|Part of Operation Bodyguard|
M. E. Clifton James in the guise of Montgomery
|Operational scope||Strategic deception|
|Planned by||Dudley Clarke, London Controlling Section|
|Objective||To confuse German intelligence as to the location of the proposed D-Day landings.|
|Date||27 May 1944|
Operation Copperhead was a small military deception operation run by the British during the Second World War. It formed part of Operation Bodyguard, the cover plan for the invasion of Normandy in 1944, and was intended to mislead German intelligence as to the location of General Bernard Montgomery. The operation was conceived by Dudley Clarke in early 1944 after he watched the film Five Graves to Cairo.
The German high command expected Montgomery, one of the best-known Allied commanders, to play a key role in any cross-channel bridgehead. Clarke and the other deception planners reasoned that a high-profile appearance outside England would suggest that an Allied invasion was not imminent. An appropriate look-alike was found, M. E. Clifton James, who spent a short time with Montgomery to familiarise himself with the general's mannerisms. On 26 May 1944, James flew first to Gibraltar and then to Algiers, making appearances where the Allies knew German intelligence agents would spot him. He then flew secretly to Cairo and remained in hiding until Montgomery's public appearance in Normandy following the invasion.
The operation did not appear to have any significant impact on German plans and was not reported high up the chain of command. It was executed some time before D-Day, and in the midst of several other Allied deceptions. German intelligence might have suspected a trick, or not attributed much importance to the visit. Following the war James wrote a book about the operation, I Was Monty's Double. It was later adapted into a film, with James in the lead role.
In preparation for the 1944 invasion of Normandy, the Allied nations conducted a complex series of deceptions under the codename Bodyguard. The overall aim of the plan was to confuse the German high command as to the exact location and timing of the invasion. Significant time was spent constructing a notional army, the First United States Army Group, to threaten Pas de Calais, as well as political and visual deceptions to communicate a fictional Allied battle plan. Copperhead was a small portion of the overall Bodyguard plan, conceived by Dudley Clarke. Earlier in the war, Clarke had pioneered the idea of strategic deception, forming a deception department in Cairo named 'A' Force. Clarke and 'A' Force were not officially in charge of Bodyguard planning (a role that fell to the London Controlling Section), but because of the location of the deception the Cairo planners organised much of the operation.
On a visit to Naples in January 1944 Clarke had seen the film Five Graves to Cairo, in which actor Miles Mander makes a brief appearance as Bernard Montgomery. The film involves one character impersonating another; Clarke suggested attempting the same trick in real life. He proposed an operation to mislead German commanders as to Montgomery's location in the days immediately before the Normandy landings, codenamed Operation Neptune.
Montgomery was one of the most prominent Allied commanders, and the German high command expected him to be present for any invasion of France. Clarke hoped his apparent presence in Gibraltar and Africa would lend support to the idea that the Allies might be planning landings in Southern France as part of Operation Vendetta, rather than across the Channel. While in London in February, Clarke, along with the London Controlling Section and Ops (B), drafted Copperhead in support of Vendetta.
Mander, the actor from Five Graves to Cairo, was located in Hollywood but found to be too tall in real life. A second look-alike was found, but soon afterwards was injured in an accident. Eventually, Lieutenant-Colonel J. V. B. Jervis-Reid, head of Ops (B), spotted a photograph of Meyrick Clifton James in the News Chronicle. James, an Australian, had spent 25 years as an actor before the war, and at the time was assigned to the Royal Army Pay Corps. Colonel David Niven, a well-known British actor, was asked to contact James and offer him a screen test for future army films. When he arrived at the meeting, James was told his true role.
James was not a perfect stand-in for Montgomery. He had lost a finger during the First World War, so a prosthetic had to be made. He had also never flown before, so the London Controlling Section's Dennis Wheatley took James up for a test flight to make sure he did not suffer from air sickness. Finally, James both drank heavily and smoked cigars, while Montgomery was a teetotaler and disliked smoking. The deceivers were worried that James might be spotted drinking, spoiling the performance. Despite these hitches, and with Montgomery's approval, the plan went forward. To get into character, James spent some time with the general, posing as a journalist, to study his mannerisms.
Allied deceivers used their double agent network to circulate the idea that Montgomery would command ground forces during the invasion. Then, on 26 May 1944, James flew overnight from RAF Northolt to Gibraltar, where the Germans maintained an observation post overlooking the airport from across the Spanish border. The plane had to circle for an hour before landing to allow James, who had smuggled a bottle of gin onto the flight, to sober up. He then attended breakfast with the British governor, Sir Ralph Eastwood, before departing again for the airfield. The Allies had arranged for Ignacio Molina Pérez, a Spanish envoy known to be a German spy, to visit Government House. After observing James's departure, Pérez hurriedly crossed the border to place a call to his German handler.
James then flew to Algiers, where he was publicly paraded through the airport and driven to meet General Maitland Wilson, ostensibly for a meeting to discuss operations against the south of France. Instead, he was moved quietly to a remote villa by 'A' Force's Rex Hamer. Rumours suggest this was because James had been spotted smoking and staggering around Algiers, so the deceivers decided to cut his appearances short. Whatever the reason, the next day, out of character, James was flown to Cairo. He was to remain hidden there until the public disclosure of Montgomery's presence in France. Meanwhile, double agents in North Africa were used to extend the masquerade for a few more days, by hinting Montgomery was still in the region.
The precise impact of Copperhead is unclear. The visit was reported up the German chain of command, and some double agents later received requests for information about Montgomery's movements. However, there is no indication that Montgomery's appearance affected German views of the imminent invasion threat. Writing in 2011, Joshua Levine attributes this to the fact that the deception was carried out some ten days before D-Day, arguing that there would be no reason for a flying visit to North Africa to preclude an imminent invasion.
Another factor was that, in early May 1944, an uncontrolled agent based in Spain (who sold fictional intelligence to the Germans) had passed on details of a meeting in Gibraltar between several high-ranking Allied officers. Documents found after the war indicated the Germans found this information suspect, and that they might have treated Montgomery's appearance as equally so. Although double agents received a number of urgent requests from the Abwehr about Montgomery's whereabouts it does not appear that this information was passed on to the German commanders in France. The Bodyguard deception had successfully created confusion within German command as to Allied intentions, and the appearance of Montgomery in Gibraltar added little to the picture.
James did not enjoy the experience. Although he received equivalent pay (£10 per day) to Montgomery during the operation, it was a high-pressure assignment. Following Montgomery's public appearance on the Normandy beachhead, James was flown back to England and resumed his role within the Pay Corps. He was also warned not to discuss the operation. Dennis Wheatley, in his memoirs, commented that he felt James had been treated "shabbily" for his efforts.
In 1954 James wrote an account of the operation, entitled I Was Monty's Double (published in the United States as The Counterfeit General). The British government made no attempt to stop publication, and in 1958 the book was adapted into a film of the same name. James starred, both as himself and Montgomery, alongside John Mills, as an intelligence agent.
- Holt (2005), p. 811
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- Casey (2005)
- Rusbridger (1991), p. 178
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- Wise (2002), p. 36
- Levine (2011), pp. 264–266
- Holt (2005), p. 786
- British National Archives, "A" Force Permanent Record File, Narrative War Diary, CAB 154/4 pp. 85–90
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