Between Silk and Cyanide

Between Silk and Cyanide

A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945

Book - 1998
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In 1942, with a black-market chicken tucked under his arm by his mother, Leo Marks left his father's famous bookshop, 84 Charing Cross Road, and went off to fight the war. He was twenty-two. Soon recognized as a cryptographer of genius, he became head of communications at the Special Operations Executive (SOE), where he revolutionized the codemaking techniques of the Allies and trained some of the most famous agents dropped into occupied Europe. As a top codemaker, Marks had a unique perspective on one of the most fascinating and, until now, little-known aspects of the Second World War. This stunning memoir, often funny, always gripping and acutely sensitive to the human cost of each operation, provides a unique inside picture of the extraordinary SOE organization at work and reveals for the first time many unknown truths about the conduct of the war. SOE was created in July 1940 with a mandate from Winston Churchill to set Europe ablaze. Its main function was to infiltrate agents into enemy-occupied territory to perform acts of sabotage and form secret armies in preparation for D-Day. Marks's ingenious codemaking innovation was to devise and implement a system of random numeric codes printed on silk. Camouflaged as handkerchiefs, underwear, or coat linings, these codes could be destroyed message by message, and therefore could not possibly be remembered by the agents, even under torture. Between Silk and Cyanide chronicles Marks's obsessive quest to improve the security of agents' codes and how this crusade led to his involvement in some of the war's most dramatic and secret operations. Among the astonishing revelations is his account of the code war between SOE and theGermans in Holland. He also reveals for the first time how SOE fooled the Germans into thinking that a secret army was operating in the Fatherland itself, and how and why he broke the code that General de Gaulle insisted be available only to the Free French. By the end of this incredible tale, truly one of the last great World War II memoirs, it is clear why General Eisenhower credited the SOE, particularly its communications department, with shortening the war by three months. From the difficulties of safeguarding the messages that led to the destruction of the atomic weapons plant at Rjukan in Norway to the surveillance of Hitler's long-range missile base at Peenemunde to the true extent of Nazi infiltration of Allied agents, Between Silk and Cyanide sheds light on one of the least-known but most dramatic aspects of the war. Writing with the narrative flair and vivid characterization of his famous screenplays, Marks gives free rein to his keen sense of the absurd and wry wit without ever losing touch with the very human side of the story. His close relationship with the White Rabbit and Violette Szabo -- two of the greatest British agents of the war -- and his accounts of the many others he dealt with result in a thrilling and poignant memoir that celebrates individual courage and endeavor, without losing sight of the human cost and horror of war.
Publisher: New York : Free Press, c1998
ISBN: 9780684864228
Branch Call Number: 940.54864 MARKS
Characteristics: 613 p., [8] p. of plates : ill. ; 25 cm


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Aug 10, 2018

I have just finished reading Leo Marks' Between Silk and Cyanide, which is the best book I've read all year and is a ferociously brilliant memoir about his time making & breaking codes in SOE in WWII. He briefs Khan and as her training reports have been not all that favourable reads her short story collection first as a way of getting into her head, and making her focus on the code. (Marks is the son of the Marks who runs the second-hand bookshop made famous by 84, Charing Cross Road )

Apr 15, 2018

I have reread this book once and will do so again. It is one of the most intelligently written books I've had the pleasure of reading in perhaps the last 20 years. It is written by Leo Marks, the son of one of the two owners of Marks & Co., the bookstore in Elaine Hampf's book (and subsequent movie) '84 Charing Cross Road.'

During WWII, Marks worked coding and decoding spy messages from British Agents.

You might not think techniques of pre-computer encoding/decoding spy messages (and personal and structural problems) could be interesting. However, in Marks' hands, the topic is not only interesting, but spell-binding.

During the height of the war, spies sent from Britain to France had a life expectancy of 6 weeks. In Belgium, Marks began to suspect his spies were being captured and used to send back false information, in order to gain information from the British side in its messages to the captured agents. He even knew who was probably behind this, and it turns out he was right. The German spy, Hans Giskes, later wrote a book describing his operation, entitled 'London Calling North Pole,' (which is also in the King County Library.)

For many years, the author was prevented from publishing his account by the British Official Secrets Act. Finally, when Leo Marks was in his 80's, the book was published. It's still relevant and readable as ever.

Sep 27, 2016

The best book I have read in 2016...and I don't expect to read one better.

Sep 04, 2015

Explained quite clearly and with humor, code-breaking in the UK has never seemed so accessible. We think of codemakers and codebreakers as working on foreign codes to see what the enemy is up to. Actually, codebreakers had the most trouble breaking their own agents' codes from behind enemy lines. One-time codes were printed on silk to be hidden in clothing. Messages were created under duress, and you never knew precisely which code the spy was using for that message. Or whether the spy would get it right. Translation was done by several people who were aware two things were effected by the time it took to decode: military operations, and discovery of the spies. A real-life cliffhanger of the best sort. Highly recommended.

morrisonist Jul 16, 2015

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.

Jul 03, 2015

Marks was, at 23, the "chief of codes" for one of the British organizations running agents in occupied Europe in WWII. With wry humor poked mostly at himself, he provides insight into the courage of the agents and the bureaucratic idiocies that put them at risk.

byagoodfire Feb 26, 2015

Great read! Very visual given his ability to set the scene for films or theatre. Loved the way one just steps into London, the war, peoples' lives.

History that reads like really well-written fiction.

Dec 08, 2014

De Gaulle claimed his code was unbreakable. This guy cracked it easily, and showed that the Germans could, too.

His becoming a cryptographer happened accidentally, but it turned out he was amazingly good at it. This is a great memoir/spy story/history.


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