WARThe Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945
By Max Hastings
HarperCollins Publishing London 2015
ISBN: 9780007503742
ISBN 10: 0007503741
RRP – $32.99

Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald

While almost all historical narratives, including the recent account of the intertwined lives of John and Sunday Reed, are of necessity tentative and speculative, as Sir Max Hastings argues in his most recent book, The Secret War, “they become far more so when spies are involved”.

As Hastings explains, when chronicling battles, writers can relatively reliably record how many ships were sunk and aircraft shot down, how much ground was won or lost and how many soldiers and sailors were killed. But secret intelligence generates, as he usefully puts it, “a vast, unreliable literature, some of it produced by protagonists for their own glorification or justification”.

It is pleasing to report that, in researching and writing this fascinating book, Hastings has followed his own advice that “skepticism is essential about all accounts related to intelligence in every nation, and thus to the memoirs of agents, official reports, published histories and even contemporary documents”. This is because almost all participants in all fields associated with supposedly secret intelligence, especially in a conflict as extended as World War II, are likely to a greater or lesser extent to have lied, or at least to have hidden much of the truth. Indeed, often it was their job to do so.

In this monumental book, Hastings has exploited massive archives in Britain, Germany and the United States. In particular, he has uncovered and effectively utilised a treasure trove of previously untranslated Russian material. In doing so, he reveals and reinforces the fact that, while Britain’s contribution to the Allied Victory may have been subordinate to that of the Soviet Union and the USA, in the main, Winston Churchill made much more effective use of secret materials than did either Hitler or Stalin – who were both extremely suspicious of their respective intelligence agencies.

Probably the most productive secret agent during World War II was Richard Sorge – who worked for the Red Army’s intelligence organisation GRU. However, because of Stalin’s paranoid response to the material Sorge supplied, his influence upon actual Kremlin policy is much more doubtful. The same applies to the information supplied by an American, Harry Dexter White, who was one of Moscow’s most important secret sources.

Hastings quite rightly concludes that Allied code breaking operations against Germany, Italy and Japan, especially the English operation based at Bletchley Park, 50 miles from London, “exercised far more influence than did any spy”. Indeed, in a key chapter entitled “Guerrilla”, Hastings also concludes that code breakers, especially in Great Britain, were collectively more important than all the resistance fighters and partisans in France and the rest of Europe put together.

As is now widely known, most prominent among the hugely talented team of code breakers at Bletchley Park was Alan Turing – a mathematician from Cambridge University. As a result of being persecuted for being homosexual, Turing committed suicide in 1954, sixteen days before his 42nd birthday. He died from cyanide poisoning.

A pivotal section of The Secret War involves Hastings deeply rooted skepticism about the performance of MI6. In this, he is clearly influenced by a number of informed contemporary witnesses who thought poorly of Stewart Menzies – commonly known as “C” – and of some of his senior officers. This especially applies to the historian and noted German linguist Hugh Trevor-Roper and author Malcolm Muggeridge – both of whom worked for British intelligence and had a very jaundiced view of Menzies.

But other more impartial observers also had a negative, if not quite as disparaging, opinion of the work of the head of MI6. These sources included the chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, Bill Bentinck; the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Alexander Cadogan, and especially Nigel Clive who worked extensively for MI6.  When they criticised Menzies’ lack of ability in supervising British spy craft and other forms of intelligence, all three cultivated Englishmen, in their assessment of the head of MI6, as the author puts it, “had no axes to grind”.

Yet Hastings is the first to admit that a number of the intelligence foot soldiers and new recruits who flooded into Broadway (the headquarters of MI6) were “exotic”!

The supremely cynical Muggeridge wrote: “Writers of thrillers tend to gravitate to the secret service as surely as the mentally unstable become psychiatrists, or the impotent pornographers.” While much of this assessment is hyperbole, Hastings seems in some ways to concur. “Thus,” he writes, “was Graham Greene dispatched to Freetown, Sierra Leone; Muggeridge himself – a veteran foreign correspondent – to Lourenco Marques, in Portuguese Mozambique; and the journalist Kim Philby welcomed into Broadway.”

As Hastings starkly concludes, it became “a source of dismay to career intelligence officers, protective of MI6’s reputation, that its wartime recruits who later commanded most public attention were all either mavericks or traitors.”

Hastings is particularly revealing about the intelligence career of Malcolm Muggeridge who, for two years, was MI6’s main man in Lourenco Marques. There he lodged at the Polana hotel along with Dr Leopold Werz, the German vice-consul and representative in Mozambique of Abwehr, the German security agency. Muggeridge, unforgettably, described this notorious Nazi intelligence operative as “youthful, blond, pink and earnest!”

As well as shining considerable light on Allied intelligence-gatherers and their ostensible leaders, The Secret War reveals much about the leaders on the German side. This especially applies to the head of Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.

Controversially but plausibly, Hastings summarises the situation thus: “Far from being a substantial historical figure, (Canaris) was a small one, grappling with dilemmas and difficulties far beyond his capabilities.” Trevor-Roper professed to see a close resemblance between admiral Canaris and Stewart Menzies – his British counterpart. Both men, he thought, were “conservative, honourable – and weak”.

Yet because of its feudal suzerainty and tight control over Bletchley Park, by the end of the war MI6’s influence, and reputation especially in Great Britain, had soared.

As Hastings explains in the book’s final chapter, “Decoding Victory”, Menzies kept his job as “C” until 1952. This was despite Kim Philby’s betrayal to Moscow of MI6’s most sensitive early Cold War operations and informants, which resulted in the loss of many lives. As it eventuated, Menzies lived in what seemed to be untroubled retirement until his death in 1968.

In the autumn of 1945, Trevor-Roper, who by that time probably knew more about the Abwehr than any German, was commissioned by MI6 to travel to Berlin and explore the circumstances of the Fuhrer’s death. This enabled him to turn his subsequent report into a best-selling book, The Last Days of Hitler. Thereafter, at Oxford University, he resumed his career as a brilliant and widely read historian.

However, Trevor-Roper’s reputation as a scholar was tarnished, probably permanently, by his endorsement of the authenticity of the 1983 “Hitler diaries” – which turned out to be fake. Controversial, cantankerous, and snobbish to the end, Trevor-Roper died in 2003.

Although a little too long and sometimes cluttered with detail, The Secret War is a prodigious work of scholarship. Moreover, it is hard to disagree with Hastings’ statement that “while skepticism about the secret world is indispensable, so too is a capacity for wonder”.

As this brilliant analysis reveals, some tales about European spy craft and code breaking, especially from 1939 to 1945, which once seemed too fabulous to be real have now proven to be true.  I will not spoil prospective readers’ enjoyment by detailing what they are.

The only weakness in Hastings’ gripping narrative is the infuriating overuse of the utterly unnecessary phrase “of course”. A competent copy editor would have eliminated them all. And, for the record, in The Secret War Australia does not receive a single mention.

Professor Fitzgerald, a columnist with The Australian, most recently co-authored the political/sexual satire Going Out Backwards : A Grafton Everest Adventure. Professor Fitzgerald is currently researching and co-authoring, A Dozen Soviet Spies Down Under?