The Secret War: Max Hastings

The Secret War: Max Hastings

Title: The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-45

Author: Max Hastings

Review by Neil Murray

As diligently researched and alternately as amusing as horrifying, this book (obviously) documents intelligence and counter-intelligence during World War Two, but takes pains to remind readers that the lessons learned then are still applicable today. Times change: spies don’t.

Quite early on, Max Hastings draws the key distinction between human intelligence (humint, in the jargon) and electronic intelligence (elint), and it’s not giving anything away to say that he cites Bletchley Park and the cracking of the Enigma codes as the greatest elint achievement of the war. But Germany was cracking Allied codes, and the US was cracking Japanese. And as he rightly points out, intelligence is no good unless you have the ability to understand what is being revealed, and (crucially) the power to act on it and change events. Or the course of a war.

In this respect, Russia failed miserably in 1940-412: Stalin was told by innumerable sources that Hitler was planning to invade Russia, and Germany did little to hide the build-up of weapons and soldiers on the borders. But he refused to believe that Hitler would double-cross him, and the Russian military was taken completely by surprise. To put it another way, it took Germany six months to get to the suburbs of Moscow, and well over three years for Russia to put them back to their starting lines.

For the second point, Germany could have had all the intelligence it needed, but by the close of 1942 it had lost the war: pulling the cloak off Allied secrets would merely have delayed the inevitable. It simply did not have the power to benefit from anything it might have learned.

Workers’ paradise

Max Hastings The Secret War image

Russia outclassed Germany in its use of high-placed agents

As for humint, Hastings does not pull his punches: Russia completely outclassed the Germans and the Allies in its recruitment and use of high-placed agents. To a great extent, this was because of the naïve belief that Russia really was the workers’ paradise and that helping Russia would bring about the longed-for socialist Utopia. The few people who tried to broadcast the truth of Stalin’s massacres were shouted down or (mostly) disbelieved.

There are failures on both sides. It took more than a year of worry before British intelligence realised the truth. The reason why they could not find German spies in Britain was not because they were so deeply embedded, nor because they were broadcasting on wavelengths yet to be discovered. Occam’s Razor prevailed: they could not find any agents because there were no agents. The German intelligence service was appalling, to the surprise of the British, who assumed for a long time that it would be as efficient as a Mercedes-Benz.

Such spies as did make it to Britain were captured quickly, mostly due to their own lackadaisical approach. For example, one agent had taken, for reasons that can only be guessed at, his First World War medals with him.

Astonishing failure

German counter-intelligence, though, was painfully effective in the occupied countries, especially Holland, where British agents were intercepted as soon as they landed, thanks to an astonishing failure of their British controllers to act on an early coded alert by a brave captured wireless operator that he had been compromised. That cost a lot of lives.

Where we get brought up to date is how secrets were shared, or rather not shared. The British never told Stalin about Bletchley Park, suspecting (probably rightly) that it would not take long for the news that Britain was reading German codes to reach Germany from Russia. Stalin was fed intel from Bletchley Park, but it was always disguised as having come from a plausible source. And Britain continued to read its allies’ communications for many years after the war. It almost certainly still does.

There’s more – the chapter on US analysis of Germany’s economic situation is fascinating, because it rightly concluded that it was parlous, whereas Britain always took it as Gospel that it was hideously efficient. It wasn’t.

As a journalist, I was mightily amused by the observation that much could be gleaned from non-secret sources. The enemy’s own press, if correctly analysed, yields secrets, as much for what it leaves unsaid as for what it reveals. Good journalists, concludes Hastings, make remarkably good intelligence agents. I might make a living yet.

By Neil Murray

Scherl/Suddeutsche Zeitung Photo

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