Tag Archives: Spying

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.

*My code de-encrypted: SHALL WE GO TO THE CINEMA TOMORROW

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Spying in Europe – The work of the SOE

SOE

1941 found Britain standing alone against Hitler’s Germany. Britain had had no troops in Europe since Dunkirk, and there was no prospect of troops being able to land in the foreseeable future. Churchill was frustrated by this and set up the Special Operations Executive to train volunteers who were willing to parachute into occupied territories, where they would help the local population to fight the Nazis. More than 400 SOE operatives served in France where they played a decisive role in the preparations for, and days following, the D Day Landings. More than 25% of SOE agents who parachuted into France never returned home.

So how did someone become a secret agent during the Second World War? The initial choice was not of soldiers with military expertise, that training would come later. The key factor was whether someone had any special qualities which would be useful in occupied territory. Maybe they were fluent in a foreign language? Maybe they had a background living in France or one of the other occupied countries? Whatever first attracted the SOE recruiters, all volunteers initially underwent an interview in a foreign language, talking about nothing more sinister than their background. The possibility that they might be asked to work as a secret agent was never mentioned, and it can be assumed that all interviewees left the strange meeting in a London hotel room feeling very confused and, no doubt, curious. If the interviewer felt that the candidate had potential then another meeting would be arranged in the same hotel. If successful, working for the SOE was proposed to them, and any willing to serve their country in such a dangerous and secretive role started their basic training.

Training in Scotland
Training in Scotland

Training needed to be long and hard if operatives were to have the best chance of survival. The first stage was military based, with an emphasis on fitness, handling weapons, map reading, unarmed combat, demolition, how to operate in the field and basic radio communications. Not everyone made it through this first stage of training, but those who did headed north to Scotland. SOE’s staff HQ was at Arisaig in Invernessshire, located on a rugged coastline in a remote part of Scotland.  The location was a perfect place to train secret agents – in secret!  Trainees spent between three and five weeks living in local accommodation in and around Arisaig whilst continuing their weapons training, and working on other skills they had already started developing. By the end of the course they would be familiar with a large number of weapons from all countries, meaning that they would be able to make effective use of any guns they managed to ‘liberate’ whilst behind enemy lines. Alongside this they learnt unarmed combat and how to kill silently, as well as beginning to learn rudimentary coding. As sabotage would play a large role in an agent’s work Arisaig was the place where they learnt and developed their skills with explosives – from simple bombs, to planning and blowing up railway lines or arms dumps. The physical training was hard, with both men and women undertaking the same courses over difficult terrain, although everyone recognised its importance. Who knew when they might have to move silently and swiftly through the countryside to conduct a raid, or make an escape across country with the Germans in hot pursuit?

 

Arisaig House
Arisaig House
Parachute training
Parachute training

Many a recruit failed the physical training. Those who made it through headed south once again, to learn how to jump out of a plane. Training took place at Altricham, with the planes for their five jumps leaving from Ringway (now Manchester Airport). To pass this part of the training the recruits would have to conduct four daylight and one night time jump. Low altitude jumps were the norm as any flight into occupied country would be low in an attempt to avoid German radar.

The next stage of training involved specialization – from demolition to radio operation, industrial sabotage to silent killing. And all the time, more weapons practice, more physical training, more field craft. The training was intense and unremitting. As well as the obvious training recruits underwent tests of which they were totally unaware. Strong drinks were readily available, something which ordinary soldiers undergoing basic training would never experience. The ulterior motive? Could the potential agent drink sensibly and hold his or her drink? Were they likely to talk too much (and too loudly)? Would this be a liability? Any who failed the test would be reassigned elsewhere and never serve behind enemy lines.

The final training took place on Lord Montague’s estate at Beaulieu in the New Forest, where agents studied techniques for passing messages, how to live a secret life in enemy territory, personal security, how to act if they felt they were under surveillance and, of course, how to maintain their cover story. All agents received a new identity with a complete history and family for their ‘previous life’ in occupied territory. This was the most frightening thing for many agents, for it was the little things that could give one away. It was said that one agent looked right first when crossing a road instead of left, momentarily forgetting that the French drive on the other side of the road to the English. This small mistake was said to have been enough for him to give himself away to the enemy.

Beaulieu House
Beaulieu House

Final testing took place at Beaulieu with agents undergoing mock raids, or making contact with trainers posing as resistance members, or losing a tail – the list was endless. But, at last, those who had made it through from the initial strange interview in London to this final testing were given home leave, before preparing to embark on a journey into enemy territory from which many never returned.

The courage of the men and women who served behind enemy lines was remarkable, but people often forget that life for agents was not easy when they were back in England. No one knew their secret work, and this could take its toll on family life. The main character in my novel, ‘Heronfield’, is Tony, a young man who is proud to serve his country by joining the SOE. He knows that it will be difficult but the conflict within his family is far more than he ever dreamed it would be, compared by his father to his older brother who was a fighter pilot, and falling short of what was wanted and expected. As for the girl he loved… Could she love a man who seemed afraid to join an active unit and fight? I wrote Heronfield as a tribute to the brave SOE agents, both men and women, who offered so much for their country, suffered so much, and in many cases, made the ultimate sacrifice.

Mauthausen
Mauthausen Concentration Camp