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Operation Heartbreak

by Duff Cooper
Persephone book no:

50 51 52

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A Well Full of Leaves
Regular price £14.00
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ISBN 9781903155417

Operation Heartbreak is a novel based on the astonishing true story of efforts by British naval intelligence to conceal from the Germans preparations to invade Sicily in 1943. Author Duff Cooper is said to have first heard a version of it from Winston Churchill one evening after dinner when he was ambassador in Paris; it later formed the basis of the best-selling books The Man That Never Was by Ian Colvin and Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre, which in 2022 was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Penelope Wilton.

The hero of Operation Heartbreak (1950) is called Willie Maryngton; the central tragedy of his life is that he is too young to fight in the First World War and too old for the Second. Willie 'knew perfectly well that when a regiment went abroad on active service some officers and men were left behind. But he had never thought that he would be among those officers. The Colonel had talked about the first scrap, but that was just the scrap he wanted to be in. He had said something about heavy casualties. Willie minded little how heavy they were if he was in it, but how could he bear to sit at home, hoping that his brother officers would be killed so that he could take their place?' But Willie does in the end play a vital part in the Allies' eventual victory, and the knowledge that this book is based on a true wartime incident is in part why it is so moving.

'A story of why men go to war,' commented Nina Bawden on the Persephone Books edition when she first read it, 'it is also a heart-wrenching love story; a wonderful novel by a masterly writer that should be on everyone's bookshelf... The novel I enjoyed more than any other in the immediate post-war years'. Meanwhile Emma Smith wrote that 'I remember weeping copiously over Operation Heartbreak when I first read it – it is a deeply-moving book, beautifully written.' 

Operation Heartbreak should take its place beside other, similar classics such as Reunion by Fred Uhlman, Strange Meeting by Susan Hill and A Month in the Country by JL Carr - short novels about war which are quiet, domestic, poignant and understated. 


This wartime printed rayon, designed by Arnold Lever for Jacqmar in c.1941, is called 'Happy Landings'.

Picture Caption

Nancy Jean Leslie ('Pam') whose photograph was used as part of 'Operation Mincemeat' during WWII.

Read What Readers Say

Wall Street Journal

A 1950 work that pulls off the trick of revealing the fascinating hidden workings of the British War Office within a supremely moving and well-wrought tale . . . A perceptive and fondly comic study of an orphaned aristocrat named Willie Maryngton . . . like Bertie Wooster cast in a tragic role . . . it is this hopeless, supererogatory soul who, in a freakish turn of events, becomes central to the secretive military mission known here as Operation Heartbreak . . . I strongly recommend.


‘Operation Heartbreak’ is about a professional soldier’s failure to see action during his long service. Duff Cooper’s prose is as spare as his protagonist’s life. There is no fuss and no fireworks here, no clever tricks with narrator, time, tense, gender, or author-reader relationship, no ostentation, just neat words like a well brushed uniform, and a carefully planned plot. It is not a book I would have leaped to buy, but one I was very glad to read.

Heaven Ali (blogger)

Gloriously written, ‘Operation Heartbreak’ is quietly and unforgettably poignant. Willie Maryngton is devastated to have his military ambitions thwarted by the end of the First World War, and this sets him off on the road to a lifetime of disappointment. I don’t want to say anything much about the ending of this novel, however – whatever you do, if you are reading this book don’t read the last twenty-twenty-five pages or so on the bus. Based upon some true events of the Second World War, the ending alone means I will not forget Willie in a hurry.

New York Herald Tribune

A work of jewel-like brevity and intensity more expected in French than in English.

Categories: History Men (books about) Men (books by) WWII

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