The best books about the weirder side of World War II

David Andrew Westwood Author Of Kelsmeath, 1940
By David Andrew Westwood

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Ben Macintyre

Book cover of Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal

Why this book?

Nowhere is the phrase "stranger than fiction" more appropriate than in describing Agent Zigzag. Charming British conman Eddie Chapman turned himself into one of the best double agents his country ever produced. But for whom was he really working? None of his handlers seemed to be sure. His squirming loyalties allowed him to keep a family and a mistress, to remain alive despite interrogation by both sides, and earn an Iron Cross from Germany's Abwehr and a pardon from MI5 for blowing up a British factory. I was astonished by this tale, and left wondering if Chapman, in the end, just worked for Chapman.


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Bat Bomb: World War II's Other Secret Weapon

By Jack Couffer

Book cover of Bat Bomb: World War II's Other Secret Weapon

Why this book?

Strange, sick, and if this doesn't constitute animal cruelty I don't know what does, Project X-Ray planned to strap incendiaries to bats and drop them to roost on Tokyo's roofs, burning down the city and shortening the war. A dentist who had explored New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns conceived this idea, then approached the White House, where President Roosevelt surprisingly said, “This man is not a nut."  

The military duly tested the plan, and the bats burned down a brand-new airbase, effectively sending the project up in flames. And a good thing, too. I shudder to imagine the anxiety of a crew ordered to fly a planeful of explosive bats all the way to Japan.


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Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

By Ross Coen

Book cover of Fu-Go: The Curious History of Japan's Balloon Bomb Attack on America

Why this book?

It's probably good that we haven't heard more of Fu-Go, because if we had, it would mean the aerial bombs sent over from Japan succeeded in spreading fire and terror across North America. Near the end of World War II, Japan launched high-altitude hydrogen balloons armed with incendiary bombs. They were designed to fly westward on the winds of the upper atmosphere and burn both American forests and Americans. 

Made by Japanese schoolgirls who manufactured the balloons by the thousand, the exercise was ultimately a failure, causing only one reported incident. I suspect, though, that others were covered up to avoid panic, and this is a plot point in one of my own books.


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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?

A triumph of psychology and disinformation, the queasily-named Operation Mincemeat helped the Allied invasion of Sicily succeed. In 1943, British intelligence wanted to mislead Nazi Germany as to where the Allies would land, and they came up with a plan to disseminate false information for the enemy to discover. To manage this deception, the Brits turned the body of a homeless man into that of "Major William Martin," a supposed high-ranking officer, and chained his wrist to a briefcase crammed with top secret documents. The most fascinating part to me, though, was how he was also supplied with all the ephemera of a real persona, like receipts, bills… and love letters. 

Then he was dropped off the coast of occupied Europe by submarine, to wash ashore.  

Did it work? Read this fascinating book to see. 


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Operation Chowhound: The Most Risky, Most Glorious US Bomber Mission of WWII

By Stephen Dando-Collins

Book cover of Operation Chowhound: The Most Risky, Most Glorious US Bomber Mission of WWII

Why this book?

This is the true story of a little-known operation late in WWII. In 1945, 3.4 million civilians in German-occupied Holland were starving, but the war still continued. Organized by the Allies, Operation Chowhound was to use bombers to drop food to help, but how were they to avoid being shot down by Nazi antiaircraft batteries? With the agreement of the German troops not to fire on them. Flying at treetop level, the American aircrews would have had no chance if their B-17s were hit. Yet, over Chowhound's eight days, 120,000 German troops never fired on the American bombers. Grateful Dutch civilians spelled out "Thanks Boys" in the tulip fields below. 


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