Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review of Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Operation Mincemeat tells the true story of how the British deceived the Germans into believing that the massing of troops in the Mediterranean, and scheduled for an invasion of Sicily, were actually going to invade Sardinia and Greece. Billed as ‘the most successful wartime deception ever attempted’, and undoubtedly saving many thousands of allies lives, Macintyre charts the operation from its initial conception through to when a film version of the story, The Man Who Never Was, was made post-war.

The ruse was relatively straightforward. Take a fresh corpse, dress it in the uniform of a British soldier, attach a briefcase containing supposed confidential correspondence, drop the body into the sea a few hundred metres from a Spanish beach, wait for the Spaniards to discover the body and the secret documents and for them to give copies to the Germans, and make a bit of a flap to appear as if most distressed at the unfolding events. It was an idea lifted by a future novelist, Ian Fleming, from a crime novel by Basil Thomson, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (1937). It was then developed by Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu, and approved for implementation by crime novelist, John Masterman. A key player in its unfolding was Alan Hillgarth, the naval attaché in Madrid, and another crime novelist. It seems that war gave some novelists the opportunity to use their imagination in creative ways and to live out their fantasies.

I picked up the book as an impulse buy, mainly because I’d enjoyed one of Macintyre’s other books, Agent Zigzag. Macintyre is strong at providing a readable historical narrative, that does not get too bogged down in factual description, nor strays too close to seemingly like fiction. Operation Mincemeat does a good job at weaving together the biographies of several principal characters, and structuring the story so that it maintains interest. There is a little repetition in places, and sometimes the narrative does drift along some unnecessary sidelines, but generally the book does a good job explaining the unfolding of events and painting a picture of its main protagonists.

1 comment:

birddog said...

Readers who would like a more detailed discussion of the contents of this book should read Malcolm Gladwell's very entertaining review in the May 10 issue of "The New Yorker".