Friday, March 12, 2021

Carolyn Jane Gerard Benson 1947-2021

 _. Carolyn Benson, who died 7 March, 2021, aged 73, was a life-long friend and confidante of the Duchess of Cornwall, and scion of the Leslie baronets.

Carolyn was a friend of Camilla Shand from their schooldays together. Always known as 'Chubby', she remained a firm friend of the Duchess of Cornwall. The ladies regularly took foreign holidays together.

She was born in 1947, as Carolyn Jane Gerard Leigh, the elder daughter of Colonel [William Henry] Gerard Leigh, CVO, CBE [1915-2008], late the Life Guards, of Hayes, East Woodhay, Newbury, Berkshire, and his wife the former Nancy Jean Leslie [1923-2012], daughter of Sir Norman Leslie, CMG, CBE, 8th Baronet [1889-1937].

Carolyn's father, Col. Gerard Leigh, was a polo playing chum of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and vice-president of The Guards' Polo Club. Prince Philip was a godfather at the christening of her brother, David, in 1958. Col. Gerard Leigh was a Gentleman Usher to HM The Queen.

Carolyn's mother, Jean, was the woman whose photograph was used to help trick the Germans into falling for one of the greatest deceptions of the Second World War.

 Operation Mincemeat, which was to inspire a film called The Man Who Never Was in the 1950s, was devised in the spring of 1943 by two intelligence officers, Charles Cholmondeley of MI5 and Commander Ewen Montagu of Naval Intelligence. With Churchill planning to invade Italy through Sicily, a ruse was required to make the Germans believe that the attack would take place elsewhere.

Cholmondeley and Montagu devised the idea of planting false papers on an “officer” and making it look as if he had died in a plane crash at sea. Through the London coroner, they obtained the body of Glyndwr Michael, a down-and-out who had killed himself by drinking rat poison. The body was kept in cold storage while the plotters devised a cover story.

The body was given military papers, including a pass to Combined Operations Headquarters, identifying him as Acting Major William Martin, an expert in amphibious warfare. To make it as convincing as possible, there was also a letter from his father, a warning about his overdraft from his bank manager, a bill for an engagement ring, love letters — and a fetching snapshot of his fiancée, “Pam”, emerging from the Thames in a one-piece swimsuit.

“Martin” was dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marines officer and the personal effects were put in a briefcase – chained to his wrist – with “plans” showing that the Allies intended to invade Italy via Sardinia and Greece. On April 30 1943 “Major Martin” was slipped into the sea from a submarine off Huelva, south-west Spain, along with an upturned life raft. The body was picked up by a fisherman and the contents of the briefcase soon found their way to the Abwehr in Madrid.

The deception worked better than anyone had expected. German troops were redeployed to Greece and Sardinia, while Sicily was left thinly defended. A triumphant telegram was sent to Churchill: “Mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”

The “Pam” of the photograph was in reality Jean Gerard Leigh (or Jean Leslie as she then was), a young MI5 clerk. But as Ben Macintyre revealed in his recent book Operation Mincemeat (2010), the deception involved her for a short time in a bizarre game of role-playing which had little to do with the main business of bamboozling the Germans.

She first got caught up in the plot in February 1943, when the hunt began for a suitable “mate” for “Major Martin”. The more attractive girls in MI5 and Naval Intelligence were asked to supply photographs, and Ewen Montagu, who had already noticed the pretty 19-year old with wavy brown hair, asked Jean if she would oblige. She duly became “Pam”, “Bill Martin’s fiancée”, a young woman working in a government office whom the major had met five weeks earlier and proposed to after a whirlwind romance. The job of drafting Pam’s breathless billets doux was given to another woman in the department.

But Jean Leslie soon found that her duties went beyond the mere provision of a photograph. Montagu, whose wife Iris was sitting out the war with their children in America, decided to live the part of Major Martin: “He was Willie and I was Pam. He had the sort of mind that worked that way,” Jean recalled. Clearly smitten, he began to court her, taking her out to clubs, films and dinner and writing her love letters signed “Bill”. “Pam” enjoyed the make-believe, sending him a copy of the swimsuit photograph inscribed “till death us do part. Your loving Pam”. At “Bill Martin’s farewell party” at the Gargoyle Club, she turned up on Montagu’s arm.

When the engagement of Pam and Bill came to its inevitable end, so too did the “romance” between Montagu and Jean Leslie. Montagu later told his wife, who had been puzzled by the photograph of the attractive girl on her husband’s dressing table, that it had all been play-acting — part of a secret wartime operation. As Macintyre observes: “He may have been telling the truth.” Montagu certainly had an eye for her, but according to Jean Leslie’s family this was not reciprocated and no liaison took place.

Nancy Jean Leslie was born on November 20 1923 at Andover, Hampshire, the daughter of Sir Norman Leslie, Bt, a director of Cable & Wireless, and Betty Sewell. She had no formal education, and her recruitment into MI5 remains something of a mystery. A clue, perhaps, was her mastery of French, which she spoke like a native (even though she could not write a word of it) — on the death of her father, when she was just 13, her mother had taken her to live in Paris. When Paris fell to the Germans in 1940, the 17-year-old Jean fled to Brittany, where she used her guile, charm and looks to secure passage on a boat back to England.

In 1941, aged 18, she was recruited into the counter-intelligence and double agent section of MI5. Her job was to sift through reports from Camp 020, the wartime internment centre at Ham, Surrey, where enemy spies were interrogated, and bring anything of interest to the notice of her senior colleagues.

In November 1946, after a brief courtship, she married Colonel William Gerard Leigh at St George’s Chapel, Hanover Square, with a reception at Claridge’s. Gerard Leigh was an officer in the Life Guards and a fine horseman, who, as chairman of the Guards Polo Club, would make headlines for saving the Queen from a flying polo ball in 1971.

The pair enjoyed an evening cocktail and travelled everywhere together with a concoction kit for vodka martinis. Even in hotel rooms, the mini bar was rarely touched; and when staying with friends they preferred to mix their own cocktails in their room before dining.

After the war she spent time with her husband in Palestine, and later in Germany. Back in Britain, Jean Gerard Leigh involved herself in charitable work, particularly for the Docklands Settlement charity and the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in central London. A gifted gardener, with a lightning recall for the Latin names of plants, she kept a series of beautiful gardens in Berkshire.

Ewen Montagu, meanwhile, continued to keep in touch with Jean from time to time. In 1951, before the publication of his authorised account of Operation Mincemeat, he wrote to Jean Gerard Leigh (“or should it be Pam?”) asking for her permission to use the swimsuit photograph, assuring her that she would be identified only as “a girl working in my section”.

Jean was not entirely happy: “I am most interested to hear that parts of your and Bill’s doubtful past are to be revealed to the unsuspecting public”, she replied. “But what should be my answer if someone sees through the ravages of time and identifies me with Pam?” Montagu suggested that if anyone made the connection, she should “merely say that you were working in a branch of the War Office”.

In 1980 when a photograph of Jean appeared in The Times after her husband was appointed CBE, the 79-year-old Montagu wrote another letter: “Dear Pam, It was a voice from the past to see you in today’s papers and I can’t resist being another such voice and sending you congratulations. Ever yours, Ewen (alias Major William Martin).”

But it was not until 1996 that Jean Gerard Leigh admitted publicly that she and “Pam” were one and the same. She came forward after The Daily Telegraph reported the true identity of the body used in Operation Mincemeat; it had been identified following years of painstaking research by Roger Morgan, a local council officer.

Carolyn Gerard Leigh married in 1977, as his second wife, Charles Edward Riou Benson [1935-2002], sometime racing correspondent of the Daily Express [under the nom de plume 'Bendex'], & scion of that landed gentry family, son of Stephen Riou Benson, and his wife the former Phyllis Hawkins. Her husband, who died 12 July, 2002, aged 66, was a famed racing tipster, socialite and gambler. She is survived by a daughter, Honor May Benson [who was born in 1980].


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