How fans of Operation Mincemeat musical discovered identity of heroine

How fans of the Operation Mincemeat West End musical discovered the REAL identity of the WWII plot’s unsung heroine

She was, or so they all thought, just a secretary. 

Tea rounds, dictation, letter-writing: Hester Leggatt was a hard-working member of staff at MI5, often spotted pacing the hushed corridors of 57-58 St James’s Street, London, where the service was based during World War II, and keeping the other secretaries in line.

Colleagues there knew her as ‘The Spin’, short for ‘spinster’: strait-laced, a fastidious rule-follower and prudish when it came to discussing her private life.

But little did they realise just how much Hester, who died in 1995 aged 89, was hiding beneath that prim and proper façade.

It wasn’t until 2010, when Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre was published that Hester’s name first entered the history books. And not until this year that her loved ones found out what an unsung heroine she was.

The Operation Mincemeat story will, no doubt, be familiar: that of the celebrated — but utterly bizarre — naval deception, in which the body of a homeless Welshman was deposited off the coast of Spain, disguised as a Royal Marine and carrying fake intelligence documents, in a bid to trick Hitler into diverting his troops from Sicily to make way for the Allied invasion.

The far-fetched plot, carried out in 1943, is widely credited with saving thousands of young soldiers’ lives and drastically changing the course of the war.

Macintyre’s book about it inspired a 2021 film of the same name starring Colin Firth and a hugely-popular musical, currently receiving rave reviews in the West End

Hester Leggatt, known as ‘The Spin’, is believed to be the third woman from the left

Mrs Joan Gerard Leigh, wife of Lieut. Col. W.H. Gerard Leigh, Officer Commanding the Household Cavalry.Mrs Leigh, was ‘Pam’, the girlfriend of the Man Who Never Was, and was one of the key figures in ‘Operation Mincemeat’ during World War II

Macintyre’s book about it inspired a 2021 film of the same name starring Colin Firth and a hugely-popular musical, currently receiving rave reviews in the West End.

READ MORE – Operation Mincemeat FIRST LOOK: Colin Firth looks dapper in a Naval uniform as he transforms into a World War Two intelligence officer in the upcoming drama 

In every re-telling of the ruse, and there have been several, an MI5 secretary plays a vital role as ‘Pam’, the fiancée of the fictional Major William ‘Bill’ Martin, whose body the Nazis thought they’d found.

Pam was tasked with writing love letters, a crucial part of Bill’s backstory, replete with girlish, light-hearted details of life back home in England, which her superiors stashed in the dead man’s jacket pocket to be found along with his remains.

If not for these letters, historians say, the Nazis might not have believed Bill’s carefully constructed story — and Operation Mincemeat would have been doomed to fail. But for eight long decades, the true identity of their author remained a secret.

Then, in June, out of the blue, Hester Leggatt’s great-nephew Will received an email from someone purporting to be a ‘Mincefluencer’ — the name given to super-fans of the musical, which has accrued something of a cult following since its West End debut in March this year.

The fan asked Will if the Hester Leggett — misspelled with an ‘e’ — named as the woman behind the love letters in Macintyre’s book might, in fact, be his great-aunt Hester Leggatt, with an ‘a’.

Pictured: James Fleet as Charles Fraser-Smith, Colin Firth as Ewen Montagu and Matthew Macfadyen as Charles Cholmondeley

‘It was quite a shock — but a pleasant one,’ says Will’s daughter, Freya, 20, who lives with her father in London. ‘We never met Hester, and Dad had seen that a Leggett had been involved in Operation Mincemeat, but had assumed it wasn’t anything to do with us because of the spelling. We don’t even think my Grandad, Hester’s nephew, can have known about it.’

So with her own family in the dark, how did the Mincefluencers connect this seemingly ordinary secretary with the infamous wartime operation? Cue a remarkable reconnaissance mission not dissimilar to Mincemeat itself.

SpitLip, the four-piece theatre company behind the musical, started the ball rolling earlier this summer with an online plea to fans to #FindHester: the one character in their play, they said, about whom almost nothing — apart from her name — was known.

The fans took up the challenge with gusto, and what followed was an incredible feat of modern-day sleuthing. 

Communicating with one another online, mostly via X (formerly Twitter), they delved into research at the National Archives, the Imperial War Museum, local village census records, newspaper clippings, school attendance logs, even piano exam results.

In total, 25 contributors — including teachers, solicitors, a cancer research scientist, a barrister, cybersecurity experts and authors —scoured resources both on and offline, compiling their results in a shared web document which now extends to 59 pages. What they found was nothing short of astonishing.

Pictured: Simon Russell Beale as Winston Churchill and Jason Isaacs as Admiral Godfrey

The fan asked Will if the Hester Leggett — misspelled with an ‘e’ — named as the woman behind the love letters in Macintyre’s book might, in fact, be his great-aunt Hester Leggatt

By changing the spelling of ‘Leggett’ to ‘Leggatt’, they unearthed the real Hester’s birth and death certificates, home addresses, employment records, handwriting samples and black-and-white photographs of her as a young woman.

One online sleuth even got official confirmation from MI5 that Hester worked as a ‘Grade 2 administrative assistant’ for the service from 1940 to 1945 in section B1a, the division responsible for running double agents during the war.

The mysterious ‘Pam’ at the heart of Operation Mincemeat could, at last, be traced back to a real person.

And now the world knows who she was, a plaque, the definitive historical accolade, will be erected in Hester’s honour on December 11, at the Fortune Theatre, where the musical is running until next summer.

Legions of fans are expected to attend the unveiling — among them Bill Unsworth, another of Hester’s great-nephews, who says the amount of work that went into finding her is ‘mind-blowing’.

He, like other members of her family, had no idea that his great-aunt played such a key role in the legendary plot.

‘I don’t ever remember it being mentioned at family gatherings when I was little,’ says Bill, 52, a graphic designer who lives in Reading. ‘She certainly didn’t go around talking about it. It strikes me that Hester was the sort of person who took the Official Secrets Act to her grave.’

To his great regret, he never met her, though his mother, Angela, now 88, did, and Angela’s twin sister, Sue, who died in 2018, was a great friend of Hester’s.

Operation Mincemeat left to right is Claire-Marie Hall Zoe Roberts David Cumming Natasha Hodgson and Jak Malone Credit Matt Crockett

‘Mum met her when she was very little, in 1939 or 1940, so it was very much at the time Hester was doing that job,’ he says. ‘She went to London to see her a couple of times with her mother, Connel. She described her as very sharp and not a cosy person.’

The picture fits with other fragmented memories of Hester, described in Macintyre’s book as a ‘sharp-tongued dragon… who demanded absolute obedience and perfect efficiency among her girls’.

Born in Karachi, India (now Pakistan) in 1905, Hester had public service in her blood: her father, Ernest, was in the Indian Civil Service. Ernest, his wife, Jessie and their children, Hester, William and Donald, moved back to the UK before World I, where Hester attended Tormead School in Guildford, then Wycombe Abbey girls’ school and later St James’s Secretarial College.

Records are scant until the 1930s, when her name resurfaces as a private secretary to the writer Osbert Sitwell. She also did some work for the publisher Golden Cockerel Press, before joining MI5 in June 1940, nine months after the start of the war.

Jean Leslie, a junior secretary in ‘The Beavers’, the nickname for the office team which served under Hester, remembered her as ‘skinny and embittered’.

Another description from Macintyre’s book says she was ‘fierce and demanding… she devoted herself utterly to the job of marshalling a huge quantity of secret paperwork’.

Her brusque, no-nonsense nature has led to her being characterised as much older than her years: in the 2021 film, she was portrayed by Dame Penelope Wilton — then aged 75.

Operation Mincemeat left to right is Zoe Roberts Jak Malone Natasha Hodgson and Claire-Marie Hall. Credit: Matt Crockett

In real life, we now know, Hester was just 37 when she took part in Operation Mincemeat.

Reading the letters she wrote as Pam, full of sweet nothings to her ‘Darling Bill’, the young secretary seems to have taken on a very different persona on paper.

In one, she writes: ‘Bill, darling…don’t please let them send you off into the blue the horrible way they do nowadays — now that we’ve found each other out of the whole world, I don’t think I could bear it.’

READ MORE – How MI5 secretary’s beach snap was planted with fake plans about Allied invasion of Greece on corpse that was dumped in the Med under Operation Mincemeat

Another, the inspiration for a heart-wrenching solo by her character in the musical, played by Jak Malone, continues: ‘Darling, why did we go and meet in the middle of a war, such a silly thing for anybody to do.’

Some have speculated that Hester had her own brother, William, whom she also called ‘Bill’, in mind when injecting such heartfelt endearments into her work.

Bill Leggatt had much in common with Hester’s fictional fiancé: he commanded the 11th Regiment of the Honorary Artillery Company in North Africa, the very same group of men who were the first guns ashore in the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. In making the dead man’s story so convincing, she was ensuring the safety — and survival — of her own beloved brother.

But Hester was shy and would have felt bashful about such a brazen show of emotion; so much so that it’s likely she didn’t tell her superiors it was she who actually wrote the letters.

Ewen Montagu, the intelligence officer in charge of Operation Mincemeat, wrote in his 1953 book, The Man Who Never Was: ‘We asked a girl working in one of the offices whether she could get some girl to do it. She took on the job, but never would tell us the name of the girl who produced the two magnificent letters.’

Instead, Hester, who had never married, used the opportunity to paint a picture of the romance she could only dream about, pouring out her innermost thoughts and feelings while maintaining her stiff upper lip — and steadfastly serving her country.

Her written forays as Pam, it would seem, were the closest she ever came to love.

One of the saddest discoveries made by the Mincefluencers in their epic bid to track her down was that Hester had, in fact, died almost two decades ago.

Having moved to work at the British Council after the war, she eventually left her home in London and retired to a cottage in Chilton, Buckinghamshire, where she lived alone — later moving in to a nursing home.

READ MORE – A war film like no other? Mission accomplished… Operation Mincemeat, starring Colin Firth, is seriously classy

Hester’s great-nephew Bill Unsworth, says his Aunt Sue visited Hester several times before her death. ‘She had the demeanour of being extremely polite, with impeccable manners and an impeccable appearance, despite being bedbound at that stage,’ he says. ‘She was a lovely, classy old lady, very understated and polite.

‘You’d never dream that she’d done something so huge when she was younger.

‘To think that back then, in the days when women really were put in their place by men, she had such an important role — it makes me very proud that I’m related to somebody who did that.’

Freya believes her great-great aunt was woefully ‘underestimated’ in the history books. ‘But she didn’t let that define her,’ she adds. ‘She was a strong-willed person and she ran rings around some. It’s such a shame she never got to read the book or see the musical, and such a shame that we never got to know her.’

A plaque with Hester’s name on it is, they agree, long overdue.

‘I just wonder how many other stories there are of people who did extraordinary things during the war, completely unseen and unacknowledged,’ says Bill.

There are most likely many Hester Leggatts out there, but recognising the work she did goes some way to acknowledging the others who, quietly and without complaint, did their bit, too.

And, also thanks to a modern-day musical and its legions of committed fans, the name of this once unsung heroine is, at long last, being sung.

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