Sometime in the mid-1950s, when I was in what is today called “middle school,” I eagerly snapped up a book recently published in the U.S. that related an astonishing World War II British spy story. The book, The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu, had been published in 1953 in the UK to great acclaim and enormous sales. It told the story of how Montagu, then a Lieutenant Commander in the British Naval Reserve engaged in planning operations to deceive Nazi Germany, had masterminded a successful plot that played a large role in the Allies’ victory in World War II. I don’t remember many of the books I read then, more than half a century ago, but I vividly remember The Man Who Never Was, even though I missed the Hollywood film released a couple of years later that was based on Montagu’s book.
This post was updated on October 28, 2020.
Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory by Ben MacIntyre (2010) 434 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Now comes Ben MacIntyre’s even more astonishing book based on the same facts, told at greater length, in much greater depth, and with all the warts and official secrets revealed in the telling. Never have I seen more convincing evidence that truth is, truly, stranger than fiction. MacIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured Allied Victory is nothing short of a revelation. It’s the latest, and in many ways the very best, of a torrent of books based on the gradual opening of the files of the British secret service beginning in the 1970s.
Here’s just a taste of the unlikely facts and circumstances that come to light in Operation Mincemeat, contradicting the convenient untruths and obfuscations of Montagu’s own account:
- It was not Montagu alone who managed the case but Montagu working with a Royal Air Force officer named Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced “Chumley”; don’t you just love the English?).
- The original idea for the plot had been cooked up several years earlier by a certain Naval Commander, Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, then a Naval intelligence officer;
- The dead body washed onto the Spanish shore to launch the plot was that of a mentally unbalanced, poverty-stricken, substance-abusing Welshman who probably committed suicide, not a middle-class Scotsman who died an honorable death in a hospital, and the Welshman’s family was never asked for permission to use his body;
- The famous English pathologist who assured Montagu and Cholmondeley that no one would discover the true cause of death of the man now rechristened “Major William Martin” was clearly mistaken;
- The Abwehr agent in Spain who examined the phony papers on “Major Martin’s” body and declared them genuine may have done so simply because he was desperate to prove he could deliver high-value intelligence to Berlin, since he himself was one-quarter Jewish and fearful about being sent back home;
- The “German spy” sent to England to investigate the bona fides of “Major Martin” was a figment of the Nazis’ imagination, because British intelligence had captured, turned, or executed every single Abwehr agent infiltrated into Britain — a fact still a secret when Montagu wrote his book in the early 1950s; and
- The Abwehr officer in Berlin who was the ultimate authority on the authenticity of the documents and was Hitler’s favorite intelligence analyst was easily able to detect the phoniness of “Martin’s” papers but chose to reassure Hitler because he was a dedicated anti-Nazi and was prepared to do anything to help the Allies win the war. (He was later executed in the wake of the failed von Stauffenberg assassination plot.)
And that’s just a smattering of the revelations in this wonderful book. If you have any interest in British history, World War II, espionage, or just want to read a real-world thriller, pick up a copy of Operation Mincemeat. I doubt you’ll be able to put it down.
For further reading
I’ve reviewed three other excellent books about World War II espionage and special operations by Ben MacIntyre:
- Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies
- Agent Sonya: Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy by Ben MacIntyre—The extraordinary Soviet spy who gave Stalin the bomb
- Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit that Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War
You’ll find this book listed on my post, 5 top nonfiction books about World War II (plus many runners-up).
You might also be interested in seeing my post, 20 good nonfiction books about espionage, and you may enjoy browsing through 20 top nonfiction books about history plus 80 other good books.
If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels (plus dozens of runners-up).
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.