The best books on deception in WW2

Who am I?

Helen is an ambassador for the Museum of Military Intelligence, a trustee of the Friends of the Intelligence Corps Museum, and a trustee of the Medmenham Collection. Her latest book Spymaster: The Man Who Saved MI6 about one of the greatest spies of the 20th century, was a Daily Mail best biography for 2021. Her history of MI9—the first such history for over 40 years—was shortlisted for The Duke of Wellington Medal for Military History. 

I wrote...

The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II

By Helen Fry,

Book cover of The Walls Have Ears: The Greatest Intelligence Operation of World War II

What is my book about?

During the Second World War, deception underpinned some of the major operations run by British intelligence. Deception —if successful—could to be of paramount importance in aiding Allied offensives and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. British intelligence used some of Britain’s most creative minds to dream up schemes to deceive the enemy. The unthinkable was put into a meticulous plan and executed with such precision and attention to detail as to completely hoodwink the enemy. What makes us so fascinated by all this—is that the deception worked. Operation Mincemeat is a really good example of that. The British were able to fuse fact with fiction, cast illusion and doubts in the mind of the enemy and trick the enemy into behaving or responding in a particular way.

The books I picked & why

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Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory

By Ben Macintyre,

Book cover of Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory

Why this book?

This is the extraordinary true story of how, in the summer of 1943, British naval intelligence deceived the Germans into believing that an Allied invasion in Southern Europe would occur off the coast of Greece rather than Sicily and Italy. This led to the Germans diverting troops to other regions of the war and diverting vital divisions towards Greece. Operation Mincemeat, as it was codenamed, was overseen by a section of Naval Intelligence, known as Section 17M, and headed by Commander Ewen Montagu. He and his team drew up elaborate and detailed plans to float the dead body of an officer off the coast of Spain. Chained to his wrist was a briefcase of papers, including fake invasion plans for Greece. It was a work of total fiction and one of the most audacious deceptions of the war.

A corpse was acquired from St Pancras mortuary in London and prepared for the highly classified mission. It was the body of 34-year-old Glyndwr Michael, an unemployed labourer of no fixed address who had committed suicide with rat poison. He was given a new identity as ‘Major Martin of the Royal Marines’ and the leading role in Operation Mincemeat. His body was placed in a specially manufactured air-tight container and loaded onto submarine HMS Seraph. The submarine headed for Spain, and at 04:30hrs on 30 April 1943, the body was launched from HMS Seraph near Huelva and later picked up by a Spanish fisherman. The papers that Major Martin was carrying found their way to the Abwehr, the German Secret Service. Bletchley Park later picked up decrypted messages that showed that the Germans believed an invasion was imminent off the coast of Greece. Ben Macintyre's book is a page-turner.

The Double-Cross System: The Classic Account of World War Two Spy-Masters

By J.C. Masterman,

Book cover of The Double-Cross System: The Classic Account of World War Two Spy-Masters

Why this book?

John Masterman’s diary of events as head of the Committee which orchestrated the Double Cross Deception of the Second World is a classic read. The British ran an elaborate network of around 120 double agents whom German Intelligence believed was working for the Third Reich, but in fact were being controlled by MI5—the British Security Service responsible for security and counter-espionage within Britain. The handling of these double agents, around 120 in total, was the responsibility of the Twenty Committee (XX), otherwise known as the Double Cross Committee. It was chaired by Masterman, the fifty-year-old ex-Dean of Christ College, Oxford.

Some of the wartime double agents had originally landed in England as German spies had been captured and ‘turned’ to work for MI5. British handlers, including at least one woman, ran double agents like Garbo, Zigzag, and Tricycle. These double agents passed false information to the German Secret Service and fooled the Germans into believing that the Allied invasion of D-Day would occur at the Pas de Calais, rather than the Normandy beaches. It meant that the Germans held reinforcements and troops around Calais rather than in Normandy, which saved Allied lives during the landings on 6 June 1944 but also ensured a greater chance of success as an operation.

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945

By Max Hastings,

Book cover of The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945

Why this book?

Deception comes in many guises in the world of espionage. Hastings has colourfully charted a wealth of new information and research on the history of the secret war—the men and women working in the shadows as spies. With deception operations, he has focused on some extraordinary characters, like Ronald Seth (codename “Blunderhead”), who was a British agent parachuted into enemy territory. Seth was then apparently ‘turned’ by the Germans, but his activities became so complex that at times it was hard to understand for whom he was really working. Neither the Abwehr nor MI5 or MI6 were really sure where his allegiances were and it makes for a complex web of espionage and double-crossing. This history would not be complete without material on the notorious ‘Cambridge Five’—Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Cairncross, and Blunt. They represent, arguably, the worst betrayal and deception of the 20th century. Even Stalin was reluctant, in the end, to trust them. They warned Stalin about Hitler’s decision to invade Russia in June 1941, but Stalin did not believe it would happen. Hastings’s book is an important contribution to espionage history.

Diversion and Deception: Dudley Clarke's a Force and Allied Operations in World War II

By Whitney T. Bendeck,

Book cover of Diversion and Deception: Dudley Clarke's a Force and Allied Operations in World War II

Why this book?

This is perhaps an unusual choice in that it focuses on deception outside the sphere of countries usually covered by historians. Bendeck explores the numerous deceptions around D-Day, in a cluster of operations that were known as Plan Bodyguard. He explores the little-known, but vital, Plan Zeppelin which was the largest and most complex of the Bodyguard plans. Plan Zeppelin, in conjunction with A Force’s strategic deception plans in the Mediterranean, succeeded in convincing Hitler to hold back sixty German divisions from southern France and move them to the Balkans in time for D-Day. Focusing on the years 1943 to 1945, Bendeck illuminates how A Force, under the leadership of charismatic Dudley Clarke, orchestrated both strategic and tactical deception plans to create the illusion of military threats by the Allies to German defences and troops across the southern perimeter of Europe. Her book is a nuanced and important portrait of this period, and a must-read for anyone interested in deception operations of WWII.

Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess

By Andrew Lownie,

Book cover of Stalin's Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess

Why this book?

This biography of Guy Burgess has been selected because of the sheer impressive material which Lownie brings together as a result of 20 years of research. He has provided an illuminated and extensively researched biography that does not shy from laying out the full extent of Burgess’s deception and hedonistic behaviour, as well as the real risks he posed to Western intelligence services and State Secrets. The publicly educated and privileged Cambridge Five, who betrayed their country for ideological motives, arrogantly believed that they had the right to pass Western secrets to Russia. In spite of the brutality of the Stalinist regime, they believed in the communist cause and deceived everyone around them in Britain—their work colleagues, families, and friends. That deception ran dangerously into the Cold War and led finally to the defection of Burgess and his friend Donald Maclean to Moscow in 1951. Their defection caused huge ramifications through the corridors of Whitehall and the intelligence services in London. Lownie’s leading biography illuminates the full extent of Burgess’s betrayal and deception.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in espionage, deception, and World War 2?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about espionage, deception, and World War 2.

Espionage Explore 102 books about espionage
Deception Explore 19 books about deception
World War 2 Explore 975 books about World War 2

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