German soldiers in the field enciphering a message on the Enigma code machine, circa 1940

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German soldiers in the field enciphering a message on the Enigma code machine, circa 1940

Over the last twenty years, the huge differences between national accounts of World War II have at last started to diminish. This is largely due to the opening of archives, international conferences, and the hiring of foreign historians by most major universities.

The secret war probably produced more misleading myths than any other aspect of the conflict. The outcomes of most clandestine efforts are virtually impossible to quantify, so specious assertions have abounded. It has been claimed, for example, that Ultra, the British project to decode German messages, shortened the war by months if not years. For these reasons alone, we badly needed a reliable reassessment to put the secret war in perspective, and this Max Hastings accomplishes with fine judgment in his new book. He covers human intelligence through old-fashioned spying, “signals intelligence” through intercepts as well as deception and counterintelligence, and “resistance,” or partisan warfare.

The secret world attracted a rich variety of characters. They included the brilliant, the obtuse, the ideologically committed, opportunists, fantasists, prima donnas, eccentrics, and charlatans. Agents of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) “ranged from pimps to princesses,” in the words of an official historian, while the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) attracted glamorous recruits, with more than a few leftists from privileged backgrounds. The ideological conflicts of the 1930s extended into World War II, yet British and American intelligence services were almost blind to the level of Soviet penetration. The paranoia and conspiracy theories about the Soviets arrived with a vengeance in the cold war.

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, achieved very little, apart from the odd victory over its upstart rival SOE. It survived under its unimpressive chief, Stewart Menzies, only because he managed to keep the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park, which developed Ultra, within his own organization. MI6’s worst humiliation occurred in November 1939. Two of its officers went to the Dutch town of Venlo on the German–Netherlands frontier, supposedly to meet a representative of dissident Wehrmacht generals. Instead, they were kidnapped by Walter Schellenberg and members of the SS’s security service, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD). Both officers appear to have cooperated fully, giving away details of MI6’s organization on the Continent. The true measure of MI6’s incapacity was its lack of a single worthwhile source of information inside Germany.

Both the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, and the SD proved little better. Their agents sent to Britain and the United States were either captured or turned, and agreed to send false reports back to Germany. The Japanese, on the other hand, used their expatriate communities all over Asia and the Pacific to provide very detailed information on their objectives in December 1941, but then they lost interest in intelligence after their early victories.

Only the Soviet Union invested vast resources in conventional spying. It may have suffered the greatest intelligence disaster of the entire war—Joseph Stalin’s belief that warnings of a German invasion were simply an angliyskaya provokatsiya masterminded by Churchill. Yet Moscow Centre went on to accomplish successful penetrations in Berlin, Tokyo, London, and later in the United States. Most of these came from committed Communists who believed that the Soviet Union was once more in the forefront of the war against fascism, as they had hoped during the Spanish civil war.

Some of those who felt qualms about betraying their country took comfort in the idea that they were reporting not to the USSR itself but to the Communist International, or Comintern. (In theory this illusion ended in May 1943 with the dissolution of the Comintern, but Georgi Dimitrov and his team simply carried on their work as the “International Section of the Central Committee Secretariat.”) Meanwhile Soviet “illegals”—who entered countries under false names to control the USSR’s foreign agents—were installed in many countries, using passports that had been confiscated by Comintern representatives from International Brigade members in Spain.

The outstanding spies of World War II were all non-Soviet Communist sympathizers. Richard Sorge, a German journalist, not only attached himself to the German embassy in Tokyo but even wrote many reports for the German Foreign Ministry. He provided the most momentous intelligence of all toward the end of 1941 when he confirmed to the Soviets that the Japanese would attack south rather than north against Siberia. But Stalin, a visceral xenophobe, did not trust any intelligence that came from abroad.

In the West, the Soviets’ most valuable “humint” came from the Rote Kapelle, or Red Orchestra, in Belgium, France, and Germany and the Lucy network based in Switzerland. Neither was made up of professional spies. Prime sources included Harro Schulze-Boysen, a Luftwaffe officer in Hermann Göring’s Air Ministry, and Arvid Harnack, a senior official in the Finance Ministry. They managed to pass on quantities of technical and operational information, but eventually a combination of sexual indiscretions and Moscow Centre’s impatience led to the Gestapo rolling up the Red Orchestra in the second half of 1942 and executing most of its members.


One of the Soviet Union’s most effective spies was a mercenary. Rudolf Rössler earned large sums of money by persuading two young women who manned the teleprinter at Wehrmacht headquarters to give him all the punched paper afterward. Moscow Centre assumed that Rössler had contacts at the highest level in the German armed forces and demanded to know their names. Not surprisingly, he consistently refused to answer. Moscow Centre then noticed that the material was suspiciously like the transcripts it was receiving from a spy in London (almost certainly John Cairncross). With typical Soviet paranoia, this made the Soviets imagine another bout of angliyskaya provokatsiya, when in fact both were reporting on the same genuine signals.

Soviet suspicions continued to prove a liability. The Red Orchestra warned that the main German thrust in 1942 would be in the south toward the oilfields of the Caucasus. Any indication of a renewed attack on Moscow would be a feint. But when a German liaison aircraft crashed, revealing the plans for Operation Blue and the advance in the south, Stalin instantly assumed that this was a plant and expected another attack on Moscow.

Stalin’s distrust toward his allies never wavered. General Pavel Sudoplatov’s Administration for Special Tasks was preparing a plot to assassinate Hitler using a boxing champion who had been ordered to defect, but Stalin suddenly put a stop to it. He feared, according to Hastings’s research, that the British and Americans might make peace with a successor government and allow it to keep fighting the Soviet Union. The British, on the other hand, canceled Operation Foxley, the SOE plan to assassinate Hitler, because they believed Germany would be defeated more rapidly if he stayed in control of military operations.

The German high command was so arrogant in its invasion of the Soviet Union that it hardly bothered to read Soviet communications. This changed only in the late autumn of 1941 when Wehrmacht generals saw that they had gravely underestimated Soviet strength. Red Army codes proved very easy to break, but “the incompetence and myopia of German intelligence” was barely believable. Reinhard Gehlen of the Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East) department achieved an undeserved reputation for cleverness thanks to delphic phrasing in his reports and his brilliance at office politics.

Gehlen, so proud of his spies behind Soviet lines, did not imagine for a moment that he was the greatest dupe of all. He thought he had recruited the greatest spy of the war in the form of the agent “Max.” This was Aleksandr Demyanov, the grandson of the leader of the Kuban Cossacks, who had been instructed by the NKVD to allow himself to be recruited by German intelligence. But Demyanov was part of a fake network of mainly White Russians working for the NKVD and the GRU in Operation Monastery, passing false information to Gehlen.

While Operation Uranus, the great plan of the Soviet Stavka (or “high command”) to encircle Friedrich Paulus’s Sixth Army at Stalingrad, was being prepared in the autumn of 1942, another offensive—a huge diversion—took shape much further north against the German Ninth Army. This was called Operation Mars. Its objective was to ensure that not a single German division could be moved from the central part of the front to the southern part where the battle for Stalingrad would take place.

The six attacking Soviet armies had virtually no artillery support, while the Stalingrad operation received plenty. This imbalance reveals a striking disregard by the Soviet leaders for their own troops. But according to General Sudoplatov, the ruthlessness went even further. On the order of his NKVD handlers, Alexander Demyanov passed details of Operation Mars to the Germans. “The disinformation planted through Aleksandr,” Sudoplatov wrote,

was kept secret even from Marshal Zhukov,…and was handed to me personally by General Fedor Fedotovich Kuznetsov of GRU in a sealed envelope…. Zhukov, not knowing this disinformation game was being played at his expense, paid a heavy price in the loss of thousands of men under his command.

This was an understatement. The diversion cost the Red Army 70,000 casualties. It was one of the most callous sacrifices known in the history of war.

Adolf Hitler, Japanese Foreign Minister Yōsuke Matsuoka, and Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Ōshima, Berlin, March 1941

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Adolf Hitler, Japanese Foreign Minister Yōsuke Matsuoka, and Japanese Ambassador Hiroshi Ōshima, Berlin, March 1941

While spies could prove unreliable, the ability to read your enemy’s signals was the ultimate “golden egg,” as Churchill called it. Some codes were almost laughably easy to break. The British and Americans did not allow the French any access to Ultra material or the secrets of Operation Overlord because they knew the Germans had broken French codes from before the start of World War II. An SOE officer even went to the London offices of General Charles de Gaulle’s Bureau central de renseignements et d’action and challenged the French officials to encode any message they wanted. He deciphered it in minutes in front of their eyes, but they still did not change their system.


Shortly before the war, Polish experts had provided both the British and the French with copies of German Enigma enciphering machines, but the hard-won achievements at Bletchley Park during the Battle of the Atlantic could only have happened in the more informal atmosphere of a democracy. The war at sea was far more centrally controlled from the Admiralty in London than land operations. Its Naval Intelligence Division, commanded by Admiral John Godfrey, with flamboyant Commander Ian Fleming as his assistant, employed nearly two thousand men and women. They all knew that Britain’s survival depended on the Submarine Tracking Room. There the team collated all the intelligence available, especially Ultra intercepts when possible, to reroute British convoys away from Admiral Karl Dönitz’s wolf packs.

So much has been written—and dramatized in movies—about the story of Ultra, and yet the work of the Kriegsmarine’s B-Dienst intelligence group based in Berlin has been overlooked. Dönitz was one of the few German commanders to take intelligence seriously. With a staff of six thousand, the B-Dienst cryptographers broke British naval codes frequently enough, using punch-card technology, to establish a fairly clear idea of Atlantic convoy operations. Paradoxically, the British failed to imagine that the Germans might be capable of breaking their codes. The Royal Navy’s failure to react to warnings until June 1943 led to many losses, and these blunders also helped to keep the Ultra secret safe at a time when Dönitz suspected that his own signals security might have been compromised.

Whether or not Ultra intercepts actually saved Britain from collapse during the Battle of the Atlantic is impossible to tell. All one can be sure of is that Germany’s U-boat arm was defeated in good time for the invasion of France, thanks to the increased range of shore-based aircraft and the renewal of Ultra decrypts—once Bletchley had broken the new German code enhanced by a fourth rotor on the Enigma machine.

Luftwaffe codes, largely due to sloppy procedure, proved easier to break, while German army ciphers were the most difficult. The British Commonwealth forces on Crete could have defeated the German airborne assault on the island in May 1941 thanks to the intercept of Luftwaffe communications. But intelligence is only as good as the commander who receives it. Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg was a very brave World War I officer who refused to believe that Crete could be taken by paratroopers and air-landed reinforcements alone. He wrongly assumed that the main German effort must be a seaborne landing.

Hastings also reminds us forcefully that however accurate the intelligence obtained, it is worthless if sufficient forces are not available to make use of it. Fortunately, to end Britain’s run of defeats, the Eighth Army in Egypt had been strongly reinforced in the autumn of 1942. General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s boasting about his victory in North Africa was hardly justified when one realizes just how much it owed to Ultra, which made possible both the destruction of vital Axis convoys in the Mediterranean and the warning of German attack before the Battle of Alam Halfa.

The great achievement of the United States was to break the Japanese diplomatic code, dubbed “Purple.” This gave the Allies access to the reports from Baron Hiroshi Ōshima, the Japanese ambassador in Berlin, including his conversations with Hitler. But the great flaw in such intercepts is often the lack of a subsequent message to show if a decision was then changed.

The American triumph in breaking the Japanese naval code contributed greatly to the turning point in the Pacific War, the Battle of Midway. Ensign Joseph Rochefort and his small team working in “the Dungeon” on Oahu came up with “arguably the most influential single intelligence achievement of the global conflict,” Hastings writes. “Seldom in history has so much hung upon the word of a single junior officer. If he was wrong, the United States could suffer a strategic disaster in the Pacific.” Luck too played a huge part. The incontinent radio traffic between the US warships setting out to create Admiral Chester Nimitz’s trap for the Japanese navy very nearly wrecked the whole operation. Yet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, although suspecting that something was up, decided not to break radio silence to warn the commander of the carrier group.

Nimitz had made the correct decision, based on the intelligence available. Information was of course of no use unless the right assessment was arrived at, but it was not a simple process when sources did not agree or Hitler acted illogically. The age-old problem of intelligence assessment was the natural urge of analysts to put themselves in the tactical position of their opponents, and then work things out using their own logic. In the case of dictators, it was far more important to put yourself into their mind since their thought processes, often tainted with megalomania, were not those of most generals. Yet Hastings is almost certainly right when he judges that the British Joint Intelligence Committee, which assessed material from all sources, proved to be right more often than it was wrong.

The most common Allied mistake was confirmation bias—looking only for the elements that supported current assumptions. The airborne operation in Holland to seize the bridge at Arnhem in September 1944 was based on the idea that the Wehrmacht was in complete disarray from its retreat from France. This persisted into the winter, with the failure to put together the odd pieces of the jigsaw that pointed to a major strategic counteroffensive. Intelligence officers were blinded by their own conviction that the Germans were incapable of such an effort.

As I mention in my own book, Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge (2015), the German Jewish interpreters secretly monitoring senior German prisoners of war for the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centres overheard two conversations that clearly stated that a large operation was planned. This was passed on to the War Office and Allied headquarters but evidently was discounted because intelligence officers simply could not believe the hard-pressed Germans capable of assembling so many divisions.

Bletchley Park could never be the fount of all knowledge, yet many senior intelligence officers proved blind to the natural flaws of British analysts, such as the inability to process material in time when overloaded with messages, or provide material when the Wehrmacht imposed radio silence on attacking formations. Bletchley was very useful, on the other hand, when military leaders needed to know whether deceptions such as Plan Fortitude—the elaborate and highly successful operation that convinced the Germans that the main part of the cross-channel attack in the summer of 1944 would be landings around the Pas de Calais—had been swallowed.

The biggest and most effective deception of World War II occurred on the eastern front in June 1944, when the Red Army concealed its preparations for Operation Bagration, which became the encirclement of the German army in Belorussia, and pretended to be attacking further south. Russian historians, however, are still loath to accept how much they were aided by the RAF and USAAF bombing offensive against German cities. This forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw most of its fighter squadrons to defend the Reich in 1943, thus giving the Red Army aviation supremacy and making German aerial reconnaissance virtually impossible.

Britain’s military weakness after its ejection from the Continent in 1940 meant that any chance of reinvading France would have to wait until the United States entered the war. Churchill knew, however, that the British needed to give at least an impression of fighting on aggressively. The only two possible weapons with which they could hope to hit back were Bomber Command, then still in its infancy, and special operations, which Hastings refers to as “military theater.” Some commando operations, particularly the Bruneval raid in northern France on February 27, 1942, to seize secret German radar equipment, were effective, but others were indeed “action for action’s sake.”

The pugnacious Churchill ordered the establishment of SOE to “set Europe ablaze,” but its achievements were mixed and, as Hastings says, more moral than military. His overall assessment is almost certainly accurate, but at times he places rather too much confidence in the supercilious remarks of Bickham Sweet-Escott, an SOE officer and author of the first history of the organization. The point of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s plan to kidnap General Heinrich Kreipe on Crete in the spring of 1944 was to give the Cretans, who had been left behind in the war, a boost to their morale so that they would not feel the need to carry out attacks and provoke reprisals. It was hardly Leigh Fermor’s fault that a guerrilla kapetan mounted a reckless attack against orders. This gave the Germans the excuse to lay waste to the area and to cow the population just before they planned to withdraw to the west of the island.

In such a time of Manichaean politics, most occupied countries were riven by feuds as well as personal jealousies, so rival resistance groups often hated each other even more than the Germans. This made the lives of SOE and later OSS officers very difficult. Speaking the local language was not enough when faced with bitter factionalism and rivalries. SOE and OSS officers alike also faced the prejudice of Allied headquarters outraged at the diversion of resources to what they saw as very doubtful enterprises. But the greatest danger was betrayal by collaborators.

While Hastings acknowledges that “SOE eventually became a more effective body than MI6, and was run by abler people,” he also rightly emphasizes SOE’s worst blunder of the war after the Abwehr captured an underground radio operator in The Hague on March 6, 1942. The Germans forced him to transmit back to London, but even though he left off the security code to warn that he had been captured, SOE’s N Section paid no attention. Agent after agent was parachuted in on the Abwehr’s instructions transmitted by the radio operator and seized on landing. In a state of shock, few resisted interrogation. Altogether sixty-one were captured in what the Germans proudly called their Englandspiel, or “England game.” When the disaster finally became apparent after two years, the anger of the Netherlands government-in-exile can be imagined. The mistrust and bitterness lasted well into the postwar period.

After the Battle of Normandy, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, with excessive diplomacy, compared the effect of the French Resistance to that of several regular divisions. A rather blunter General George Patton, when asked what he thought of the French Resistance’s contribution, replied: “Better than expected and less than advertised.” “The military achievements of Resistance were very modest,” Hastings writes, “the moral ones immense.” Certainly the myth of the French Resistance helped de Gaulle unify a profoundly divided country after the Liberation.

In almost all European countries, resistance never really developed until after Operation Torch, the British-American landings in North Africa, and the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, the psychological turning point of the war. The only exceptions were in Poland and Yugoslavia. Historians of the eastern front have now come to recognize that the contributions of partisan operations were exaggerated at the time for propaganda reasons, and subsequently to camouflage the embarrassing extent of collaboration in the occupied territories.

Nobody can accuse Max Hastings of patriotic bias. He is well known for his scathing criticism of the British Army’s inadequacies. In The Secret War Hastings gives short shrift to the myths. He brilliantly depicts the byzantine world of intelligence agencies, with dry humor and perception.