For fans of classic WWII derring-do or the early James Bond novels, this book is not to be missed, not only for its complicated and nail-biting plot, but because it is the real deal that inspired that sort of fiction. It is the non-fiction account of the wartime disinformation operation already well-known from the book and movie The Man Who Never Was. The British floated a dead body ashore in Spain costumed to appear as a Royal Marines officer, carrying (actually chained to his wrist) a satchel with counterfeit top secret war plans intended to fall into the hands of the Germans, who had great influence in Franco’s Spain at the time. The plans were intended to persuade the Germans that the invasion of southern Europe would come in Sardinia or Greece rather than its true target, Sicily.
That much we learn early on, but all the planning, politics, and operational problems that stood as obstacles to the plan were so vast, it is astonishing that the plan was eventually carried out. As Robert Burns, the Scottish poet wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley, An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain.” And agley they did gang, indeed.
I was initially reluctant to read this because I had read the original book and remembered much of the story. It is well-known among intelligence and counterintelligence personnel, of which I was once one. It was, however, the book chosen by my book club, so I dug in. The beginning was, as I expected, somewhat of a rehash of what I already knew. But the latter half of the book especially filled in details I’d never heard or at least didn’t remember. I believe this is a much fuller and more credible account that what has been told before. I found it hard to put down after the midpoint. I’m not a huge fan of the writing style as the author tended to exaggerate mercilessly. Every person was the most brilliant, most gullible, most devious, most corrupt, or most eccentric man to have ever walked the earth. The flourishes and color – make that colour since it was all too, too British – were a bit too much, but the story was riveting enough that it didn’t distract. It was a cracking good read.