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His Big Break

Clifton James, posing as British General Bernard Law Montgomery
Clifton James, posing as British General Bernard Law Montgomery (United Kingdom Public Domain)

Meyrick Edward Clifton James probably never expected to be the celebrity that he turned out to be. Born in 1898 in Perth, Australia, the youngest of seven children, he was a World War I veteran with the Royal Fusiliers, an infantry unit that served with honor. He saw action on the European Front at the Battle of the Somme, France in 1916, a member of the joint French-British unit that attacked the Germans on a 30-mile front. By the time it was over, more than one million men on both sides were either wounded or killed, making Somme one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the conflict.

Surviving the war with one less finger, James took up acting in Great Britain under the name of Clifton James. He kept at it for almost 20 years, although he wasn’t all that great or even good at it. When World War II broke out, he volunteered his services to entertain the troops. Instead, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the Royal Army Pay Corps in Leicester, England, where, for the first while, his only acting consisted of the occasional variety or drama show within the corps.

Then in April 1944, someone did notice him, but not the way one might have imagined. It all began when Lieutenant-Colonel JVB Jervis-Reid, head of an Allied deception planning department called Ops (B), saw a photograph in London’s News Chronicle of James in a stage show wearing a beret. The headline read “YOU’RE WRONG—IT’S LIEUTENANT JAMES.” Jervis-Reid quickly grabbed his phone and called actor David Niven, a lieutenant-colonel in the Army film unit, who in turn called James at his desk in Leicester and asked him to come to London for a screen test for the purpose of making some army promotional films.

In a downtown London office building, James met with Niven. They spoke for a bit in a private room, then Niven left. In walked a member of MI5 who then informed James that his country needed him for a very special acting assignment. You see, Clifton James bore a strong physical resemblance to the well-known and popular British General Bernard Law Montgomery of the Allied 21st Army Group. Before he knew it, James was given a copy of the Official Secrets Act, which he read and signed, almost in a trance.

As a result, James’ role would be used to the Allied advantage in a well-planned hoax codenamed Operation Copperhead where the Germans were being led to believe that the up-coming invasion of Europe--that everyone and his dog were expecting--would occur on the south coast of France and not Normandy as it eventually turned out to be. Copperhead was deployed along with a handful of other Allied deceptive plans to fool the Germans and keep them guessing. One of these plans was Operation Fortitude, in which the Allies were doing their best to make Calais, France along with Norway as two possible D-Day targets.

Actually, James was not the first choice to play Montgomery: It was British actor Miles Mander, who had made a very brief appearance as the general in the 1943 Hollywood-made movie Five Graves to Cairo. But once agents met with Mander in Los Angeles, they discovered he was too tall. Then a second double had broken his leg in a car accident during his training in impersonating Montgomery. It was now up to James to pull the charade off.

First, a doctor had to attach a prosthetic finger to James’ hand. Next, James had to refrain from smoking and drinking, two vices Montgomery did not engage in. James was quickly assigned to follow Montgomery around for a few weeks to study everything about him: how he walked, how he spoke, any mannerisms with his hands, and so forth. At one point, James met Montgomery face to face behind closed doors. “You have a great responsibility,” Montgomery said to his look-alike. “Do you feel confident?” James, in fact, was scared stiff.

General Bernard Law Montgomery
The real General Bernard Law Montgomery (United Kingdom Public Domain)

Two weeks prior to D-Day, on 26 May 1944, James was flown to Gibraltar and then Algiers, two places where German agents were known to be plentiful. During the flight to Gibraltar, James, to settle his nerves for the upcoming mission, had taken several nips from a bottle of gin he had smuggled aboard the aircraft. His handlers then had to spend a considerable amount of time sobering him up before landing. According to recently-released documents in 2010, James, while leaving Gibraltar, was observed closely by Molina Perez, a Spanish diplomat and Nazi spy codenamed Cosmos, whom British intelligence were well aware of. Perez left Gibraltar in a flash, and was followed to Spain where he sent coded messages that same day to Berlin about Montgomery’s sudden appearance.

Once James performed his clandestine role, he was flown secretly to Cairo, Egypt, where he was kept in hiding with a good supply of whiskey until well after the Allies landed at Normandy and the real General Montgomery had a chance to set foot on French soil. Then, after being away for five weeks, James was flown back to England to resume his boring, old ho-hum job with the Royal Army Pay Corps. In that length of time, he drew a full general’s pay, which was ten pounds a day, something that Montgomery had supposedly insisted on. Did the impersonation scheme work? No one knows for sure. With all the proposed landing points and deception plans, it must have been confusing for German intelligence. But, it probably helped the Allied cause to some extent.

By June, 1946, a year after the war ended, the Royal Army Pay Corps was demobilized. In addition, James could not find work as an actor. Broke, unable to support himself, his wife and two children, he applied for unemployment insurance benefits. In 1954, he wrote an autobiography titled I was Monty’s Double. In the United States, it hit the bookshelves as The Counterfeit General Montgomery. The book was used as a basis for the 1958 film, I was Monty’s Double, where James played himself. As a result, James finally received the recognition he deserved but had not received from his own government for his undercover services during World War II.

When Clifton James died May 8, 1963 at the age of 65, General Montgomery said during a newspaper interview the following day: “He was not a friend of mine. Only met him once. Of course he observed me a great deal. He did a very good job, a very good job, and fooled the Germans at a critical time of the war. I am very sorry to hear of his death.”

The much-loved, well-decorated Bernard Law Montgomery lived to the ripe old age of 88, passing away 13 years later.


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