Top positive review
108 people found this helpful
A page-turning history of WWII espionage
on 27 August 2010
Operation Mincemeat is history written like good fiction: hardly surprising when you consider that Operation Mincemeat itself was pure fiction to begin with.
This book tells the story of perhaps the greatest British deception operation of WWII, "The man who never was". To throw the Axis off the scent of the invasion of Sicily, a dead body was floated onto Spanish shores with a briefcase full of (bogus) secret documents. Added to other bits and pieces, it helped convince the Nazis that Sicily was only a feint, with the real invasion directed at Sardinia and the Balkans. That it worked is incredible, when you think about how many things could have gone wrong - and nearly did.
Ben Macintyre has started at the beginning, covering off all the principals of the saga - the dead man himself, Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley, the men responsible for creating the deception operation, and the various spies and spies and counter-spies on all sides, plus a cameo appearance by Ian Fleming, then-future creator of James Bond. There is a little about Jean Leslie as the (beautiful) girlfriend whose photo "Major Martin" kept in his wallet, and about Ewen Montagu's Communist spy brother, Ivor (whose wife Hell appears on the cover of some editions, for no reason I can discern save gender balance and to hint at a femme fatale narrative). Then, after all the buildup, we get a rare look into Franco's wartime neutral Spain, a hotbed of intrigue with frantic espionage being undertaken by pretty much every combatant of WWII, and by the Spanish themselves, largely, but far from exclusively, as a proxy for the Axis powers.
Some interesting questions are asked about why the Germans swallowed Mincemeat (and later, deception ops related to D-Day) whole; and the answer might be that the Abwehr, the German Army's military intel, was quite strongly anti-Hitler. Sadly the potential role of Admiral Canaris as Abwehr head is only hinted at here.
There are then a look at Operation Husky itself - the invasion of Sicily which Mincemeat went to so much trouble to mask - and a recap of the lives after the event of the various principals, which is interesting and provides a little closure. The case is argued that Mincemeat was a hinge in the development of WWII, and if the case is not quite made, then doubtless an entire book could delve into the military impact of the success of Husky on WWII.
What can be said, is that rarely can so little "total cost 200 pounds" have saved so many, who might otherwise have died on the beaches of Sicily.
We know how the story ends, but you don't read history for a twist in the tale. Like Agent Zigzag, this book is an enthralling read, full of fun facts about spycraft, military deception, and the multitude of characters - real characters, from adventurers to cross-dressing colonels, table tennis aficionados to Jewish Nazis - who were not perhaps, fit to fight a war with their fists, and so settled for using their wits instead.
If you are are interested in WWII history or spycraft, then this is a must read