Operation Mincemeat

For someone with an MA in History of War, Culture and Society I have a shockingly limited knowledge of World War Two, choosing instead to focus on men and masculinity in WWI. My MA brought a new focus to my life and made me realise that it is literature and fiction that I love, thus leading me on the path to becoming an English Teacher. Although I enjoyed the challenge of my MA (and it was bloody hard work), military history is an area of non-fiction I seldom dive in to, perhaps because I wrongly view it as being the type of literature that only appeals to ex-military men or history fanatics. And I love fiction written during or about those specific areas of British/World history, so I don’t know why I avoid history books.

I would never have picked up Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat if I hadn’t watched a documentary, presented by the author, on telly. The intricacies and complications of the story just fascinated me and I knew that the book would be so much better than the programme, so I added it to the ‘to read’ pile and carried on. When the documentary made an impromptu appearance on telly a few weeks ago, I decided to head to my local library and hunt this book out. Luckily for me there were a few copies on the shelf.

In 1943 the Second World War showed very little sign of coming to an easy conclusion; Germany were still a dominant force in Europe and were keen to expand and retain their control. Constant bombings in Britain and mainland Europe were demoralising the country and neither side showed any sign of backing down. Britain needed a good plan, and they needed one fast.

Enter Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley.

British Intelligence, using inspiration from a memo written by James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who got the idea from a Basil Thomson novel, devised a plan so clever, so complicated and so unbelievable, that if it worked they would gain a foothold in to Hitler’s Europe, and a major boost in their war campaign. What if the body of a military officer were to wash up on a Spanish beach, carrying personal, confidential letters that hinted at an attack that would never be? What if these letters ‘found’ their way into German hands, and fooled those in command, so that defences were moved away from the real attack point, and placed elsewhere? This is essentially the backbone of Operation Mincemeat, a spy story so incredible it is hard to believe it is true…but it is.

Macintyre delivers a detailed, fascinating and lively account of the deception, right from Fleming’s inital memo to the successful outcome of the deception. The book reads like a fictional thriller; it is fast paced, thorough and easy to read. I have struggled in the past with history books that read like text books, covered in footnotes and subject specific language that requires too much effort for a non-specialist. This was not the case in Operation Mincemeat. It is an enjoyable read for someone who knows little about the whole operation, and certainly offers a comprehensive account, that it is not patronizing or too inclusive. It amazes me how well planned the deception was; it seems obvious that it would need to be in order to succeed, but even creating plausible ‘wallet litter’ to ensure William Martin was a convincing ‘real’ person is fascinating. It makes me think what my purse or handbag tells people about me!

I read the paperback edition of Operation Mincemeat and I particularly enjoyed how Macintyre has returned to his work after the publication of the hardback edition and responded to reader queries and questions about specific facts or people involved in the operation. I like that Macintyre has taken the time to listen to his readers and clearly appreciated their input. I also enjoyed reading about the lives of those involved after the success of Operation Mincemeat; their lives did not stop the second the deception was completed, so it is only fitting that we have an insight into their lives after the war, and their involvement in Mincemeat affected them.

Overall, I would highly recommend this book, even if you know little about WWII, military history or deception plots. It is a great read and very accessible. As with all books I enjoy it has inspired me to read more about this point in history, not only do I want to read more of Ben Macintyre’s books, but I feel the need to read about the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, and the mere mention of Ian Fleming has me craving for a James Bond novel, so the ‘to-read’ list just keeps getting longer.