Monday, May 25, 2009

Between silk and cyanide


Recently finished the absolutely gripping book Between silk and cyanide: the story of the S.O.E.'s secret code war by Leo Marks. So gripping that I clearly annoyed my beloved by reading non-stop, only surfacing occasionally to utter a distracted 'mmm.... what?' If you want to read about cryptography in World War II, this book is the goods.

S.O.E. (Special Operations Executive) was charged with conducting warfare 'by means other than military engagement'. In other words, espionage and sabotage!

Leo Marks (who's parents, incidentally, owned an antiquarian bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road) failed to get into Britain's leading cryptographic department, Bletchley Park - being rejected as too 'slap-dash and erratic'. Instead, he was sent to what his Sergeant described as "some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits". This was S.O.E. and Leo Marks was 23 years old. Soon he would become Head of Codes, responsible for maintaining the secrecy of communication with secret agents in Europe and developing encryption systems that would save many lives.

The first thing to say about the book is that it is marvellously entertaining. Marks has a distinctive, impish and eccentric voice, which can be quite baffling for the opening pages (what crazy man is this??). It soon becomes extremely engaging and brings his remarkable story to life. Shortly after he starts with the S.O.E., he becomes suspicious about messages received from agents in the Netherlands. It soon becomes clear to him that these agents have been intercepted and the messages are being sent by Germans. Marks battles to make this understood, and his is ignored or told to sweep it under the carpet - largely due to internal politics within the department, and the diplomatic manouverings of the Allied countries. Marks watches in horror as Britain continues to drop agents, money and weapons in the Netherlands. Effectively delivering them straight into German hands. Desperate to keep agents alive Marks fights to show how flimsy the established methods of encryption were, how easily garbled and how easily they could be broken by the enemy, even offering proof that this had actually occured. And is told to keep it to himself. He dedicates himself to devising new methods of encryption. The story of this battle is agonising.

We learn a lot about code, which is absolutely fascinating. In the S.O.E. this means hand coding (as opposed to using machines such as Enigma). And what brilliant people we encounter: from heroic secret agents and master coders through to the girls from FANY (the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) who worked round the clock to decrypt messages. This is such a personal story, and Marks is an expert in conveying characters. I came to care about the taciturn Norwegians and the loopy female agents that were dropped into Europe - with an average life expectancy of six weeks. I found myself flicking to later chapters in the book, just to make sure that they made it. Sadly, most of them didn't. Particularly moving is his account of 'the White Rabbit', who worked with the Free French and was one of Britain's greatest secret agents. We also meet Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan.

While much of the book will break your heart, Marks is also very very funny: writing about his hilariously over protective Jewish parents who have a hotline to the black market and keep the department supplied with cigars, cream cakes and smoked salmon sandwiches, or about his meeting with one Colonel Wills (apparently the model for Ian Fleming's Q), who proudly showed Marks his latest project: collecting animal dung from the London Zoo, with a view to making explosives disguised as poo.

There are many many books this will inspire me to read and films such as the 1958 Carve her name with pride, the story of Violette Szabo. This film included the first public reading of a poem, written by Leo Marks, and given to Szabo to use as a code as she left for a mission in Nazi-occupied France:

The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have is yours.

The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will by yours and yours and yours.

3 comments:

Kim Roberts said...

But what code does the poem represent?????

paranoia agent said...

I'll leave it to Wikipedia to explain: The poem code is a simple, and insecure, cryptographic method.

The method works by the sender and receiver pre-arranging a poem to use. The sender chooses a set number of words at random from the poem and gives each letter in the chosen words a number. The numbers are then used as a key for some cipher to conceal the plaintext of the message. The cipher used was often double transposition. To indicate to the receiver which words had been chosen an indicator group is sent at the start of the message.

PROUD WOMAN said...

you've made me want to read the book - sounds really 'intriguing'!!!!! (and yes, i do read non-fiction written by men!!!!)