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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre

Operation Mincemeat:  How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory is the account of a British Intelligence operation that, despite the odds, succeeded during WWII.

MacIntyre reveals details that have been secret for years about how MI5 officers decide to use the plan, find a body, come up with a complete backstory, forge the documents, and eventually get the forged documents into the hands of the German High Command...all the way to Hitler's desk.

What makes the work so fascinating is MacIntyre's cast of characters who are so varied and so interesting--not only the individuals working for MI5, but also those who played small roles in finding, delivering, and transporting the body and in transmitting the information.

Maybe the reason the entire plan reads something like a novel is that so many of the individuals involved in one way or another were already novelists or became novelists.  While truth is often stranger than fiction, it helps if those who conceive and construct such a complicated plan have the imagination of fiction writers.  I lost count of how many writers were involved from start to finish.  The most famous, although his role was small, was Ian Fleming.  No wonder the Bond stories were so popular, Fleming had all the experience one might need with espionage, double-thinking, and dreaming up ways to confuse or mislead the enemy.

Ewan Montague takes the lead in the book, partly because his partner Charles Chalmondeley was such a modest and retiring man.  When Montague was finally permitted to publish his limited account (The Man Who Never Was), he offered Chalmondeley one quarter rights to any profits (print or film), and Chalmondeley refused to even be named. 

The spies and double agents were intriguing.  At least one of the most famous Spanish agents has remained anonymous to this day, known only by his code name, Agent Andros.  Agent Garbo's story is unusual because although he hated the Germans and offered to spy for the British, they turned him down.  Until, that is, they discovered that he was feeding the Germans false, often ridiculous information on his own.  When the British realized what was happening, they swooped up Juan Pujol Garcia and installed him in a safe house where he delivered misinformation in high style.  His real life adventures are the basis for Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana.  (And although Greene was not involved in Operation Mincemeat, he, too, was in the British Secret Intelligence Service in MI6)

Major Karl-Erich Kuhlenthal, the gullible German agent who happily transmitted Agent Garbo's falsehoods, was much admired for his efforts by his superiors.  Oddly, Kuhlenthal had a Jewish grandmother and a half-Jewish mother.  No matter how his superiors felt about him, he was always a dark horse who depended on his uncle, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, to intercede for him.

Near the final stages, Baron Alexis von Roenne, the man who pretty much guaranteed the information concerning Operation Mincemeat to be true, detested Hitler and almost certainly knew the information to be false.  Colonel von Roenne was a decorated war hero and Hitler's favorite intelligence analyst, but a secret opponent of Nazism.  While not directly involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944, his friendship with Claus von Stauffenberg and other members of the Black Orchestra led to his arrest and terrible death. 

It would be impossible to mention all of the individuals who played a part in a brief post, but MacIntyre brings them back to life.  Even the "dead man," who was in fact, a derelict becomes in history, a hero.  Glendwr Michael was transformed in death into Major William Martin, RM and was responsible for saving the lives of so many men who met little resistance on invading Sicily.

Nonfiction.  History/WWII.  2010.  235 pages + notes.


  1. I'm dying to read this book. I don't read a lot of war books, historically, but I read a brief review of this one and loved the story and had to know more. :)

  2. Fascinating! I love the old movie about this.

  3. The book is a little confusing at first, as MacIntyre gives the background of the idea and lists so many people. After you begin to get everyone straight, it is an inside look at what went on to get the mission on the road.

    It isn't really about the fighting except for a brief bit when the invasion takes place. It is a glimpse into the lives of so many of the men and women who took part in the deception.

    I think you'd like it!

  4. Nicola--Yes, the movie was from the book by Ewen Montague--The Man Who Never Was. He even had a brief cameo part. I haven't seen it, I'm adding it to my Netflix que!

    There were a lot of inaccuracies in the book (and film) because each had to be vetted by the government, which didn't want many of the details released. Nearly 70 years later, MacIntyre was able to get hold of many documents that had been withheld.

  5. Great review! A very interesting story. I have not seen the movie and will definitely have to check out this book and the movie. Thanks for your review!

  6. I don't like war history books but this one sounds fascinating. It is one part of WWII history that I had never heard of before.

  7. Violette - This historical account covers such a bizarre series of incidents as the plan takes form and is put into place. Not a dry history book at all!