The role of codes and codebreakers in World War II has captured public attention recently in The Imitation Game, the biopic about Alan Turing, and the BBC’s miniseries, “The Bletchley Circle.” Bestselling author Max Hastings notes in his introduction to The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 that his book doesn’t aspire to be a comprehensive narrative of intelligence efforts throughout World War II. Yet he manages to create something even more interesting—a fast-paced narrative that provides rich historical context and leaves readers with a thorough appreciation of the complexities of this mesmerizing subject matter.
Hastings begins by setting the stage for the exploration of the elements of this secret war, reminding readers that many of the conflict’s outcomes were “profoundly influenced by a host of men and women who never fired a shot.” This “struggle for knowledge” was, Hastings tells us, unceasing. Taking a chronological approach, Hastings explores not only the context of the major intelligence efforts, both Allied and Axis, but also brings to life some of the fascinating human stories of those who engaged in spying, information gathering, and code-breaking.
In addition to historical figures like Turing, who has become more widely known in recent years, Hastings introduces a host of characters nearly unknown today, including Ronald Seth, one of the few British agents “turned” by the Germans. He also describes German intelligence efforts, providing a cogent analysis for the Nazis’ failure to match Allied successes in code-making and in code-breaking.
This impeccably researched account will be eagerly embraced by those familiar with WWII history. But readers new to the topic shouldn’t be put off by the size of this hefty volume. Hastings understands that we’re all thrilled by a good spy story, and in this masterful, gripping narrative, he delivers just that.