A Hard Man to Place
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. In one hand I clutched my railway warrant -- the first prize I had ever won; in the other I held a carefully wrapped black-market chicken. My mother, who had begun to take God seriously the day I was called up, strode protectively beside me -- praying that the train would never arrive, cursing the Führer when she saw that it had and blessing the porter who found me a seat. Mother would have taken my place if she could, and might have shortened the war if she had.
My father, who was scarcely larger than the suitcases he insisted on carrying, was an antiquarian bookseller whose reading was confined to the spines of books and the contents of the Freemason's Chronicle. His shop was called Marks & Co. and its address was 84 Charing Cross Road. He never read the gentle little myth by Helene Hanff; long before it was published he'd become one himself.
My parents accompanied their only joint venture to the door of the train and, for the first time in twenty years, prepared to relinquish him. Mother's farewell to her only child was the public's first glimpse of open-heart surgery. Late-comers were offered a second. As I entered the carriage clutching my chicken and bowler hat, she called out at the top of her voice -- if it had one -- 'LOOK AFTER MY BOY.'
The captain in the seat opposite me accepted the brief. To distract me from the spectacle of Mother comforting Father and the station master comforting them both, he silently proffered his cigarette case. I indicated my virgin pipe.
'Going far, old son?'
My security-minded nod convinced him, if Mother's performance hadn't already, that I was being dispatched to some distant outpost of what remained of Empire. I was, in fact, going all the way to Bedford.
I had been accepted as a pupil at a school for cryptographers. Gaining admission hadn't been easy: I'd written to the War Office, the Foreign Office and the Admiralty, enclosing specimens of my home-made codes with a curriculum vitae based loosely on fact, but no more loosely than their formal replies stating that my letters were receiving attention. Since codes meant as much to me as Spitfires did to those who had guts, I resolved to make one last try and suddenly remembered that I had a godfather named Major Jack Dermot O'Reilly who worked in the Special Branch at Scotland Yard. I also remembered that Major Jack (like Father) was a Freemason, a branch of the Spiritual Secret Service for which I was still too young.
Arriving at the Special Branch unannounced, I called upon Major Jack carrying my codes in my gas-mask case, which he clearly considered was the most appropriate place for them. However, he must have put his 'Brother' before his country because a few prayers later I was invited by the War Office to attend an interview at Bedford 'to discuss my suitability for certain work of national importance'.
My audition took place at a large private house which tried to ramble but hadn't the vitality. A friendly sergeant told me the CO was expecting me -- and I had my first meeting with Major Masters, the headmaster of the code-breaking school. He began the interview by asking what my hobbies were.
'Incunabula and intercourse, sir.'
It slipped out and wasn't even accurate; I'd had little experience of one and couldn't afford the other. I suspected that he wasn't sure what incunabula was and added: 'And chess too, sir -- when there's time,' which proved a better gambit.
I answered the rest of his questions honestly -- with one exception. He asked me how I first became interested in codes. There is only one person to whom I've ever told the truth about this and we hadn't yet met. The reply I concocted didn't impress him. I didn't think much else had either.
Three weeks later I received his letter of acceptance.
The school for code-breakers was the only one of its kind in England and its founding father, patron saint and principal customer was Britain's cryptographic supremo, John Tiltman. According to O'Reilly, Tiltman's talent had already received the ultimate Intelligence, accolade: it had made him a bargaining counter with the Americans.
The course was due to last for eight weeks, at the end of which the students would be graded and sent to Bletchley Park, which was Tiltman's workshop and the headquarters of the cryptographic department, known in the trade as MI8.
Fifteen new pupils, including, two young women, had been selected for the course and we sat at separate desks in a large, bright room, studying the mating habits of the alphabet, counting the frequency of letters and working our way. through exercises which gradually became more difficult until we were ready to tackle codes of military and diplomatic level.
For a short while the whole class seemed to be moving in orderly mental convoy towards the promised land of Bletchley. But amongst those potential problem-masters there was one confirmed problem-pupil. I knew that if I didn't break behaviour patterns as well as codes, I would be lucky to last the term -- a prospect which made me keep peace with my teachers for a personal best, of about a week. The regression started when I felt a code of my own simmering inside me. This unwanted pregnancy was accompanied by morning sickness which took the form of questioning the quality of the exercises which were supposed to extend us. I was convinced that the school's methods of teaching would be better suited to a crash course in accountancy. The decline was irreversible when I tried to find quicker ways of breaking codes than the ones prescribed for us, and began to chase cryptographic mirages of my own making. Having somehow absorbed a few tricks of the trade, I spent hours trying to devise codes which would be proof against them. Although possibly not quite the waste of time it was then pronounced to be, this was still chronic indiscipline masquerading as creative impulse.
The chief instructor was a patient, conscientious lieutenant named Cheadle. He wandered round the classroom once a day, peering hopefully over the students' shoulders -- urging us to 'dig out the root problems like a corn'. When he came to my desk, he found nothing to excise. He was like a chiropodist treating a wooden leg which insisted on kicking him.
By the time I was halfway through the course, all the others had reached the final exercise. Since I had no hope of closing the gap, I decided I had nothing to lose by vaulting it. It was strictly against the rules for any student to remove work from the premises; there was no law against memorizing it. By scanning the code until it became my favourite face, I was able to take all its key features home with me, slightly blemished by the spots before my eyes.
'Home' in Bedfordshire, a county which deserved its duke, was a boarding house -- one of many in which the students were billeted. I had been instructed to tell the landlady that I was from the Ministry of Information. At supper time that night mine hostess, as usual, placed a piece of spam beside me and the code surrendered at the sight of it. It laid down its arms and said 'enough'. The rest was just hard work, a matter of gathering it in. Twenty-four hours later I was the proud possessor of a finished exercise.
Nobody had told me that it was intended to be a 'team effort' spread across a week. A bemused Lieutenant Cheadle showed my work to a highly suspicious Major Masters, who immediately tightened internal security. However, as so often happens in such matters, what is tightened at one end becomes loosened at the other and I was able to catch a glimpse of my confidential report.
It might have been written by the high master of St Paul's who would have expelled me had he not been a client of 84's: 'In his determination to find short cuts, he is apt to be slap-dash and erratic...though his approach shows some signs of originality, he is a very hard man to teach and will, I believe, be an even harder one to place...'
I wondered what arrangements Bedford made to dispose of its waste product.
The friendly sergeant was never friendlier than at mid-evening when he was prepared to reveal whatever he had heard on the grapevine in exchange for a little of the grape.
The rest of my course was going to Bletchley. As for its solitary failure, an interview had been arranged for me with 'some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits'. If even they didn't want me, I would be regarded as unmarketable.
'It's called Inter Services Research Bureau,' said the sergeant. He lowered his voice. 'It's got another name, too. SOE or SOD or something.'
It had many names, Sergeant.
One of them was Bedlam.
The personnel officer who screened me at 64 Baker Street conducted the entire interview in the mistaken belief that I was closely related to Sir Simon Marks, the head of Marks & Spencer -- an illusion which I was careful to encourage. It took me a little while to grasp what the 'potty outfit' was after from the great outfitters.
The answer was space.
The largest of the many buildings which SOE occupied in and around Baker Street was Michael House -- which had been the headquarters of Marks & Spencer. SOE badly needed extra canteen facilities in Michael House and only Marks & Spencer could grant them. The personnel officer made it clear that Sir Simon had already proved to be a most accommodating landlord and SOE was reluctant to impose upon him further.
If I was decoding the gist correctly, he was trying to assess whether I was suitably disposed to use my good offices to Canvass even better ones. Unfortunately I had never met Sir Simon -- but even more unfortunately, I had met, and couldn't stop meeting, his only son Michael, the heir-presumptive to the kingdom of M & S. We had had the incinerating experience of going to several schools together, including St Paul's, of being put in the same classes, and of being mistaken for brothers. We had finally tossed a coin (his) to decide which of us would change his name, an arrangement which he failed to honour. The princeling had not been a bit impressed when his father named Michael House after him, but he'd woken up sharply when Sir Simon offered him a cash bonus for every unwrapped orange he found in a Marks & Spencer store. I imparted these 'hot' family titbits to the enthralled personnel officer, and before he could enquire where Leo House was I assured him that I would nudge Sir Simon in the right direction the next time we dined together. A few days after this solemn undertaking 'Uncle Simon' volunteered the canteen facilities, which did no harm at all to my SOE scorecard. Marks & Spencer's greatest asset always was its timing.
I was also interviewed, skilfully and inscrutably, by Captain Dansey, the head of Codes, who indicated that he would think me over. A week later I signed the Official Secrets Act and was told to report to Dansey at nine in the morning.
On that last day of my innocence the personnel officer beamingly confirmed that I was to receive the equivalent of a second lieutenant's pay and then added, as tactfully as he was able, that my employment would be subject to review at the end of the month.
He was wrong again.
It was to be subject to review at the end of one day.
SOE's code department and teleprinter rooms occupied the whole of a mews building at the back of Michael House and I had my first glimpse of the wonders of Danseyland when an armed escort took me on an intensive route march to the captain's office, where I was handed over like a parcel of dubious content in exchange for an official receipt. This was standard SOE procedure for those who had yet to be issued with passes.
The sharp-eyed captain and his jovial deputy, Lieutenant Owen, explained that SOE's main function was dropping agents into Europe, and that my job would be to 'keep an eye on the security of their codes'. They then decided to test their new boy's ability. I was handed a message in code, put into an adjacent room and left there to break it. I knew from the little they had said about the code that it was one of the first Bedford had taught us to crack. If I risked no short cuts I should reach the code's jugular by the end of the day.
Dansey came in half an hour later to see if I'd finished but I was still taking a frequency count (this is the cryptographic equivalent of feeling a pulse). He looked at me with a hint of disappointment -- then smiled encouragingly and went out. It was then ten o'clock.
An hour later he was back again. The code's pulse was regular. Dansey's wasn't. 'Marks,' he said softly.
'Do you know how long it took my girls to crack that code?... twenty minutes.'
'Sir, it takes me thirty just to clean my glasses.'
I hoped he was joking. He closed the door behind him and I knew that he wasn't.
At one o'clock Lieutenant Owen put his head round the door, watched the poor struggler as long as he could bear to, and said I was free to go to lunch if I wished. I didn't.
At four o'clock a bespectacled young lady put some tea on my desk. She departed hastily with each eye laughing at a different joke.
At a quarter to five I knocked on the door of Dansey's office and put the decoded message in front of him.
Dansey and Owen sat in silence. They were in mourning for their judgement. I knew I had failed and hoped it wouldn't prevent them from giving someone competent a chance. I thanked my ex-bosses for my tea and turned to go.
'Leave the code here, please.'
'What code, sir?'
Dansey closed his eyes but they continued glaring. 'The code you broke it with!'
'You didn't give me one, sir.'
'What the hell are you talking about? How did you decode that message if I didn't give you one?'
'You told me to break it, sir.'
He was one of the few people who could look efficient with his mouth open. 'You mean you broke it,' he said, as if referring to his heart, 'without a code?'
I had always understood that was what breaking a code meant, but this was no time for semantics. 'How was I expected to do it, sir?'
'The way the girls do, with all the bumph in front of them. A straightforward job of decoding, that's all I was after! So we could test your speed. And compare it with theirs.'
'You mean, sir -- that SOE is actually using this code?'
'We were,' said Owen. 'We have others now.'
They looked at each other. Something seemed to occur to them simultaneously. They operated like two ends of a teleprinter.
'Come with us, Marks.'
The three of us crowded into my workroom, which by now r...
At the age of 8, Leo Marks discovered the great game of code-making and -breaking in his father's London bookshop, thanks to a first edition of Poe's The Gold-Bug. At 23, as World War II was being played out in earnest, he hoped to use his strengths for the Allies. But Marks's urgent, witty memoir, Between Silk and Cyanide, begins with his failure to get into British Intelligence's cryptographic department. As everyone else on his course heads off to Bletchley Park ("the promised land"), he is sent to what his sergeant terms "some potty outfit in Baker Street, an open house for misfits." In fact, the Special Operations Executive's mandate was, in Churchill's stirring phrase, to "Set Europe Ablaze," and Marks's was to monitor code security so that agents could could report back as safely as possible. When he arrived, the common wisdom was that it was easiest for men and women in the field to memorize and use well-known poems.
Unfortunately, since the Germans had equal access to the classics--"Reference books," Marks quips, "are jackboots when used by cryptographers"--Marks thought agents should write their own poems (or use his) instead, several of which are cheerily obscene. After all, no son or daughter of the Fatherland could ever know the rest of a verse that began "Is de Gaulle's prick / Twelve inches thick," and continued on in a similar, shall we say, vein. But Marks soon felt that original doggerel was just as dangerous, since even slight misspellings could render messages indecipherable and risk agents' lives. His first solution? WOKs (worked-out keys) printed on silk. An operative would use one key, send the message, and immediately tear off the strip. Marks had a hard time proving that swaths of silk would save his people from swallowing their "optional extra," a cyanide pill. His efforts were dead serious, but often landed him in comic terrain.
In one of the book's great set pieces, Marks visits Colonel Wills--surely the model for Ian Fleming's Q--in order to sort out the best ways to print his code keys. Before solving this minor problem (invisible ink!), Wills showed Marks several new projects--one of which involves an exotic array of dung, courtesy of the London Zoo. This gifted gadgetmeister planned to model life-sized reproductions of these droppings and pack them with explosives, personalized for all parts of Europe, Africa, and Asia. "Once trodden on or driven over (hopefully by the enemy) the whole lot would go off with a series of explosions even more violent than the ones which had produced it," Marks explains.
Despite such larky sentences and sections, the author never loses sight of the importance of his vocation, and Between Silk and Cyanide is as elegiac as it is engaging. Marks knows when to cut the laugh track, particularly as his book becomes a despairing record of agents blown--lost to torture, prison, the camps, and execution. Readers will never forget the valor of Violette Szabo, Noor Inayat Kahn, and the White Rabbit himself, Flight Lieutenant Yeo-Thomas. Poem-cracking, as Marks again and again makes clear, was far more than a parlor game. --Kerry Fried
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