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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Code Maker's War 1941-45
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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Code Maker's War 1941-45 [Format Kindle]

Leo Marks

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At the age of 8, Leo Marks discovered the great game of code-making and -breaking in his father's London bookshop, thanks to a first edition of Poe's The Gold-Bug. At 23, as World War II was being played out in earnest, he hoped to use his strengths for the Allies. But Marks's urgent, witty memoir, Between Silk and Cyanide, begins with his failure to get into British Intelligence's cryptographic department. As everyone else on his course heads off to Bletchley Park ("the promised land"), he is sent to what his sergeant terms "some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits." In fact, the Special Operations Executive's mandate was, in Churchill's stirring phrase, to "Set Europe Ablaze," and Marks's was to monitor code security so that agents could could report back as safely as possible. When he arrived, the common wisdom was that it was easiest for men and women in the field to memorize and use well-known poems.

Unfortunately, since the Germans had equal access to the classics--"Reference books," Marks quips, "are jackboots when used by cryptographers"--Marks thought agents should write their own poems (or use his) instead, several of which are cheerily obscene. After all, no son or daughter of the Fatherland could ever know the rest of a verse that began "Is de Gaulle's prick / Twelve inches thick," and continued on in a similar, shall we say, vein. But Marks soon felt that original doggerel was just as dangerous, since even slight misspellings could render messages indecipherable and risk agents' lives. His first solution? WOKs (worked-out keys) printed on silk. An operative would use one key, send the message, and immediately tear off the strip. Marks had a hard time proving that swaths of silk would save his people from swallowing their "optional extra," a cyanide pill. His efforts were dead serious, but often landed him in comic terrain.

In one of the book's great set pieces, Marks visits Colonel Wills--surely the model for Ian Fleming's Q--in order to sort out the best ways to print his code keys. Before solving this minor problem (invisible ink!), Wills showed Marks several new projects--one of which involves an exotic array of dung, courtesy of the London Zoo. This gifted gadgetmeister planned to model life-sized reproductions of these droppings and pack them with explosives, personalized for all parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. "Once trodden on or driven over (hopefully by the enemy) the whole lot would go off with a series of explosions even more violent than the ones which had produced it," Marks explains.

Despite such larky sentences and sections, the author never loses sight of the importance of his vocation, and Between Silk and Cyanide is as elegiac as it is engaging. Marks knows when to cut the laugh track, particularly as his book becomes a despairing record of agents blown--lost to torture, prison, the camps, and execution. Readers will never forget the valor of Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Kahn, and the White Rabbit himself, Flight Lieutenant Yeo-Thomas. Poem-cracking, as Marks again and again makes clear, was far more than a parlor game. --Kerry Fried


Chapter One

A Hard Man to Place

In January 1942 I was escorted to the war by my parents in case I couldn't find it or met with an accident on the way. In one hand I clutched my railway warrant -- the first prize I had ever won; in the other I held a carefully wrapped black-market chicken. My mother, who had begun to take God seriously the day I was called up, strode protectively beside me -- praying that the train would never arrive, cursing the Führer when she saw that it had and blessing the porter who found me a seat. Mother would have taken my place if she could, and might have shortened the war if she had.

My father, who was scarcely larger than the suitcases he insisted on carrying, was an antiquarian bookseller whose reading was confined to the spines of books and the contents of the Freemason's Chronicle. His shop was called Marks & Co. and its address was 84 Charing Cross Road. He never read the gentle little myth by Helene Hanff; long before it was published he'd become one himself.

My parents accompanied their only joint venture to the door of the train and, for the first time in twenty years, prepared to relinquish him. Mother's farewell to her only child was the public's first glimpse of open-heart surgery. Late-comers were offered a second. As I entered the carriage clutching my chicken and bowler hat, she called out at the top of her voice -- if it had one -- 'LOOK AFTER MY BOY.'

The captain in the seat opposite me accepted the brief. To distract me from the spectacle of Mother comforting Father and the station master comforting them both, he silently proffered his cigarette case. I indicated my virgin pipe.

'Going far, old son?'

My security-minded nod convinced him, if Mother's performance hadn't already, that I was being dispatched to some distant outpost of what remained of Empire. I was, in fact, going all the way to Bedford.

I had been accepted as a pupil at a school for cryptographers. Gaining admission hadn't been easy: I'd written to the War Office, the Foreign Office and the Admiralty, enclosing specimens of my home-made codes with a curriculum vitae based loosely on fact, but no more loosely than their formal replies stating that my letters were receiving attention. Since codes meant as much to me as Spitfires did to those who had guts, I resolved to make one last try and suddenly remembered that I had a godfather named Major Jack Dermot O'Reilly who worked in the Special Branch at Scotland Yard. I also remembered that Major Jack (like Father) was a Freemason, a branch of the Spiritual Secret Service for which I was still too young.

Arriving at the Special Branch unannounced, I called upon Major Jack carrying my codes in my gas-mask case, which he clearly considered was the most appropriate place for them. However, he must have put his 'Brother' before his country because a few prayers later I was invited by the War Office to attend an interview at Bedford 'to discuss my suitability for certain work of national importance'.

My audition took place at a large private house which tried to ramble but hadn't the vitality. A friendly sergeant told me the CO was expecting me -- and I had my first meeting with Major Masters, the headmaster of the code-breaking school. He began the interview by asking what my hobbies were.

'Incunabula and intercourse, sir.'

It slipped out and wasn't even accurate; I'd had little experience of one and couldn't afford the other. I suspected that he wasn't sure what incunabula was and added: 'And chess too, sir -- when there's time,' which proved a better gambit.

I answered the rest of his questions honestly -- with one exception. He asked me how I first became interested in codes. There is only one person to whom I've ever told the truth about this and we hadn't yet met. The reply I concocted didn't impress him. I didn't think much else had either.

Three weeks later I received his letter of acceptance.

The school for code-breakers was the only one of its kind in England and its founding father, patron saint and principal customer was Britain's cryptographic supremo, John Tiltman. According to O'Reilly, Tiltman's talent had already received the ultimate Intelligence, accolade: it had made him a bargaining counter with the Americans.

The course was due to last for eight weeks, at the end of which the students would be graded and sent to Bletchley Park, which was Tiltman's workshop and the headquarters of the cryptographic department, known in the trade as MI8.

Fifteen new pupils, including, two young women, had been selected for the course and we sat at separate desks in a large, bright room, studying the mating habits of the alphabet, counting the frequency of letters and working our way. through exercises which gradually became more difficult until we were ready to tackle codes of military and diplomatic level.

For a short while the whole class seemed to be moving in orderly mental convoy towards the promised land of Bletchley. But amongst those potential problem-masters there was one confirmed problem-pupil. I knew that if I didn't break behaviour patterns as well as codes, I would be lucky to last the term -- a prospect which made me keep peace with my teachers for a personal best, of about a week. The regression started when I felt a code of my own simmering inside me. This unwanted pregnancy was accompanied by morning sickness which took the form of questioning the quality of the exercises which were supposed to extend us. I was convinced that the school's methods of teaching would be better suited to a crash course in accountancy. The decline was irreversible when I tried to find quicker ways of breaking codes than the ones prescribed for us, and began to chase cryptographic mirages of my own making. Having somehow absorbed a few tricks of the trade, I spent hours trying to devise codes which would be proof against them. Although possibly not quite the waste of time it was then pronounced to be, this was still chronic indiscipline masquerading as creative impulse.

The chief instructor was a patient, conscientious lieutenant named Cheadle. He wandered round the classroom once a day, peering hopefully over the students' shoulders -- urging us to 'dig out the root problems like a corn'. When he came to my desk, he found nothing to excise. He was like a chiropodist treating a wooden leg which insisted on kicking him.

By the time I was halfway through the course, all the others had reached the final exercise. Since I had no hope of closing the gap, I decided I had nothing to lose by vaulting it. It was strictly against the rules for any student to remove work from the premises; there was no law against memorizing it. By scanning the code until it became my favourite face, I was able to take all its key features home with me, slightly blemished by the spots before my eyes.

'Home' in Bedfordshire, a county which deserved its duke, was a boarding house -- one of many in which the students were billeted. I had been instructed to tell the landlady that I was from the Ministry of Information. At supper time that night mine hostess, as usual, placed a piece of spam beside me and the code surrendered at the sight of it. It laid down its arms and said 'enough'. The rest was just hard work, a matter of gathering it in. Twenty-four hours later I was the proud possessor of a finished exercise.

Nobody had told me that it was intended to be a 'team effort' spread across a week. A bemused Lieutenant Cheadle showed my work to a highly suspicious Major Masters, who immediately tightened internal security. However, as so often happens in such matters, what is tightened at one end becomes loosened at the other and I was able to catch a glimpse of my confidential report.

It might have been written by the high master of St Paul's who would have expelled me had he not been a client of 84's: 'In his determination to find short cuts, he is apt to be slap-dash and erratic...though his approach shows some signs of originality, he is a very hard man to teach and will, I believe, be an even harder one to place...'

I wondered what arrangements Bedford made to dispose of its waste product.

The friendly sergeant was never friendlier than at mid-evening when he was prepared to reveal whatever he had heard on the grapevine in exchange for a little of the grape.

The rest of my course was going to Bletchley. As for its solitary failure, an interview had been arranged for me with 'some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits'. If even they didn't want me, I would be regarded as unmarketable.

'It's called Inter Services Research Bureau,' said the sergeant. He lowered his voice. 'It's got another name, too. SOE or SOD or something.'

It had many names, Sergeant.

One of them was Bedlam.

The personnel officer who screened me at 64 Baker Street conducted the entire interview in the mistaken belief that I was closely related to Sir Simon Marks, the head of Marks & Spencer -- an illusion which I was careful to encourage. It took me a little while to grasp what the 'potty outfit' was after from the great outfitters.

The answer was space.

The largest of the many buildings which SOE occupied in and around Baker Street was Michael House -- which had been the headquarters of Marks & Spencer. SOE badly needed extra canteen facilities in Michael House and only Marks & Spencer could grant them. The personnel officer made it clear that Sir Simon had already proved to be a most accommodating landlord and SOE was reluctant to impose upon him further.

If I was decoding the gist correctly, he was trying to assess whether I was suitably disposed to use my good offices to Canvass even better ones. Unfortunately I had never met Sir Simon -- but even more unfortunately, I had met, and couldn't stop meeting, his only son Michael, the heir-presumptive to the kingdom of M & S. We had had the incinerating experience of going to sever...

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 1707 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 634 pages
  • Pagination - ISBN de l'édition imprimée de référence : 068486780X
  • Editeur : The History Press (1 août 2013)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ISBN-10: 0752471600
  • ISBN-13: 978-0752471600
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 4.5 étoiles sur 5  146 commentaires
67 internautes sur 70 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Making codes in WWI 9 juin 2000
Par Richard S. Sullivan - Publié sur
First off I need to say that this was a fun read. The book was entertaining and informative. The author, Leo Marks, then in his early twenties, writes about his experiences as head of the British code section for the group who devised, sent and received, and translated codes for the men and women who went into Nazi occupied Western Europe to spy.
Marks, a man who is now nearly 80, should be commended for putting down this rare piece of history in writing, as most of the records of the London code group have long since been destroyed, his memory is all we have.
Ok, now this is a strange book. There is no doubt that is was written by Marks himself as no ghost writer could have concocted such a weirdly written text. It's annoying at first but one soon becomes used to it. For example, when describing a briefing he gave to a somewhat hostile audience:
"Mounting a mile long platform an inch at a time, I confronted a large Nubian with crossed arms, which turned out to be a blackboard. He had colored chalk chalks on his person where lesser men had testicles, and I wrote my messages on his chest in block capitals which were twice their normal size as I had half my normal confidence."
We have smiles parachuting from his eyes to his lips; he remembers the excitement and thrill of using the same loo that Churchill used; he remembers and recalls the figures (nothing to do with coding) of many of the women who he writes about. (He is a man of the 40's!) There is a gem on nearly every page. No ghost writer could ever concoct this menagerie.
We do learn a lot about the coding business, especially in making the codes. We learn about the men and women who volunteered to spy, organize, and become part of the Resistance. Who used the codes and their wireless sets to send back information. A daring-do occupation as most of these agents were quickly captured and executed by the Nazis. Or as Marks might say, "They had the life expectancy of a crew in a yellow polka-dotted tank in combat."
We learn that they fingerprinted the agent's Morse code keying, as each had their own peculiar style, and this could be a tip off if the the agent had been captured and Nazis had broken the code and were doing the keying.
Most books on this subject concentrate on the breaking of codes. We also learn some of the tricks of the espionage trade. There are quips about lethal toilet paper, (scatology is his thing!) and of agents blithely being sent in when some higher ups in London knew the cover had been blown and Nazis would likely be the greeting party.
Like any memoir that creates living and breathing scenes from events over half a century ago, it is hard to imagine that the writer could remember each frown, shrug of the shoulder, or other parts of the scene in such vivid detail. We'll write it off as poetic license.
It is a very personal book, made even more so by Marks "distinctive" style. It's a good read and I give it 4 stars, taking one away for slightly annoying writing style.
39 internautes sur 39 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Something new among the WWII babble 11 mars 2004
Par Jon Richfield - Publié sur
First I must say this: if you have any interest in the interaction between, on the one hand, people willing to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs and their country, and on the other, office-political self-interest, read this book if you can. As an eye-opener, it bitterly counter-echoes Macaulay's "None were for the party, all were for the state." Irrespective of anybody's opinion, adverse or otherwise, read it if you want unusual material on several subjects, including Giske's masterful exploitation of his penetration of the WWII Dutch resistance. Read it also if you simply are interested in cryptology, the history of cryptology or the development of cryptology (or of cryptologists). Read it if you want a vivid portrayal of the fog of war as seen from the back room, the frustration, the obsession, the pressures, the fear and the grief. Prepare yourself to control your blood pressure if you have views (from EITHER perspective) on the subject of boffin versus boss. The book is a primary and secondary document of great interest.
"Between silk and cyanide" includes plenty of humour of all shades, mainly dark, but don't read it for fun unless you are totally insensitive; it deals with harrowing events in harrowing times and I found it very upsetting on several levels. It would be wasteful to read it in a hurry just because you are a fast reader. This is a labyrinth of a book and there are many mazes of twisty little passages, all alike, that you very likely will miss if you are not careful. Heaven knows how many I myself skated over in my innocence.
This is a large book, but that is not why it is not to be read at a sitting. Nor is the reason that it is hard to read; I had to stop repeatedly to rest and to digest (or recover from) the situations and implications described. I am not so sure how well I like the style, but it impressed me as true to life. It includes a great deal of oral boffinese, not the technospeak, but the throw-away witticisms that bubble up from the depths of overactive or overwrought minds. Boffins are not supposed to laugh at them because they understand them and non-boffins rarely do because they seldom enjoy them when they do understand them. The problem is that such wit is more irritating in the written than the oral medium. After all, most of such cracks are tasteless or trivial. In other respects the writing itself is clear, natural, and far more literate than most wartime reminiscences. Mind you, Marks, intelligent and compelling as he is, is no John Masters or R. V. Jones, but then, comparison with such would set unrealistic standards for anyone. Be all that as it may, the sheer tragedy of the times repeatedly yielded nightmares painful to a reader conditioned to quips. "... I found myself staring into eyes full of dead pilots." If you really want to understand the intensity of the hurt or the nausea of such remarks, read the book.
On technical and historical matters also, this book is of interest at several levels. On one hand it repeatedly amazes one with the brilliance of some the work they did, and on the other it leaves one breathless at some of the things they apparently struggled to achieve. To anyone with modern computer experience, the idea of having difficulty in designing a letter-based one time pad surely must be totally bemusing; am I too blasé because of long occupational exposure to the concept of arbitrary radix arithmetic? I am not stupid enough to think that I would have done any better in their place at that time, but I still do not quite know what to make of this. Several other cryptographic inventions discussed (but not all) are pretty trivial in terms of information theory, which is puzzling in the light of the highly non-trivial minds that are generally known to have been employed in the field at that time. Also, there are non-cryptographic technical details that I should have loved to discuss. For example, in a period of desperate austerity the insistence on printing agents' reference material on silk puzzles me. The justification was that silk fabric was easy to burn and to conceal in clothing. I should have thought that treating rayon or even very fine cotton with nitrocellulose would have been cheaper and more effective.
But I don't know the real-life situation. I wish I did.
But not at first hand, thank you.
Marks himself was an unusual, brash, understandably not very modest, and clearly insecure young man, and he conveys his unusualness with a clinical wryness that spares neither himself nor anyone else. He is too skilled to leave me convinced that he is artless in every word he writes about himself, his favourites or his unfavourites, but if his story is substantially imaginary, this book is one of the greatest works of art of the twentieth century. If you disagree, try reading any (and I mean ANY) fictional blockbuster of comparable size and themes, whether historical romances or hard fiction, and try to find one that carries anything like the same conviction. Don't hurry to call me to compare notes. For my part I accept the book at face value as reminiscences from a retentive memory, supported by notes, slanted by personal perspective, and eroded by time. One can hardly demand better than that, especially in the light of the nauseating closing chapters, the loss of history and the closing in of the janitors and the of the vultures and parasites after the fray. As I read it, the book is a striking work dealing with arresting material, and it is absorbing, though heartbreaking, material to read.
31 internautes sur 31 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Vagueness may not be his fault. 21 juin 2005
Par Dilip Balamore - Publié sur
Virtually everyone agrees that this is a brilliant book, but its particular attractiveness to me was in its idiosyncratic style. The author seems to have remained a schoolboy all his life (lucky man!) He cannot resist making a joke, if even the slightest of oportunities arises, and this appears, at first, to disrupt the straight-forward narrative. It takes some effort to get into his world, and to recognize his varieties of humour; to recognize also how he often laughs becasue he quite deperately wants to cry. Once one gets into his rhythm, however, it is his distinctive style that lingers and fascinates.

Actually, I did not want to write all this at all! Others have described the manifold virtues of the book, and done so better than I ever shall. I just wanted to answer one particular criticism of the book. Several reviewers have said that the cryptography, at the heart of the book, is not clearly enough presented, and that things have been glossed over.They say that they could not learn the techniques well enough to actually use. This is quite true, but Marks may not be the one to blame. Apparently, he wrote the book 10 years before it was published. Its publication had been blocked, I am given to believe, by the pleadings under the Official Secrets Act;various changes had to be made in order to make it eventually publishable. I am convinced that this is the proximate cause of the 'glossing over". He almost says so in a couple of places in the book.
Clearly, some of his 60-years old techniques are still worth keeping secret, even in this age in which comnputers dominate crytography.

Let me say, in passing, that I was in tears on reading his account of his 'final-briefing' of the most remarkable woman of them all: Violette Szabo. He too seems to have sensed her specialness,because he gave her his most special poem for her personal poem-code. I urge everyone to read Carve Her Name With Pride, and also her other biography.
15 internautes sur 15 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Leo, where have you been hiding for fifty years? 2 novembre 2001
Par Peter Mackay - Publié sur
The science of codebreaking and codemaking is usually a subject guaranteed to glaze the eyes of all but the most devoted. Technical details abound and the reader is led through lots of alphabet soup.
Not this time. The codebreakers of WW2 were an eccentric lot, it turns out, all brilliant, many fatally flawed. Leo Marks (son of the bookseller who established the famous 84 Charing Cross Road shop) is no exception. Brilliant.
And flawed in that he had a deep attachment to the agents sent overseas, often with totally inadequate codes. This is the story of his long hours, days and years spent in helping them and improving the codes. The difference in codes was quite literally between life and death, often with hideous torture intervening.
When I say "flawed", I mean that he wasn't the sort of cog-in-the-machine toe-the-line public servant fighting the war from a comfy chair. He bucked the system and was on the constant verge of dismissal or promotion. Unconventional to a fault. Always with one distant eye on agents deep in Occupied Europe, operating with radio sets the size of suitcases, tapping out messages in Morse while German direection-finding vans zeroed in on them.
And his unconventional book is a delight, a joy to read. It is more than well written, it is a work of literature in its own right. Quite simply, it is as brilliant as its author.
But be warned, dear reader. You will need a handkerchief to mop up the tears. Sometimes from laughter, sometimes from sadness. This is a book that will insert probes into the deepest parts of your mind and tickle the emotion centres, sometimes pleasure and pain at once. I can't really describe it, but this book somehow joins your subconscious mind to the author's and you share his thoughts in a way that is both intimate and completely natural. I have never met another book that comes close.
There's enough detail to satisfy those with an interest in codes, the story is well told, it is full of fascinating characters, fraught with tension all the way through, but the joy of reading this book is in the words and sentences. Puns and wordplay abound. I am on the last pages even as I write these words, but though I have boxes of books, good books, excellent books to read, I shall reread this one again immediately.
And enjoy it all the more, I am sure.
Leo Marks, I wish you had written this book decades ago, and followed it up with many more in the same vein.
24 internautes sur 26 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A Masterpiece 31 octobre 1999
Par JEROME R. ROSENBERG ( - Publié sur
In the official history of the Special Operations Executive, "SOE in France" published in 1966 with amendments in 1968, Mr. Marks on page 241 is described as "The philosophically-minded Mr. Marks, head of the deciphering section ...." and he was all of 23 years old. I am not directly or indirectly related to Mr. Marks and would be delighted to spend any afternoon with him at my local Bistro. Even though I deplore cigars, if he is still smoking, I would make the proper arrangements. I just returned from Europe and read "Between Silk and Cyanide" over the Atlantic. I couldn't put the book down. My first mission on returning was to check today's NY Times Book Review for the listing of best sellers. I could not believe that this epic failed to make the list. By the way, Mr. Marks, if you read this, my security code is "Bill" Williams.
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