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The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939–1945

The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939–1945

Max Hastings


Another masterly rendering of military history, this time looking at the secret war.

Hastings is disparaging – with reason – of many of the claims of secret services: the information obtained by diplomats often seems radically superior and more reliable than that obtained by spies, perhaps not least because it's being interpreted in a cooler and less personally dangerous atmosphere. It's hard to disagree as far as the Second World War is concerned, given that barely a single spy changed the course of the war to any measurable degree.

There are two exceptions to Hastings' conclusion, however. One of code-breaking, where he provides a carefully balanced and even-handed treatment of all sides' cryptographic skills. He places the British efforts in a context that's all the stronger because he dispenses with myth while still being left with a story of epic successes: the codebreakers were able at times to exert a major influence on tactics and strategy, even while being stymied at others.

The second is the handling of double agents, and here it is the Russian efforts that really stand out. While the British XX committee scored major successes, the Russian deceptions were incredible in both their depth and extent, often completely masking the armies' intentions even after they had started manoeuvring. In many ways the Russians achieved by stealth what Operation Fortitude achieved by physical deception, and on an enormously larger scale. It was particularly interesting that Hastings pulled out the contribution of "Rudolf Abel", which I'd just read about in Abel: The True Story of the Spy They Traded for Gary Powers, and whose contributions really deserve to be better known.

5/5. Finished 31 January 2017.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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