton drill service shirt with concealed button-down point collar, front placket, two box-pleated chest pockets (with button-down flaps), and button cuffs
  • Olive-drab cotton tie
  • Suspenders/braces
  • British tan grain leather derby-laced ammo boots with hobnailed hard leather soles
  • Brown melton wool double-breasted 8×4-button greatcoat with broad-flapped lapels, throat latch, slanted flapped hip pockets, shoulder straps/epaulets, invert-pleated back, 2-button back belt, and long single vent
  • Brown wool serge peaked service cap with Royal Marines “King’s Crown” badge and brown leather chin-strap
  • Tortoise round-framed glasses with gold arms
  • Stainless steel watch with round tan dial on brown leather strap

You can learn more about World War II-era British battledress at this excellent video by Rifleman Moore.

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie and Ben Macintyre’s nonfiction source book.

You can also read Ewen Montagu’s firsthand account The Man Who Never Was and watch its cinematic adaptation, which starred Clifton Webb as Montagu.

The Quote

We are not sending 100,000 men into battle on a missing eyelash!

One comment

  1. Mark Gibson

    Well done that man! Thanks, Luckystrike. A great film/book. Macintyre hints that the whole business of using an unclaimed corpse may have been a cover up for an act of grave robbing. Glynwr Michael would have been a physical wreck and no pathologist would buy his corpse as that of an officer on active service. In any case, it is believed that Montagu remitted money to Spain for the rest of his life to pay for the upkeep and fresh flowers for Major Martin’s gravesite. It’s worth noting that the Royal Marine amphibious sections were the basis of all the British special forces formed in WWII – formidable warriors. Major Martin, Rest In Peace.

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