He was twenty-two. Soon recognized as a cryptographer of genius, he became head of communications at the Special Operations Executive SOE , where he revolutionized the codemaking techniques of the Allies and trained some of the most famous agents dropped into occupied Europe, including "the White Rabbit" and Violette Szabo. As a top codemaker, Marks had a unique perspective on one of the most fascinating and, until now, little-known aspects of the Second World War. Writing with the narrative flair and vivid characterization of his famous screenplays, Marks gives free rein to his keen sense of the absurd and his wry wit, resulting in a thrilling and poignant memoir that celebrates individual courage and endeavor, without losing sight of the human cost and horror of war. In one hand I clutched my railway warrant -- the first prize I had ever won; in the other I held a carefully wrapped black-market chicken.

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It is gripping, educational, and funny, and comes highly recommended. At the age of 22, Leo Marks joined the Special Operations Executive, which managed resistance, espionage, and sabotage operations in Occupied Europe. His path to becoming an SOE cryptographer was not particularly smooth.

First off, his interview with the code-breaking school did not get off to a good start, when the interviewer Having been accepted, he then became the only member of his class not to be considered worthy of the main cryptographic agency, Station X at Bletchley Park - mainly because of a bad case of being too clever for his own good. He was offered to SOE, but was very nearly rejected after they asked him to "break" an encoded message and were most disappointed when this took him the best part of a day, noting that their girls could do it in 20 minutes.

Dismissing him, the captain asked for the code back, and was rather shocked to find out that Marks had not actually had the code, and had not expected one since they asked him to "break" rather than decode the message.

And this was a code that they were actually using operationally. Unfortunately, the rest of their codes and procedures were about as secure, and equally disrespectful to the lives of the people who depended on them.

This is what made the book so moving, for me. Many of the power-wielding paper-pushers in London were far more preoccupied by petty politics than by whether or not their workers behind enemy lines lived or died. I was saddened and angered by the needless sacrifice of those courageous people who volunteered for such dangerous work - knowing full well that if they were caught, they would be horribly tortured and then killed or sent to die in an extermination camp. Unlike many of those in power in SOE, he seems to have been constantly aware that codes were not just paper exercises, and made a nuisance of himself throughout his work there by trying to change how cryptography was handled.

His eventual success in doing so was considerable, but came far too late for many who died at the hands of the Gestapo. Yet Marks never gave up, even though he often had to go outside official channels or use unorthodox means to do so - frequently with somewhat amusing results - whether frisking officials, impersonating his boss in memos, or bribing people with black-market provisions acquired by his mother.

For example, he becomes so frustrated by the unwillingness of SOE to help him recruit more women for his Codes division that he sends a message to the Ministry of Labour: "Do not reject any girl on grounds of insanity without first offering her to SOE.

A large part of the problem was the politics and infighting rife within SOE, and between it and other agencies especially "C", the Secret Intelligence Service. Marks at least becomes adept at using these rivalries to his advantage: when agents or sections are reluctant to adopt his coding innovations, he regretfully informs them that he might not have enough for them because the Free French, or whoever, were getting priority.

For the most part, SOE refuses you will be surprised to learn to take Marks seriously despite the evidence piling up, and continues to send stores and agents straight into the hands of the Nazis. Largely powerless to change this situation despite his strenuous efforts, Marks institutes Plan Giskes to salvage what he can from the sorry mess.

A vital component of this was his efforts to lull Giskes into a false sense of security for when the plan got underway. I found, however, that I had a high degree of trust in Marks and in the way he related events. He does not cut himself any slack while pointing out the weaknesses of others, as the quote above suggests. Indeed, he is relentless in pursuing and taking responsibility for his mistakes.

Probably aware of how ludicrous it would be to take oneself too seriously in a climate in which the most serious matters are treated so lightly, Marks never misses an opportunity to skewer his own failings. The captain who instructed me was so full of himself that I spent the entire session trying to determine the reason for his self-esteem and failed to take in a single word of his instructions, except for "Any questions?

Get on with it. He sounds just like the young man he was at the time, with little hint of the intervening years.


Between Silk and Cyanide

By Leo Marks. Free Press. It is an enthralling book, one full of an eccentric charm as well as fascinating, previously undisclosed details of the secret war waged in the occupied countries. It is also consistently informed by an understated kind of moral passion, and that makes it not only a fascinating memoir but an inspiring one as well.


Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945






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