A. L. Sowards's Reviews > Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945

Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks
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it was amazing
bookshelves: history-1900s, history-wwii, favorites, 2013, nonfiction

I added this to my to-read list last year, when a goodreads friend (thanks, Christie!) said it was among the best WWII books she’d read in 2012. Now that I’ve read it, I have to say that it’s among the best I’ve read in 2013.

The book begins with Leo Marks going off to war—to codebreakers school. He spends too much time trying to find shortcuts, so his instructors decide he’s not quite good enough for Bletchley Park (where the British are busy breaking German codes), but maybe a new outfit called SOE can use him. On his first day, he’s given a coded message and told to decode it. Everyone seems to think he should be able to accomplish his task within a half hour, so when it takes him until tea-time, he’s convinced he won’t be asked to stay. As he’s slinking from the room, someone asks him to leave the code.

“What code, sir?”

. . . “The code you broke it with!”

“You didn’t give me one, sir.”

. . . “How did you decode that message if I didn’t give you one?”

“You told me to break it, sir.”

. . . “You mean you broke it . . . without a code?”


So begins Marks’ SOE career. He’s eventually put in charge of agents’ codes, and spends the war trying to make them more secure. Marks doesn’t fight on the front lines and he never enters Nazi-occupied territory, but he has his battles. Some of them are with rival British intelligence organizations. Others are spent trying to convince the bureaucracy that the old coding systems aren’t secure and that the traffic coming from Dutch agents is highly suspicious. In a memorable moment, he tells the Free French (who were usually at odds with the British French section run by Buckmaster) that he doesn’t care if the French agents vote for or against de Gaulle after the war, as long as they’re alive to vote at war’s end.

Marks is young during the war, in his early twenties. He can’t tell his doting parents or their friends what he’s really doing. Several anonymous acquaintances send him white feathers throughout the war, assuming he’s a shirker. The long hours trying to break codes and get needed materials when everything is in short supply wear on him, as do the deaths and other mishaps in the field. Perhaps because of his age, his frequent unauthorized actions, and the personal growth Marks experiences, the book had a slight coming-of-age feel to it.

The writing is excellent. It’s a memoir, and Marks wrote plays and screenplays post-war, so he has an eye for a story. I laughed out loud nearly every chapter, which is kind of rare in a history book. The information is interesting—covering numerous aspects of WWII, but from a different angle than what I’ve read before. The only thing I would have liked better is a more complete epilogue. I guess I’ll have to go find books on Yeo-Thomas and the Grouse team and some of the other agents who wandered through the pages to learn more details of their missions and their lives post-war.

Highly recommended if you have any interest in WWII intelligence operations. It may also interest readers who simply enjoy British humor.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
December 14, 2012 – Shelved
December 14, 2012 – Shelved as: history-1900s
December 14, 2012 – Shelved as: history-wwii
December 30, 2013 – Shelved as: favorites
February 1, 2014 – Shelved as: 2013
July 12, 2018 – Shelved as: nonfiction

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Nice review, added TBR.


A. L. Sowards Thanks, Mike! I hope you enjoy it!


message 3: by Lilo (new) - added it

Lilo I am still very much into non-fiction Third Reich, and I LOVE humor. So I had no other choice but to buy the book. :-)


A. L. Sowards I hope you enjoy it, Lilo!


Bibliothekerin Please read The Woman Who Smashed Codes just out in 2018—SOE in its infancy sent reps to HER (in DC) to break codes for them.


A. L. Sowards Hi, Bibliothekerin. That one's on my to-read list!


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