The Secret History of World War II

The Secret History of World War II

Spies, Code Breakers & Covert Operations

Neil Kagan and Stephen W. Rendell

National Geographic, Washington, D.C., 2016, 352 pages

Book Review published on: May 25, 2017

On 30 April 1943, fishermen recovered the body of a British officer floating in the water off the southern coast of Spain. The officer’s remains were handed over to Spanish authorities, who discovered sensitive documents in a briefcase chained to the corpse’s wrist. The documents revealed Allied intentions to continue their campaign in the Mediterranean through Greece. The information was shared with the Germans, influencing the Führer to deploy an armored division to Greece to counter the Allies’ next major attack. The assault occurred in Sicily on 10 July 1943; however, the Germans had been deceived. The body was not that of a British officer, but rather, it was the unclaimed remains of a man who committed suicide. The corpse had been fitted with a uniform, personal effects, and briefcase, and was floated off the coast of Spain by a British submarine. The operation, given the macabre title “Mincemeat,” had achieved its goal.

This event is one of a plethora of secret operations addressed in National Geographic’s The Secret History of World War II, written by Neil Kagan and Stephen G. Hyslop. The book is very comprehensive, covering both sides of war, and is well illustrated with fascinating period photographs, accompanied by contemporary images of documents and equipment archived at the Museum of World War II in Boston. The content ranges from matchbook cameras to elaborate projects such as “Bodyguard,” a deception that fixed German forces at Pas-de-Calais to enable Allied forces to establish a beachhead at Normandy.

Most remarkable are the accounts of men and women who infiltrated lines to survey and disrupt operations. Takeo Yoshikawa, a Japanese naval officer posed as a diplomat who passed observations of U.S. Navy operations in Pearl Harbor. Noor Inayat Khan, a timid British-Indian woman, the unlikeliest of people to volunteer for such dangerous duty, served as an agent in occupied France. In addition to spies, the book covers the more lethal aspect of special operations, such as the British Special Operations Executive’s mission that assassinated SS Chief Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia, and the Office of Strategic Service’s Detachment 101 that fought Japanese forces with Kachin tribesmen in northern Burma.

Also significant was the development of signals intelligence. The book provides accounts of British efforts that gradually compromised German Enigma communications. As well, American efforts that helped the U.S. Navy gain the advantage in the Pacific by defeating Japanese secure communications are described.

The finale is Project Manhattan, which produced the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan, hastening the end of the Pacific War. While the book is focused on the remarkable achievements of these actions, it also conveys their high costs in lives. Another significant point is the difficulty of operations security. Just as the Americans and British were able to penetrate enemy security measures, they too were vulnerable. This is vividly highlighted in the latter part of the war when decryption of Soviet communications revealed as many as three hundred Americans spying for the Soviets, including several that penetrated Manhattan, implying that Joseph Stalin had known about the Americans’ atomic bomb project before President Harry Truman. Overall, the book is a fascinating account of events that were once classified and not often discussed, which will cause readers to expand their paradigms on the secret world of operations.

Book Review written by: Dirk C. Blackdeer, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas