World War II: Brave & Curious Stories
I’m impressed with the way Neal Bascomb combines historical research with a gripping narrative in The Winter Fortress. This was heart-in-mouth reading. So many close calls! Sometimes it seems like our way of life in the 21st century in America is based on a series of fortunate historical accidents. If not for many brave people battling enormous odds, things could have gone much differently in World War II.
World War II remains one of my favorite subjects for that reason – so much hung in the balance, and things looked so very dark for so very long. I’m recommending another book by Neal Bascomb that’s based in that era (and its aftermath) and another, a thriller by a Norwegian writer , that looks at the legacy of World War II in Norway. Then three books by one of my favorite writers on World War II, Ben Macintyre, a guy who knows how to tell a story.
Bascomb’s book Hunting Eichmann tells the step-by-step story of how the
Israeli Secret Service tracked down Adolf Eichmann, a notorious Nazi who orchestrated the annihilation of the Jews in the death camps during World War II. Eichmann was the consummate bureaucrat; he made everything run smoothly in the monstrous machine of death created by the Nazis.
Through luck and cunning, Eichmann was able to elude capture at the end of the war, and he immigrated to Argentina. He managed to elude capture for 15 years. Thanks to a complicated tangle of world politics, no country except Israel was willing to do what it took to bring him to justice.
This is a spy story and an adventure story, but it’s also a story of the relentless pursuit of justice after unimaginable crimes. Like The Winter Fortress, it also features a small band of totally committed warriors who are willing to sacrifice everything to win for their side – in this case, finally bringing Eichmann to trial in Israel.
The Redbreast, by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo, is an intricately plotted thriller in which the buried past of World War II in Norway comes back to haunt the present.
Not everyone in Norway opposed the Nazis. In The Redbreast, we are introduced to some Norwegian men who actually fought with the Germans on the Russian Front – they were fervent anti-Bolsheviks who feared what would happen if Stalin got the upper hand.
Fast forward to the present, and a police detective, Harry Hole, is investigating both the murder of an old man and what he increasingly fears will be an assassination attempt. This novel examines both Norway’s past and its present – during the contemporary time in which The Redbreast was set, neo-Nazi groups worked hard to upend the country’s largely progressive politics. The Redbreast can be a tough read – Nesbo doesn’t flinch from portraying violence and the horrors of war – but a reader will pick up an expanded knowledge of Norway’s dramatic history.
Now, here are three books by one of my favorite authors, British journalist Ben Macintyre, who has made a fine career out of telling the stories of brave Brits in World War II. All his books feature men and women, many eccentric social misfits, who served the Allied cause.
MacIntyre’s World War II book was Agent Zigzag. It was the true and wildly entertaining story of Eddie Chapman, a charming British criminal, con man and philanderer who was arrested by the Germans on the Guernsey Islands (the Germans took control of the islands during the war). Eddie was given a choice – probable death in a concentration camp, or spying on the British.
Not much of a choice – Eddie signed up for spying, but if ever there was a person with a problem following directions, it was Eddie Chapman. The Germans parachuted him back into England, where he promptly reported back to the Brits. Chapman spent the rest of the war funneling fake information to his German handlers. This is a jaw-dropping, funny and at times moving story that remains one of my all-time favorite books.
Macintyre followed Zigzag with 2010’s Operation Mincemeat. Another true story, Mincemeat chronicled an over-the-top World War II British deception – British spies obtained a dead body, dressed it in military uniform, stuffed a briefcase handcuffed to the body’s arm with fake documents and floated it onto a Spanish beach, hoping that the Germans would learn of it, and think the body was a dead diplomat (the Brits faked a submarine wreck too).
As hoped, the Germans bit hard on the ruse, swallowing the story advanced in the document cache that that the Allies would attack somewhere other than Sicily and Italy in the waning days of the war. It worked! Unbelievable, but it’s true.
If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because an earlier book on the subject was turned into the movie The Man Who Never Was. Macintyre has a gift for recreating long-dead people’s personalities – let me just say that some of the Brits’ best spies were truly odd people.
Did I mention truly odd people? Perfect lead in to Macintyre’s third book: Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies.
Double Cross is a more somber book than its predecessors, because it portrays a deception the highest of stakes – had the elaborate game of misdirection chronicled by Macintyre been discovered, it could have led to a catastrophic Allied defeat on the beaches of Normandy.
MacIntyre begins with a well-known story – early in the war, the British cracked the German secret wireless code, and listened in to German wireless intelligence for the duration of the war.
Not so well known is that fact that, also early in the war, the Brits located every single German agent sent to spy on England and either jailed them, executed them or turned them into double agents. One of the “D-Day Spies,” a Pole who gave up a French Resistance network to the Germans, came from this group of “turned” spies.
But others volunteered (some repeatedly) for service – a Hungarian playboy businessman with an insatiable appetite for women and money, a hyperimaginative Spaniard, a playgirl daughter of a Peruvian diplomat (“Boredeom stalked Elvira Chaudoir like a curse,” Macintyre writes). The British handlers of this cast of eccentrics had a complicated job: part friend, part psychologist, part nursemaid to a group of people who were erratic, infuriating and possibly not to be trusted.
This is one of those books that, even if you know the outcome, keeps you turning the pages as fast as you can. Double Cross is a tale of suspense, smarts and personal courage. Where would we be if these troubled and eccentric characters hadn’t known how to lie, and lie well? On such slender threads does history hang.