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The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939–1945 Hardcover – 10 Sep 2015
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‘As gripping as any spy thriller. Hastings understands, better than any previous historian, that this is as much a story about human nature as it is about the mechanics of code-breaking or spycraft … he has the novelist’s eye for the telling detail … this book works because Hastings is simply a very fine writer who is not afraid of making judgements … Hastings’s achievement is especially impressive, for he has produced the best single volume yet written on the subject’ Lawrence Rees, Sunday Times
‘A total thriller with a full cast of killers, swashbucklers and beautiful adventuresses. The best history of war intelligence yet’ Simon Sebag Montefiore
‘This is his war and he writes with an easy assurance, scatter-gunning opinions … Hastings is on form. He has set out to provide thought and discussion and, with his familiar robustness, shotgun at side, he has succeeded’ The Times
‘Authoritative, exciting and notably well written’ Daily Telegraph
‘A serious work of rigorous and comprehensive history … royally entertaining and readable’ Mail on Sunday
‘Vintage Hastings: a vivid cast of characters, social observation and opinions forcefully expressed … Given the national fixation with spies and special forces, Hastings’s book is a very necessary corrective’ Evening Standard
‘Lively and entertaining … a rich gallery of rogues, eccentrics and brainstorming professors which … Hastings can manipulate with wonderful deftness’ Observer
‘A compendious, crisply argued and witty assessment’ Financial Times
‘[Hastings] writes with infectious relish … a magnificent parade of crooks, alcoholics and fantasists … [he] has drawn fascinating fresh material … A book that pulses along, yet is filled with acute insight into human ingenuity, frailty, and the ironies of evil’ Spectator
‘Magisterial … an author at the top of his game’ Country Life
‘Hastings deploys a formidable arsenal to tell his human stories, plus a refreshing degree of scepticism’ Daily Telegraph
About the Author
Max Hastings is the author of twenty-six books, most about conflict, and between 1986 and 2002 served as editor-in-chief of the Daily Telegraph, then editor of the Evening Standard. He has won many prizes both for journalism and his books, of which the most recent are All Hell Let Loose, Catastrophe and The Secret War, best-sellers translated around the world. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of King’s College, London and was knighted in 2002. He has two grown-up children, Charlotte and Harry, and lives with his wife Penny in West Berkshire, where they garden enthusiastically.
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However, the strength of the book lies not in these ‘asides’, but rather the wider analysis of the usefulness of spies and espionage in their various forms. Hastings makes a strong case that their contributions are overrated. Even breaking Enigma was only a partial success, with a minority of messages being decoded in time to be useful to forces in the field, and the German army code was never really cracked. Even when a message was decoded and sent to the forces in the field in time to be useful, all too often it was not acted upon, either because the necessary forces were not available, or local commanders lacked the competence to use it. The lesson that Hastings draws is that intelligence is only useful if you have the means to use it.
He is even more critical of the contributions of actions behind enemy lines of guerrillas, partisans and resistance groups. Although their actions might have some effect in raising morale, this was often short-lived, and all too often the military effects were slight and frequently resulted in savage reprisals on the civilian population. The whole secret world, by its very nature of not being open to scrutiny, is also prone to exploitation by corrupt bogus spies and profligate expenditure on hair-brained schemes doomed to failure. The book has many examples of this.
Ironically, one of the greatest espionage successes was not obtained by spying on German and Japan, but by Russia spying on America and Britain, who were its allies! The notorious ‘Cambridge Five’, and their numerically far more numerous American counterparts, did considerable damage, even though Stalin was reluctant for a long time to believe much of what he was told by western spies because it did not fit with his personal views. The classic example of this was his dismissal of warnings about Barbarossa, Hitler’s decision to invade Russia, with appalling consequences for the Russian people.
Hasting’s book may not contain a lot of original material, but it is well-written and researched. By closely re-examining and analysing a great volume of material (although many files both in the West, and of course in Russia, are still closed) and looking at spying globally, he is able to draw clear compelling conclusions about its usefulness that are still valid today in the modern era of cyber espionage. It will certainly challenge many people’s prejudices.
Overall, an interesting and accessible book that helps expose the murky goings-on behind the traditional face of war. Recommended.
tells the life and times of spying in detail,
from the guys that just fantasised,to the Russians that knew if they were recalled home,it was to be executed ,
also how most of the "elite" brits that betrayed their country did so for "moral" grounds,
well worth reading,if only for the history ,and how many famous names appear
Filled with characters and plans so fantastic that it is hard to remember they are not from the realms of fiction. This is an absolute page turner.
At times this reads more like a fast-paced thriller, so thoroughly has the author researched and revealed this huge subject of interwoven deceptions and counter-ploys.
He has done his subject matter justice in this cracking read.
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