The Anglo-Jewish Grandee Who Led One of World War II’s Most Successful Intelligence Operations

June 23, 2022 | Michael Medved
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Released in the U.S. last month on Netflix, Operation Mincemeat tells the real-life story of the successful effort by British intelligence to convince the Nazis that the Allies planned to invade Sardinia and Greece rather than Sicily in 1943. The team that pulled off this dramatic coup included a young Ian Fleming—author of the James Bond novels—and was led by Ewen Montagu, the film’s hero. Michael Medved explains what the movie leaves out about this extraordinary figure:

The real Ewen Montagu took special pride in outwitting Hitler in light of his family’s background. “Joy of joys to anyone, and particularly a Jew, the satisfaction of knowing they had directly and specifically fooled that monster,” he once wrote. Operation Mincemeat, based on Ben MacIntyre’s 2011 book, makes only the briefest mention of its hero’s Jewish identity—when Montagu dispatches his wife and two children to the relative safety of America, in view of “the nightmare that is marching this way that is only too real” and poses especially acute dangers for a Jewish family.

What the movie fails even to hint at is that Montagu’s family constituted one of the most conspicuous, powerfully connected, and philanthropically committed of all Jewish tribes in the realm, with members playing distinguished roles in politics, business, the arts, and synagogue leadership.

Montagu’s grandfather, Samuel Montagu (1832–1911), won elevation to the peerage as First Baron Swaythling, honored for his generosity to the poor, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. . . . In 1885, he won election as a Liberal member of Parliament for Whitechapel until he stood down five years later. He also organized the Federation of Synagogues, representing 51 small congregations in the crowded, Yiddish-speaking East End of London. While hoping to Anglicize and uplift recent immigrants from the Russian Empire, he simultaneously supported “Lovers of Zion,” promoting resettlement of Jewish communities in Turkish-controlled Palestine.

[Ewen] continued the long family tradition of Jewish service, as president of the United Synagogue (1954–62), and president of the Anglo-Jewish Association from 1949, pressing restitution claims against Germany and promoting the welfare of Holocaust survivors. He also came to welcome and support the establishment of the new Jewish state, moving beyond the doubts about Zionism that had motivated his father and the elite but short-lived League of British Jews. He died at age of eighty-four in 1985.

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