Monthly Archives: September 2017

Life or death communications – the use of codes by Britain’s spies in the Second World War

Did you ever write messages in code when you were a child? I remember having fun believing that what I wrote to my friend was unreadable by anyone else – even though we only used a simple code where the letters of the alphabet were transposed a number of places. For instance, if we transposed the letters by two places we could send this message:

UJCNN YG IQ VQ VJG EKPGOC VQOQTTQY – I’m sure you’ll find it very easy to read!*

Communication is vital during war, particularly for agents who may be behind enemy lines, but sending messages can also be very dangerous. For agents of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War it was always possible that the enemy might decipher their messages or get a fix on the radio when the message was sent – both scenarios which could put the life of the agent in danger. To ensure a transmission was as safe as possible some sort of encryption was needed to keep the message secret.

Samuel Morse

Before learning how to encode a message the SOE agent would first have to learn how to send in Morse code which is a method of transmitting text as a series of ‘on’ and ‘off’ switches which are known as ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ and are, in effect, a simple binary coding. The code is named after Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph in the 1830’s and needed a new electronic system to be able to send messages. Each letter or symbol in Morse code is represented by a series of these dots and dashes and it is the simplest and most versatile method of radio/telegraph communication. The most well-known grouping of letters in Morse code is the universal distress call    . . . _ _ _ . . . (dot dot dot dash dash dash dot dot dot), more commonly known as SOS.

But learning Morse code was only the first step for an agent who was preparing to go overseas as it was a universally known code and so the enemy would be able to read any messages that they sent. In the early days of the SOE agents used a simple, and consequently insecure, code known as ‘poem code’ to encrypt their messages. Both the agent and the person receiving the message would have a copy of the same poem. The sender would start his message with five letters to indicate which part of the poem his encryption would be based on; the message would then be written in columns before being transposed and transmitted. These poem codes worked well because they were quite secure but the agent didn’t need to carry a code book as they could memorise the poem. There were, however, weaknesses to this system. For instance, it was relatively easy to make a mistake when encoding; also, if the enemy managed to decode one message they then had all the information they needed to decode other transmissions from that agent in the future, and even ones they had intercepted in the past.

Leo Marks

The SOE knew that they needed to improve their communications system and so Leo Marks was appointed as codes officer. He found that the poems used for encryption had to be easy for agents to remember and so were often famous ones such as ‘Daffodils’ – the problem was that these famous poems would be known by the enemy and so make it easier for them to crack the codes. One of the first changes Marks made was to have original poems written for the agents to use rather than famous ones, these original poems were often comic, satirical or sexual to make them more memorable. Not all fell into these categories though, and one of the most famous of his original poems was, in fact, a love poem written for his girlfriend who had been killed in a plane crash; he later gave this poem to agent Violette Szabo to use when she was posted to France. (Violette was executed at Ravensbruck concentration camp in 1945 and her service in the SOE was commemorated in the 1958 film ‘Carve Her Name With Pride’).

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.

Violette Szabo

Another method Marks introduced was to simply use a different poem for each transmission to prevent any sort of pattern which might help the enemy. As it would have been hard for an agent to remember a number of poems correctly these were written on silk rather than memorised.

Leo Marks continued to work on more secure methods of encryption and the poem code was gradually replaced. The Worked-Out Key (WOK) system used a number of codes which were used only once and were written on silk (to be hidden in the agents clothing as described in my article on radio operators). Once a particular key had been used it would be torn off the silk and destroyed, leaving the next key ready for use. Marks went on to develop a One-Time Pad code where the letters of the alphabet were written in a list, the agent encoded his message by using a substitution square (i.e. substituting a different letter for each one in the alphabet). After being used once the list was thrown away and a different one used next time but still using the same substitution square. This was much safer than the poem code as there was no pattern to the listing of the letters of the alphabet and so even if the enemy managed to break the code for one message it wouldn’t help them with future ones. SOE agents liked this method as it was quick and secure.

As well as ensuring the safest possible codes Leo Marks worked on ways of deceiving the enemy through agent’s transmissions. One of these deceptions was Operation Gift-Horse which included key codes from the WOK system at the beginning of each message and fooled the enemy into thinking it was a poem code. The main aim of this operation was to get the Germans to waste their time trying to decipher coded poems when the message was, in fact, a completely different system. ‘Gift-Horse’ was used extensively just before D Day in 1944 at a time when there was already a huge increase in radio messages and so made the chances of the Germans decoding and compiling information about the invasion much more difficult.

So the types of puzzles which we find so enjoyable as a leisure activity had a far more serious role for a secret agent behind enemy lines. Maybe next time you do a puzzle in a magazine or a book you can take a moment to think of those for whom coding was not a simple pass-time but a key part of their work which, if not done correctly, could cost them their life.



Recommended Read – At Break Of Day by Elizabeth Speller

In the summer of 1913, the world seems full of possibility for four very different young men.

Young Jean-Baptiste dreams of the day he’ll leave his Picardy home and row down-river to the sea.

Earnest and hard-working Frank has come to London to take up an apprenticeship in Regent Street. His ambitions are self-improvement, a wife and, above all, a bicycle.

Organ scholar Benedict is anxious yet enthralled by the sensations of his synaesthesia. He is uncertain both about God and the nature of his friendship with the brilliant and mercurial Theo.

Harry has turned his back on his wealthy English family, has a thriving business in New York and a beautiful American wife. But his nationality is still British.

Three years later, on the first of July 1916, their lives have been taken in entirely unexpected directions. Now in uniform they are waiting for dawn on the battlefield of the Somme. The generals tell them that victory will soon be theirs but the men are accompanied by regrets, fears and secrets as they move towards the line.

1st July 1916 will always be remembered as the day that the Battle of the Somme began, a day of appalling loss of life in the midst of terrible confusion. At Break Of Day is the story of what led four young men to be there on the Somme on that day, and what happened to them. As you begin to learn about these young men you discover why they joined up and what led them, inexorably, to be in that place at that time; and as you read you know that, statistically they will not all survive to the end of this story.

Ms Speller introduces us to four very different young men, giving each his own distinctive voice in the narrative and crafting believable characters whom it is easy to sympathise with. It takes great skill to write about four main characters using slightly different styles in a way that makes them believable and yet very distinct for the reader, so avoiding any possible confusion. As the story moves towards its climax the lives of the protagonists cross briefly and often unknowingly. This had the potential to feel contrived and weaken the story line, but the author’s deft handling of the narrative made it all seem so natural – after all these four disparate characters are no different to those thousands of young men from so many different places and backgrounds who did, in reality, find themselves in that same place on that same day with such tragic consequences.

Many of us know about the First World War from documentaries, photographs and the poems written in the trenches, and At Break Of Day certainly evokes that sense of a landscape of mud and craters, barbed wire and fortified positions, horror and despair. I felt it was a clever plotline for Ms Speller to have her French soldier, Jean-Baptiste, growing up on the banks of the Somme as we see how the beautiful pastoral home that he loves is changed beyond all recognition by the terrible destruction of the First World War, and it is not difficult to see this as a metaphore for the way the Battle of the Somme changed men of hope and vitality into wounded and scared men who would never be the same again, if they survived at all.

The final section of this novel brings our characters together on that one fateful day. Here Ms Speller describes the trenches and no man’s land; the officers, soldiers, and medics; the fear and confusion. This section, like the remainder of the novel, is well researched and gives an insight into a little known soldier – the cycle messengers and their folding bicycles which they often carried over the rough terrain as they struggled to deliver orders in a sea of confusion. It is research which truly enhances the novel without ever being heavy or slowing the storyline.

At Break Of Day re-creates for us an image of life at the beginning of the 20th century with all its sense of hope and promise, and then shows how that hope and promise was shattered. It encapsulates the fragmented nature of the battlefield and so evokes some understanding of what it might have felt like to be a soldier during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is an intensely moving novel though never sentimental and although it is, finally, about death and destruction, it is also about family and friendships and love. Reading this novel is not always easy but it is something which I would recommend as a reminder to all of the utter futility of war.

At Break Of Day can be found on  Amazon

You can find out more about Elizabeth Speller here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Children at war- ‘And when did you last see your father?’

Many of you will recognise this painting; it is called ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ and was painted by William Frederick Yeames in 1878 (oil on canvas). It is a painting which I have always found fascinating as there is so much going on. With the deftly painted depictions of people and emotions you can’t help but be drawn into the story, in fact I have seen this work of art used by school teachers as an introduction to the topic of the English Civil War. So, what exactly is going on here, and how does it fit into this period of our history?

The scene depicts events in a Royalist household when a young boy is questioned about when his father was last at home. The house has obviously been captured by Parliamentary forces as can be seen by the central figure lounging in a chair – he wears the military clothing of a Roundhead cavalry officer, including long riding boots and orange sash.

The young boy and the females are all dressed in Royalist style; the young girl who is crying appears to be next in line for interrogation whilst the mother, and possibly elder daughter, watch.  The man with his arm around the shoulders of the young girl is carrying a halberd which identifies him as a sergeant; it is likely that his role was to arrest the family and bring them before the Parliamentarian questioners. Amongst the other characters in the painting are a clerk who is making notes and bringing the air of a courtroom to the proceedings, and two Puritans (wearing the tall black hats and white collars) who appear stern and obviously pleased to have another dangerous Royalist within their grasp.

Most people believe that this is a fictional scene although John Adair, who wrote ‘By the Sword Divided’, says that it depicts what happened to the family of Bulstrode Whitelocke whose house at Fawley Court near Henley was ransacked by both Royalist and Parliamentary forces during the war. I suppose we will never know whether this painting is a depiction of a real event or pure fiction, but for me at least that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the quite accurate glimpse which it gives into a conflict which tore England apart in the seventeenth century, dividing people on grounds of politics and religion. It is interesting to note that although the painting depicts a frightening time for the Royalist family it is not overly aggressive. One can almost imagine the sergeant has placed a hand on the young girl’s shoulder to comfort her, and the lead questioner appears to be leaning sympathetically towards the little boy. But that does not take away from the seriousness of the situation, or the conflict which the child faces. A young boy in his position would have had the ideal of honesty instilled into him from an early age, and he would know that he should not tell a lie. Yet, on the other hand, to tell the truth might put his father’s life in danger. What should a small boy do? How would he respond to such pressure?

My admiration for this beautiful piece of art, and the way it fired my imagination as to ‘what happened next’, led to my writing a particular scene in The Cavalier Historian where the young hero of the novel is questioned about his father’s whereabouts as things begin to look increasingly bleak for the followers of the King…