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Code Dependent

Leo Code-breaker and -maker extraordinaire Leo Marks spent World War II in Special Operations Executive, more commonly known as SOE. In his startling and deeply witty memoir, Between Silk and Cyanide, he offers up all manner of Britannic spook stuff. While on tour in the U.S., he spoke to Kerry Fried from his Washington, D.C., hotel room, where the blaring sirens outside gave their discussion a certain period flavor. Among other things, Mr. Marks touched on the poem-code (a very bad, bad thing) and the more delicate dealings he had with the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry--the regiment of (as he puts it) "400 potty girls" who saved agents left, right, and center. When did you first decide that you had to write Between Silk and Cyanide ?

Leo Marks: About 10 years ago it became apparent that unless certain people told the truth about SOE, it never would be told. And as one of the few surviving members I decided to do so. May I ask how old you are now?

Marks: One hundred... and ninety! [he's a mere 78] Seriously, though, did you come up against any difficulties once you began?

Marks: The problem is that the original records which I had collected at the end of the war had been destroyed, and it was an enormous effort to remember some of the key incidents and to reconstruct some of the major codes. Did you have to have the book vetted before publication?

Marks: Yes. I did indeed, and there was a battle. Who won the war?

Marks: The right side. [laughs] The objections were not unreasonable, and I acceded to them overall, but what had to be said was said. Was there anyone whose story you couldn't tell?

Marks: No. There were just a couple of highly technical points about codes I was asked not to mention--and I did not. You devote a good part of your book to Plan Giskes, which you call "a brainchild with a missing chromosome." It's an amusing description--but the situation your Dutch agents found themselves in when they were caught by the Germans was anything but funny. That must have been a hard blow to recover from.

Marks: Yes, it was, a painful one. It took me 12 months to convince SOE of the truth of Holland. I was very slow to realize myself what had gone wrong, because it wasn't obvious. It should have been, but it wasn't. One member of the Resistance, a man code-named Ebenezer, had been captured by the Nazis and forced to continue transmitting messages. Many thought he hadn't tried hard enough to warn London of his capture, and until February 1995, you had no idea that he was in fact alive. Had you already done all the reconstruction before you went to meet with him in Holland in March of that year?

Marks: It was extraordinary meeting with this man. Many Dutchmen thought that he had failed to do his best to tell us he was caught, but nobody tried harder than Ebenezer, and I was glad to go on Dutch television and say so. Can you explain how he went about trying to convince you that he had been blown?

Marks: Well, he repeatedly misspelt various words--stop, stip, stap--and he deliberately made mistakes in his code. But Morse mutilation was so bad on occasions that none of these factors convinced me that this man--along with a number of other Dutchmen--was caught. Every agent would make mistakes in coding, and I suddenly realized that--save Ebenezer--not a single Dutch agent had sent us an indecipherable message, one with coding mistakes. Why not? And that was the beginning of the suspicion. But you had quite some time convincing your superiors.

Marks: Yes, it was a very long tussle indeed. One of the most striking things about your book is that office politics at a very high level put so many lives at risk.

Marks: Yes. There was an organization founded in peacetime--and it did a good job in peacetime--which we called "C," and they put intelligence agents into the field. When Churchill said we must "set Europe ablaze," and started the first sabotage organization, C did its best to close us down and impede us every way they could. And we did our best to reciprocate. So there was a civil war, and it cost many lives. SOE seemed in some ways to have a better relationship with the Americans.

Marks: Infinitely better, because at least with the Americans we knew precisely where we were. We were mendicants. They gave us the silk with which to make the silk codes; they helped us in every way they could. But at the same time, we wanted their custom very, very badly, and they knew it. C wanted their custom just as badly, and the Americans were brilliant at playing off one side against the other. They caused many, many problems because they went into partnership with C on a certain operation and with SOE on others. And we had to be very careful how much we told them in exchange, for fear of what they would pass on. We could have shortened the war had we had free exchange of information. You write that the British hadn't the common sense to make common cause.

Marks: They made common cause, but there was a state of civil war in this country between C and SOE. The Americans, too, had their internal problems and very often did not cooperate with each other. It was part of the climate of the time. Did it ever make you think that this was more than the climate of the time--that it might be just human nature?

Marks: Essentially, it was. We had one terrifying meeting when the head of the OSS, "Wild Bill" Donovan, decided he'd spend the best part of a morning inspecting SOE's Signals Directorate. On behalf of the code department, which I was running, I had all the latest silk codes displayed, and the pinnacle of them was a code that was invisibly printed, which you could read with the help of an ultraviolet torch. As it was essential to destroy the code as soon as it was used, a special pencil had been devised. You rubbed it across the figures and they would disappear, and this was our great pride. My brigadier, who was brilliant at radio but did not really understand codes, wanted to show General Donovan everything himself, and he said to him, "Here is our pride and joy." But instead of picking up the invisibly printed silk, he picked up an ordinary dust rag, shone the torch on it, picked up the pencil, and showed him how to erase the invisible printing forever! And General Donovan looked hard at it, turned to the brigadier, and said, "It's better than anything we've got." And it was. [laughs] Let's return for a moment to Plan Giskes--your effort to set a trap for the Germans who were controlling your agents in Holland. You describe your impersonation of an inexperienced, uninspired incompetent in front of four agents who were being sent to Holland--the theory being that when they were caught, they would tell the Germans, truthfully, how green you were. But you also mention pretending to have immense trouble with The Times crossword--quite a performance since, as you say, you'd written it yourself. Do you mean to say that while you were working 12- to 14-hour days, you also composed crossword puzzles?

Marks: Yes, to save a bit of pocket money, yes! But that was one of the most difficult moments, I believe, of the whole war, because I was briefing some Dutch agents and was absolutely convinced they were going to be caught. Therefore, I wanted them to give the wholly wrong impression to the man I was convinced was our prime foe in Holland--a brilliant man called Giskes--and I wanted to convince them that the Head of Codes was new, and an idiot. Which of course in some ways I was. You had to act out rather a lot of roles.

Marks: Yes, but then SOE itself acted out rather a lot of roles. When I joined it, the terrifying part of SOE was its adolescence. We were amateurs, but the loss of an agent makes you grow up very, very quickly. Some of my favorite parts of the book are your extended briefings and conversations with agents such as Noor Inayat Kahn, Violette Szabo, and Flight Lieutenant Yeo-Thomas, the White Rabbit. But writing about them must have been bittersweet.

Marks: It was. I was wondering if the war had ruined poetry for you in some ways, owing to its associations.

Marks: I did my best to ruin poetry by writing original compositions for agents. [laughs] I resolved at the end of the war that I never would write another poem because so many agents had died using them. But on the very last day at SOE, just before signing off for good, I went back to the room where I had discovered that the Dutch had been caught, where the great White Rabbit used to come in and steal the cigars I had stolen from my father, and it was derelict. Suddenly I felt a poem coming on. I had no pencil and paper, but there was a blackboard, so I went up to it and wrote the last poem I thought I ever would:

We listen round the clock
For a code called peacetime
But will it ever come
And shall we know it when it does
And break it once it's here...

And then I left SOE for good. Your book is incredibly moving, but it's also very, very funny--

Marks: Good! And I was wondering whether, since it's not as if you didn't know how it would end, it was a pleasure to be able to be quite light at times.

Marks: It was absolutely essential. When agents went into the field and used a poem-code, which was an abomination , they'd make mistakes, and they'd have to repeat them. And very often an agent would be caught in the process of re-encoding a message that London was too lazy to break. So I made a rule: There shall be no such thing as an indecipherable message. Finally, I got 400 potty girls, who would work the clock round to prevent the repetition of an indecipherable message. Baroness Hornsby-Smith, who was our minister's personal assistant, christened them "Marks's Harem"--without, I'm afraid, the slightest justification. But they were magnificent. You do them a great service in your book, because the FANYs, the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, are part of World War II's hidden history.

Marks: Very little has been written about the FANYs in the coding department. It was desperately difficult finding people with the ability to code, and we were always trying to get girls before C got them or before Bletchley got them. It was hard to explain to the Ministry of Labour what kind of girl we were looking for. Finally, I sent a memo: "Do not reject any girl on grounds of insanity without first offering her to SOE." And we had a magnificent group of eccentrics! But that memo initially got you in rather a lot of trouble.

Marks: Yes, very considerable trouble. But it was worth it because of the collection of FANY coders we got in the end. Would you say that this was one of the times when you relied on Freud, whom you call the great decoder of unconscious signals?

Marks: Yes, I relied on unconscious communication. I was absolutely convinced I knew all about Freud at the age of 22 and a half, and was intrigued at the agents who failed to bury their parachutes--who failed to take elementary precautions on which their lives depended. I believed that a great deal of this was unconsciously motivated, as Freud maintained. But to me the great problem of the war, as far as the FANYs were concerned, was why the most reliable of them made appalling mistakes at the most unexpected times. I could not understand it! When I consulted one of the FANY officers, she most patiently explained that it probably had something to do with periods. So we stumbled upon premenstrual tension in the war, and I wanted to do a great deal about this. You had to handle that more delicately than you might have been used to.

Marks: I had to be very circumspect indeed! I wanted a record drawn up for each coder, so that we could give each her light work at the right time. But I was told this would be a major breach of confidence, and it was not to be disclosed. In those days it was a very, very delicate subject. So I had to do a little mathematics, and at last we got the answers we wanted and took the necessary steps. It was a major breakthrough, finally discovering what caused so many mistakes at certain times. But it was new to us--or to me. It certainly wasn't part of the education. You were so against the poem-code right from the start, and yet you and your agents were forced to rely on it throughout the war.

Marks: It was a major, major security risk, because if the Germans broke a single message in the poem-code they could mathematically reconstruct the words on which that poem was based. So if an agent were using "To be or not to be," and the Germans broke a message and reconstructed five words, be, to, the, question, that, they could easily descry its origin. The agent's messages would then be read--without any further effort--and that agent would be caught. Which is why original compositions were introduced, to make it that much more difficult for the enemy to reconstruct the words of the poem. But on the other hand, you were much more keen on the letter one-time pads.

Marks: Ah, yes! The letter one-time pads and the worked-out keys, the codes on silk--they were cryptographically unbreakable. But their most important aspect is that they allowed the agent to destroy his codes, message by message. Nor could they torture the code groups out of him, because he could not remember them. Has anyone responded to your wish on page 250 to find out who invented the letter one-time pad?

Marks: Not yet! I was under the misapprehension for a long time that I had. I invented something called worked-out keys. An expert from Bletchley was absolutely astonished to find that we had the letter one-time pad, and asked how we'd got hold of it. I didn't even know Bletchley knew of it! It was one of the major breakthroughs--giving one-time pads on silk--but we also introduced a number of codes printed on silk and vocabularies which would make it shorter for the agents to send messages.

We also tried to deceive the enemy into believing that there was a major Resistance movement in Germany when none existed. That was the brainchild of a brilliant man, Field Marshall Templar. He wanted me to devise a code that would suggest that there was such a movement. And when I did produce one, Field Marshall Templar disclosed to me that it was to be found on the body of a double agent, a prisoner of war who'd cost many British lives--and many German--and was going back into Germany, as he thought, for us. But this caused a bit of a crisis for you, because you were sending him to his death.

Marks: I had to brief him and convince him that he was going in genuinely to send messages to London. So I went down to this prisoner-of-war camp and I was horrified to find I liked him. He was so eager to learn. The extraordinary thing is that since the book was published, I received a letter from somebody very reputable whose wartime job was to devise a parachute that would not open. This command, too, came from Field Marshall Templar, as part of Operation Periwig. At any rate, when this person read the book, he was astonished to find that the field marshall had also insisted on a code book being manufactured. He hadn't been told about this at all, nor did he think the operation ever took place. When he reported to Field Marshall Templar that he could not produce the lethal parachute because it wouldn't convince the enemy, he was told that whole operation had been stopped because it contravened the prisoner-of-war act. This is not what I had been told. So one of the great mysteries remains: How was this code found in Germany, and on whom? In fact it was found, because we broadcast tens of thousands of code groups to make it seem as if we were transmitting messages to agents in Germany. And that was a major, major deception operation. It seems that the major operations were easier for you to handle than dealing with individual agents.

Marks: Well, that is very right. The first thing for which an agent would be tortured when he was caught would be his code, so in many ways that was the greatest responsibility of all--to make sure he was using a code that could not be tortured out of him and could not be broken. Of course, if he lost that silk code, or didn't want to use it, and fell back on his poem, that could be tortured out of him. And I remember the last poem I actually wrote for an agent to use: "We have a little time left / The wise doctor said / Unless there's a miracle / Which is another man's trade / Selfish as always / I've started missing you now / Want to say so / Don't know how / Want to hug you / Doubt if I should / Hope you understand / I'd take your place if I could." The man who used that was killed a week after he landed in France. Did you ever think you might not handle such responsibility?

Marks: Well, during the war we did help bring some agents back who might not otherwise have returned. Yes, we made mistakes, which was not the fault of the 400 FANYs. It was inevitable that we made mistakes, and those are the things we remember. Not the triumphs--the errors, and the lives they cost. The book is as much a record of your experience during the war as it is of the growth of your poet's mind, as it were. You mention Peeping Tom, for which you wrote the screenplay. I was wondering if you could describe the connection between that and the interrogation of agents.

Marks: Well, you see, if you brief an agent, you have to belong to him--you have to empty your mind of every one of your problems. And I used to stand outside a briefing room for 10 minutes, thinking only of the agents I was going to brief. That was absolutely vital. Sitting opposite those agents, setting them exercises, watching them, trying to photograph their mistakes and their habits, their speed, I realized that cryptographers, code-breakers, code-makers, were something of voyeurs--and suddenly the desire to write about a voyeur was born. I decided one day I would write a film entitled Peeping Tom, and one day I did.

It kept its director, a brilliant man called Michael Powell, out of work for 14 years because the press of the day so loathed it. One film critic, Dilys Powell--a very influential lady--warned me at the press show, "Don't you do that again." It was her acerbic criticism which was mainly responsible for keeping him out of work. Now, before she died, not very long ago, she wrote a retraction of her original criticism in The Times, and she apologized to Michael Powell. Fortunately, a brilliant American director, Martin Scorsese, liked the film, and sponsored it in the States. Scorsese is a very, very brilliant man indeed--not because he liked Peeping Tom, but because he is an original. He wouldn't be a good code-breaker, but he uses a fascinating code. After the war, did you ever involve yourself in any more intelligence activities?

Marks: That's a very interesting question, but would you expect a truthful answer? [laughs] I was hoping that Dr. Freud might be off-duty.

Marks: He is from time to time--a moment here or there. Can we talk for a moment about your father's bookshop, 84, Charing Cross Road? This is where you discovered the thrill of coding, but before your book most of us had encountered it in what you call Helene Hanff's "gentle little myth."

Marks: Dad died in 1968 and the shop itself was closed in 1970--and it was probably good luck that Helene Hanff never met Frank Doel, with whom she exchanged so many letters. It's highly unlikely that they would have got on very well. You rather do away with the cozy picture that she gave us all of Frank Doel, not to mention your father's shop. In addition to supplying a member of the royal family with tony porn, Marks & Co. were, as you write, "kings of the book ring ... one of five leading firms of antiquarian booksellers who never bid against each other in the auction rooms." There go our cozy illusions.

Marks: Well, the old man resented the letters very much, because he thought they were rather a waste of time. Frank Doel was a very charming person, and Helene Hanff was quite uncanny. She finally arrived, never having had a real success, with 84, Charing Cross Road. But by the time she could afford to come to this country, the shop had closed, Dad was dead, Frank was dead, and Mr. Cohen, Dad's partner, was dead. Helene Hanff was surprised to discover Dad had a son who wasn't dead, and the son had a wife--and it was she who helped me write this book by being there throughout the nightmare of its creation. Actually, she and Helene Hanff became very great friends.

Anyway, at the world film premiere of 84, Charing Cross Road, which was attended by the Queen Mother, Prince Charles, and Diana (I think the only one who kept awake was the Queen Mother!), I said to Helene Hanff that she was a long-playing needle looking for a record. She had something much more exciting to write about than 84, Charing Cross Road, but was afraid to do so. Really?

Marks: The subject was so personal, and so uncommon. I couldn't write about it because it would be a breach of confidence, but Helene Hanff was devoted to a very, very famous American. The problem was, she had to share him with two other ladies, and she was never quite sure if she were the senior partner or not. This was a quite extraordinary relationship.

I used to send her poems from time to time, and she used to tease me that I would never finish the book. She had one particular favorite, apart from "Be near me when my light is low," and when she was dying, I urged her to record her thoughts until she could find the humor in her present situation. If she could find that humor, she would bring comfort to millions of people. She said, "Tell you what I want, I want to hear that poem, now." So I spoke it to her. And she said, "I want you to promise me that if ever you finish your book, you'll speak your poem at your book launch." She died a few weeks later. And just to show that some people in SOE keep their word, I did speak it at the launch. She understood the agony of writing a book like mine, but she never began to write what would have been, in her hands, magic. One last question: What would you like your readers to take away from Between Silk and Cyanide?

Marks: Respect for the Violette Szabos and Yeo-Thomases and agents of SOE and girls who worked so hard to bring them back alive. We believed we'd discovered something we called the spirit of resistance. I would like those who read the book to understand what that spirit was and to share it with us.

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