I was Monty’s Double: Meyrick Edward Clifton James

I was Monty’s Double: Meyrick Edward Clifton James

Meyrick Edward Clifton James
Meyrick Edward Clifton James

In April 1944, Lieutenant-Colonel John Jervis-Reid was perusing the News Chronicle newspaper when he came across a photograph of Meyrick Edwards Clifton James dressed as Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. James had been briefly appearing in a stage show as the famous British military commander, a late addition to the production which had not proved overly popular with the public. However, what struck the colonel was the incredible resemblance between this amateur actor and the professional soldier. The seed of one of the Second World War’s most unusual deception plans had been sown.

The Security Service – better known as MI5 – devised a plan to use James in an attempt to fool the Germans in the lead up to D-Day, which was less than two months away. It was intended to make the Germans believe that Monty was in fact not in England but elsewhere, such as North Africa. British intelligence knew that the Germans were expecting Monty to command the British land forces during the invasion of France, and if he was believed to be out of the country the invasion would be viewed as not being imminent. The plan was codenamed Operation Copperhead, itself part of the wider Operation Bodyguard, which aimed to persuade the Germans that a major Allied thrust would come in the south of France before the north, thus necessitating the need to divert troops and military assets away from the actual intended point of attack.

James himself was born in 1898 in Perth, Western Australia. During the First World War he served in the Royal Fusiliers, seeing action during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. However, acting was James’ real love, but he struggled to find work and only played minor roles in lesser-known productions. When the Second World War broke out, he again joined the army, this time being posted to the Army Pay Corps as a second-lieutenant in Leicester. He continued to enjoy the dramatics as best he could, spending time with his local army drama and variety group.

Initial contact with James was made by Lieutenant-Colonel David Niven – the later famous actor – who worked in the British Army’s film unit. The meeting took place in London, where James was invited, under the pretext of starring in a proposed army film, to take part in a screen test, with the real purpose to be given to him only later if he accepted the role. Intrigued by the assignment, James agreed to the part and was subsequently sent to secretly work on Monty’s staff as a journalist in order to observe the field marshal and study his mannerisms as well as the way he conducted himself as he went about his military business. James, however, had lost part of one of his fingers during the First World War, and so a convincing false one had to be made. He was also fond of an alcoholic drink – it is said James was an alcoholic – and a cigarette, but Monty disliked both and so the actor had no choice but to do without either for the duration of his assignment; ultimately, he failed to abstain. Monty was made aware of the deception plan and briefly met with James, after which he insisted the actor drew the same pay as himself while he was employed in the operation.

The double agent network was employed to ensure the Germans knew Monty would be in command of land forces during the coming invasion. James was then flown from England to Gibraltar, on 25 May, aboard Winston Churchill’s private plane. Following his arrival, he was taken to the governor-general’s house where he had breakfast with Sir Ralph Eastwood, the governor of Gibraltar, after which he spoke openly with a number of officers and other local people, dropping hints of information that suggested the Allies were soon to mount an invasion of southern France. It was known that a number of German agents were operating in Gibraltar, and it would not be too difficult for at least one of them to pick up on the false information. To be sure, Ignacio Molina Pérez, a Spaniard known to be in the employ of German intelligence, was even invited to the house to see James for himself.

Once this part of the ruse was complete, James was flown to Algiers, where he would conduct a tour in company with General Henry Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean. The tour was very public, and again it would be quickly picked up by the local German agents. With his mission accomplished, James was then flown in secret to Cairo, where he was ordered to remain out of sight until after D-Day, after which he was taken back to England to return to his original job, all as though nothing had happened. He was ordered not to divulge what he had done or where he had been during the previous five weeks.

The effectiveness of the operation has been debated by historians ever since it was made public knowledge. However, several captured German generals later admitted that some of their colleagues within the Abwehr did believe James was in fact Monty. All that said, it is today generally believed that Berlin did not take the ruse seriously, and, therefore, probably had little real impact on the course of subsequent events, although Operation Bodyguard overall enjoyed more success.

Despite his role in the deception, James received little thanks for his efforts and found himself unemployed when he left the army in 1946. Unable to find work, he had little option but to apply for the dole to support his family. In the years after the war, he wrote a book regarding his exploits called I Was Monty’s Double in 1954, which was quickly picked up by filmmakers as a plot for a film of the same name. The film would star John Mills and Cecil Parker, but the real star of the production was James, who played both himself and Monty. It was the only major part the amateur actor would play in his life, and it is perhaps fitting that he finally made it on to the big screen after struggling to find meaningful acting work throughout his life. The film was released in 1958, but within five years James had died at the age of 65.

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