The Spooky Side of World War II

German soldiers in the field enciphering a message on the Enigma code machine, circa 1940
Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
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…

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