Book of the week: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre’s perfectly pitched account of Operation Mincemeat reads like a nonfiction thriller.

(Harmony, 400 pages, $25.99)

Ben Macintyre’s brilliant new nonfiction thriller might just convince you that James Bond’s creator won World War II, said Katherine A. Powers in In 1943, following a scheme that was “almost certainly” suggested by future spy novelist Ian Fleming, a handful of British intelligence officers duped their German counterparts by inventing false military documents and attaching them to a corpse that was floated off the coast of Spain. Dubbed “Operation Mincemeat,” the ruse worked magnificently: The phony intelligence was passed along by Nazi-friendly Spain, and Hitler moved three Panzer divisions to Greece—shortly before Allied forces struck at Sicily. The invasion ended the Axis’ monopoly hold on Europe.

Macintyre’s perfectly pitched account is more than just a summary of the plot’s complex logistics, said Michael Idov in The New Republic Online. Almost every spy involved in the British plot “was a writer in his spare time,” and they threw themselves into inventing an elaborate personal and professional history for the dead man. Together, they gave “Major Martin” more than a military title: They packed his pockets and attaché case with evidence of a happy love life, a stern father, a problem with spending, and a tendency to lose things. The interior lives of the ruse’s creators were equally interesting. In Operation Mincemeat, “every character, major or minor, comes with a set of splendid quirks,” from cross-dressing to collecting rare mice. Macintyre’s account becomes “an entirely unexpected ode to intellect, civilization, and wit.”

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It helped the plotters that Germany’s own spies performed miserably, said Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker. One officer who passed the faked documents up the line of command “routinely” oversold his findings’ value, and a top German analyst hated Hitler’s war so much that he might have knowingly helped sell Britain’s ruse. Macintyre’s “almost absurdly entertaining” tale rightly celebrates the cleverness of the Brits who pulled off “one of the most remarkable deceptions in modern military history.” But his story raises questions about the usefulness of most espionage. Britain’s spies were inventive but also ludicrously lucky. “Germany would have been better off not having spies at all.”