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The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945

The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945

2.5 4
by Max Hastings

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Examining the espionage and intelligence stories of World War II, on a global basis, bringing together the British, American, German, Russian and Japanese histories.Spies, codes and guerrillas played critical roles in the Second World War, exploited by every nation in the struggle to gain secret knowledge of its foes, and to sow havoc behind the fronts. In ‘The


Examining the espionage and intelligence stories of World War II, on a global basis, bringing together the British, American, German, Russian and Japanese histories.Spies, codes and guerrillas played critical roles in the Second World War, exploited by every nation in the struggle to gain secret knowledge of its foes, and to sow havoc behind the fronts. In ‘The Secret War’, Max Hastings presents a worldwide cast of characters and some extraordinary sagas of intelligence and Resistance, to create a new perspective on the greatest conflict in history.Here are not only Alan Turing and the codebreaking geniuses of Bletchley Park, but also their German counterparts, who achieved their own triumphs against the Allies. Hastings plots the fabulous espionage networks created by the Soviet Union in Germany and Japan, Britain and America, and explores the puzzle of why Stalin so often spurned his agents, who reported from the heart of the Axis war machine.The role of SOE and American’s OSS as sponsors of guerrilla war are examined, and the book tells the almost unknown story of Ronald Seth, an SOE agent who was ‘turned’ by the Germans, walked the streets of Paris in a Luftwaffe uniform, and baffled MI5, MI6 and the Abwehr as to his true loyalty. Also described is the brilliantly ruthless Russian deception operation which helped to secure the Red Army’s victory at Stalingrad, a ruse that cost 70,000 lives.‘The Secret War’ links tales of high courage ashore, at sea and in the air to the work of the brilliant ‘boffins’ at home, battling the enemy’s technology. Most of the strivings, adventures and sacrifices of spies, Resistance, Special Forces and even of the codebreakers were wasted, Hastings says, but a fraction was so priceless that no nation grudged lives and treasure spent in the pursuit of jewels of knowledge. The book tells stories of high policy and human drama, mingled in the fashion that has made international bestsellers of Max Hastings’ previous histories, this time illuminating the fantastic machinations of secret war.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Josef Joffe
…tales of luck, pluck and doom are not the best reason for plowing through the 600 pages of The Secret War. To begin, the book embodies a herculean research effort down to the minutest detail. Fear not. In spite of its heft, this tome is a real page turner. Screenwriters might cull a few thrillers from the text—and populate them with real-life heroes, fools and traitors. Finally, Hastings provides a welcome reality check for those who draw their spy lore from TV shows or movies like The Imitation Game…For all its focus on the Anglo-American brotherhood, The Secret War also covers the whole front from the French and Dutch resistance to the German Abwehr and the Soviet NKVD. Like the rest, these chapters blend first-rate reportage, finely chiseled portraits and in-depth research. They brim with true tales of sacrifice and petty-mindedness, miraculous breakthroughs and cynical betrayal.
Publishers Weekly
Hastings (Catastrophe: 1914) further solidifies his gift for combining scholarship and readability in this scintillating overview of intelligence operations in WWII. He moves through the large, highly specialized body of knowledge to share the whole story: machines and code books, agents and double agents, deceptions and illusions. Combining chronological and thematic approaches, Hastings makes a strong case that "it is impossible justly to attribute all credit for the success or blame for the failure of an operation to any single factor." Even the vaunted ULTRA system was part of a structure dependent on human skill, judgment, and intuition. Stalin's discounting of the barking "dogs in the night"—the stream of accurate intelligence on Germany's intentions in 1941—brought the U.S.S.R. to the brink of catastrophe. In contrast, the U.S. victory at Midway owed much to Adm. Chester Nimitz accepting the word of radio intelligence that, still in its early stages, was "practically the only source" of reports in the Central Pacific. Hastings takes readers behind the lines with Britain's Special Operations Executive and describes parallel missions in such neutral states as Ireland and Portugal. He also provides character sketches of a number of clandestine agents. Hastings tells it all in a book everyone interested in WWII should acquire. (May)
Library Journal
Some books are like spies in that it is often necessary to peel back layers to reveal their true intent. This latest work from Hastings (Catastrophe 1914; All Hell Let Loose) falls within this realm, paying homage to World War II intelligence agencies. Uncovering complex information, the text reveals three narrative themes: mere intelligence did not win the war, democracies were more advantageously attuned to their agencies' output, and that Germany, Japan, and Russia ignored insights that conflicted with their interests, leading to consequences on the battlefield. This dense and occasionally cumbersome work is not a chronology of events; instead the author provides readers with a thorough understanding of how intelligence operated during the conflict. Hastings' narrative fits nicely with titles such as Christof Mauch's The Shadow War Against Hitler, Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev's TRIPLEX, and David Kahn's Hitler's Spies. VERDICT Recommended for World War II and spy enthusiasts as well as those who desire an informative historical read.—Jacob Sherman, John Peace Lib., Univ. of Texas at San Antonio
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-02-17
Taking a break with Catastrophe: 1914 (2013), veteran military historian Hastings returns to World War II with the usual entirely satisfying results. There are plenty of excellent accounts of the war's espionage, codebreaking, and secret operations. Hastings mentions authors, including Stephen Budiansky and David Kahn, and warns that he will cover the same ground, adding that many popular histories and almost all memoirs and even official reports from the participants are largely fiction—including the recent acclaimed film about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. The Red Army defeated Germany with modest help from the Allied Army, which, across the world, defeated Japan. Hastings disparages writers who describe a secret activity that turned the tide, but few readers will be able to resist his version of events. Hitler and Stalin scorned Britain's armies, but, influenced by the work of Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, and John Buchan, they "viewed its spies with extravagant respect, indeed cherished a belief in their omniscience" that was entirely undeserved. Money was no object in Soviet espionage. Agents penetrated the Nazi high command and all Allied government, sending back an avalanche of information that was routinely ignored. Obsessed with finding conspiracies, the paranoid Stalin distrusted everyone, foreigners most of all, and rejected findings that contradicted his beliefs. Allied codebreakers deserve the praise lavished on them, but Hastings points out that the German codebreakers were no slouches. While Bletchley Park broke enemy naval codes intermittently, Germany read British naval codes throughout the war. Hastings has little quarrel with historians who agree that resistance fighters did more to promote postwar self-respect of occupied nations than hasten Allied victory. As he notes in closing, in the digital age, "the importance to national security of intelligence, eavesdropping, codebreaking and counter-insurgency has never been greater." A masterful account of wartime skulduggery that has relevance still today.
New York Review of Books
“[Hastings] brilliantly depicts the byzantine world of intelligence agencies, with dry humor and perception.”
“Ambitious and often fascinating...This wide-ranging account is filled with compelling characters...A superb survey of an always interesting aspect of warfare.”
Christian Science Monitor
“[D]efinitive….This is a marvelous book - smart, carefully and exhaustively researched and highly informative. Even those exceptionally knowledgeable about World War II will find it extremely valuable. It is compelling and fascinating reading.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.80(d)

Meet the Author

Max Hastings is the author of more than twenty books, most recently Catastrophe: 1914. He has served as a foreign correspondent and as the editor of Britain’s Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph. He has received numerous British Press Awards, including Journalist of the Year in 1982 and Editor of the Year in 1988. He lives outside London.

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The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers and Guerrillas 1939-1945 2.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
DT63 More than 1 year ago
I could only get thru 3 chapters before calling it quits. Simply a compilation of hundred's of spy names and no detailed stories of interest behind any of them.
Anonymous 3 months ago
This is very lengthy and comprehensive narrative about WW2 spying efforts by all parties. Being so thorough, it has to involve naming many individuals and it gives a lot of information about the important players and the work they did. This is not a book for anyone who is interested in only short snippets about exciting exploits, or glamorous spies leading dangerous lives. It is the most informative history that I have read on this subject.
Anonymous 6 months ago
Comprehensive coverage that at time drags. Formating could use work to make easier reading but it usually moved along well. Can not say I enjoy recent history by English authors as most of these recently released books are written to showcase how important Britian was/is to world history (especially WWII). I guess it must be hard to go from a great "empire" to a lone island with little world influence. Still a decent book about the entire secret war from 1939-1945. J C
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you want to read a telephone book of spies names--this is for you. No story- just word salad. Terrible