Thursday, August 11, 2016

My Amazon Review of Max Hastings' "The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945"

Sigint, Humint and the Focus of the NKVD

Journalist/historian Max Hastings has written an encyclopedic history (640 pages in the print edition) of the secret war being fought by all sides during World War II. It is too much for the average reader, but that being said one comes away with the view that signals intelligence (sigint) was far superior to human intelligence (humint) over the course of the war with the notable exception of the role of the Soviet NKVD and its military counterpart the GRU.

The heroes of the book are the quirky academics, most notably Alan Turing, at Bletchley Park in breaking the German enigma code and America’s unsung hero Joseph Rochefort who by the dint of intense effort, broke the Japanese naval code. What Bletchley did was to enable the British navy to locate German submarine traffic, a fete that was instrumental to winning the Battle of the Atlantic. Similarly Rochefort code breaking enabled America’s surprise attack at the Battle of Midway which changed the course of the war in the Pacific. It also enabled to ambush Admiral Yamamoto in flight over the South Pacific. Sigint also broke the Japanese diplomatic code which enabled the Allies to listen in on the correspondence of the Japanese ambassador to Berlin on his transcripts to Tokyo enabling the allies to understand Hitler’s war strategy after 1943.

On the other hand the Soviet Union relied very successfully on humint. They had Richard Sorge working in the German embassy in Tokyo who supplied them with more than enough information to warn them about the pending German invasion. It was no avail, because Stalin refused to believe it. This highlights a fundamental problem with intelligence gathering; it has to be believed and it is vulnerable false information. Stalin also benefitted from his spies in Europe operating under the umbrella of “the Red Orchestra” or the “Rote Kapelle”. His agents there also warned him of the pending German invasion.

Unlike the other allied powers, Stalin spied on his allies, the UK and the U.S. The notorious Cambridge Five located in MI-5, MI-6 and the foreign office tipped him off on allied strategy. Thus at every summit meeting he knew the Roosevelt/Churchill positions going in greatly strengthening his hand. His spying on the U.S. penetrated the nuclear program thereby giving him the greatest intelligence coup of World War II and perhaps of all time. Stalin before anyone else understood that nuclear weapons were a game changer. Hastings portrayal of his agents and agent handlers in the U.S. is especially acute.

One of the key lessons that Hastings draws is that intelligence has no meaning unless the users of the information have forces on the ground to influence events. Thus knowing the position of German submarines is of no value unless you have destroyers ready to take them out.

Hastings also discusses the roles of both German and Japanese intelligence. The Germans were good early in the war, not so good later. And Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr does not come off as a great spymaster. Similarly, the same goes for Major General William Donovan of the American OSS. However he does give credit for the research and analysis section of the OSS in its understanding of the German economic capabilities.

Hastings has written a long book and this review does not give true justice to it. I recommend it for those interested in the craft of intelligence and its role in World War II.  

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