History close at hand: Spy books tell tales of North Shore’s past

History close at hand: Spy books tell tales of North Shore’s past

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Residents make their way through a Culper Spy Ring tour in East Setauket. File photo

In 1954, at the age of 15, I read “The Man Who Never Was” by Ewen Montagu. I loved this 160-page book about a successful intelligence operation, called Operation Mincemeat, that used a dead body as a fictitious British Marine Officer to convince Hitler and the German generals that the invasion of southern Europe would take place in either Sardinia or Greece instead of in Sicily, where the actual amphibious landing took place in 1943.

This year, I just completed the book “Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured and Allied Victory.” Published in 2010 and written by Ben Macintyre, this 400-page book brought to life the declassified details that were still secret until very recently.

Along the way, Macintyre enumerates the many intelligence operations that were conducted during World War II. He details the German spies who were turned to work for the British and provide false information back to Germany. He also elaborates about the spies in Spain, Germany, Italy and France who worked for the Allies, as well as the spies and intelligence leaders who worked for the Axis.

As a youth, I loved the stories that came out of World War II including “Reach for the Sky” by Paul Brickhill, published in 1954, a true story about Douglas Bader, a fighter pilot who lost his legs but continued to fly with artificial legs. I also loved the “Hornblower” series, novels by C. S. Forester, the historical novels of France in the 17th and 19th centuries by Alexandre Dumas and the American novels of the period from the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812 by Kenneth Roberts, especially the novel “Rabble in Arms.”

One of the books that really got my attention was “The Spy” by James Fenimore Cooper, written in 1821. In the introduction, Cooper noted that the man in charge of a secret committee for Congress, later determined to be John Jay, employed a spy, a common man of no great wealth, “but cool, shrewd, and fearless by nature,” who penetrated the center of British military activity in America and kept a steady stream of intelligence flowing to General Washington. I always had an idealistic idea that this spy was a member of the Setauket-based Culper Spy Ring if not its leader. The novel, “The Spy,” however, transfers the location of activity to Westchester County, Cooper’s home territory and the no-man’s land between British and American lines. This was exactly where Dragoon Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who ran the operations of the Culper Spy Ring, operated for much of the war.

If you have not visited the exhibit SPIES! at the Three Village Historical Society, this might be a good time to see the exhibit and learn the true story of the Culper Spy Ring. The story will be dramatized, sometimes wildly, for the second year on the AMC cable network beginning on Monday, April 13, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. The television series is called “Turn.”

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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