Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre
Did you ever notice that once you become aware of something, you start seeing it everywhere? When I was dancing salsa, I noticed every ad for dance classes/studios/clubs in the city – new ones as well as ones that had clearly been around for years. And I’ve had that experience with Operation Mincemeat, as well.
I’ve had the book for a few weeks, and had seen it (and thought about reading it) for months. It’s an absolutely brilliant book, delineating an amazingly detailed espionage plan critical to the invasion of Sicily. They took a dead body – an indigent Welshman who died in London – created a new, military identity for him, and set him adrift where he’d be found by Spanish Nazi sympathizers. The letters in his briefcase were intended to make Hitler think that Sicily, the obvious target for a foothold in southern Europe, was not the actual target. And it actually worked.
It almost didn’t work. Things that were supposed to go perfectly smoothly didn’t. The body was picked up in the right place, but given to the slightly wrong people. A few important people (like Goering) wondered privately if the information was actually a plant (which, of course, it was). But ultimately, the ruse worked, and the invasion of Sicily was a success.
Ben Macintyre’s book is almost completely absorbing. It’s full of details and references, but it never feels like an infodump and never really like name-dropping. The references are actually explained, and even followed up on. The story, and plan, itself is compelling without being sensationalised (not that it needs to be). The famous names are relevant (Ian Fleming was a member of staff who helped with the backstory; Eisenhower and other generals played an active role, either by approving the operation or by actually contributing details).
One of the awesome parts of Operation Mincemeat is that, while the operation itself was fairly unusual, the purpose of it – massive misdirection – was not. For the invasion of Sicily alone, Mincemeat was one of at least three misdirection operations, including sabotage in Greece and Sardinia, and an attempt to make the Germans think that the initial landing site was only a preliminary and the main attack was coming later, elsewhere. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the Allied spy network, especially all of the fictional agents and double agents that were running. The mental acuity of the (real-life) spies involved had to be immense to keep track of all the plots and deals and personalities that they created. And yet Macintyre is able to impress without glorifying the danger that everyone involved was in.
Which leads me to my “hey, I just learned about that!” moment from this book: Agent Garbo. He was a critical part of Mincemeat (….every part of Mincemeat was critical….) so Macintyre spends a bit of time on him and his background. This guy was rabidly anti-Nazi, and offered himself as a spy to the Allies several times, being turned down each time. So he decided to cut out the middle man, and started his own disinformation feed to the Nazis in Spain. He hid in Portugal, but made his German handlers think he was in England. Before too long, the British codebreakers picked up on his communications and realised how valuable he could be. He served the Allies officially for the rest of the war.
And now there’s a documentary about him. One of the people I follow on Twitter linked to the trailer on iTunes earlier today – it’s just been released in the US. Agent Garbo was the most interesting supplemental character for me in Operation Mincemeat, so the documentary is totally on my to-be-watched list now.