- LONDON (AP) - Leo Marks' eyes teem with ancient ghosts. A sensitive,
soft-spoken man, the former code master is haunted daily by memories a
half-century old, of the British secret agents who came to him to learn
coding before they plummeted behind enemy lines in World War II. Some
became friends. Many never returned.
- "If you brief an agent on a Monday
and on Thursday you read that he has had his eyes taken out with a fork,
you age rapidly," he says, recalling the fate of one of his agents
- Marks and other members of the Special
Operations Executive, formed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940
to sabotage the Germans, were caught up in a corrosive rivalry with the
Foreign Office and the external intelligence agency MI6, which wanted
to suppress SOE.
- SOE was a pet project of Churchill's
and he gave it the special mandate to "set Europe ablaze" by
infiltrating agents behind enemy lines to perform sabotage and set up
secret armies. He took a close personal interest in its exploits.
- Marks also weathered the bureaucratic
battles between Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the British and Americans,
who sought to marginalize de Gaulle's Free French.
- And all the time, agents were being tortured
- Now 78, Marks has poured the pain of
it all into a 600-page book, "Between Silk and Cyanide," to
be published initially next June in the United States by The Free Press,
a Simon and Schuster imprint.
- "Leo Marks never once loses contact
with the personal courage and sufferings of the agents in the field,"
historian Donald Cameron Watt wrote in London's Independent newspaper.
- The book's title derives from Marks'
campaign to introduce codes printed on silk squares that could be destroyed
- a far safer method than the unreliable, easy-to-crack poem codes then
in common use.
- Change to silk, Marks warned his superiors,
or more agents will be caught and resort to swallowing their standard-issue
- SOE's many opponents of change tried
to block him, so he did much of his work in secret.
- "We had to lie to make progress,"
he recalls ruefully.
- Chad Conway, Marks' editor at Simon and
Schuster, said such primary source material about the war "is not
that plentiful any more, particularly material as colorful and intriguing
- Among Marks' agents who perished were
the brilliant, alluring Noor Anayat Kahn, killed at Dachau, and Violette
Szabo, executed at Ravensbruck, whose story was told in the 1958 film
"Carve Her Name With Pride."
- Savage wounds. Yet from his opening sentence
- "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" - Marks manages
his memories with humor.
- His doting Jewish mother kept him supplied
with black-market goodies throughout the war. And his father owned the
antiquarian bookstore at 84 Charing Cross Road that was to inspire a book
by Helene Hanff.
- They tearfully saw him off by train to
Bedford, thinking he was going to join the Labor Ministry. In fact, he
- Marks was 8 when he broke his first code,
deciphering the price from a group of letters penciled in a first edition
at his father's bookshop.
- The sole failure in the Bedford course
- all his colleagues won entry to Britain's headquarters of cryptography
at Bletchley Park - he was nevertheless offered a job at SOE. At age 22
he became its code master.
- Marks soon started working on a replacement
for the poem-code, which involved use of key words from well-known poems.
Realizing it would be harder for the enemy if agents were equipped with
original poems, he set up a "ditty box" - and made most contributions
himself. Twenty of them are in the book.
- One poem went behind enemy lines with
Szabo. But Marks says he wrote it for a young woman called Ruth, whom
he loved deeply, and who died in an air crash in Canada in 1943 before
he could tell her.
- The anguish still echoes in its stanzas:
- "The life that I have
- Is all that I have
- And the life that I have
- Is yours
- The love that I have
- Of the life that I have
- Is yours and yours and yours
- A sleep I shall have
- A rest I shall have
- Yet death will be but a pause
- For the peace of my years
- In the long green grass
- Will be yours and yours and yours."
- But even original poems could be tortured
out of agents. And to make matters worse, many agents' messages were rendered
indecipherable by mutilation in the transposition to Morse code or by
- Decreeing that "there shall be no
such thing as an indecipherable," Marks drove on his team of 400
young women to work around the clock to break the codes so that agents
wouldn't have to risk their lives by having to resend them.
- Marks then worked out a system in which
rows of unique codes were printed on squares of silk, which were easy
to hide and could be destroyed, bit by bit, as each row of numbers was
used. The random figures could not be tortured out of agents.
- SOE successes included the destruction
of an atomic weapons plant in Norway, spying on Hitler's long-range missiles
base, and providing the intelligence that led to the sinking of the Bismarck,
a German battleship.
- On D-Day, SOE agents also tied up thousands
of German soldiers on anti-sabotage operations.
- But Marks' great regret is that it took
him two years to persuade his superiors that SOE's Dutch secret army had
been infiltrated by the Germans. During that time, some 50 agents died,
many of them unnecessarily, he believes.
- "I feel guilty for not saving more
agents," he says. "Guilt for not finding a way of convincing
SOE that the Dutch traffic was corrupted, guilt for not going directly
- In order to understand their message
traffic, it was vital that Marks get to know his agents, and he still
grieves for Szabo and for Noor, the daughter of a Sufi mystic "who
was taught never to lie - can you believe it? And she landed up in SOE!"
- He also continues to suffer the sadness
of giving a routine briefing to a German double agent, who he knew was
going to be loaded with dud codes, then killed as he returned to Germany
in hopes the enemy would find his body and be misled.
- "I hated liking him," Marks
- When the war ended, Marks was forbidden
to disclose his exploits for 30 years, bound by laws that kept much of
the undercover war a secret until the 1970s.
- Returning to civilian life, Marks declined
to take over his father's bookstore. Instead, he wrote a successful play,
"The Girl Who Couldn't Quite," about a girl who has lost the
ability to laugh, and a respected film, "Peeping Tom," about
a photographer obsessed with watching women on the verge of death.
- At war's end he visited SOE's empty offices,
where he encountered a cleaner at work.
- "You from the agency?" she
- "I suppose I am," he replied.
- "You lost something?" she asked.
- "Yes," he said. "I suppose