Book Review: Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945 by Nicholas Rankin

Churchill's Wizards

This is a military history book with a difference. So many about the two world wars are concerned with grand events, personalities, battles, how many people died, tales of heroism and tragedy, political analysis, where it might have gone wrong, where the lucky breaks came. I’m not really into military history for the reason that it is done to death, that and the fact that my interests lay in periods much earlier than the 20th century.

However, this deals entirely with the information battles of both world wars. There are some amazing stories in here that are even more incredible because they are true. Dead bodies dressed in RAF uniforms dropped behind enemy lines with fake TOP SECRET documents, fake battleships constructed of plywood to deceive the enemy over the actual size of allied fleets, setting up fake airfields and even towns that at night were indistinguishable from the real thing, faked movements of tanks and supplies and fake German newspapers and radio stations and even networks of false German agents operating in Britain sending daily reports to the Nazi high command. One bluff worked so well that Hitler halted the advance of one of his armies across France because a false lead had convinced him of an attack on the other end of the coast. Equally amazing is the refusal of the Nazi high command to attack British occupied Cyprus that intelligence had led them to believe was heavily fortified and would cost them dearly. In actual fact, Cyprus was defended by local militia who would have been little resistance to the Nazi war machine.

Rankin’s writing style is sometimes quite dry. The stories he has to tell are amazing feats of military genius and it is not difficult to wish that he had at been a little more light-hearted at times and at 600 pages it is a heavy book requiring a reading of “little and often”. Comprehensively researched, he drops in anecdotes and personal feelings for how the events he researched influenced fiction of the era particularly the Richard Hannay books (The 39 Steps etc).

An interesting read for military history buffs and non experts alike 4/5.

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