Thursday, July 13, 2017

In secret

I’ve just finished the book A Man Called Intrepid by William Stevenson, published in 1976. I found the book at Dad’s house and decided it looked interesting enough to read. This is the real story of the British secret intelligence services during World War II. The central character is William Stephenson (yes, spelled differently from the author).

After WWI Europe, including Britain, wanted nothing to do with any aspect of war. That included intelligence services, which were mostly disbanded. One upper-crust British man didn’t think war should include people slinking around in the background – “A gentleman does not read another gentleman’s mail.” It took a while to realize Hitler wasn’t a gentleman.

Even so, the Government Code and Cipher School didn’t disband. To keep its true nature hidden it was sometimes referred to as the Golf, Cheese, and Chess Society. And soon Stephenson was involved.

One of Stepehenson’s early tasks was to get President Roosevelt and American resources involved in the war on the British side. To do this Stephenson got an office in Rockefeller Center, New York. That remained his headquarters for the rest of the war.

Roosevelt had early on sized up Hitler and understood what Hitler was about to do. But America was also tired of war and if there was any hint of cooperation with Britain Roosevelt faced impeachment, or at least would have lost the 1940 election. A good chunk of the first half of the book is how Roosevelt and America were involved in the war without officially being involved.

I won’t recount all the incidents in the war affected by secret intelligence that are included in the book (it is over 500 pages!). I will mention a few that caught my attention.

An authoritarian regime is desperate about loyalty. This was definitely the case in Stalin’s Soviet Union. In the 1930s Hitler took advantage of that need for loyalty. He instructed his agents to start whispering campaigns against all the top Soviet military officers. That, of course, prompted Stalin to execute them all – which means when Hitler invaded a few years later the Soviet military didn’t have any seasoned leadership.

To place agents in Europe every detail of the clothing had to be accurate. A wrong detail would proclaim the wearer was not from here. Each region of Europe attached buttons in a particular way, so fashion experts were consulted for the particular way to attach buttons. The fashions also had to be right. Agents watched passengers disembark from ships in New York harbor. When someone appeared to be fashion conscious they were followed to see what train they got on to get out of the city. On that train ride the luggage might be “stolen” so the fashions may be copied or a garment altered for use by an agent heading into Europe. When the passenger got off the train and discovered no luggage the train crew was effusive with apologies and generous with compensation.

Much of the mail flown to and from America went through Bermuda. This was also a refueling stop. As the pilot and crew were offered a chance to stretch legs, local agents went through the mail, steaming open envelopes, checking contents, and resealing them. If this took longer than expected the flight crew was offered a nice lunch, with apologies for the delay.

Secret intelligence during WWII in Britain of course included Bletchley Park. We know it today because of the movie The Imitation Game and the story it tells of Alan Turing creating a computer to crack Germany’s Enigma code machine (interesting to read the accuracy section of the movie’s Wikipedia page). While the book frequently mentions Bletchley Park, it doesn’t mention Turing and his computer. It makes me wonder if the omission was because Turing was gay and discredited after the war.

The last couple chapters of the book tell the story of the race to build the first atomic bomb and the secret intelligence that influenced the Nazi efforts. I hadn’t known that Germany was working on the bomb (though it makes sense that they were) and, of course, didn’t know how close they got. Much of this story centers on Niels Bohr, the Danish scientist who was researching what makes up an atom. The Danish King was still on the throne, but Nazis essentially controlled the country. Bohr was a pacifist and believed the results of research should be shared worldwide. It was only after Bohr was smuggled to England (in a flight that almost killed him) did he understand how bad the Nazis were and what they intended to do with his research. Even so, he didn’t want Americans to use his research for destruction, either.

I occasionally heard my grandmother mention an Admiral Greenslade in the family. In the last year I found photos of him in Grandma’s album (he looks a lot like my dad). And only now did I check the family genealogy database to place him as my grandmother’s first cousin. Admiral John W. Greenslade served in the Navy and was in his 60s during WWII. He died in 1950 five days short of his 70th birthday. I mention all this because Admiral Greenslade is mentioned (very briefly) in this book! That prompted me to search online for him. I now know one relative with a Wikipedia page.

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