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In the spring of 1944, Lieutenant Clifton James was contacted by the British Army Film and Photographic Unit and invited to London for an audition. Lieutenant James was an actor by profession, relegated to the Military Administration office in Leicester. In high spirits, he travelled to London. But at the Curzon Street address, there was no director. A man introduced himself as Colonel Lester of MI5, the UK’s security and counter-intelligence agency. He had noticed the lieutenant’s strong resemblance to General Montgomery, a commander who had played a crucial role in the North African campaign during the decisive second battle of El Alamein. Thus began ‘Operation Copperhead’.
To conceal the preparation of a large invasion force for the landing in France, it was planned to deceive the enemy by accumulating evidence that Monty, probably the commander of the British invasion force, had left England for somewhere else. Lieutenant James was to become General Montgomery. Over the next few days, the late Lieutenant James was thus instructed to outwit the German High Command. For this reason, he was assigned as a sergeant in the General’s Intelligence Service.
Monty wore the famous black beret, a leather anorak and had his own way of saluting. He walked briskly, dominating the scene; now and then he asked pointed questions, checking, giving advice, issuing orders. Lieutenant James had to quit drinking and smoking, he had to learn to walk, talk and imitate all the gestures and peculiarities of General Montgomery. A few days later, at 6.30 p.m., the new Monty left for Gibraltar on Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s private plane. “We have spread the word along the African coast that Monty will arrive to form an Anglo-American army to invade southern France.” Touring the entire Middle East to accredit this rumour was Lieutenant James’ mission.
In Gibraltar, he was greeted by the complicit governor. Sir Ralph Eastwood, Rusty to his friends, for a moment believed that Montgomery himself had changed his mind and come in person. “By golly, you really are like Monty!” exclaimed the governor. The Gibraltar leg was brief but highly effective. Within a few hours, the German spies had already informed the central government, which was beginning to concentrate its efforts on obtaining information about ‘Plan 303’, the code name for the fake invasion operation. The next few days would be a monotonous repetition of landings, receptions, pseudo-high-stakes conversations and streets lined with cheering troops, plus, of course, ‘by chance’ encounters with enemy infiltration agents.
Within days of the landing in France, Lieutenant James was put on a plane bound for Cairo, the only city big enough to allow him to disappear without a trace. It was only after the end of the conflict that Lieutenant James discovered the great danger he had been in. The German government wanted to shoot down the plane he was travelling in or to assassinate him in Spain or Africa. Instead, it was Hitler who, wanting to know the landing point of the invasion, saved his life, preventing any assassination attempt.
But was this elaborate little comedy worthwhile? Most probably it was because, by the time of the Normandy landings, Rommel’s famous armoured divisions had remained on the eastern front.
List of References
James, M. E. C., 1954. The Counterfeit General Montgomery. I ed. New York: Avon Publications.