Book review: Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II, by Ben Macintyre

This is a good book for anyone looking to learn about historical espionage and WWII espionage in particular — or just the singular story of that time a British counter-intelligence division planted fake papers on a corpse, shoved it out of a submarine off the Spanish coast, and successfully tricked the Nazis into sending their troops to the wrong place right before an Allied invasion elsewhere.

It is a meticulous study of this one particular operation and all the people even remotely connected to it. There are altogether too many names. Three-quarters of the way into the book, when the author started to dig into the various Spanish bureaucrats, I gave up completely on trying to keep track of them.

Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable and informative book, even though I wasn’t super-interested at first in the intricacies of WWII espionage (except for Bletchley Park). But it was pretty fascinating to learn how many fictional people MI5 invented as double-agents for the Germans.

It was also a good examination of working conditions in WWII Britain — not just the stifling quarters of naval intelligence, but the highly questionable behavior between the men and the young secretaries with whom they worked.

I also enjoyed learning about how many double-agents (real and invented) there were in England, Spain, and Germany. Two in particular were highly memorable:

The famous double-agent Joan Pujol Garcia, aka Garbo (to the British), aka Arabel (to the Nazis). Let’s explore in bullet form the highlights of his glorious work and life:

  • He tries three times to volunteer with the British intelligence in Spain
  • Is coolly dismissed each time, because we all know what condescending snobs the Brits can be
  • So Garcia goes to the German intelligence outpost and declares a passionate hatred for England, devotion to Hitler, and offers to go to England to spy for them
  • The Germans are all “that sounds AWESOME, here’s some money for your trouble, can’t wait to hear from you”
  • Garcia then goes to Portugal, kicks back, and visits the library to flip through English magazines and tourist brochures, and then makes up shit to send back to the Germans
  • The Germans love him. Garcia is their favorite guy. They don’t try to fact-check anything he sends.
  • Because Garcia is a natural pro, he invents his own fictional spies that he can blame for any info that doesn’t add up or work out for them
  • The British intelligence intercept these transmissions, are both alarmed and baffled by these hilariously inaccurate portrayals of English life, and slooooowly figure out what’s going on and who this guy is
  • Then the Brits stop being snobbish pricks, swallow their pride, and enlist Garcia formally, moving him to England for real
  • Garcia eventually gets the Nazis to fund twenty-seven fictional spies, along with his own salary from the British
  • He’s also probably the only dude to get medals from both sides: Hitler himself authorizes awarding him an Iron Cross, even though he’s not on the front lines, and King George VI gave him an MBE
  • After the war, Garcia slips away to Angola, fakes his death, then moves to Venezuela, where he ran a bookstore and gift shop until his death in 1988

My other favorite double-agent was Alexis von Roenne, a German intelligence chief working in Berlin in Hitler’s inner circle, who “faithfully passed on every deception ruse fed to him, accepted the existence of every bogus unit regardless of evidence, and inflated forty-four divisions in Britain to an astonishing eighty-nine.”

His introduction in the story led to one of the best quotes in the book:

Deception is a sort of seduction. In love and war, adultery and espionage, deceit can only succeed if the deceived party is willing, in some way, to be deceived. The betrayed lover sees only the signs of love, and blocks out the evidence of faithlessness, however glaring. This unconscious willingness to see the lie as truth — ‘wishfulness’ was Admiral Godfrey’s word for it — comes in many forms: Adolf Clauss in Huelva wanted to believe the false documents because his reputation depended on believing them; for Karl-Erich Kuhlenthal, any intelligence breakthrough to his credit, no matter how fantastic, made him safer, a Jew among anti-semitic killers. Von Roenne, however, may have chosen to believe in the fake documents for an entirely different reason: because he loathed Hitler, wanted to undermine the Nazi war effort and was intent on passing false information to the high command in the certain knowledge that it was wholly false, and extremely damage.

No description of spywork, counter-intelligence, or espionage impressed me more than that. I can’t even imagine the intelligence, nerve, and acting skills it took to maintain that kind of facade in the upper echelon of the Nazi military operation. To receive and filter intelligence, choosing which details to twist, which to forge, and which to pass on untouched. He wasn’t working with idiots — I don’t know how he kept track of the lies he fed Hitler and his cronies, to never trip himself up or give away the game, and yet to keep Hitler’s complete confidence in him by never producing negative results that could be tied directly to his information. Now that is a feat.

So it was especially sad to hear the gruesome way he was executed after Operation Valkyrie failed. I wish I’d known more about these German resistance fighters, high in Hitler’s ranks. They deserve far better memorials, even outside Germany.

One final irony worth noting: Ewan Montegu was one of the chief architects of Operation Mincemeat, and he had a younger brother named Ivor who was a known Communist and Soviet sympathizer. But Ewan never realized that Ivor actually willingly passed information to his Soviet friends during the war, information that could have been quite damaging to the British. Ewan was oblivious, but his colleagues in MI5 were not. They kept a huge file on Ivor, were very suspicious even of his passion for table tennis, but never took action to accuse or prosecute him.

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