bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
[personal profile] bloodygranuaile
A few weeks ago I broke my streak of not blowing all of my disposable income on books, and acquired a rather large stack of volumes over the course of one weekend. I put it to the Internet which I should read first, and the Internet wisely selection Ben MacIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory.

The subtitle here is not kidding when it calls Operation Mincemeat a bizarre plan. It is very, very bizarre. The short version is that it was a plan to dump a body off the coast of Spain carrying fake documents that would then be passed to German intelligence. The fake documents were to state that the Allies were gearing up for major invasions of Greece and Sardinia and pretending to plan an invasion of Sicily. This would then draw German defenses away from Sicily and towards the other targets, allowing the Allies to plan and invade Sicily like they wanted.

This plan came out of a small, extremely top-secret room in the British intelligence system, and involved a lot of improbably happenings and an extremely colorful cast of characters. The endless parade of deeply strange people is probably my favorite aspect of this book, to be honest—you couldn’t make these people up if you tried. Many of them were very good at making up other people, though, including the fictional soldier Bill Martin.

Something that I probably should have known already but didn’t, is that a rather large chunk of people involved in intelligence and spying during the world wars then went on to write mysteries and spy novels. This includes the creator of the fabulously unrealistic James Bond, Ian Fleming. Apparently, spying in the first half of the twentieth century was much crazier than spying in the second half of it, because John le Carré these dudes were not.

Ian Fleming may have actually been the first person in British intelligence during World War II to bring up the idea of planting documents with a dead body, although such a “haversack ruse” had been used in World War I as well. But Operation Mincemeat specifically—the plan to spread disinformation regarding the invasion of Sicily—was thought up and developed predominantly by two men, Charles Cholomondeley and Ewen Montagu.

Montagu is the somewhat more prominent character in this book, although it is stressed that he and Cholmondoley were pretty equal partners in cooking up the scheme—Cholmondoley was much more secretive of a person, though, and never talked about his part in the scheme to other people even after the war ended. Montagu, however, was the author of the “official” government version of the affair that was released after the war—one in which Cholmondeley was referred to by a pseudonym at his own request—and a lot of the “new” information in this book comes from Montagu’s personal papers. I was quite okay with Montagu being at the fore, though, because he makes a great protagonist. I also developed kind of a history nerd-crush on him. A perfectionist workaholic with a flair for dramatic storytelling; a lawyer who loved arguing, had no patience for pomposity, and could appreciate a good lie; co-founder of the Cheese Eaters League at Cambridge; this middle son of a wealthy Anglo-Jewish banking family is fabulously entertaining to read about and eminently likeable. His sense of humor comes through in all his personal and official documents, and occasionally got him in trouble in court. His family was nearly as colorful as he was—his wife Iris spent the war in New York secretly running anti-Nazi propaganda through the front of “British passport control”; his brother Ivor was a committed Communist and Soviet spy. Ivor was also a table tennis nut, to the degree that MI5 thought that the table tennis thing must be some sort of sinister front, and managed to miss all his actual spywork because they were so busy trying to figure out what the table tennis thing was covering up.

Other fun characters include coroner Bentley Purchase, who obtained the dead body used in Operation Mincemeat and who had the cheerfully morbid sense of humor that you find among forensics people; Jock Horsfall, a myopic car-racing fanatic who refused to wear glasses and helped transport the body to Scotland in the middle of the night (almost crashing at least twice), and Bill Jewell, the suicidally brave captain of the storied submarine Seraph. Part of the reason this book goes on for 400 pages even though the plan itself took only a few months to put together is that Ben MacIntyre doesn’t skimp on giving us wacky anecdotes and humorous character sketches about everyone we run into—the undertaker who helped smuggle the body, the pompous forensics expert consulted on what kind of corpse was needed, a whole network of German and British and Spanish spies in Huelva, agents in other aspects of British intelligence that planted supplementary information to make Mincemeat look believable (including the amazing story of Agent Garbo, who started counterspying for Britain on his own volition well before Britain actually hired him to do so), the War Office secretaries, and various soldiers, spies, generals, and civilian aides, both real and fictional. An alternate title to this book could have been Was Everyone In the Forties Weird or What? Some readers might find this a bit meandering; I found it all wildly entertaining.

I would recommend this book highly for people who like their nonfiction highly detailed and somewhat wide-ranging; people looking for a concise narrative of only the most important bits should probably just read the Wikipedia article on Operation Mincemeat. This reads almost like a novel, although one of the more leisurely-paced ones stuffed full of worldbuilding and backstory that tends to characterize fantasy more than the spy novel these days.

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