My review in the Wall Street Journal last week of Max Hastings's new book about intelligence in World War II, "The Secret War."
Bottom line: excellent on HUMINT, shaky on SIGINT.
by Stephen Budiansky
Wall Street Journal, May 7, 2016
Any historian who hopes to tell the true story of secret intelligence operations, even from the distant past, quickly discovers that he is up against two formidable obstacles.
First is the Kafkaesque system of government classification. Not only do U.S. intelligence agencies routinely refuse to declassify material from 70 or more years ago, they have taken to reclassifying and removing from the National Archives some previously released World War II-era files.
The other problem is that spies are professional, if not congenital, liars.
In the introduction to his sprawling, revisionist-tinged history of espionage, cryptanalysis and partisan warfare in World War II, British historian Max Hastings quotes the cautionary words of Malcolm Muggeridge, who worked for the British secret service during the war. Intelligence work, Muggeridge said, “necessarily involves such cheating, lying, and betraying that it has a deleterious effect on the character. I never met anyone professionally engaged in it whom I should care to trust in any capacity.”
The field of intelligence history accordingly “generates a vast, unreliable literature,” Mr. Hastings notes. The years after World War II brought a spate of memoirs recounting daring escapades behind enemy lines, many of which existed only in the writers’ imaginations but which still shape perceptions about the role of the spies and saboteurs of America’s Office of Strategic Services, Britain’s MI6 and Special Operations Executive, and the French Resistance.
The ensuing decades did little to correct the balance. “One immensely popular account of Allied intelligence”—the 1975 book “Bodyguard of Lies” by British journalist Anthony Cave Brown—is “largely a work of fiction,” Mr. Hastings concludes.
Revelations beginning in the late 1970s of the long-held secret of secret of “Ultra”—the World War II cover name for intelligence derived from the breaking of high-level German and Japanese codes—were likewise riddled with inaccuracies and overstatements. Whenever I give a talk about World War II codebreaking I am invariably asked about the thoroughly debunked but apparently indestructible myth that Churchill deliberately sacrificed Coventry to German bombers in 1940 to safeguard the secret of Britain’s success at breaking the German Enigma cipher.
Adding to the difficulties of separating reality from fantasy and legend is that a good many covert schemes that really were hatched by the wartime spy agencies (not to mention their Cold War successors) seem so far-fetched as to defy credulity, leaving one with the feeling that those in charge of intelligence got their inspiration from reading spy novels.
The breathless claims about secret missions that changed the course of World War II have engendered a scholarly backlash of late: Mr. Hastings at the outset makes the provocative suggestion that Allied intelligence may have had no effect at all on the outcome of the war. He quickly adds that “this seems too extreme a verdict.” But he goes on to make an insightful argument that, at least when it came to spies on the ground, the treachery and deceit that formed the core of their being usually neutralized any effectiveness they had.
The innate paranoia, lack of accountability and sheer incompetence of spies and spymasters of all nations make for often hilarious reading. Just what was the Russian agent, installed in a tiny firm in Belgium trading in imported trench coats, supposed to glean from his circle of second-rate business contacts? How was a German spy dispatched to Ireland supposed to advance the interests of the Third Reich, armed with a knowledge of the country that consisted in its entirety of a lecture from a fellow German who was a Celtic folklore enthusiast?
Surveying the sorry tales of agents’ misadventures and ineptitude, Mr. Hastings concludes that, for most World War II spies of all nationalities, their “only achievement in foreign postings was to stay alive, at hefty cost to their employers, while collecting information of which not a smidgeon assisted the war effort.” The Russian spy Anatoli Gourevitch recalled that he received endless training in secret inks, contact procedures and other bits of tradecraft—while being told next to nothing about how to actually gather intelligence. Even the notoriously cheap Russians lavished money on their networks of agents, who not unsurprisingly proved adept at spending it on luxury hotels, fine meals and a seemingly endless stream of inevitably blond mistresses. The 13,000 men and women employed by the Americans had so much cash to throw around that rival secret services complained that they drove prices on the local bribe market through the roof whenever they arrived in town.
The deeper irony that Mr. Hastings points to is that, in a business so filled with suspicion and unreliable agents, those rare spies who did succeed in delivering valuable information were almost always disbelieved. The “Oslo Report,” an anonymous document dropped at the British legation in Norway in 1939, detailed practically every German secret weapon program. It was dismissed by Whitehall as an obvious plant. (It was not.) Stalin repeatedly scorned intelligence reports from well-placed agents—and from Ultra, personally relayed by Churchill—that Germany was going to attack the U.S.S.R. in June 1941. “Misinformation,” he curtly declared. Stalin’s fears of betrayal and intrigue likewise led him to order scores of his own top intelligence officers shot and contact dropped with thousands of foreign informants branded “fascist stool pigeons.” After the war, one German source encountered his former NKVD handler in Vienna, and despaired at the thought of all the secrets he could have shared. “Where on earth were you all through the war?” the German asked. “I was General Kesselring’s personal orderly!”
The author nonetheless shows that, alone among the belligerent powers, the Soviets succeeded in penetrating the upper echelons of its enemies (and allies), notably with the famous spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo and the atomic spies in the United States, Canada and Britain. The ideological attraction of communism outweighed even Stalin’s boundless paranoia.
Mr. Hastings offers an equally sharp and skeptical argument about the value of sabotage and resistance operations in Nazi-occupied Europe. He suggests that Churchill had no illusions that his 1940 mandate to the newly formed Special Operations Executive—to “set Europe ablaze”—was going to accomplish much in the way of tangible military objectives; his aim was rather to boost British morale at a time when there were few other means for striking at Hitler and, rather more cold-bloodedly, to provoke savage Nazi reprisals against the civilian populace in occupied countries that would stoke hatred of the occupiers and deter collaboration. “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church!” Churchill thundered at one cabinet meeting when the effectiveness of this policy was questioned. While paying tribute to the genuine courage of many Resistance fighters, Mr. Hastings is frank in judging its chief value as establishing “a legend of popular insurrection” that helped revive “the self-respect of Europe’s occupied societies after 1945.”
The author is less persuasive when he tries to bring this same skeptical sensibility to the story of Ultra. To be sure, in Britain, where his book was first published, there continues to exist a popular belief that “Ultra won the war”—that Hitler and his generals could scarcely make a move on land, sea or air without the codebreakers at Bletchley Park knowing ahead of time. Mr. Hastings is correct in pointing out that the interception and decipherment of enemy traffic was never complete, that Allied cryptanalysts struggled to keep up with changing code systems, and that the Germans in particular scored significant cryptanalytic coups of their own, especially during several periods when the Nazi U-boat commander Karl Dönitz was receiving decoded messages giving the sailing times and routes of Allied convoys crossing the Atlantic.
But Mr. Hastings reveals many gaps in his understanding of the codebreaking process, and this undermines the soundness of his judgments. His explanation of how the Enigma cipher was broken and the role of Alan Turing’s electromechanical “bombes” is marred by errors and confusion. Notably, he misses the point of why the bombes were needed in the first place: not because codebreakers had been struggling to achieve results using “raw brainpower,” as he asserts, but because the earlier (quite effective) manual system that the Poles had worked out to recover the Enigma’s daily key settings was rendered useless in May 1940 by a change in German operating procedures. The bombes were needed to implement the far more elaborate and exhaustive computational search procedure that Turing devised to crack this new complication.
The mistakes Mr. Hastings makes in discussing the codebreakers and their work suggest an impatience with the subject and a cursory reading of secondary sources. He consistently misstates the name of the U.S. Army’s Signal Intelligence Service; he writes that in 1942 the U.S. Navy’s codebreaking headquarters “shifted out of Washington, to Mount Vernon Academy in Virginia,” getting both the name of the school and its location wrong (it was in northwest D.C.); he offers such mangled definitions of cryptologic terms like “depth” that knowledgeable readers will quickly conclude he is out of his depth.
This becomes a particular problem when he tries to launch sweeping conclusions off a shaky base. The author belittles the contribution of Ultra to the land campaign, offering as evidence the fact that Bletchley read less than 50% of German army Enigma traffic. What matters, however, is what 50% was being read, and during the North Africa campaign Bletchley was continuously deciphering virtually all of the messages sent over Erwin Rommel’s main Enigma network. The decrypted messages allowed the British commander Bernard Montgomery to learn in advance of the planned German offensive at Alam el Halfa in August 1942—and to meet it with a devastating ambush of mines, artillery and air strikes that saved Cairo and allowed British forces to regain the offensive.
Ultra also helped British forces wage an extremely effective interdiction campaign against Rommel’s vital supply lines across the Mediterranean. The British knew not only what supplies Rommel was short of but what specific ships were carrying essential stocks of fuel, ammunition and other materiel. From July to October 1942, British bombers and submarines sank 47 Axis supply ships, 44 of them directly as a result of Ultra intelligence. By the end of the campaign, Rommel’s tanks were literally running out of fuel. It was one of the most effective uses of Ultra of the entire war.
Mr. Hastings is also dismissive of the U.S. Army’s success in reading Japanese army codes. He devotes some 20 pages to the well-known story of the Battle of Midway and the U.S. Navy codebreakers’ success in uncovering Adm. Yamamoto’s plan of attack, but he gives less than a sentence to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s equally effective use of decoded Japanese army signals to bypass Japanese troop concentrations in eastern New Guinea in April 1944. MacArthur was able to land his forces unopposed at Hollandia Bay, hundreds of miles west of where the Japanese expected the blow. That strategic coup led to the capture of New Guinea six months ahead of schedule, allowing the invasion of the Philippines to begin in October 1944 rather than the following spring, as planned.
Like Montgomery in North Africa, MacArthur used intelligence about Japanese supply convoys—revealed in the Japanese army’s Water Transport Code, broken in June 1943—to wage a withering air-interdiction campaign that caught the Japanese ships just as they arrived in port. By 1944, employing IBM punch-card equipment and rooms full of specially built electromechanical memory units and analytic machinery, the U.S. Army’s codebreaking center at Arlington Hall outside of Washington was automatically decoding more than 2,500 Japanese army messages a day. Arlington Hall often read Japanese messages hours before their intended Japanese recipients did. This casts doubt on Mr. Hastings’s mildly chauvinistic assertion that “the most innovative codebreaking technology of the war was devised at Bletchley Park.”
Mr. Hastings gravely overstates his case when he asserts that signals intelligence “was useless, unless sufficient force was available at sea, in the sky, or on the ground.” Throughout the war, codebreaking was a source not only of battlefield intelligence but of technical and scientific intelligence (Ultra decrypts identified critical new U-boat technologies and the location of the German rocket facility at Peenemünde) and counterintelligence (Ultra provided the definitive proof in spring 1943 that the Germans were reading the Allied convoy code, leading to the rapid implementation of a replacement system that remained unbroken for the rest of the war). Codebreaking was also essential in deception operations for the Torch landings in North Africa in 1942 and D-Day in Normandy two years later, providing assurance that the enemy was indeed taking the bait.
The truth is that Ultra staved off disasters in the war’s first years that might have been fatal—at Midway, at Alam el Halfa, in the Mediterranean and in the Battle of the Atlantic. When the British and Americans could not bring decisive force to bear, Ultra was a force multiplier. While some correction of the “Ultra myth” is still needed, Mr. Hastings takes revisionism far beyond what the evidence bears.
“The Secret War” covers much familiar ground, but the decision to combine what are in fact only tangentially related subjects in one narrative may have been a mistake. There is little that connects codebreaking, spies, sabotage, resistance movements and deception operations in World War II other than the fact that they were all secret. As a result the book reads more like a ramble than a purposeful journey. But there are certainly interesting byways, especially on those excursions where the author is a reliable guide.