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The Man Who Never Was

April the first, 1944. For the Allies, the first hope of victory was almost in sight. North Africa has been won with the aid of Lance Bombardier Milligan and Gunner Secombe, and Burma was holding out with leading aircraftsman Peter Sellers. But the main problem: how to prevent the Germans from learning our intention to land in Sicily? Let's go back to that fateful night…

(Wallace Greenslade introducing ‘The Man Who Never Was’, Series 6 Episode 27, broadcast 20 March 1956)

The final episode of the sixth series is a classic example of the Goons mocking the absurdities of war. It’s chock-full of gags and great sound effects, contains one of Major Bloodnok’s best moments, and even links the Goons (tenuously) to James Bond.

Five days before this episode was broadcast, on 20 March 1956, the film of The Man Who Never Was debuted in UK cinemas. It told the true story of a wartime plot to fool the Nazis into thinking that the Allies would attempt to invade southern Europe via Greece and Sardinia, rather than through Sicily (where the Allies actually landed).

The plan involved dressing up a dead man as a senior officer and having the body wash ashore in Nazi-controlled territory. On his person were papers detailing the invasion plans as centring on Greece and Sardinia. The codebreakers at Bletchley Park were able to intercept messages to prove the Nazis had believed the rouse and were redirecting forces towards Greece, leaving Sicily – where the full invasion took place – less protected.

Operation Mincemeat, as it was known, was crucial at that stage in the war, and quite literally cleared the way for a certain Lance Bombardier S. Milligan and Gunner H. Secombe (and a few others, I understand) to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa and enter Italy.

The release of the film – based on a 1953 book by naval intelligence officer Captain Ewen Montagu, who led the operation – gave Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens the inspiration for a ‘fake plans’ plot of their own.

In their version - expanded from a sketch in episode 20 of the third series - Captain Seagoon discovers a pair of uncooked German army boots on the beach, containing a roll of microfilm. He takes it to the chief of military intelligence, AKA Major Bloodnok. Bloodnok is found “interrogating a German prisoner for the sole purpose of lengthening the script”.

Bloodnok: Now, who's this? Sergeant (Ray Ellington): A suspected German spy, sir. He was caught loitering off the coast of Britain. Bloodnok: What's your excuse? Spy (Harry Secombe): I vos vaiting for a number 10-A submarine. Bloodnok: At this time of night? A likely story. They stop running at 11, you know.

This section gives Bloodnok plenty of gags, and Peter Sellers is in his element.

Bloodnok: Now, are you married? Spy: Ja, two years. Bloodnok: Any children? Spy: Nein. Bloodnok: Nine in two years?! You're a blaggard, sir! You, you - Hand me that shotgun. Spy: Nicht, nicht! Ve are just good friends.

As much as I enjoy this section, it is undermined somewhat by questionable editing (at least in the version I have) which seems to omit a piece of dialogue, making Bloodnok’s response sound odd. However, this script was revisited in Series 8 and crammed with even more gags – we’ll come back to it in due course.

Seagoon and Bloodnok analyse the plans to find out what they are. Perhaps they are the plans of the invasion of Britain?

Bloodnok: Don't you worry about that. If the Germans ever invade England, we war office chiefs have Plan B ready... fast plane to Dublin, submarine to South America. Seagoon: Major, you're not going to run away from the enemy? Bloodnok: Well, there's no point in running away from anyone else, is there? … Seagoon: Be it on your head, as you wish, but we all know what happened to Colonel Bentine… He sat right where you're sitting, now. In that very spot. He was frightened of the enemy, too. Dead scared. He put a thousand pounds of gold in his kit bag, booked a fast plane to Dublin, and had a submarine laid on to take him to South America. Poor fool, heh heh. He thought he'd got away with it. You know what happened to him, don't you? Bloodnok: Erm, what? Seagoon: He got away with it!

Eventually they decide to send the microfilm to the Woolwich Arsenal – where Spike used to work before the war – for the team to build what they believe to be a secret weapon.

Meanwhile, there is a nod to the actual Operation Mincemeat after the second musical interlude, when Henry Crun comes forward to suggest that, in order to return the plans to the Nazis and fool them into thinking the Allies hadn’t seen them, they should float a body dressed up as a German naval officer ashore.

Seagoon: Commander, who would be idiot enough to be dressed up as a German Admiral and thrown overboard from a submarine? Lew (Sellers): Don't worry! I have, in this box here, an idiot who's been specially drowned for the job. Leslie, take the lid off. [FX: wooden box being prized open, and something falling out] Lew: There you are gentlemen, meet the man who never was! Eccles: Haaallo!

(The character Lew is, I believe, Sellers’ take on Lew Grade. Leslie is his brother, and the pair of them ran a talent agency in London in the 1950s, becoming the principal bookers for the London Palladium, and so knew the Goons well.)

Back at the Woolwich Arsenal, the officers prepare to test the mysterious weapon.

Seagoon: I trembled with excitement as the moment drew nigh. Here we had a German weapon which they did not know we possessed. With it, we could well turn the tables on the Bosch! Sellers: Right, gentlemen. I shall be turning the handle five seconds from now…Five, four, three, two, one. Turn. [FX: jet engine powering up, turning into barrel organ playing ‘The Loveliest Night of the Year’]

Yes, it was a dreaded barrel organ. Oh, the horror.

Now, for that James Bond link. Operation Mincemeat has its roots in a 1939 top secret memo from Admiral John Godfrey. It began with a trout fishing analogy and outlined 54 ways of ‘luring in’ the enemy. Among the suggestions was the idea of planting fake documents on a dead body and ensuring the Nazis discovered it.

While Admiral Godfrey is named as the author, war historian Ben Macintyre has stated that the memo may have been written by his assistant: Lieutenant Commander Ian Fleming.

Bluebottle: I am James Bottle, double-0-seven and three-quarters… Ace reporter for the hard-hitting, brown-paper Junior Hours. Seagoon: Get out or I’ll fetch you one. Bluebottle: No that’s okay, I can fetch it myself.

(from ‘The Last Goon Show of All’, broadcast 5 October 1972)

For more on Operation Mincemeat, see this article.

There was also a musical based on the story that played at the Southwark Playhouse in London in 2021, and is moving to the Fortune Theatre from 29 March this year. It sounds like a belter, from the reviews.

Finally, I can highly recommend the 2021 film Operation Mincemeat. It has an excellent cast, and for a film predominantly about people sitting in rooms planning things it's brilliantly tense. I was only mildly disappointed that Spike Milligan as Eccles wasn't playing the body.


'The Man Who Never Was'

Series 6, Episode 27

Broadcast: 20 March 1956 (Radio Times listing)

Written by: Spike Milligan and Larry Stephens

Producer: Pat Dixon

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I always thought that Bluebottle was the ace reporter for the hard-hitting brown paper Junior Oz - the infamous alternative magazine that had been the subject of an obscenity trial in 1971. I'll have to dig out my photocopy of Harry's script to check...

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Ah, interesting! I'd always heard it as 'Hours', but your explanation makes much more sense.

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