Nonfiction November: Week 4 Stranger than Fiction

Week 4: (November 22-26) – Stranger Than Fiction with Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II by Ben Macintyre is my choice for this week. When I read it I thought that it was so far-fetched to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. It’s the ideal choice for this week’s topic!

When I reviewed this book back in 2011, I wrote:

Operation Mincemeat is about the Allies’ deception plan codenamed Operation Mincemeat in 1943, which underpinned the invasion of Sicily. It was framed around a man who never was.

The success of the Sicilian invasion depended on overwhelming strength, logistics, secrecy and surprise. But it also relied on a wide web of deception, and one deceit in particular: a spectacular con trick dreamed up by a team of spies led by an English lawyer. (page xi)

At first I found this book a little confusing and far too detailed, but as I read on I became absolutely fascinated and amazed at what had actually happened. The plan was to take a dead body, equipped with false documents, deposit it on a beach in Spain, so that it would be passed over to the Germans and divert them from the real target into believing that the preparations to invade Sicily were a bluff.

Operation Mincemeat would feed them both a false real plan, and a false cover plan – which would actually be the real plan (page 58)

The corpse was a Welsh tramp who had committed suicide. His body was clothed in the uniform of an Royal Marine with documents identifying him as Major William Martin and letters about the top-secret Allied invasion plans. This involved creating a fictional character, a whole host of imaginary agents and sub-agents all with their own characteristics and imaginary lives – just as in a novel. The details of the deception were dreamt up by Ewan Montagu, a barrister and Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley), a flight-lieutenant in the RAF seconded to MI5, the Security Service. Both were enthusiastic readers, which stood them in good stead:

For the task of the spy is not so very different from that of the novellist: to create an imaginary credible world, and then to lure others into it, by words and artifice. (page 62)

The plan was not without its faults and and indeed it contained some potentially fatal flaws, but incredibly it succeeded.

Operation Mincemeat was pure make-believe; and it made Hitler believe something that changed the course of history. (page 307)

This is a book, totally outside my usual range of reading. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did and I think I did enjoy it because it was so far-fetched to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. I marvelled at the ingenuity of the minds of the plans’ originators and the daring it took to carry it out.


Which nonfiction book that *almost* doesn’t seem real would you choose?

11 thoughts on “Nonfiction November: Week 4 Stranger than Fiction

  1. Absolutely fascinating, Margaret! And, yes, it does seem unreal! I have the feeling there are many such fascinating stories from both world wars – so extraordinary that if you didn’t know they were true, you wouldn’t believe it.

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  2. I’ve come across mention of Operation in some history book I’ve read – can’t for the life of me remember what, though! This sounds fascinating – he’s great at these true spy stories. One for the wishlist, I think!

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    1. He’s written more true crime stories and biographies, including The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, the Real Moriarty, which also sounds fascinating – another one for my wishlist.

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  3. This book has an interesting background. I first read the novel ‘Operation Heartbreak’, which was a fictionalised version of the operation, told whilst it was still top secret. The Admiralty then decided that they should tell the tale, in ‘The Man who Never Was’, and later, when more facts were released, there was ‘Operation Mincemeat’.
    However, I always felt that it was unlikely that the body of a tramp, presumably in very poor physical condition, could be mistaken for that of a fit young Marines officer, and another book, ‘The American Connection to the Sinking of HMS Dasher’, claims that the body came from that disaster. Nearly 400 men lost their lives when Dasher blew up in a Scottish loch, shortly before operation mincemeat took place, and one of the recovered drowned bodies went missing.
    I suppose it will take many more years before all the secrets of this operation are revealed.

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  4. I have read about this operations and listened to podcasts on the subject but I didn’t know there was a book! Lovely! I am adding it to me (ever growing) WWII spy stories.


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