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The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and…

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 (original 2015; edition 2017)

by Max Hastings (Author)

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305954,354 (3.94)7
Title:The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945
Authors:Max Hastings (Author)
Info:Harper Perennial (2017), Edition: Reprint, 672 pages
Collections:To read

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The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings (2015)



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A thorough history of secret operations during WWII, this book, as the title conveys, examines secret and covert activities of the belligerents. It describes the successes and failures in human intelligence, code-breaking and guerrillas of the British, Germans, American, Russians and Japanese. A key analytical point relating to all intelligence and subversive approaches undertaken by the warring countries is that the impact of such activities, while often important, was by no means decisive to the final outcome of the struggle; that without the strength of force to act on intelligence militarily intelligence would not be determinative of victory or defeat. Intelligence was very often too late or unreliable or ignored by operational and strategic decision makers. In some instances, though relatively few, intelligence did enable major campaign or battle successes, notably at D-Day, the Battle of Midway and the submarine attacks on Japanese merchant fleet, but these successes were offset by the stupendous failures experienced by ignoring the clear signs of the Nazi's intention to invade of Russia (which was widely forecast but dismissed by Stalin), by Operation Market Garden's misread of German strength in Holland and the Battle of the Bulge.

Signals intelligence and code-breaking was the most impactful of the three variants of secret activities. The British and Americans were most adept at this highly technical mode of intelligence work. The author concludes that the "Ultra" code-breaking system developed by the British and copied by the Americans was of the highest utility to strategic and operational efforts. The Germans had limited success as did the Russians (mostly low level signals) and the Japanese almost none.

The Russians made most use of human intelligence (spying) with its international networks of spies and informants in Europe and America; there is, for instance, a close review of the passing of information related to the Manhattan project. The Germans had almost no success in this dimension, their few spies "turned" by the British into false reporters.

Guerrilla activities were of least effect. The support of resistance campaigns in occupied countries, while perhaps morale-building, played an insignificant part in the war effort. Quite often behind the lines operations only resulted in the death of operatives or, through coercion, using the spies as double agents. There was an aura of "romanticism" about guerrilla efforts that resulted in activities that could be considered farcical if not for the loss of the lives of the players. The author is most critical of the American OSS for its wild and ill-conceived subversion.

The author's conclusion is sound that the value secret activities should not be overestimated in terms of the magnitude on strategic or tactical aspects of the war. ( )
  stevesmits | Apr 13, 2018 |
A very, very good, wide ranging and comprehensive review of intelligence services and the role of the secret services in World War Two. Very easy to read in large part, the only complexity involves the fact that Hastings refers to so many individuals there is an unfortunate tendency to lose track of who they are all and what they did. Interesting asides and intelligent analysis of particularly, the great intelligence failures, of the era, abound. This is an interesting, fascinating and insightful book with very little to complain about. Interesting especially for the dedicated reader, this too would have value for the general reader of he period, or of espionage. ( )
  aadyer | Dec 26, 2017 |
The Secret War by Max Hastings (2016)

The first major chapter took an effort for me to read…as it estimated the espionage capabilities of England, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan, and the United States before the war, along with detailing the characters—spies, handlers, important personages. It's difficult for me to keep these names straight—especially since pseudonyms and name changes are a given for the spy world. You cannot identify the nationality of anyone from their name, or their country of birth; nor can you tell for whom they're spying. Some spies are competent and some are horrendously incompetent. And, for the most part, the Soviets were the only ones that had a security section of any value (although it's primary focus was identifying internal dissidents rather than foreign threats). But very little of this mattered because none of the countries paid much attention to what their spies were telling them anyway.

In general I continued to have difficulty remembering who was who, and what country they were spying for at any particular moment. Not that there weren't interesting, amusing…and occasionally exciting…stories. It was more that there was no focus on one country, or one espionage ring, or one set of code-breakers. This book is so general and inclusive that I found myself dizzy from the "who did what, when and where for whom" details. Considering the scope of the book—the entire espionage/spy environment of the entire world between about 1939 and 1945—I'm not going to fault the author. I'm just letting you know how the book affected me.

And this is not to say I was bored reading the many stories—although I was certainly disheartened by the incredible extent of stupidity, laziness, thoughtlessness, vileness, stubbornness and idiocy of both the Axis and Allies in the war. There were very few heroes.

Here's are some cogent descriptions of a few of the major characters:

"Pavel Sudoplatov's reward for organizing Trotsky's killing in August 1940…was an
appointment…to head the NKVD's 'Administration for Special Tasks', officially
responsible for 'sabotage, kidnapping and assassination of enemies', a job
description worthy of Ian Fleming's novels."

Let me admit here that I had no clue that SMERsh was an actual Soviet secret agency, and not an invention of Ian Fleming.

Jack Masterman, described as the "orchestral conductor of the British Double Cross
system" has written that "…it is a truism of historical research that when dealing
with diplomatic conversations and the rumours of embassies, we are in the very
realm of lies."

And here is one of my favorite examples of the Max Hasting's bold understatements:

"Although he [Churchill] often baulked at assessments which did not conform to his
own views, unlike the dictators [Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini] he never questioned the
right and duty of the chiefs of staff and their intelligence officers to speak their
minds. He was a critical force in making Britain's secret services the least
ineffective in the world."

A short anecdote that illustrates one of the author's more entertaining tendencies to slip in some of the traditional British understated humour is his retelling of a Soviet agent's assessments (not that the Soviets weren't capable of an honest analysis of their own capabilities; it's just that they were punished severely if the wrong person heard such):

Quoting a letter from Mikhailov Kartashev, a soviet NKVD agent in Kiev, to Pavel
Sudoplatov, an important NKVD organiser—and assassin, "Dear Pavel Anatolievich!
This letter is a private one since the issues below are not within my direct
competence. I don't take part in the operation of our organs in Kiev… All the
information below has been obtained without reference to officials of the People's
Commissariat, and is thus strictly truthful… It is hard to say who is performing
worst, but it is clear that the work of our organisations is less than brilliant."

And neither did the Americans escape this understated chastisement:

"Most citizens of democracies accept that part of the tariff imposed for freedom is
that their defences against subversion and treachery are less comprehensive and
effective than those of a totalitarian state, and such a price usually seems worth
paying. Yet the FBI's incompetence was astonishing. Its agents charged with
monitoring Soviet activities showed themselves less than astute."

Here's an illustrative anecdote described by one Soviet agent:

Alexander Feklisov wrote about the FBI agents sent to tail the Soviet agents in his
memoirs: "Tails were probably selected from young men reared in small towns, who
would start working against us after two or three months' training. One could see
straight away that they were provincials—by their clothes, the guilty, larcenous
look in their eyes; their clumsiness. They felt lost when they realized that they had
been spotted, and didn't know what to do. They would turn away, or walk quickly
into the first building they saw."

I have a vision of the hapless G-man turning quickly away in his embarrassment and slamming his face into the nearest building with a thud.

Feklisov further describes how they would play with these 'tails' by walking straight towards them just to watch them flee in embarrassment.

It's possible that the primary lesson to take away from this book, that may make it well worth the reading by appropriate government and/or military officials is that

"Here, as everywhere, the unchanging reality was that intelligence alone was
useless, unless sufficient force was available at sea, in the sky, or on the ground to
use secret knowledge effectively."

In order for information to be useful it must be a) timely; b) read by the right people; c) sufficiently and purposely acted upon. One of the major problems for the Nazis, toward the end, was that even though they knew exactly what the Allies were planning, and how to foil those plans, they no longer had the where-with-all to capitalize on the knowledge—neither troop strength nor weapons capability.

Do I recommend this book? Not for the casual reader. But if you really want to gain a grander understanding of what it meant to be a spy during WWII—and can tolerate the ultimate disappointment of the truth—this is the book for you. ( )
  majackson | Nov 10, 2017 |
Este texto sirve como complemento a las historias de las IIGM, pero es desapasionado, monótono y a veces hasta aburrido de leer. Presenta algunos hechos, personas y sucesos interesantes y desconocidos, pero que pasaron desapercibidos en la tragedia humana que representó la IIGM.

Deja traslucir que quienes sacaron más ventaja fueron:
1. los rusos que aprovecharon de un pobre servicio de inteligencia alemán,
2. los alemanes durante el inicio, especialmente Rommel en África, quien con poca inteligencia y habilidades como comandante hizo mucho más que con las toneladas de inteligencia y falta de habilidades de todos los comandantes britanicos y norteamericanos en europa, y
3. la flota del pacífico de Nimitz .

La referencia al final a Snowden es innecesaria y compara dos situaciones completamente distintas. Una es el esfuerzo por vencer a una potencia extranjera y otra es el esfuerzo de un país por hacerse de la hegemonía mundial sin tener que rendir cuentas a nadie, espiando a sus ciudadanos y aliados y utilizando la información recopilada para chantaje económico.

"Para obtener un beneficio de la información secreta es imprescindible contar con un poder coercitivo o el acierto de comandantes, algo que USA y UK carecía entre 1944 y 45. "

"ULTRA fue una herramienta de británicos y estadounidenses que no representó sino un papel subdordinado en la destrucción del nazismo, una empresa abrumadoramente rusa. "

"Los más brillantes raramente escogían hacer militar. Solo la lucha por la supervivencia de la nación permitió a los gobiernos movilizar a los genios a sus filas."

"Bletchley Park no tenía la culpa de que los generales que servían en el campo de batalla malinterpretasen o desaprovecharan semejante regalo. "

"Hubo quien se engañó pensando que se había vencido a Alemania por el poder la palabra oral o escrita, cuando en realidad cayó porqué se aplastó a sus ejércitos. " ( )
  sergiouribe | Oct 29, 2017 |
The Lloyd Report on German oil resources estimated that by December 1940 the aerial bombing campaign had achieved a 15% cut in German oil availability. This would have been news to the Nazi leadership, who at the time were unaware that the allies were engaged in a systematic bombing campaign. Intelligence on the state of the German economy, as Max Hastings discusses in The Secret War was one of the weakest areas, little helped by the all-important interception and decryption of Axis communications. Additionally, the RAF was the agency which probably had the weakest use of intelligence.
The other area of allied espionage which was lacking was ‘humint’ – intelligence derived from human sources i.e. spies and informants in Germany. Hastings outlines how the Russians were so much more effective in harnessing dissidents in Germany, mostly through ideological commitment to the Communist cause. Despite this, however, this magisterial history of espionage, cryptology and resistance (emphasis on the first two) firmly presents the allied intelligence as far more effective.
Britain in particular benefitted considerably from its ability to extend its pool of talent beyond the military and established intelligence services for the duration, recruiting a range of brilliant talent from academic institutions. Additionally, the culture of openness meant that the results of intelligence were able to be honestly reported to the military and politicians. Although they did not always take the notice they should have there were none of the aberrations of the Soviet and Nazi leadership, where unpalatable truths had to be suppressed, or in the instance of events such as the many predictions of Barbarossa, willfully ignored.
Max Hastings book is sweeping, without being encyclopedic. As befitting a veteran journalist and author of over twenty books, his prose is well written without being intrusive and the research is broad, encompassing secondary works, memoirs and research in the Russian archives. Hastings applies a sensible amount of skepticism to the almost compulsive mix of fact and fiction in most of the spies accounts. He also avoids the temptation to become enthralled by the drama and derring do, and repeatedly steps back to look at how much realistic operational or strategic benefit was derived. The answer usually was not that much. He is especially dismissive of much of the sabotage and ‘behind the lines’ activity of OSS and SOE.
Hastings finds many shortcomings of MI6, and is very dismissive of its head Stewart Menzies. He relates how someone who knew him at school could not believe “‘how so unbelievably stupid a man could have ended up in such a position”. The main reason MI6 had any credibility whatsoever was the fact that the Ultra sigint programme was under its control, although Hastings gives little credit to Menzies for its success.
He offers a balanced view of the value of Ultra as well. Many historians have allowed themselves to wax superlative about Bletchley Park, making claims such as that it was the single most important breakthrough in winning the war. Hastings points out how fitful its beginning was, and “that the signals intelligence war, certainly in its early stages, was less lopsided in the Allies’ favour than popular mythology suggests”. A significant theme is that raw sigint wasn’t enough on its own. Often doubts developed about its apparent flaws when correct information was later rendered irrelevant when individuals like Hitler changed their mind. Additionally, even timely information about events such as the impending invasion of Crete failed to make a difference to events. Then of course all the intel in the world was valueless if there was insufficient force to take advantage of it. Hastings reminds us, for example that “it is quite mistaken to view the Battle of the Atlantic exclusively as a struggle between Bletchley and the B-Dienst – here, as everywhere else, hard power was vital”.
There are some areas that receive surprisingly little coverage – for example the “Double Cross” programme and the pre-D Day deception, however Hastings argues that they have been well covered elsewhere. A lot of the material on the Soviet side will be fresh for most general readers, and the limited Japanese information can be attributed to the lack of primary research as he points out. This book provides a fresh, well written and balanced assessment of the Secret War, and is highly recommended..

( )
  bevok | Jul 31, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0007503741, Hardcover)

Examining the espionage and intelligence stories of World War II, on a global basis, bringing together the British, American, German, Russian and Japanese histories.

Spies, codes and guerrillas played critical roles in the Second World War, exploited by every nation in the struggle to gain secret knowledge of its foes, and to sow havoc behind the fronts. In ‘The Secret War’, Max Hastings presents a worldwide cast of characters and some extraordinary sagas of intelligence and Resistance, to create a new perspective on the greatest conflict in history.

Here are not only Alan Turing and the codebreaking geniuses of Bletchley Park, but also their German counterparts, who achieved their own triumphs against the Allies. Hastings plots the fabulous espionage networks created by the Soviet Union in Germany and Japan, Britain and America, and explores the puzzle of why Stalin so often spurned his agents, who reported from the heart of the Axis war machine.

The role of SOE and American’s OSS as sponsors of guerrilla war are examined, and the book tells the almost unknown story of Ronald Seth, an SOE agent who was ‘turned’ by the Germans, walked the streets of Paris in a Luftwaffe uniform, and baffled MI5, MI6 and the Abwehr as to his true loyalty. Also described is the brilliantly ruthless Russian deception operation which helped to secure the Red Army’s victory at Stalingrad, a ruse that cost 70,000 lives.

‘The Secret War’ links tales of high courage ashore, at sea and in the air to the work of the brilliant ‘boffins’ at home, battling the enemy’s technology. Most of the strivings, adventures and sacrifices of spies, Resistance, Special Forces and even of the codebreakers were wasted, Hastings says, but a fraction was so priceless that no nation grudged lives and treasure spent in the pursuit of jewels of knowledge. The book tells stories of high policy and human drama, mingled in the fashion that has made international bestsellers of Max Hastings’ previous histories, this time illuminating the fantastic machinations of secret war.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 10 Sep 2015 08:42:17 -0400)

An examination of one of the most important yet underexplored aspects of World War II--intelligence--shows how espionage successes and failures by the United States, Britain, Russia, Germany, and Japan influenced the course of the war and its final outcome.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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