Book Review: The Secret War, Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945, by Max Hastings

I accidentally left this book out in the rain. It survived, but I was disappointed that no secret messages were revealed by the water.  It would not have been surprising: every secret messaging system, code cracking device, manner of ‘trade craft’ and espionage device used in the Second World War is revealed in Max Hastings The Secret War, Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-45.

As you would expect, Max Hastings has done his research and produced non-fiction in a deeply woven narrative style that makes it as fascinating as any Le Carre novel. Within 558 pages, plus notes, Hastings  covers a very wide canvas of wartime espionage, from the mostly successful, like the Bletchley Park operation, to the “incompetence and myopia of German intelligence”.  The intelligence operations of all the major participants in the war, America, Germany,  Japan, Russia and Britain are analysed in depth.  A lot of it is grim reading.

The struggles of people in occupied territories were all part of the darkest depths of war, with government secret service agencies providing money, weapons and expertise from behind the German lines in Russia as well as in Yugoslavia and France – even via resistance  groups in Germany. The Soviets were particularly active in Germany, with groups such as the Red Orchestra. The Russian-supported partisans behind German lines were largely,  but savagely successful in tying up many divisions of German troops, who were equally savage in their  reprisals, burning whole villages, deporting whole communities (as did the Soviets).  Meanwhile, Churchill demanded violent but less savage action from resistance groups in Western Europe which among other things, provided good intelligence. This book of course also tells about the huge failure of intelligence related to the Dutch hesitance. The British intelligence in this case was wholly infiltrated by the Germans, with many British and Dutch agents being captured and shot. The British had no idea that their operation there had been utterly compromised.

The treachery of a swag of British agents recruited by Moscow, including Caincross, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and others is chronicled in depth and also interwoven into the whole context of wartime espionage. Clearly, Hastings has benefited from many of the records of what went on during the war years that have been declassified by governments including Russia (although it is understood the rich pickings of Soviet archives are being curtailed to a large extent).

For anyone interested in the history of the Second World War, this is a volume which exposes the underbelly of the conflict with its heroism, technical brilliance, bizarre and often comical behaviour, of many mistakes and many deaths in the shadows of the war.

Don’t bother leaving it in the rain, the pages stick together and you might miss out on a secret.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945
by Max Hastings
Published by William Collins
ISBN 978000750399

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