'The Secret War' Tells the Remarkable Story of World War II Espionage

By Hartle, Terry | The Christian Science Monitor, May 19, 2016 | Go to article overview

'The Secret War' Tells the Remarkable Story of World War II Espionage


Hartle, Terry, The Christian Science Monitor


Books about World War II could easily fill a large library. But those focused on espionage and the intelligence aspects of the conflict would comprise only a small part and most of these - like Ben Macintyre's books "Double Cross" and "Operation Mincemeat" - only consider individual operations. Readers wanting a clear, comprehensive assessment of how the full range of espionage and codebreaking operations affected the war have had few choices.

That vacuum has now been filled. The highly respected British military historian Max Hastings has written an authoritative and engaging book that will stand as the definitive single volume analysis of "The Secret War" for years to come. His central theme is that all the major participants engaged in extensive espionage activities to inform and empower their armed forces. Some of these were well thought out while others were badly planned. A few were wildly successful but many were failures. But, ultimately, these covert operations assumed an unprecedented importance in the conflict.

Fundamental to Hastings's analysis is the distinction between signals intelligence, information obtained from interception radio traffic ( known as "signet"), and human intelligence, insights gained from spies, informers, agents, prisoners of war, and even newspapers (known as "humint"). "Humint" is as old as warfare but "signet" became increasingly important in World War II when primitive technology was available to help decode intercepted messages.

Standing above all of these was the successful effort to crack the German "Enigma" code, an undertaking spearheaded by a remarkable team at Bletchley Park in England. Ironically, thanks to the Cold War and the desire to hide the Allied code breaking operations, the existence of this effort was not widely known until the 1974 publication of "The Ultra Secret" by F.W. Winterbotham. Even then the world took only modest note - Hastings himself reveals that as a young scholar he declined to review Winterbotham's book because he "had never heard of Bletchley Park."

Yet today, he calls Bletchley "one of the most remarkable institutions the world has ever known, and one of the greatest achievements in Britain's history, towering over any narrative of the nation's part in the conflict" and says it is "a source of national shame" that Alan Turing, the most storied member of the team that cracked the Enigma code committed suicide in 1954 after his homosexuality was revealed.

His central question is quite simply, "Did the secret war affect the outcome of the conflict?" The answer is still widely debated. Many historians assume that the Allies' successes in these areas shortened the war by a year or two but others, like Yale historian Paul Kennedy, argue that intelligence and espionage efforts were characterized by "a preponderance of failures." Hastings sides with those who believe that the intelligence efforts contributed to the final victory, even if many of the resources devoted to those activities were used inefficiently and ineffectively.

While assessing the impact of intelligence efforts, Hastings underscores that knowing the enemy's plans was not enough to secure victory because combat operations determine the outcome of armed conflict. …

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