Operation Mincemeat: The Pen Is Mightier Than The Machine Gun

Have you ever read about Operation Mincemeat? If not, give the Wikipedia article a quick read, and if you want to hear more, this Stuff You Should Know podcast is fascinating.

In a nutshell though, towards the end of WW2, the MI5 came up with a plan to trick the Germans into thinking they’d found some secret documents about an impending attack from British troops. The documents were put into a briefcase and attached to a corpse, for whom MI5 created a detailed, fictitious identity.

Part of the identity was a fiancee. They included a receipt for an engagement ring, two letters and a photograph of the fake man’s (Major William Martin’s) lady love. Though the photograph was of a clerk called Nancy Jean, the letter was written by an older woman – Hester Leggett – the most senior woman in the office and jokingly referred to as ‘The Spin’. Hester herself never married, though her letters (which you can read here) were full of girlish romance and longing.

My poetry prompt for yesterday was ‘write a historical poem’, and I decided to write from the perspective of Hester Leggett. It’s still a bit scruffy, but here is the product so far.

Emily x

The photo of Nancy Jean which was included in the ‘pocket litter’ of Major William Martin.


Behind The Lines

Dear Darling,
Dear Love,
To my one and only,
Dear William.
Will they let me pick?
Dear Billy,
They chose me.
As you never did.
The lucky gal in the office
with the right penmanship.
It seems strange, I know,
to write to a man
who doesn’t exist.
Stranger still
to write this –
for your eyes only.
Missives kept secret
even from MI5.
But I’m writing myself in.
So – nice to meet you,
it’s a pleasure
and my name
is not Hester
but ‘Pam’.
I always liked that name.
But when they find my picture
– tucked among your pocket litter –
I will look exactly like Nancy Jean.
I’m not the face of the operation:
I just write the script.
Nancy Jean is my junior
– in more ways than one.
I myself am too plain
to be a heroine.
Too old,
so they say.
Though I must admit:
I was never that pretty
back then, anyway.
In fact, confession:
I’ve never even
owned a bathing suit
or gazed coyly
from the shallows
at the pointed lens
in my sweetheart’s hands.
In fact,
I’ve never had a sweetheart.
Until you.
They chose me, they said
for my elegant script
and my impeccable grammar.
‘The Spin is married’
they laughingly said
‘to her paperwork’.
‘No matter that she’s
embittered about men:
her attention to detail
is exquisite.’
The rose pink paper
and the Wiltshire address
of the letterhead
are not my own.
June lent me the perfume
with which each page is imbued.
I, myself, never saw the need for scent
But, supposedly,
Chanel No 5
is beloved by GIs
and Tommies
who dream of taking a bottle home
to their sweethearts
or wives
when they return in one piece.
A luxury, my sweet martyr,
that you have been deprived.
Perhaps we might have got along,
you and I.
Been of value to each other,
In some simpler life.
Perhaps we really might
have had trips to the coast.
Perhaps, seasalt whipped,
with sunlight in our eyes
you might have looped
that dream ring
about my ice-cream sticky finger
And perhaps I
might have skipped at your side
on your trips to Savile Row
and tucked your arm in mine
and called you ‘Major’ with a giggle
as we stood in line
at the Adelphi
for The Dancing Years.
Perhaps I might have leaned in
and whispered in your ear
‘take me dancing later’
And you might have spun me
in the air and promised
‘You’ll be dancing with me always
and always as my wife’.
Another life.
For now, Bill,
We’re too busy, hmm?
Stopping wars?
Saving lives?

For now, let it suffice
to say your silent tomb excites me
more than any living Major
(though I’ll lament
your absence girlishly
In every tacky line).
I’ll write with
lightness and haste
as though commas don’t matter
though we’ll both know,
you and I:
this pen’s more deadly
than a machine gun,
stuttering from the front line.
And this ink’s stronger
and more heady
than Chanel No. 5.

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