British WWII Intelligence Cryptographer's Bitter Memories
By Sue Leeman
LONDON (AP) - Leo Marks' eyes teem with ancient ghosts. A sensitive, soft-spoken man, the former code master is haunted daily by memories a half-century old, of the British secret agents who came to him to learn coding before they plummeted behind enemy lines in World War II. Some became friends. Many never returned.
"If you brief an agent on a Monday and on Thursday you read that he has had his eyes taken out with a fork, you age rapidly," he says, recalling the fate of one of his agents in Yugoslavia.
Marks and other members of the Special Operations Executive, formed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940 to sabotage the Germans, were caught up in a corrosive rivalry with the Foreign Office and the external intelligence agency MI6, which wanted to suppress SOE.
SOE was a pet project of Churchill's and he gave it the special mandate to "set Europe ablaze" by infiltrating agents behind enemy lines to perform sabotage and set up secret armies. He took a close personal interest in its exploits.
Marks also weathered the bureaucratic battles between Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the British and Americans, who sought to marginalize de Gaulle's Free French.
And all the time, agents were being tortured and killed.
Now 78, Marks has poured the pain of it all into a 600-page book, "Between Silk and Cyanide," to be published initially next June in the United States by The Free Press, a Simon and Schuster imprint.
"Leo Marks never once loses contact with the personal courage and sufferings of the agents in the field," historian Donald Cameron Watt wrote in London's Independent newspaper.
The book's title derives from Marks' campaign to introduce codes printed on silk squares that could be destroyed - a far safer method than the unreliable, easy-to-crack poem codes then in common use.
Change to silk, Marks warned his superiors, or more agents will be caught and resort to swallowing their standard-issue cyanide pills.
SOE's many opponents of change tried to block him, so he did much of his work in secret.
"We had to lie to make progress," he recalls ruefully.
Chad Conway, Marks' editor at Simon and Schuster, said such primary source material about the war "is not that plentiful any more, particularly material as colorful and intriguing as Leo's."
Among Marks' agents who perished were the brilliant, alluring Noor Anayat Kahn, killed at Dachau, and Violette Szabo, executed at Ravensbruck, whose story was told in the 1958 film "Carve Her Name With Pride."
Savage wounds. Yet from his opening sentence - "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" - Marks manages his memories with humor.
His doting Jewish mother kept him supplied with black-market goodies throughout the war. And his father owned the antiquarian bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road that was to inspire a book by Helene Hanff.
They tearfully saw him off by train to Bedford, thinking he was going to join the Labor Ministry. In fact, he studied cryptography.
Marks was 8 when he broke his first code, deciphering the price from a group of letters penciled in a first edition at his father's bookshop.
The sole failure in the Bedford course - all his colleagues won entry to Britain's headquarters of cryptography at Bletchley Park - he was nevertheless offered a job at SOE. At age 22 he became its code master.
Marks soon started working on a replacement for the poem-code, which involved use of key words from well-known poems. Realizing it would be harder for the enemy if agents were equipped with original poems, he set up a "ditty box" - and made most contributions himself. Twenty of them are in the book.
One poem went behind enemy lines with Szabo. But Marks says he wrote it for a young woman called Ruth, whom he loved deeply, and who died in an air crash in Canada in 1943 before he could tell her.
The anguish still echoes in its stanzas:
"The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
Is yours
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours."
But even original poems could be tortured out of agents. And to make matters worse, many agents' messages were rendered indecipherable by mutilation in the transposition to Morse code or by poor encoding.
Decreeing that "there shall be no such thing as an indecipherable," Marks drove on his team of 400 young women to work around the clock to break the codes so that agents wouldn't have to risk their lives by having to resend them.
Marks then worked out a system in which rows of unique codes were printed on squares of silk, which were easy to hide and could be destroyed, bit by bit, as each row of numbers was used. The random figures could not be tortured out of agents.
SOE successes included the destruction of an atomic weapons plant in Norway, spying on Hitler's long-range missiles base, and providing the intelligence that led to the sinking of the Bismarck, a German battleship.
On D-Day, SOE agents also tied up thousands of German soldiers on anti-sabotage operations.
But Marks' great regret is that it took him two years to persuade his superiors that SOE's Dutch secret army had been infiltrated by the Germans. During that time, some 50 agents died, many of them unnecessarily, he believes.
"I feel guilty for not saving more agents," he says. "Guilt for not finding a way of convincing SOE that the Dutch traffic was corrupted, guilt for not going directly to Churchill."
In order to understand their message traffic, it was vital that Marks get to know his agents, and he still grieves for Szabo and for Noor, the daughter of a Sufi mystic "who was taught never to lie - can you believe it? And she landed up in SOE!"
He also continues to suffer the sadness of giving a routine briefing to a German double agent, who he knew was going to be loaded with dud codes, then killed as he returned to Germany in hopes the enemy would find his body and be misled.
"I hated liking him," Marks says briefly.
When the war ended, Marks was forbidden to disclose his exploits for 30 years, bound by laws that kept much of the undercover war a secret until the 1970s.
Returning to civilian life, Marks declined to take over his father's bookstore. Instead, he wrote a successful play, "The Girl Who Couldn't Quite," about a girl who has lost the ability to laugh, and a respected film, "Peeping Tom," about a photographer obsessed with watching women on the verge of death.
At war's end he visited SOE's empty offices, where he encountered a cleaner at work.
"You from the agency?" she asked.
"I suppose I am," he replied.
"You lost something?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "I suppose I have."