How comedy musical fans gave an unsung war heroine the recognition she deserved | Now a plaque is to be unveiled to MI5's Hester Leggatt © Wycombe Abbey archive and Matt Crocket

How comedy musical fans gave an unsung war heroine the recognition she deserved

Now a plaque is to be unveiled to MI5's Hester Leggatt

An unsung heroine of the Second World War is finally getting a public acknowledgement of her secret work – thanks to the fans of the West End musical comedy Operation Mincemeat.

The show is based on the extraordinary true story of Operation Mincemeat, in which British spies duped the Nazis with fake military plans. They found the body of a homeless Welshman, gave him phoney invasion documents and the fake identity of a British airman and dumped him off the coast of Spain, as if he had perished in a plane crash, in the hope the Germans would find the corpse

While secret service agents Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley had long been credited with masterminding the scheme, little was known about another protagonist, Hester Leggatt. She was a secretary within MI5 who helped write a fictional love letter that the phoney ‘Major Martin’ carried with him to add authenticity.

In the show, that correspondence is set to the song Dear Bill, which piqued the interest of fans and they rallied to discover more about her, using the hashtag #FindHester.

Delving into research at the National Archives, the Imperial War Museum and elsewhere, their efforts uncovered addresses, handwriting samples, photographs, birth certificate, records from her time at Tormead and Wycombe Abbey schools, and even piano exam results, providing a comprehensive view of her life, to her death in 1995, aged 89.

However, her wartime record remained unconfirmed until one of the so-called ‘Minfluencers’, Erin Edwards, obtained official confirmation from MI5, confirming Hester May Murray Leggatt's service in the security services.

The letter read: ‘Ms Leggatt did indeed work for MI5 during the Second World War. She joined on 3 June 1940 and left on 31 July 1945. Sadly, her personnel file was destroyed routinely in the 1960s, as was the case for the records of many of our wartime employees. However, we have found her on our 1943 staff list in which she is described as a 'Grade 2 administrative assistant' in B1a.

‘B1a was of course the section responsible for running MI5's Double Cross agents during the war. Ms Leggatt would have been based in our London office at 57-58 St James's Street, SW1…  Ms Leggatt was with us during one of the most significant periods in our history and would have worked alongside some of the well-known figures in our history.’

Barrister Greg Callus, one of the key contributors to the #FindHester project said: ‘Operation Mincemeat succeeded because they managed to create an entirely fake person who was wholly believable from just a few fragments of pocket litter and documents. 

‘We all had great fun doing the exact reverse: finding and fleshing-out a very real woman from just the fragments of documentary evidence that her life had left behind. 

‘It was a joy to be a part of such a wonderful group of people, whose shared passion and care and diligence got so much done so quickly.’

Thanks to fans’ efforts, a plaque will now be erected to Leggatt at the Fortune Theatre, where Operation Mincemeat has been running for the past six months, on December 11.

Scene from the musical

A spokesperson for SpitLip, the company that wrote and composed themusical ,   said: ‘We were captivated by the mystery of Hester Leggatt from the moment we came across her. Try as we might though, we couldn’t unearth the details of her life. The real identity of Hester Leggatt fell, once again, into the background. 

‘That might have been the end of the story, were it not for our show’s community. Where we let the facts fall back into the shadows, they rolled up their sleeves and said "let’s go." They found her.'

Actor Jak Malone, pictured above playing Leggatt on stage next to the real Leggatt, added: ‘The commitment, energy and enthusiasm of our fans has left me awed, inspired and immensely proud. 

‘Due to their efforts, the real Hester finally has the recognition she so rightly deserves and I’m simply elated. I first built my portrayal of Hester based on scraps of information and thanks to our fans now I’ve been presented with this fully fleshed out person with such a rich, full life and It’s been a blessing.’

• The full team of researchers who helped uncover Hester Leggatt’s identity was:  Annabel Rose, Ben Caligari, Bram de Buyser, Claudia Caplan, Caitlin DeAngelis, Dave Baxter, Elinor Quick, Erin Edwards, Gail Bishop, Greg Callus, Hûw Steer, Jack Lawrence, Jan Schneider, Jenny Murray, Jessie Honnor, Kathy Bolt, Maayan Shir, Misha Anker, Philippa Peall, Rachel Pantrey, Rose Crossgrove, Sarah Haynes, Sharon O’Connor, Silvia Lemos, Sophie Message and Valeria Oliveira 

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Published: 24 Nov 2023

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