Espionage in a Time of Slaughter

Review: Max Hastings, 'The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers and Guerrillas, 1939-1945'

The mansion house at Bletchley Park
The mansion house at Bletchley Park museum / AP

Through the publication of some twenty books on military history, Max Hastings has gained a well-deserved reputation as one of the most respected practitioners in the field. His book on World War I, Catastrophe, stands as one of the most authoritative works on the subject—no small feat.

Hastings’s latest work on World War II espionage and covert operations will only add to his reputation. Hastings focuses on both the Allies and Axis powers, and this is an ambitious, well-researched book—and a lengthy one, stretching well over 500 pages. Hastings takes the reader through familiar terrain, such as the "miracle" of the UK code breaking effort at Bletchley Park. He also devotes considerable attention to the Soviet fascination with and large commitment of resources to espionage throughout the war (including against its putative allies), noting with a touch of irony that use of the resulting information was stymied by Stalin’s paranoid refusal to trust most of what his agents collected.

Regarding the American approach to espionage during the war, Hastings comments that Office of Strategic Services Director "Wild" Bill Donovan led a group distrusted by the U.S. military, who viewed the OSS as "exuberant, ill-disciplined, unfocused and wildly extravagant, in keeping with the personality of its founder."

Balancing this view, Hastings adds that the OSS was created from a standing start in which it had to conduct a broad mix of espionage, sabotage, and guerilla operations, activities usually divided by other nations among several organizations.

There is more to Hastings’s latest work than a mere recitation of interesting stories—it is also a useful corrective to overblown theories of the value of human intelligence for the Allied victory. As Hastings writes:

Intelligence gathering is inherently wasteful. I am struck by the number of secret service officers of all nationalities whose only achievement in foreign postings was to stay alive, at hefty cost to their employers of which not a smidgen contributed to the war effort. Perhaps one thousandth of one percent garnered from secret sources by all the belligerents in World War II contributed to changing battlefield outcomes.

Surely there are and will continue to be those who will oppose this challenge to the conventional wisdom, but the author’s points have considerable merit.

Hastings is more favorably inclined in assessing the merits of technical collection, praising the contributions of Ultra, the British code breaking efforts against the German war machine. As he acknowledges, the UK’s cyber school at Bletchley Park from 1942 "was Britain’s outstanding contribution to victory."

Nonetheless, even there he mixes into this praise the codicil that "the British accessed some immensely valuable Enigma material, but coverage was never remotely comprehensive."

Investigating established truths is one of a historian’s highest callings and Hastings does not disappoint. He illuminates his subject in new and convincing ways: highly recommended.