Since we’re focusing on letting the light shine on long-held secrets this month, I have a soon-to-no-longer-be secret secret confession: I love reading nonfiction about WWII-era espionage and cryptography. I blame this love on J.C. Masterman’s The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945. It’s not in our library system, but it’s well worth requesting through ILL if you also like reading about history and/or espionage. In it, Masterman meticulously and matter-of-factly details the espionage system he ran for British intelligence in turning German agents in Britain into British double agents.
It’s a fascinating book, but it also permanently ruined espionage thrillers for me. I’ve never found a spy novel (or movie, for that matter) that captures the sheer boredom punctuated with sheer terror and the anxiety of the spy life that lurks between the lines of Masterman’s book.
That is, I hadn’t encountered it until I read Leo Marks’s insightful, hilarious memoir Between Silk and Cyanide.
Born and raised in London, the only child of a well-to-do Jewish bookseller, Marks cracked his first code as a precocious child. He figured out the price codes his father and other relatives used on their books. Codes and ciphers became a fascination for him, and when the war broke out, he volunteered his services to the British government. Marks then proceeded to fail his cryptography course, not for lack of talent but because of his stubborn independent streak.
Because of his propensity for causing trouble, he was not transferred to the famous Bletchley Park. Instead, he was banished to SOE, an upstart intelligence service tasked with instigating sabotage and organizing local resistance movements across Occupied Europe. Marks was supposed to be hired to just decode messages, but due to a bureaucratic mix-up, he ended up breaking the SOE’s code during a routine exam where he was only supposed to use the code to decode a sample message.
His superiors were impressed with him (and a bit horrified with how easy their code was to break), and Marks soon became the organization’s cryptography chief. In that capacity, he was responsible for developing codes, maintaining the security of SOE’s codes, briefing and training would-be agents in codework, and even writing poems (the original basis for their codes), among other duties.
Some 50 years after the fact, Marks delves into considerable detail about life at SOE, ranging from interdepartmental fighting with other intelligence units to friendships with others in SOE, including several noted agents, to his battles to increase the security of his organization’s codes. Marks was appalled at the coding practices he inherited and spent considerable effort developing new systems and safety practices.
He also goes into a lot of detail about codes, which, honestly, is rather above my pay grade. (I love the idea of cryptography, but I must confess my understanding of it is pretty superficial.) Fortunately, Marks is good at explaining codes and how they work. I suppose, after briefing dozens of agents on their uses in a matter of life or death, casually explaining the principles to lay readers came easily to him.
What sets Marks’ memoir apart, though, is how funny it is. He spent a lot of time in meetings, bogged down in bureaucracy, doing everything from asking for more employees to decode messages to begging for silk to print his codes to confiding his fears that German intelligence operatives had infiltrated SOE’s networks in Holland. That could easily have been boring, but Marks is a natural storyteller and he has a knack for finding the absurd and the hilarious in seemingly any situation and relating it with dry British humor. And, as perhaps befits someone so fascinated with language, he has a great love for wordplay. I knew I was in for an offbeat but good read when I read the first line of his book–“In January 1942 I was escorted to the war by my parents in case I couldn’t find it or met with an accident on the way.”
He is also, refreshingly, very self-deprecating. He chronicles a lot of things that his department botched, but he is equally honest about his own mistakes and generous in giving credit where it is due. As a result, his memoir avoids sounding like he has an axe to grind and also steers clear of becoming a fawning homage to himself, two of my biggest pet peeves with memoirs.
Marks’s frequently flippant sense of humor belies a genuine concern for the safety of his agents and the grim fates that often awaited them, especially the wireless operators who sent and received coded messages. Their average life expectancy for a mission was measured in weeks, and they were given cyanide pills in the hopes that they could kill themselves before they were tortured. Much of Marks’s memoir focuses on 3 very different pet projects of his, all of which boiled down to keeping those agents alive and out of enemy hands. One of the more fascinating ones is the new code systems he developed on his own, though he was also equally concerned with finding better ways to handle so-called “indecipherables,” garbled messages that increased the chances of detection as agents had to resend them.
The pet project I found most gripping, though, was the cat-and-mouse game he played for years with his German equivalent in Holland, Hermann Giskes. From early in his career in SOE, Marks detected worrying security breaches in the Dutch messages. He feared that numerous agents and wireless operators had been captured and were either sending messages under duress or had been replaced with German operators.
SOE’s response was mired in bureaucracy, and by the end, Marks’s fears were confirmed when it was revealed that literally dozens of SOE agents had been sent to their death in Holland because German intelligence agents were orchestrating all communication with the British and luring additional agents in with updates on how well their work was going. Giskes was a wily opponent, and I have a hard time understanding how he and Marks’s battle of cryptography wills has not been memorialized on film before. At one point, Giskes even sent taunting April Fools’ messages to the British. If that’s not a cinematic move, then I don’t know what is.
If you’re looking for a unique, fascinating memoir, definitely give Leo Marks’s Between Silk and Cyanide a try. It’s not your typical WWII memoir with a story that should not be such a best-kept secret part of history. As always, if you are interested in learning more about this book, just check out our online library catalog.
Recommended for those interested in history, WWII memoirs, and cryptography.
What’s your favorite book about spies? Are you good at breaking codes? Have you ever sent taunting Morse code messages to anyone for April Fools? Tell us in the comments!