In 1942, having failed the entrance exam for Bletchley Park, 22-year-old Leo Marks was despatched to what he heard described as ‘some potty outfit in Baker Street’. This was the code-breaking unit of the Special Operatives Executive (SOE), where Marks would enter the code war along with some of the foremost Allied secret agents. Unpublished until 1998 because of the Official Secrets Act, his memoir has been acclaimed as one of the greatest accounts of espionage in the Second World War.
This is an unforgettable story of heroism under fire, gallows humour, unswerving loyalty and fatal mistakes. Marks writes frankly of the in-fighting between the Free French and SOE, and of his terrible discovery that the Nazis had taken over the Dutch secret agents’ codes. For years SOE relied on codes based on poems, which were all too easy to crack if you knew the originals. Marks’s attempts to change the system were rebuffed at first, so he wrote his own verse. Eventually he persuaded SOE to adopt one-off ciphers printed on silk that could be easily destroyed, or hidden in the lining of clothing; cyanide was provided in case the ruse failed. These innovations were later said to have hastened the Allied victory by three months.
This edition features a striking binding with a silk panel on the front board. Marks’s poem ‘The life that I have’, which he gave as a code to the SOE agent Violette Szabo, is blocked onto the silk, and the coloured endpapers reproduce an original coding. Sections of illustrations include portraits of agents such as Marks’s friend ‘Tommy’ Yeo-Thomas, the ‘White Rabbit’, taken just eight hours before he parachuted into France, and pictures of operation sites such as the Norsk Hydro. Simon Mawer is the author of a much-praised novel about SOE, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (published as Trapeze in the U.S.). In his introduction, he rightly says that though much has been written about the SOE, ‘ there is nothing like Between Silk and Cyanide.’
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