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Between Silk and Cyanide – A Codemaker’s War 1941 -1945

Leo Marks

Paperback - 978-0-750948-35-7

This book was recommended to me when I was researching women at war. Though this book is not about Bletchley Park it is about creating codes and cyphers for Special Operations Executive (SOE). There are, through the very nature of that work, links with Bletchley Park not least through its author Leo Marks and his cryptologist hero Colonel John Tiltman.

Not considered to be Bletchley Park material, the code-maker Leo Marks was sent to SOE as a codes officer in charge of agents’ code development and security. This book ,“Between Silk and Cyanide” (Between Life and Death) is a record of Marks time working in Baker Street’s St Michael House. With his inimitable style, humour, tenacity and attention to detail, Marks takes you through the corridors of the SOE and in to the word of agents, espionage and bravery.

Certainly not a spy thriller; this is a well written account of the day to day working of cryptographers trying to produce and deduce cyphers in order to keep agents safe. By directing his humour and irreverence on himself and those who, through their indifference frustrated him, Marks highlights his own battles within his chain of command in order to get his cyphers accepted.

Within weeks of joining SOE Marks had identified deadly flaws in SOE’s original poem code and quickly set about producing his own compositions including the famous poem, “The love that I have is all that I have...” in addition to developing the Worked Out-code Key (WOK) system to be used once, and then destroyed by the agent.

During his time at SOE, Marks code-trained many of its agents, including Messers Poulson, Helberg, Kjelstrup and Haugland, (Grouse) Peter Churchill, Odette Sansom, Violette Szabo, Noor Khan and Yeo-Thomas, treating them all with the utmost respect.

Unorthodox in more ways than one Marks, through his maverick approach, tenacity, stealth and a little help from his friends did produce his WOKs, silk handkerchiefs and personal poems. The SOE agents did use them however, for many their fate had already been sealed.

Marks is most definitely a man of letters and through his writing style, language and the cryptic clues planted amongst the leaves of the book, he conveys both contempt and admiration for its characters. He shows contempt for the indifference of some in his chain of command, whilst demonstrating loyalty to others; he shows despair at his own mistakes whilst showing his appreciation of the team of FANYs* battling to decipher the “indecipherables”. To those dependent on his codes, Marks shows humility, compassion, gratitude and the utmost respect to the agents, radio operators and couriers who risked their lives.

* The F.A.N.Y corps was the volunteer First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, whose ladies formed the backbone of SOE during the Second World War.

Associated reading, “A Life in Secrets” by Sarah Helm.

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