The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945

By Wertz, Jay | America in WWII, July-August 2016 | Go to article overview

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945


Wertz, Jay, America in WWII


The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings, Harper, 640 pages, $35

WHEN NOVELIST Ian Fleming created James Bond, the daring and dapper British Secret Service agent of the Cold War era, he wrote his storylines for good drama and with a final resolution of good over evil. Possibly, he was influenced to reverse in his fiction the course of what he observed in reality during World War II: intelligence gathering and clandestine operations seldom affected battlefield outcomes. Fleming, who served in various intelligence roles for the British Royal Navy and for his brother, Colonel Peter Fleming, who ran British military deceptions in Southeast Asia, are but two of scores of fascinating real-life characters in The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by the accomplished British author of WWII history Max Hastings.

While Hastings mentions that some Russian espionage plots during the war were as fantastic as those in Fleming's thrillers, most spy operations were tedious and achieved little. There were, however, intriguing and dangerous situations for many of those involved in what he refers to as "humint" (short for human intelligence, gathered by spies, informants, and diplomats). The other intelligence, "sigint" (signal intelligence, obtained through the vast array of resources made possible by broad military and government use of wireless communication in the mid-20th century), introduced such characters to the story as Enigma, Purple, and Ultra. It was sigint that provided the intelligence data that made the most impact during the war.

In a roughly chronological narrative, Hastings gives a comprehensive look at the role of each combatant nation's secret warriors--spies, saboteurs, and code-breakers, as well as the military, administrative, and logistical groups that supported their efforts. He includes a wealth of new information gained from recently opened government archives and from personal interviews he did with some wartime intelligence personnel. He begins with the prewar period, when political instability and competing ideologies had the countries of the world, especially Europe, spying on each other. This humint, augmented by the very beginnings of sigint, accelerated rapidly once hostilities began. The military and diplomatic branches of Great Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan, and the United States all carried out major intelligence efforts. Other nations somehow participated in or were victimized by espionage as it became a worldwide phenomenon. So Zurich, Cairo, and Mexico City were caught up in the same international web as London, Moscow, and Berlin.

Covering the efforts of spies in the fields, scientists, mathematicians cloistered in cramped research facilities, commandos, resistance fighters, and the bureaucrats managing all of them is a daunting task, but Hastings does a wonderful job, providing overviews of each major aspect of intelligence operations and dozens of anecdotal stories of individuals and groups. …

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