- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

During World War II, the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), responsible for espionage and intelligence operations in Nazi-occupied Europe, made the painful decision to use women as couriers in enemy territory. Doing so ran totally counter to military policy. Although the army, air force and navy used uniformed women in clerical jobs, they were “barred from any armed combat.” Indeed, no legal authority existed for the sort of guerrilla work that SOE had in mind for females.

How SOE decided to employ women for this dangerous work, and how they fared, is vividly told in Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $27.50, 493 pages, illus.). Ms. Helm has been a British journalist for years, yet she writes in near novelistic style and is adept at exploring the emotional issues that are an important part of her story.

The SOE executive director, Colin Grubbin, argued that courier work could best be performed by women, and he was likely correct. Any young man the Germans found in occupied territory was apt to be pressed into slave labor, or worse. “Women, however, could invent a hundred cover stories as they moved around and aroused little suspicion.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his War Council endorsed the plan.

Ms. Helm’s book is organized as a biography of Vera Atkins, who joined SOE as a lowly secretary and worked her way to the upper echelons. It was Atkins who bore heavy responsibility for selecting the women (all volunteers, to be sure) who bravely went onto the continent. She also briefed and prepared them for missions. Twelve of them died, either at the hands of Nazi torturers or in prison camps.

Atkins felt painful guilt, and when the war ended she scoured Europe for traces of what happened to “her girls.” What she found was often horror stories of torture and painful death — women hanged, beaten or gassed to death. One was thrust alive into a furnace. She reaped sweet revenge in tracking down concentration camp monsters responsible for the murders. One died on the gallows.

She also discovered that lax SOE security at the London base caused the compromise of many missions — faults that SOE and the rest of the British government preferred to keep secret once peace came.

The second theme of Ms. Helm’s work is an attempt to answer the question, “Who was Vera Atkins?” To wartime colleagues, she was the quintessential English lady. In truth, she was the Romanian-born daughter of a German Jew, technically an “enemy alien” in wartime England. Since she still had relatives in Europe, Atkins conceivably could have been denied the security clearance essential to her job. For this reason, Ms. Helm suggests, she kept a tight veil over her personal life. In sum: new material, well written, a highly readable account.

One of the nagging mysteries of World War II is why the German military command did not tumble to the fact that British code-breakers were able to read, and exploit, vast amounts of signals. Throughout the war, Allied forces exacted a heavy toll of German submarines and airplanes by somehow managing to have the right defenses in the right place at the right time.

The reasons for German obtuseness are explored in a sprightly account, R. A. Ratcliff’s Delusions of Intelligence: Enigma, Ultra, and the End of Secure Ciphers (Cambridge University Press, $30, 320 pages, illus.). Do not dismiss this work as “just another book on Ultra,” a subject which has been written about ad infinitum. It is a splendid contribution to signals intelligence and covers much new material.

You can skip rapidly through the familiar initial chapters on how British intelligence obtained German code machines and managed to decipher literally thousands of messages during the war. Intelligence derived from these decrypted messages circulated under the code name “Ultra,” derived from the classification ULTRA SECRET. The entire enterprise was named Enigma, from the name of a business-enciphering machine dating to the 1920s. The German military adapted variations of Enigma in 1926 and felt that it was fool-proof.

As Ms. Ratcliff writes, “These [German] intelligence officers maintained a stubborn belief in Enigma’s absolute security in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. The Germans missed numerous clues, overlooked several obvious signs, and succumbed to their own wishful thinking about Enigma. Even their numerous security investigations failed to reveal the weaknesses in the Enigma system, let alone the hemorrhage of information passing to the Allies from Ultra.”

Of course, Ultra material was worthless unless put into the hands of military commanders. Thus the British used a number of deception techniques to disguise the source of information. As Ms. Ratcliff writes, “Early Ultra decrypts carried the code name ‘Boniface,’ suggesting that the paraphrased information had come from an agent so named, highly placed in the German command.”

This notional “agent” would explain gaps in coverage by “reporting having seen a ‘badly tattered copy of a report,’ or ‘part of an order.’” In hindsight, such tales sound “fantastic,” but Ms. Ratcliff writes that “they made a kind of sense among the swirling rumors of wartime Europe.”

Another cover was the suggestion that Ultra information came from such conventional intelligence sources as air reconnaissance and radio direction finding (DF). Security officers also played on German distrust to attribute Ultra intelligence to Italian agents and prisoners of war. The Germans “readily believed that even their associates, particularly the Italians, would betray everything to the Allies when given the chance.”

Compartmentalization was strict, and the “need to know” strictly enforced. Roughly 10,000 persons, British and American, were privy to the Ultra secret, done at a remote country estate named Bletchley Park. Yet they all kept their involvement with Ultra a secret — generally even from their own families — for more than thirty years.

As late as 1970, the head of Germany’s monitoring services still argued that Enigma “was secure against break-ins and the German naval radio signals could not be read.” Not until 1974 did the British government finally reveal the well-kept secret. (One must wonder if the Ultra secret would survive in the leak madness now gripping Washington.)

To the Germans’ credit, in due course they did become suspicious that the Enigma system had been compromised. Admiral Karl Donitz, commander of the submarine force, later chief of the navy, ordered major investigations in 1941 and 1942. Each time, the conclusion was that Enigma was vulnerable only through physical possession of code key settings, not realizing that math wizards at Bletchley Park had worked out the ciphers through sheer brain power; or, that failing, that the information came from spies.

As Ms. Ratcliff notes, “Members of the German command maintained unyielding confidence in their cipher system and could not bring themselves to believe Enigma to be the source of so many of their problems.”

Ms. Ratcliff did much of her research as scholar-in-residence of the Center for Cryptologic History at the National Security Agency, where she was able to draw from “nearly fifteen hundred boxes of documents” from U.S., British and German intelligence agencies. She is now a Silicon Valley consultant. Highly recommended as a five cloak-and-dagger read.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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