I’m not really into military history. Whether their covering the Vietnam War or the battle-of-the-week in the Middle East, such books can’t help going on and on about how these five battalions defeated these other three divisions. Or is it four squadrons? There’s only so many times you can read about a general sending someone off to reconnoiter, or successfully outflanking the bad guys. I doubt I’ve ever met anyone in real life who’s flanked.
So I was a little unsure about reading Operation Mincemeat, Ben MacIntyre’s book about a secret British military plan executed smack dab in the middle of World War II. Fortunately, it’s a great wartime read, in part because it’s not really about war at all. In your typical military book, there’s page after page about how specific operations resulted in enemy deaths. That’s where MacIntyre’s book differs: the main character is dead before the operation even begins.
In January 1943, a thirty-four-year-old impoverished Welshman—in and out of homelessness, in and out of mental illness—accidentally or intentionally ingested rat poison and died. His name was Glyndwr Michael, but Adolf Hitler knew him as Major William Martin of the British Royal Navy. Between the time of Michael’s death and Martin’s impact on the Third Reich, he managed to earn a military rank, a sexy girlfriend named Pam, a clandestine submarine trip to within dead-guy floating distance of the Spanish coast, and a briefcase loaded with forged personal letters and erroneous top secret military plans that proposed an Allied invasion of Greece instead of the true Axis-fortified target of Sicily. The Germans, upon having the documents virtually forced into their hands, fell for the deception, altered their plans accordingly, and turned the tide of the war.
Sun Tzu advocated the use of deceit long ago. “All warfare,” he insisted, “is based on deception.” Here, the deceit is explained in fascinating detail. It’s not surprising that Great Britain included subterfuge in its offensive arsenal. The shocking part—something that comes out clearly in the book’s progressive reveal—is that the Germans were begging to be misled in order to confirm, despite recent military setbacks, that they were destined for a millennial victory. Even when the Allies attacked Sicily in force instead of Greece—even as Mussolini implored the Fuhrer to come to his rescue—the Germans kept ignoring Sun Tzu. Two weeks after the Sicily landing, the Italian dictator was out of power thanks to the ploy, and the Axis was on its way to sure defeat.
MacIntyre relates a tale worthy of a James Bond novel, in part because elements of the plan to use a dead body to trick the Nazis sprang from the mind of Bond author Ian Fleming. Extensively researched using declassified military files and interviews with those involved, Operation Mincemeat is hands down the most enjoyable non-military military-history book I’ve ever read.