The Story of SOE's Code War

Between Silk and Cyanide
The Story of SOE’s Code War
Leo Marks, introduced by Simon Mawer
The Folio Society  579pp  £44.95

SOE pad code of 26 mixed alphabets, printed on silk, 1943-45. It is reproduced as endpapers in the book.Between Silk and Cyanide, the wartime memoirs of the Special Operations Executive cryptographer, Leo Marks, first published in 1998 to great acclaim as a revealing insight into the SOE, has now been produced in a handsome edition, no doubt because of the renewed interest in Second World War code-breaking.

Marks, the son of the proprietor of the bookshop 84 Charing Cross Road, later immortalised in the book by Helen Hanff, had joined SOE in 1942, aged 20, to oversee the coding activities of their agents, having failed the selection for the main code-breaking unit at Bletchley Park. It proved to be a blessing in disguise and over the next four years Marks, who needed no invitation to demonstrate his intelligence,   totally reformed the coding operation, which by the end of the war had handled some 40 million messages from agents in the field.

SOE had been founded by Winston Churchill in 1940 to send agents into Occupied Europe, but it was a chaotic organisation. Marks was horrified to see, in particular, how simple were the poem codes used by SOE to communicate with its agents in the field and immediately began to compose his own, of which the most famous was ‘The Life That I Have’, often now used at both weddings and funerals. He claimed to have written it on Christmas Eve 1943 for the agent Violette Szabo and in memory of his girlfriend Ruth, who had just died in a plane crash in Canada, but it has recently been suggested it was actually written by John Pudney for the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride.

And this brings one to the main criticism of the book. While much of what Marks writes can be corroborated, much cannot. There are no references, much invented dialogue, the book relies on his memory of events half a century before, he perhaps over stresses his own role in events and some of it simply can be shown not to be true.

A major part of the book is devoted to the penetration of the Dutch network in which some 54 agents  were captured, 47 were shot and 95 parachute drops of guns, explosives and ammunition fell into the hands of the waiting Germans. Marks claims he recognised that something was wrong because the agents were not following the agreed security procedure by deliberately making some mistakes. This isn’t true: many of the coded messages did have ‘indecipherables’, but it makes a good story.

And that is what much of this is. Marks wrote for both stage and screen after the war (most notably the film Peeping Tom) and this is reflected in a book that is vivid, well-written and full of moral passion, witticisms and psychological insight but which also cannot always be trusted.

It has been claimed that Marks wrote the book in the 1980s and was prevented from publishing by the authorities. I was partially involved in the publication of the book and remember Leo as a kind, impish, charming man with a mellifluous voice, but my understanding was that the delays were occasioned by Marks’ continued polishing of the book. What is certainly true is that by the time it was published, anyone who could have challenged his version of events was dead.

Marks worked across the whole organisation and met many of the agents. There are good accounts of the destruction of the Norsk heavy-water plant, the equipment the agents used – such as explosives camouflaged as mock horse manure designed ‘to go off with explosions more violent than the ones which had produced it’ – and the one-time pad code printed on silk that he pioneered and which inspired the title of the book.

Andrew Lownie is the author of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (Random House, 1995).

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