Book Review: Operation Mincemeat
Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
By Ben MacIntyre
Just from the title, you probably have a good sense of whether you want to read this. it’s a carefully researched and detailed account of a complex espionage project coordinated by the British in World War II to convince the Nazi Armies of entirely fabricated and falsified battle strategy information. And this information was conveyed on the person of… a corpse.
The level of complexity and planning that had to go into making it work was fascinating. Everything from the body’s uniform (even accurate down to the underwear) to making sure that the letters blended the personal with plausible military secrets, and conveyed a sense of the dead man’s real, convincing and utterly fabricated life. had to be considered and accounted for. The corpse needed convincing “pocket litter,” deliberately contrived to look random and convey a sense of his realness: theater tickets, unpaid bills, letters that had to be written in persona. It required coordinating a lot of people’s expertise: naval strategy, medical examiners, security clearances, code-breakers, spies and double agents, with only a certain amount of information allotted to each. Threads of communication worked their way across military branches, across countries, woven through secure coded messages and messages on less-secure channels to create confusing and hopefully convincing “chatter,” to be deliberately intercepted. Reading this, I got to see and appreciate some of the tangled allegiances of spycraft, with double agents spying on one another, passing along information with varying degrees of deliberate deception. One thing I learned was that there were spies managing entire networks of fabricated agents, each with real names, personalities, lives. (Making WWII spycraft an excellent career for a would-be novelist, such as Ian Fleming, who gets a nod in these pages.)
At times, the tangle of information, misinformation, double agents and deliberate lies reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Help! (I have to wonder if the mindset of British deception and espionage left a lasting impression on the nation’s sense of humor.)
In addition to presenting a level of research that lets events speak for themselves, MacIntyre clearly had a lot of fun spinning the tales. Little asides and passages made me giggle with delight.
“The Times was the paper all important people wanted to be seen dead in, and it is not possible to be deader than the death columns of Britain’s most venerable newspaper.”
Or an account of Major Derrick Leverton, “jovial heir to a long line of British undertakers,” who was apparently taking the work of invading Sicily in stride, noting his fellow soldiers’ graffiti on the landing craft “See Naples & Die,” “Day Trips to the Continent.” Leverton was feeling so matter-of-fact about the invasion that he managed to sleep as his boat approached the shore, and caught another refreshing snooze while the troops were being unloaded in a foxhole he’d dug on the beach.
Here’s something to think about: how easy it is to take the immediacy of information and news coverage for granted in the 21st Century. MacIntyre captures the way the operation had to unfold slowly, chronicled in letters, sea voyages, communications that could be carefully constructed, only to be intercepted, or actually blown to pieces and lost. The level of technology available for things like creating identity cards, writing or examining letters, even forensics for the autopsy. It took months for Operation Mincemeat to be planned. Think of how fast information moves, and can be verified or contested now, and think of the levels of trust and the way they have shifted.
The fact that MacIntyre so clearly enjoyed his research and writing, and delights in telling these stories is what makes the book work. There are many, many people whose lives and levels of expertise (and security clearance) have to intertwine to make the telling work. The number of characters and background sketch anecdotes can, at times, make the reading slow going, but MacIntyre’s willingness to see and evoke the whimsy in his story makes it work. Let’s remember– this was a plan to plant false information on a dead guy in the hopes of thwarting major military operations. It’s absurd.
And it made for a terrifically fun read.
I would happily read more about World War II espionage, provided it was written in this engaging vein.