Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 by Leo Marks
rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a fascinating book about Leo Marks' experience in the codes division of the SOE, the British organization responsible for handling spies during the second world war. Not only do we get to find out a lot about the mechanics of how it all worked, what the codes were, and the British side of the Englandspeil/Nordpol game with Col. Giskes, but we also get some insight into the personalities and culture that allowed the SOE to be, at the same time fantastically successful in managing some spy networks and profoundly abstruse about recognizing and remedying their own mistakes.
For instance, Marks was a master at deciphering coding mistakes by stressed out agents and saved many lives by not requiring them to resend messages coded with the same key, etc. He would take bathroom breaks to solve 'indecipherables' and reencode them properly in such a way that the Free French would not realize that he had cracked their precious code, but at the same time saving their agent.
However, his own narrow focus and the turf wars of those around him allowed the Germans to capture dozens of agents and tons of airdropped supplies. Read London Calling North Pole for an account by the German colonel in charge. It was frustrating to think of how many lives could have been saved or how much more quickly the war might have ended if some of the British officers had been less concerned about their own fiefdom and more concerned about a common cause. We are left wondering what might have happened if there had been a spirit of cooperation instead of competition between the geniuses at Bletchley Park and those at SOE codes section.
All in all, I recommend this as a fascinating character study of a civilian in the war effort. It is full of interesting stories and anecdotes, and should be accessible to a general audience. However, those with an understanding of and appreciation for cryptography and espionage will especially enjoy this book.
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