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Behind the ‘Romantic Twaddle’ of World War II Spying


The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas

By Max Hastings


610 pages, $35

By Edward Cuddihy

The subtitle says it all: “Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939–1945”.

Max Hastings, the master of battle tactics and generalship has taken a new tact in his latest book, and his fresh look at World War II is every bit as riveting as his earlier works. Hastings, a British author often derisive of his countrymen in battle, has made a career of writing about the 20th century world wars, having published at least a dozen military histories critiquing battle plans and questioning the rationale – and sometimes the sanity – of nations’ leaders.

This is his first full-fledged entry into the shadowy, often romantic, back alleys of warfare he calls “the secret war.”

Here war is fought not by soldiers on battlefields but underground or in secret locations by patriots, subversives or downright con artists. Here battles are fought not for 10 square yards of high ground but for a shred of information that might give your side an edge.

Hastings warns his readers upfront he will devote precious little space or effort to the romance of secret war. Always the historian, he’s willing to leave that to the fiction writer. Besides, “none of the protagonists’ reports are even remotely trustworthy,” he writes. Even the official records contain what he characterizes as “large doses of romantic twaddle.”

Instead he has scoured the British, American and German archives (most Japanese archives were destroyed, and the Russians have yet to open many of theirs) to determine which intelligence successes or failures contributed substantially to victory or defeat. His conclusions will surprise devotees of resistance-fighter and double-agent fiction.

In Hastings’ view, each of the major combatants had its strengths and weaknesses in the secret war.

The Japanese high command, for example, was meticulous on close objectives like the Philippines and Pearl Harbor. But when it came to the big picture, they refused to believe any intelligence that ran counter to positions taken by Tokyo. In their greatest intelligence failure, they attacked the United States with little knowledge of the U.S. ability to sustain a war, and zero understanding of its political resolve.

The British excelled at code breaking. Hastings considers Ultra, Britain’s electronic eavesdropping and code-breaking industry, his country’s greatest contribution to the Allied effort. Ultra successes are countless.

Before D-Day, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had wireless confirmation from German high command and from Japanese intercepts that the Normandy invasion would be nothing more than a feign for the real invasion at Pas de Calais. Hitler was certain of it.

Ultra knew exactly where Hitler was moving his resources. Never in the history of war had such a massive sea invasion been undertaken, and according to Hastings, never in the history of modern warfare has an invader known so much about an enemy’s disposition.

However the Brits’ penchant for intrigue sometimes caught them up in their own game. During the so-called Phony War, the crash of a small private plane in the Low Countries handed Britain detailed plans of the Nazi invasion of France through neutral Holland and Belgium.

The plans were rejected in London as a plant. It was all too neat and tidy. Obviously the crash was staged by Berlin to throw them off. That’s exactly what the Brits would have done. But that sort of intrigue was not part of the German psyche. The plans were real and the Nazis shocked the world by carrying them out just months later.

The Soviets had far and away the best human spy network. There were communists, red sympathizers and left-leaning patriots in every country in Europe, as well as in America. Joseph Stalin’s spies told him weeks in advance that Hitler would launch Barbarossa, the all-out assault on Russia.

But to believe his intelligence would have been to admit he had been duped by Hitler. Besides much of his information came from Jewish citizens still inside Germany, and Stalin insisted no German could be trusted to tell the truth.

Hastings opines that the greatest intelligence coup of the war had little impact on the war itself. That was the Soviet’s stealing of America’s nuclear secrets. It took them four years to match the American atomic bomb, but Hastings claims that without Manhattan Project plans and detailed diagrams, Russia would not have been in the race. The effect on the Cold War of that Soviet intelligence coup is incalculable.

As the war progressed, United States code breakers at Arlington Hall, a former girls’ school outside Washington, rose to nearly the equal of Britain’s Bletchley Park, “the crown jewel of the British war effort.”

Arlington Hall’s breaking of Japan’s “Purple” sea code, which led to the Japanese defeat at Midway, effectively ended Japan’s domination of the Pacific. The Americans were so successful at deciphering Japanese intercepts they were reluctant to bomb Japan’s Pacific Communications Center.

On the other hand, Hastings considers the American OSS a truly amateur spy operation like its leader, William (Wild Bill) Donovan of Buffalo.

At a time when the British were taking extreme measures to conceal that they had broken Germany’s Enigma code, Donovan was announcing his espionage successes in the New York Times. The OSS, the forerunner to the CIA, in Hastings’ opinion was “exuberant, ill-disciplined, unfocused and wildly extravagant.”

Finally, there was the Abwehr, the Nazi intelligence agency, the least effective in Hastings’ view of the major intelligence machines. The Abwehr was headed by Hitler cronies who got where they were by telling their Fuhrer what he wanted to hear. They routinely rejected intelligence they deemed would anger him.

Its two biggest failures were Normandy, and their ongoing belief that Germany’s Enigma was too complex and sophisticated to decipher. It remains a mystery to Hastings why the so-thorough Germans so seldom made major changes to their codes, and why they never figured out that their highest-level dispatches were being intercepted and deciphered by Oxford and Cambridge dons at a nondescript estate 50 miles from Whitehall.

These are only a small sampling of what Hastings offers in his exhaustive anthology of World War II spying, espionage and code breaking. There is so much in “The Secret War” that it can be overwhelming in its detail.

Hastings’ style is sometimes dense and his method of following topics rather than maintaining chronological order can confuse. Just as in his military histories, he is thorough in his research and puts it all on the record for posterity.

The reader must guard against being discouraged by the book’s ponderous opening chapter which includes a seeming hodge-podge of names, relationships and acronyms. There is a method in his opening overview, but more often it is the insignificant anecdote later in the book that captures the pure essence of the nations at war.

Late in the war, when the Nazis launched vindictive V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks on London, British intelligence put out word by wireless in a cipher they knew the Nazis had broken that the rockets were overshooting London by 20 miles. Suddenly and for two days the buzz bombs fell harmlessly 20 miles short of their mark.

This sort of little-noted incident captures the national psyches of those involved in world conflict. If only they were not engaged in a death struggle for world conquest or survival, such stories would be laughable.

In retrospect, much of World War II spying and espionage was laughable. Hastings has a way of distinguishing between the deadly serious and the ridiculous, while always keeping that characteristically British straight face and stiff upper lip.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.

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