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Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945 [Hardcover]

Leo Marks
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (84 customer reviews)

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Book Description

June 9 1999
In 1942, with a black-market chicken tucked under his arm by his mother, Leo Marks left his father's famous bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, and went off to fight the war. He was twenty-two. Soon recognized as a cryptographer of genius, he became head of communications at the Special Operations Executive (SOE), where he revolutionized the codemaking techniques of the Allies and trained some of the most famous agents dropped into occupied Europe. As a top codemaker, Marks had a unique perspective on one of the most fascinating and, until now, little-known aspects of the Second World War. This stunning memoir, often funny, always gripping and acutely sensitive to the human cost of each operation, provides a unique inside picture of the extraordinary SOE organization at work and reveals for the first time many unknown truths about the conduct of the war.

SOE was created in July 1940 with a mandate from Winston Churchill to "set Europe ablaze." Its main function was to infiltrate agents into enemy-occupied territory to perform acts of sabotage and form secret armies in preparation for D-Day. Marks's ingenious codemaking innovation was to devise and implement a system of random numeric codes printed on silk. Camouflaged as handkerchiefs, underwear, or coat linings, these codes could be destroyed message by message, and therefore could not possibly be remembered by the agents, even under torture.

Between Silk and Cyanide chronicles Marks's obsessive quest to improve the security of agents' codes and how this crusade led to his involvement in some of the war's most dramatic and secret operations. Among the astonishing revelations is his account of the code war between SOE and the Germans in Holland. He also reveals for the first time how SOE fooled the Germans into thinking that a secret army was operating in the Fatherland itself, and how and why he broke the code that General de Gaulle insisted be available only to the Free French. By the end of this incredible tale, truly one of the last great World War II memoirs, it is clear why General Eisenhower credited the SOE, particularly its communications department, with shortening the war by three months. From the difficulties of safeguarding the messages that led to the destruction of the atomic weapons plant at Rjukan in Norway to the surveillance of Hitler's long-range missile base at Peenemünde to the true extent of Nazi infiltration of Allied agents, Between Silk and Cyanide sheds light on one of the least-known but most dramatic aspects of the war.

Writing with the narrative flair and vivid characterization of his famous screenplays, Marks gives free rein to his keen sense of the absurd and wry wit without ever losing touch with the very human side of the story. His close relationship with "the White Rabbit" and Violette Szabo -- two of the greatest British agents of the war -- and his accounts of the many others he dealt with result in a thrilling and poignant memoir that celebrates individual courage and endeavor, without losing sight of the human cost and horror of war.

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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

From Publishers Weekly

A well-paced war diary, Markss memoir traces the strategically vital creation of secure codes for Allied agents operating in Nazi-occupied territories. Marks was in his early 20s during the war, a civilian with military rank in Britains elite Special Operations Executive, a prodigy immersed in a pasty world of subterranean old men. Though Marks rarely ventured out of his basement office, his book builds a delicate tension as he describes working frantically to develop codes that the Nazis could neither crack nor imitate, as they did with the standard Allied poem code. Markss contributions to such historically significant events as the destruction of Norsk Hydro, the heavy water plant on which the Germans pinned their hopes for atomic weapons, and to the concealment of preparations for D-Day, are effectively balanced against such workaday concerns as finding quantities of silk onto which codes could be photographed. Although Markss account is more anecdotal than researched, his unique position as chief developer of Britains secure communications, along with an impishness that led him to break De Gaulles secret French code (off-limits to the non-French Allies) or rib his older compatriots (Davies nodded so hard he almost lost a jowl) give his book an authoritative and laconic punch.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Room for improvement June 11 2004
This is quite a lengthy book, about 600 pages, and at times it does seem to drag on. The topic itself is quite interesting--during WWII, the author at the young age of 22 shows himself to be a brilliant codemaker/codebreaker, and eventually rises to the highest levels, despite his unconventional relations to authority figures. The book is not really about coding, however.
The book presented a side of WWII that is not often heard--that of the courageous agents dropped into occupied territory to sabotage and to prepare the Resistance for D-Day. It was especially sad to note that often the author, while preparing them for deployment, knew that their capture by the enemy was imminent, because the enemy had already captured many of their comrades and was forging messages back to London in their names--however, Marks' superiors were unwilling to acknowledge this, for reasons which remain in debate to this day.
I have to agree with many of the other reviewers on several points. Marks' wit, while humerous at times, does tend to get old by the end of the book. The author was unnecessarily vulgar at times, as well. In addition, it was sometimes tedious to wade through all the acronyms and code-names.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Something new among the WWII babble March 11 2004
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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Witty, Compelling and Chilling Jan. 6 2004
This book is a witty, and compelling memoir of Great Britains cryptographic war against the Germans. It was written by code- breaker Leo Marks. Son of the proprietor of the famed bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road. In spite of being written with a light hand, I found this book to be an interesting, moving and at times downright chilling account of the little-known SOE intelligence section as seen by the author as a brilliant and brash 22 year old prodigy whose job was to monitor code security so that agents in occupied Europe could report back as safely as possible.
Though Marks rarely ventured out of his basement office, his book describes how he worked frantically to develop codes that the Nazis could neither crack nor imitate. I would however, be interested to read an account of what went on in the SOE during these years from his supervisor’s POV. I suspect that their accounts would be slightly different since over years memory can become very selective and self serving. I think that Marks with his tendency to ignore rules, to act on his own based on his own understanding of events, while well meaning, often did not take into account that he may not be aware of the whole picture. He must have caused the people in charge of SOE many a sleepless night. The term loose cannon comes to mind here.
The parts that broke my heart was account of the agents who were “blown,�lost to torture, prison, the camps, and execution. I will never forget the accounts of Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Kahn, the girl who could not lie and Flight Lieutenant Yeo-Thomas, known as The White Rabbit. The incredible bravery of these people just cannot be imagined.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Don't think you like War Memoirs? Think again! Jan. 2 2004
"Between Silk and Cyanide" is one of the most fascinating, thought provoking memoirs of WWII I've ever come across. Leo Marks, heir to the bookstore made famous in "84 Charing Cross Road" was recruited as a teenager to work in the Codes Section of the British Intelligence at the height of the UK's war effort. This is his account of how he fought bureaucracy to save agents' lives &, incidentally, entirely revamped the Codes Dept.
WIth humour, & much self-deprecating wit, Marks recounts the foibles and heroism of those he worked with. He reserves special admiration for the agents who actually infiltrated into Nazi-Occupied Europe & relied upon his coders for their very lives. Personally, I'd never given much thought to what was involved with being an agent or wireless operator behind enemy lines prior to reading "Between Silk and Cyanide" but now I'm overwhelmed by their bravery.
Marks' battles with his bureaucratic betters are recalled with a dry British wit & affection for all involved. Never less than thoroughly entertaining, I learned quite a bit by reading "Between Silk and Cyanide". I only wish that Marks' had lived long enough to continue his life story; WWII was only the first chapter in an exceedingly eventful and multi-faceted life. It's a great loss that readers will never learn about the later years.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars It is a great read, and offers an inside look at British ...
It is a great read,and offers an inside look at British coding during the 2nd World War.
Published 2 months ago by Norma Fainbloom
5.0 out of 5 stars Between Silk and Cyanide
Leo Marks' book of memories of working as a cryptographer with Allied agents for the Resistance during the Second War is compelling for many reasons. Read more
Published on Oct. 31 2011 by Heather Arlen
5.0 out of 5 stars My Second Favorite Book
This is my favorite book in many categories, and second only to Neuromancer overall. This book is a moving, very human look at WWII espionage. Read more
Published on Oct. 1 2003
5.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, sad, funny,
Marks's book is interesting, and very sad in places--the organization he supports with his coding efforts put spies into occupied Europe, and many of their agents were caught and... Read more
Published on Feb. 25 2003
4.0 out of 5 stars spy novel for real
Leo Marks is the son of the famous bookstore owner immortalized by romantic movie "84 Charing Cross Road". Read more
Published on Dec 29 2002 by R. M. Williams
5.0 out of 5 stars Brings SOE Alive
An interesting tale by a young man who joined the Signals directorate right out of code school. I call it a tale because it is written in a novel-like format that makes it hard to... Read more
Published on Oct. 15 2002 by Kass McGann
4.0 out of 5 stars Wry wit from a boy-genius WWII cryptographer
Leo Marks writes a very entertaining autobiographical account of his important role in creating codes for the British during WWII. Read more
Published on April 5 2002 by bensmomma
4.0 out of 5 stars No L-Pill needed Here
Leo Marks has an interesting turn of phrase. He gives an interesting look behind the "Secret War" aspects of World War II. Read more
Published on March 2 2002 by Stephen A. Kallis, Jr.
4.0 out of 5 stars Three and a half stars
From the get-go, the reader is all too aware that Leo Marks is a wise-ass-smartie-pants. His father was the owner of the London bookstore on 84 Charing Cross Road (later made... Read more
Published on Feb. 26 2002 by Jayne MacManus
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