Guy Walters review – Country Life

It is impossible to quantify the number of books that have been written about the Second World War.  A rough guide is provided by the website Amazon, which returns a figure of some 244,000 books if you search for ‘Second World War’, but this cannot be half of the actual figure.

So what are we to make of yet another hefty volume about the conflict?  Is there really anything left to say?  To paraphrase that cliche beloved of so many war movies, surely for us the war is over. Frankly, even to observe the potential staleness of the topic feels platitudinous.

Well, for Sir Max Hastings, the war is clearly far from over, as this latest work represents, by my reckoning, his eighth book on the subject.  However, whereas his previous works were largely concerned with the military aspects of the war in the Western Hemisphere, this book takes a truly global approach to cover a comparatively little-explored aspect of the war: the world of intelligence

As Sir Max acknowledges, some of The Secret War will be familiar to specialists, but for those whose appetites have been whetted by tales of wartime spooks by the likes of Ben Macintyre and Jason Webster, there is plenty of meat here to keep even the most war-jaded reader entertained.

His great strength is to use his formidable journalistic talents to bring alive a cast of characters who operated in the shadows and it is the mark of an author at the top of his game that he is able to keep a multiplicity of narratives running without causing confusion.

And what a cast it is, featuring the likes of womanising Soviet master spy Richard Sorge, British scientific and technical intelligence boffin R V Jones, the wily head of the SS foreign intelligence service Walter Schellenberg and the larger-than-life founder of the forerunner of the CIA, William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan.

However, The Secret War is far more than a collection of portraits; it is a full and frank assessment of how much the work of such men contributed to the outcome of the war.  Sir Max acknowledges ingenuity, cunning and bravery, but he isn’t convinced that intelligence services are quite the all-knowing, all-seeing organisations that the spooks would like us to believe.

Furthermore, he is cynical about the efficacy of guerrilla units, especially the Special Operations Executive (SOE), about which he has been damning before.  One major theme that developed is the wartime rise of what intelligence historians call ‘Sigint’ – signals intelligence – information gleaned from intercepting radio traffic.  At the start of the war, there was an emphasis on relying on ‘humint’ – human intelligence or, in plain words, spies and agents.

Of course, the major breakthrough during the war was the cracking of the Germans’ Enigma machine at Bletchley Park.  Great claims are usually made for this and we often hear that Bletchley shortened the war by ‘years’.  Sir Max is more cautious and encourages us to think more like Churchill himself, who was wary of isolating any one element of the war as being uniquely fundamental.  ‘All things are always on the move simultaneously,’ the great man said.

The author would be the first to acknowledge that this is not a comprehensive history of all the hidden stories behind the war.  That would take a book about five times as long and, besides, there already exists the late Sir Harry Hinsley’s magisterial multi-volume British Intelligence in the Second World War.

Sir Max’s examination is broader and global, so it is obviously less detailed than that of Hinsley.  As a result, there are lacunae, not least that of the organisation MI9, which he merely ascribes as an escape organisation for British prisoners of war.  In fact, it was also a vital intelligence-gathering machine and it seems a shame that its role has been overlooked here.

This is perhaps a niggle for the specialist and, hopefully, a full history of MI9 will be published one day – yet another book about the war!  But, for those who want to look beyond and behind the chaps with maps, The Secret War is a worthy addition to those other 244,000 titles.