skygiants: Susan from The Bletchley Circle looking out a window (i crack the codes)
So my assigned fic for this year's Yuletide was Statistical Methods in Risk Assessment, a Bletchley Circle fic. Bletchley Circle is an extremely historically-grounded mystery series about the aftermath of WWII and the codebreakers at Bletchley, which meant that I spent a fair bit of November and December falling down a wartime Britain research hole, starting broad and eventually narrowing in on what I actually needed to know to write the fic.

I did not write up any of the books I was reading up at the time, under the general Yuletide veil of secrecy, but I think all of them are worth the perusal:

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal, Ben Macintyre

Like most of Ben Macintyre's books, this is a true-history spyjinks story which leans heavily on the hijinks. Eddie Chapman was a thief in prison on the Channel Islands when they were occupied by the Germans; he got the bright idea to get out of prison by offering his services to the Germans as a spy. Then, after being thoroughly trained in Advanced Spying by the Germans, he was parachuted into England to blow up a factory, where he was immediately caught by the British, and promptly informed them that he was in fact more than happy to be a double agent.

The usual sort of Elaborate MI5 Ruses followed, perhaps the most impressive being the hiring of a stage magician to fake the destruction of an entire factory for the Germans so they would assume Chapman was still a totally independent Nazi agent, yes sirree. It's not my favorite of Macintyre's books, but it's a fun read -- or it was at the time; I suspect "lol, those gullible folk-dancing Nazis!" might seem a bit less funny now that we are all realizing how very much Nazis are no longer a thing of the past.

(Ben Macintyre's funny bone is clearly tremendously tickled by the Nazi Who Obsessed Over English Folk Dancing. He never misses an opportunity to bring it up. Long after I have forgotten the rest of this book, I will remember the English folk-dancing Nazi.)

Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49

So Mass Observation was a research organization founded in the 1930s which encouraged Ordinary British Citizens to write in or diary about their daily lives, which quite by happenstance resulted in the creation of this really astoundingly thorough primary-source record of what it was like for a middle-aged British woman to live through WWII. In other words, a researcher's godsend.

It's also sort of astounding how much of a plot there is to this unstructured diary; it feels like something that could be a novel. Nella Last, at the beginning of the war, is a housewife married to a man who doesn't much like to go out and doesn't much like for Nella to go out either, at all, ever. As the book goes on, and she starts taking on war work and becoming involved in local organizations, she begins to write more and more about how trapped and stifled she's felt for most of her marriage; she starts standing up to her husband, taking on new projects, sleeping downstairs in the bomb shelter just so she can have her own space. And meanwhile one of her sons has to join the army, and hates it, and ... falls in love with another soldier? ... I mean obviously Nella Last doesn't say or think that that's what it is, and I am hesitant to start writing RPF about ordinary people, but it looks an awful lot to me like that's what is going on. Fiction has its patterns for a reason, is I guess what I'm saying.

Anyway, it's a fascinating read, though generally not a cheerful one. And occasionally some bit of period-specific awfulness of Nella's will come up and hit you in the face -- when she chattily goes on for a while about how obviously Hitler is awful but perhaps he's not entirely wrong on the eugenics thing, for example, or when her other son comes home and starts complaining about the Jews in his town and Nella's like "lol kiddo looks like you've gotten a bit racist!" in the most unconcerned fashion imaginable.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, Sarah Helm

This is the book which really ended up shaping my Yuletide fic the most -- like, the thing I wrote is probably based on this book as much or more as it is on The Bletchley Circle.

Vera Atkins, a Jewish Romanian, joined the British SOE division as a secretary in 1941. She quickly rose in the organization, became the head of section F (France) and became influential in the deployment of women agents behind the lines. In 1943, the primary network of British agents in France was compromised; though many of the men and women who were captured by the Germans tried their hardest to alert headquarters, SOE's refusal to believe anything was seriously wrong meant numerous other agents heading to France dropped straight into Nazi captivity. This is the grim flipside of Macintyre's trademark cheery spyjinks.

(One captured agent radioed in under duress and pointedly did not provide his double-secret security code -- the whole point of the double-secret security code was to show when someone was radio-ing under duress -- and Atkins' boss radioed cheerily back to tell him that he'd forgotten his double-secret security code and not to do it again! I MEAN.)

Many of Vera Atkins' agents turned up after the war, but many more did not. This book is only partly about the actual wartime espionage; much of the rest of it is about Vera Atkins' determined journey across postwar Europe, visiting concentration camp after concentration camp to attempt to find out what happened to the missing ones. As you might imagine, this does not make for easy reading. But at least her quest wasn't fruitless; she did eventually trace every last one of them.

(For the record, there also exists a RIVAL biography of Vera Atkins. I did not read it, but there is a beautifully scathing review of it that purports to be from the author of this biography, which you can read here if, like me, you are entertained by the prospect of historians getting into fistfights over their subject matter.)

I also read the parts of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan that were available via Google books, because I could not get my hands on a copy in time to read the whole thing before I had to write my fic. But the bits I could read were extremely helpful and I do intend to read the whole thing at some point! Noor Inayat Khan also turns up quite a lot in A Life In Secrets; Sarah Helm seems to think that Vera Atkins was particularly interested in Noor among all her agents, but personally I think this may just be due to the fact that Sarah Helm was particularly interested in Noor among all Vera's agents. Not that one can blame her -- her story is tragic, but incredibly compelling.
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)
There are certain persons probably reading this ([personal profile] gramarye1971, I'm looking at you) whom I suspect already know everything about Kim Philby and probably have no need for another version of the same Cambridge Spies story. For everyone else, there's A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.

I was vaguely familiar with the basic facts about Philby before picking up the book, but only vaguely, so Macintyre's version still had plenty that was new for me. For example: though I knew Philby was a double agent working with MI6 and reporting back to the Soviets, I did not know that MI6, in a move that was both ill-advised and horrifically hilarious, actually made him head of Soviet counterintelligence.

PHILBY: Wow, I ... literally am in charge of everything MI6 is ever going to do in re: the Soviet Union. I am the best Soviet double agent ... ever? Ever. Pretty much ever.
(THE SOVIET UNION: This guy is just passing us TOO MUCH information to even be believable. Triple agent, anyone?)

Though nonfiction, it's very easy to read the book like a thriller, so I'm putting the rest under a cut in case people don't want to be historical-record spoiled! )
skygiants: Princess Tutu, facing darkness with a green light in the distance (fake the rest)
I feel like I spent so much time cackling to people in person after I read Operation Mincemeat that I completely forgot I hadn't actually written it up on here, like, no, self, describing the contents of the book to at least ten separate people is not in fact the same AT ALL as putting it on the internet. For those who are reading this entry rather than having to put up with me giggling at them in person, rest assured, you are getting a much better bargain.

Anyway: Operation Mincemeat! The amazing true story of one REALLY DETAILED hoax perpetrated by the British upon the Germans. The initial idea seems to have gone basically like this:

Step 1: Obtain corpse
Step 2: Cover corpse with fake British war plans for the Germans to find and be confused by
Step 3: FALL OVER LAUGHING AND ALSO PROFIT

Then more and more in-between steps began to proliferate, such as

Step 7: Figure out how long it is safe to keep corpse on ice before corpse is too gross to use in cunning ruse
Step 13: Obtain real, used, appropriately classy British underwear to dress corpse in, lest Germans be made suspicious by unconvincing undergarments
Step 18: Go on fake dates with corpse's fake girlfriend to obtain real ticket stubs to put in corpse's pocket, for verisimilitude
Step 21: Write forged letter from real admiral
Step 21.5: Fight with superior officers on how many jokes it is allowable to include in a forged letter from a real admiral

...and on and on. All this before the corpse and its TOP SECRET BRIEFCASE even land on the Spanish coast, at which point the British have to play this hilarious game of trying really hard to make it look to the Spanish authorities like they DESPERATELY want the TOP SECRET BRIEFCASE returned before the Germans see it while at the same time making absolutely sure that the Spanish authorities absolutely do not return the TOP SECRET BRIEFCASE before the Germans see it, leading to a lot of "Shit! SHIT. THE SPANISH AUTHORITIES ARE BEING TOO HELPFUL AND ACCOMMODATING. WHAT DO WE DO NOW."

(Spanish official: Hey, British official, we found a corpse with a top secret briefcase! Why don't you just take it back now and save us all time?
British official: Um ... I have ... a deathly allergy ... to briefcases SORRY GOTTA GO)

It seems inevitable that I'm going to keep reading Ben Macintyre books until run out, or until I get tired of laughing about OH, THAT WACKY BRITISH INTELLIGENCE. Which ... may be never? It may very well be never.

(My other favorite anecdote from the book, only tangentially related to Operation Mincemeat: that time the Allies had to rescue a famous French general who hated the British so much that he refused to be rescued by anyone except the Americans. Unfortunately all American submarines were busy at that point or something, so the British sent a sub with STRICT ORDERS to run around faking American accents, waving American flags and shouting "America, heck yeah!" until the end of the mission. They acquired the general, but whether he actually fell for this clever ruse is not on the historical record.)
skygiants: Audrey Hepburn peering around a corner disguised in giant sunglasses, from Charade (sneaky like hepburnninja)
I just finished reading Ben MacIntyre's Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies, a book about the double agents who fed the German intelligence service a constant stream of misinformation to keep them from doing anything about D-Day.

So I think I first heard about this book when [personal profile] opusculasedfera talked about how she thought Ben McIntyre seemed a little disappointed that all the GLAMOROUS WORLD WAR II DOUBLE AGENTS that this book was about were in fact actually HILARIOUS WEIRDOS. Because I love hilarious weirdos, I decided I had to read it right away!

I disagree a bit with her analysis; my general impression was that Ben Macintyre was pretty much delighted by the fact that everything about this story is weird, implausible, and kind of hilarious. But perhaps this is just because I am so delighted by the fact that everything about this story is weird, implausible and kind of hilarious.

Agents featured in this book include:

AGENT TRICYCLE, actual wealthy playboy industrialist )

AGENT BRUTUS, actually more like a triple-crosser )

AGENT TREASURE, the one with the dog )

AGENT BRONX, so glamorous and so gay )

AGENT GARBO, the best BSer in the land )

In fact, the Abwehr apparently eats EVERYONE'S BS up with a spoon. The way Macintyre tells it, ninety percent of their functional agents were working for the British all along, and the other ten percent were independent BS merchants like Pujol. Half the fun of the book is watching the British attempting to play these inordinately complicated mind games -- "we will sow DELICATE HINTS about a FAKE double agent so they won't suspect the REAL double agents so they CLEARLY cannot choose the wine in front of THEM!" -- while the Germans pick up on precisely zero of the delicate hints and keep on doing what they were going to do anyway.

Admittedly this is probably because half of the German intelligence agency is at this point too busy either embezzling money or plotting to try and kill Hitler. OR BOTH. Macintyre is generally happy to buy the "the Abwehr was just that corrupt and incompetent" theory of events, but it seems equally plausible that half the people involved did know perfectly well that they were being sold a line and were too disenchanted with the Nazi regime to care.

(Meanwhile, Soviet intelligence and the Cambridge Five are running rings around everybody, but that's neither here nor there.)

Anyway, the book as a whole seems to be intended as an argument towards "history is built around the weird personality quirks of individuals!" Obviously this is not the whole story, but it's a REALLY COMPELLING AND ENTERTAINING version of the story, and that's super OK by me. Seriously, this book is hilarious. I haven't even talked about the British mastermind who religiously wore tartan trousers! OR THE DOUBLE-CROSSING SPY PIGEONS.

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