Growing up, I always had a great fondness for war movies, particularly those surrounding the Second World War. Of the many that I saw, one sticks in my mind a little longer than others. I Was Monty’s Double told the true story of the actor M.E. Clifton James who entertained troops during the war by pretending to be British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. It was Monty who helped crush Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps in the Western Desert. He was then tasked with helping to plan Operation Overlord, the D:Day landings.
While Monty’s military career was going from strength to strength, James, who had been an actor before the war, was engaged in somewhat less stimulating work as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Pay Corps. About seven weeks before D:Day, a newspaper article reported on how James had performed as Monty during a patriotic show.
An Intelligence officer spotted the uncanny resemblance and soon Operation Copperhead, a scheme to misdirect Nazi spies, was hatched. James learned Montgomery’s mannerisms and speech and was even fitted with a prosthetic finger to replace the one he’d lost while fighting in World War One. Monty was a non-smoker and teetotal, so James had to give up the booze and the fags to be truly convincing.
And so the deception began. While the real Monty got busy planning the invasion of France, James was flown to Gibraltar where, at a reception at the Governor-General’s house, he dropped hints of’Plan 303′ – a bogus invasion of southern France – which were overheard by German agents.
With those little seeds sown, he was then whisked off to Algiers in North Africa, where he made several public appearances with General Maitland Wilson, the Allied commander in the Mediterranean, just to give Nazi spies the impression that something fresh was afoot in that military theatre.
Five weeks later, D:Day took place with Monty as one of the main commanders. James found himself back in his old job with the Pay Corps, trying to explain where he had been for the previous five weeks.
It’s not known for sure how successful James’s ruse was, but the German’s were certainly taken by surprise on D:Day, so maybe it was indeed useful.
Meanwhile, over in Russia, Joseph Stalin was having something of an identity crisis. The supreme leader of the Soviet Union is said to have had no less than four lookalikes to act as his decoys to thwart spies and would-be assassins.
One, ‘Rashid’ was said to be so like the Soviet leader, right down to pockmarks on his skin from a bout of childhood smallpox, that he was dismissed from the army because of his uncanny resemblance to Stalin. He was later recruited by the NKVD to act as a decoy and would sit in at meetings and formal dinners.
Rashid’s fascinating job came to an abrupt end in 1953 when Stalin died. The lookalike moved out of Moscow, shaved his hair and moustache and tried to blend back into society. Despite all his precautions, though, he would still find himself being stared at in the street due to his similarity to the late leader. Rashid died in 1991, aged 93.
Another body double was Felix Dadaev, a one-time dancer and juggler, who was injured in the fight to re-take Grozny from the Germans in 1942. Impressed by his resemblance to Stalin, intelligence chiefs faked Dadaev’s death and spirited him away to transform him into the Soviet leader.
Dadaev was almost 40 years younger than Stalin, but the rigours of war had aged him. That, combined with some well-applied make-up did the trick. The Soviet leader’s voice was not so familiar to Russian citizens, so all Dadaev had to do then was to practice Stalin’s mannerisms and gait in order to dupe onlookers.
His role, too, was to appear at ceremonies and rallies all across the USSR inplace of the real leader. Once, he said, he stood at the mausoleum in Red Square to review a parade of athletes that filed past. No one suspected a thing. In an age when there was no television and people rarely saw their leaders up close, the deception always succeeded.
His most important appearance as Stalin was when the Soviet leader travelled to the Yalta conference in 1945. Stalin’s flight was shrouded in secrecy but Dadaev’s was in the full glare of publicity, making him a ripe target for would-be assassins.
In 2008, Dadaev (88) wrote about his wartime secret in an autobiography, Variety Land (I’ve searched for it, but can’t find the book). Military intelligence wartime archives and Russian state security backup his extraordinary story.
I can’t help imagining the conversation at a lookalikes’ reunion, if only one had taken place – Stalin 1 and Stalin 2 comparing moustaches, while Nos.3 and 4 discussed tips on backcombing to achieve the desired bouffant style.
But Monty’s and Stalin’s lookalikes are in the ha’penny place when it comes to ambitious decoys. Finding a body double is one thing, but what about finding a city’s double?
No, I haven’t been at the magic mushrooms again. I refer to the ruse during World War I when the French built a fake Paris to fool German bombers.
An area about 15 miles outside the French capital was picked on a stretch of the River Seine, which was similar to Paris itself.
There, areas of the city around the Arc de Triomphe and suburbs like Saint-Denis were recreated. Wooden replicas of the Champs Elysees and Gare Du Nord were erected, and lighting effects, using white, yellow and red lamps, were employed to give the impression of machinery in operation at night and of trains and tracks which appeared real.
Special paint was even used to give the impression of dirty glass on factory roofs.
It was all in vain, though. The replica was still being built when the Germans made their final air raid on Paris in September 1918. Less than two months later the war ended.
Still, you can’t fault the French for effort…