Saved and Shared Stories

Saved Stories – None: Book review of War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East by Gershom Gorenberg

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The story opens in 1942, when the Axis appeared to be winning the war and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s army was so close to Cairo that the British General Headquarters was burning its archives. “The flames were too hot,” Gorenberg observes, “and half-burnt secrets floated out over the city.” A young cipher clerk named June Watkins, serving in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, was armed with a revolver while she worked: “Among other things, they learned how to shoot themselves,” the author explains. “Women who knew the ciphers were not to fall into enemy hands.”

“War of Shadows” is based on meticulous and exhaustive research that ranged from “archives in places from Tel Aviv to Palo Alto to the homes of the children and grandchildren of people whose names have been forgotten though they changed the direction of history.” One reason, as Gorenberg reveals, is that the spies and spymasters who made history were told, “Now history must have no memory of you.” Yet the book also flashes and sparkles with the kind of observed detail that we are accustomed to finding only in spy fiction. The highest praise that can be bestowed on his book is that it will remind readers of a cloak-and-dagger tale by John Le Carré with an armature of fascinating historical annotation.

Gorenberg is a veteran journalist and historian based in Jerusalem, the author of three previous books about aspects of the Middle East (“The Unmaking of Israel,” “The Accidental Empire” and “The End of Days”), a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, and a longtime contributor to the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, the Atlantic and Haaretz.

Facts on the ground in North Africa figure prominently in “War of Shadows,” but equally important is the work that was conducted in an English country house called Bletchley Park, where the secret messages that passed between Berlin and its battlefield commanders were decoded and selectively shared with Allied counterparts. But the deciding factor was Winston Churchill’s conviction that the decision to defend British primacy in the Middle East was “at once awful and right.” According to Gorenberg, “It was a wager that changed the shape of the war, and of the Middle East then and after.”

Indeed, Gorenberg allows us to see that a Middle Eastern version of the Great Game was conducted in parallel with armed combat. Nazi plotters imagined that Egyptian dissidents could be persuaded to “switch to the German side.” The same sentiment can be detected in the recollections of Anwar Sadat, then a young officer in an Egyptian artillery brigade that was serving with the British army in the campaign against Benito Mussolini’s expeditionary force. “Our enemy was primarily, if not solely, Great Britain,” Sadat later explained.

The code-breakers at Bletchley Park confirmed the strategic ambitions of the Axis in the Middle East. Bombers, fighters and transport planes were being sent from German-occupied Greece, “with Iraq markings or no markings at all,” for service against the Allies. After all, as Gorenberg points out, “both Iraq and the Vichy-ruled territories of Syria and Lebanon were fully aligned with the Axis.”

Palestine, then ruled by Britain under a mandate from the League of Nations, was also at stake. When Italian bombers attacked Haifa and Tel Aviv, the former grand mufti of Jerusalem sent his congratulations to Mussolini. By contrast, the Jewish leadership in Palestine urged Jews to enlist in the British army, and an elite unit known as the Palmach shared its soldiers with the Special Operations Executive. Meir Yaari, a leader of the kibbutz movement, observed that “these days no fear is an exaggeration.” Yet Gorenberg also notices that Moshe Shertok, a future prime minister of Israel, saw a distinction in the early years of the war between the Nazi invasion of Poland that had already happened and the Nazi invasion of Palestine that was feared in the future: “It’s possible that there will be atrocities here,” Shertok said.

“On that,” Gorenberg writes in a heartbreaking aside, “intelligence was entirely lacking.”

The dramatis personae that appear in Gorenberg’s book from the outset range from world historical figures like Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler to a young naval intelligence officer named Ian Fleming, whose wartime experiences inspired him to create the most famous spy of all. Above all, Gorenberg restores to the historical record various men and woman who have been mostly overlooked and always undervalued, including the remarkable Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly, an English aristocrat who served a consequential role in the Special Operations Executive.

Countess Hermione is an example of exactly what makes “War of Shadows” such a colorful and compelling book of history. She was met with skepticism when she first volunteered for the war effort: “You can’t expect me to believe that a countess can type,” said one brigadier. As it turned out, she was stationed in an office that was stocked with guns, ammunition and gold, and she directed the efforts of commandos in a shooting war.

“We sent little boats up the Danube to lay mines,” she wrote of her wartime efforts. “We sent gentlemen forth with wirelesses in suitcases and instructions to blow up certain bridges.”

Once in action, however, the Countess demonstrated one facility that her male comrades-in-arms lacked; she carried a Colt revolver in her girdle and smuggled secret papers in her bra.

War of Shadows

Codebreakers, Spies, and the
Secret Struggle
to Drive the Nazis From the Middle East

474 pp. $34

Saved Stories – None