Getting the History Right in Historical Fiction Using Declassified Records

Award-winning historical fiction author Samuel Marquis tells how he was finally able to tell the true story of Operation Condor through declassified government documents made available to the public.
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My book Lions of the Desert: A True Story of WWII Heroes in North Africa recounts the legendary tale of Operation Condor and the 1941-1942 Desert War between General Erwin Rommel’s seemingly invincible Afrika Korps and the British Eighth Army. It is based on recently declassified British and U.S. Military Intelligence records.

In May 1942, just before Rommel launched his offensive to drive the British out of Egypt and take over The Suez Canal, the German Intelligence Service sent a two-man espionage team to Cairo as part of Operation Condor. Rommel wanted to know three things: first, where the British would make their defensive stand when he began his final thrust into Egypt; second, what reinforcements the British had received; and third, who would lead the British into battle.

The story of Operation Condor has been told over and over again, most famously in Michael Ondaatje’s 1992 Booker Prize winning novel The English Patient and the 1996 Oscar-winning film adaptation. However, until recently, every fictional and factual account of the operation has been crippled by a lack of historical accuracy. That is precisely why I had to write this book.

The Condor story has been a source of mischaracterization, falsehood, and embellishment because prior to the 2006 when a large number of WWII government documents were declassified, the only historical records on the subject available to the public were those written by the main protagonists. These people had access to limited information, not the full military-intelligence picture. Records have shown that these participants, despite laying down a reliable foundation of verifiable facts, distorted or embellished the Condor narrative to enhance their own role or the narrative pulse of their stories.

While these subjective firsthand accounts are historically accurate to some extent and entertaining, they all have one flaw in common: they exaggerate the espionage accomplishments of prominent players in the Condor tale and draw conclusions that are not supported by reliable historical records. This has made it difficult for researchers to separate fact from fiction.

I had no idea of these shortcomings when I set out to pen my historical novel, but once I discovered them early in the outlining process, the opportunity to set the record straight became my raison d’être for composing my work.

Without access to the declassified materials and thus the complete picture, writers on the subject—from Anthony Cave Brown in Bodyguard of Lies (1976) to Nigel West in MI6 (1983)—fell into the trap of relying heavily on the embellished accounts of the main protagonists. In a similar vein, the bestselling historical fiction novels by Ken Follett (The Key to Rebecca, 1980) and Len Deighton (The City of Gold, 1992) used both the original sources and the embellished works as the foundation of their books, making for great entertainment but questionable historical accuracy with regard to the significant details of the Desert War and Operation Condor.

As it turns out, the Condor story needs no artificial enhancement. The real-life protagonists are captivating in their own right—if not more so since they are real. My overarching goal in Lions of the Desert became telling the true story.

That truth can now be found in specific declassified British MI6 and U.S. Military Intelligence files about Operation Condor and the Desert War. These include Public Records of The British National Archives in Kew, London, and Records of the U.S. War Department General and Special Staffs and U.S. Military Intelligence in Washington, D.C. The information available in these public records is considerable, even though not every detail of the Condor story is addressed. As stated by former Middle East MI5 officer H.O. Covey, author of Operation Condor, Intelligence and National Security, these records establish some basic facts and highlight “some of the major discrepancies between the published accounts.”

To accurately retell the Condor and Desert War story, I told it through the eyes of six of the main historical figures who lived through the larger-than-life events in Egypt and Libya in 1941-1942: Scottish Lieutenant Colonel David Stirling, founder and leader of the Special Air Service (SAS), a brigade of eccentric desert commandos that raided Axis aerodromes and supply lines; German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commander of the legendary Afrika Korps, who nearly succeeded in driving the British out of Egypt; Egyptian Hekmat Fahmy, the renowned belly dancer regarded as a Mata-Hari-like German agent in previous accounts but a far more intriguing and ambiguous character in real life; Colonel Bonner Fellers, the U.S. military attaché in Cairo, who was privy to critical Allied secrets in the North African theater and inadvertently played an important role in intelligence-gathering activities for both sides; and Major “Sammy” Sansom and Johannes Eppler, the British Field Security chief and the notorious German spy of Operation Condor that Sansom hunted down in cat-and-mouse fashion.

Of the above historical figures, Eppler, Sansom, and Fahmy have been the most grossly distorted in previous accounts. It was, therefore, critical to present who they truly were, with warts and all, and in their own words based on recently declassified case files, contemporary transcripts, trial documents, memoirs, and other quoted materials. These documents allowed Lions of the Desert to take shape by putting the right people in the right place at the right time with the right (or close to right) dialogue since what was said and done was based on recorded historical documents.

Like Michael Shaara in The Killer Angels, his excellent historical novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, I did not “consciously change any fact” or “knowingly violate the action.” Though the interpretations of character and motivation were still a part of my imaginative landscape, the scenes and historical figures were rendered as historically accurately as a nonfiction history book based on the government records.

Getting the details right and telling the true story matters in historical fiction. In fact, nothing matters more. All the other important things in a novel—sympathetic characters, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and unexpected twists and turns—spring from portraying one’s beloved heroes and villains in all their glory and infamy just like the real-world, flawed historical figures they were in life. History provides plenty of conflict, tension, and drama, and does not need to be altered to artificially create more excitement.

While recently declassified files form the backbone of Lions of the Desert, the original eyewitness accounts of Sansom, Eppler, Mosley, and Sadat have still proved important—but only where supporting eyewitness accounts, government records, or wireless decrypts. As David Mure, author of Master of Deception, states, “The Condor story has been told many times, always with new dimensions and variations; it is a tangled web indeed.” Not anymore. With critical declassified WWII records now available, the true Condor story can now be told, and that is precisely what I have done.

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Samuel Marquis is the bestselling, award-winning author of a World War Two Series, the Nick Lassiter-Skyler International Espionage Series, and historical pirate fiction. His novels have been #1 Denver Post bestsellers, received multiple national book awards (Foreword Reviews Book of the Year, American Book Fest Best Book, USA Best Book, IPPY, Beverly Hills, Next Generation Indie, Colorado Book Awards), and garnered glowing reviews from James Patterson, Kirkus, and Foreword Reviews (5 Stars). Book reviewers have compared Marquis's WWII to the epic historical novels of Tom Clancy, John le Carré, Ken Follett, Herman Wouk, Daniel Silva, Len Deighton, and Alan Furst.

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