Book Review: Operation Mincemeat by Ben McIntyre

April 1943: The corpse of a high-ranking British navy pilot is discovered within touching distance of the Spanish shore. On his body are top secret plans outlining a detailed strategic attack by the allied powers. Was this the biggest disaster in military history? Were the allies about to be scuppered in the bold attempt to begin the liberation of Europe? Would they now have to hastily redraw battle plans in light of the accident? No, they were happy the body and plans were found, and here is why.

The whole thing was fake.

The body was not that of a British officer, or any of her WWII allies for that matter. It was the body of a homeless person. The documents were fake, as was the plan of attack. The crash was fake, designed to feed false information to the Nazis to get them to redirect defences elsewhere and reconsider their strategy in light of the discovered “plans”.

This might sound like a plot concocted by Thomas Harris or Craig Thomas, but it’s a true story of just how far a little counter information can go to shaping the course of a war. It was a daring idea that nobody was sure would work. But it did work and this book is the story of that fascinating mission of misinformation, one of Churchill’s “bodyguards of lies” designed to protect the truth.

A secret group, and the one responsible for Operation Mincemeat as it would be known, came up with some fanciful stories even if few would ever be tried in practice. Surprising here is that some of these fanciful stories were thought up or aided in their crafting by none other than Ian Fleming, the man who would go on to create the iconic James Bond.

As much as it is a recounting of the story of the mission, it is also about the people whose brainchild it was and the process that led up to it – including the poor unfortunate Welsh soul ego would help his country in a way he could never have foreseen in life, and the reason for the mission in the first place.

It was a turning point in the war, the Nazis were being pushed back in North Africa and the allies needed a plan of attack for European landing. They chose Sicily and that led to Operation Mincemeat, a daring plan similar to something that had been tried several times before, but on a much smaller scale and nowhere near as potentially pivotal.

This is one of the most interesting military history books I have read and it works as a great companion piece to Churchill’s Wizards. In fact, Operation Mincemeat is covered in that book, this one just goes into a lot more detail obviously. Even if military history is not your thing, a gripping tale probably is and when non-fiction knows how to tell a good story, it makes a good read. That’s the key to writing good non-fic, simply making it interesting for the reader and McIntyre achieves that.

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