Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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The masterspy of Acton town
by Luke Jennings
Once again, Leo Marks takes me through the details of encoding the messages that I will transmit to London from enemy-occupied France. On the desk in front of me are two squares of silk, printed with thousands of tiny letters.
These, which I will conceal in my clothing, are my LOP (letter one-time pad), and my agent's key. After transmitting each message, Marks explains, I must cut away the relevant section of silk from the LOP and burn it. Even if it is next to impossible - if I am transmitting in the dark, say, and the German foot-patrols and detector-cars are closing in on me, and I am terrified almost to the point of unreason - I must still cut away and burn the used part of the LOP. That way, even if I am caught with my silks, the enemy will not be able to decode my back-traffic.
'Understood?' asks Marks. I nod, and we move on to security checks. These are the letters which I must include in my message to indicate that I am not transmitting under duress. 'They will torture you for your security checks,' says Marks quietly, 'and you will lie. Every time they stop beating you, you will give them a different answer. You will lie, and you will lie, and you will lie, and you will lie...'
We are play-acting, of course, but Marks's eyes on me are rapt and unblinking as those of a starling. The silks are real enough, too, even though they are now more than 50 years old. Every one was created for a real agent dropped behind enemy lines in the Second World War. 'Every code,' says Marks, 'has a human face.'
Marks, a cryptographer of outstanding brilliance, was the code-master of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the department responsible for training, placing and communicating with British secret agents in the Second World War. He briefed and provided codes for hundreds of men and women who were planted behind enemy lines, including such legendary names as Violette Szabo (codename 'Louise') and Frederick Yeo-Thomas ('The White Rabbit'). After the war, Marks worked briefly for SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, later known as MI6), and then turned his back on the secret world to become a writer of plays and filmscripts. Late last year, however, after ten years reliving his time at SOE, Marks published his memoirs entitled Between Silk and Cyanide. More than half a century has passed since the events described in the book, but Marks still encountered 'acute opposition' to his writing it. Almost all of his official war reports, he discovered, had been shredded as too damaging to the reputation of the secret services. Only the encouragement of a former colleague, Jacob Astor of the SAS, persuaded him to undertake the task. 'If you don't write the story,' Astor told him, 'nobody will.'
And so he wrote it. And here, in consequence, am I, sitting in Marks's pleasantly cluttered drawing-room in Acton, being initiated into the mysteries of double-transposition coding. Marks, now 78, is a warm, solicitous and highly enigmatic man, in whom, despite a broad anarchic streak, the habit of secrecy is deeply engrained. When I ask him if he has had anything to do with the secret services since his official departure in 1946 he gravely draws my attention to a plate of smoked salmon sandwiches. 'Let's just say,' he murmurs, steepling his fingers, 'that my advice has occasionally been sought.' The room is dominated by a portrait of Vera Atkins (of SOE's French section) painted by Marks's wife Elena. When they married in 1965, Elena had no idea of her husband's secret background. It was only when they went to a dinner at the Special Forces Club and a total stranger drew her aside and whispered, 'Of course you know that you've married a genius,' that she suspected that there might be more to Marks's past than scriptwriting.
I first heard the name Leo Marks in connection with Michael Powell's film Peeping Tom. The film, which Marks wrote, is a sympathetic portrait of a voyeuristic psychopath. Its central character (named Mark Lewis) is compiling a 'documentary of fear', and films his victims' terror as he kills them. At the time of its release in 1960, the film provoked a critical uproar which destroyed Powell's career. In recent years, however, the piece has been reappraised, and in 1994 the critic Dilys Powell recanted her earlier damning of the film and described Peeping Tom as 'a masterpiece'. It is a bizarre and unsettling work, and unsurprisingly, given Marks's authorship, a highly cryptic one. There are clues embedded in the script as to the central character's true motivation and nature, but these must be decoded frame by frame and word by word before they can be understood.
Perhaps the best key to an understanding of Peeping Tom is Between Silk and Cyanide. At SOE Marks lived in an atmosphere that was rank with fear. 'Every briefing room,' he says, 'was full of it.' Even the most courageous agents knew that their life expectancy in the field was not much more than a month, and that they would be tortured when caught. Part of Marks's job was to observe their state, to watch and assess them as they went through the coding routines and the security checks one last time. He became a connoisseur of fear. 'Peeping Tom,' he tells me, 'was born in those briefing rooms. I became convinced that all cryptographers are basically voyeurs.' The director Martin Scorsese is a great fan and admirer of Peeping Tom. In his 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ he cast Marks as the voice of the devil.
And there is something lethal about Marks, as there is with all those who fought the Nazis 'by all means necessary'. One of the silks Marks shows me belonged to an agent codenamed Periwig. Periwig was a captured German officer named Schiller, a double agent whom SOE dropped into Germany as part of a deception campaign. For the ruse to work, it was necessary that Periwig should be discovered dead, having apparently broken his neck when his parachute failed to open. Marks, 23 at the time, briefed Periwig exhaustively in order that the agent should suspect nothing. Marks knew what was going to happen to him, however, and the briefing was not easy. 'He was a very nice man,' he remembers. 'But then you become case-hardened. If you brief an agent on the Tuesday and three days later his eyes are taken out with a fork, as happened with one of our people, then you do become case-hardened.'
Marks, who describes himself as 'a spoilt Jewish only child', discovered his talent for cryptography 70 years ago. His father was the owner of 84 Charing Cross Road, the bookshop which would be made famous by Helene Hanff's best-seller, and at the age of eight, out of sheer intellectual curiosity, Marks broke his father's elaborate pricing code. Four years later, having discovered that different schools were set the same Common Entrance exams at different times, he set up an inter-school cheating network. As a result, he won a place at St Paul's, and was only saved from being expelled when his real academic level was discovered because the headmaster was a customer of 84 Charing Cross Road. After St Paul's, Marks applied to the code-breaking school at Bletchley Park, but was refused on the grounds of facetiousness and unorthodoxy and sent to the fledgling SOE in Baker Street.
At SOE, which he describes as 'pitted and pockmarked with improbable people doing implausible things for imponderable purposes and succeeding by coincidence', Marks immediately spotted two fatal flaws in the system. The first was that agents were using poems as the basis for codes, and since these poems were memorised, agents could be tortured to reveal them. In many cases, the poems were so well known that all the enemy decoders had to do was break a few words and then turn to The Dragon Book of Verse. Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson were particularly popular. 'SOE's code-poems helped educate the Germans in English literature,' Marks tells me. 'But they weren't much use for anything else. Watch!' Taking a pen, he shows me how a poem-coded message of less than 100 characters is swiftly reducible to a series of simple anagrams. His solution to the problem was to create a code-system that changed with each message and could not possibly be remembered by the agent. The result, after some refinement, was the cut-away silk LOP, variations on which would continue to be used by intelligence agencies throughout the Cold War. Poems continued to be memorised by agents, but only for use in emergencies or if their silks were lost. Marks also made sure that code-poems were either severely doctored from their original form or written by himself. No graduate of Heidelberg University, no matter how well-read in English verse, would be familiar with the words: 'Tickle my wallypad/Tongue my zonker/And make an oak tree/Out of a conker.'
The second flaw in the SOE system was the issue of 'indecipherables'. These were incoming messages which had been miscoded, usually as a result of the agent's stress, and so could not be read. Pre-Marks the response had always been an order to re-send the original message. Recognising that this extra traffic greatly endangered agents' lives, Marks decided that the system had to change. 'I decided that there must be no such thing as an indecipherable that, however long it took us, we would break every one.' And he did so. He set up a 400-strong decoding 'factory' in Baker Street, staffed for the most part by young women recruited from FANY (the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), and sooner or later - sometimes after tens of thousands of attempts - all the indecipherables yielded. 'I'd even work on them during my sleep,' Marks remembers. 'That sense of urgency has never left me.'
Working with the FANY decoders led Marks to what he describes as 'the major discovery of the war'. The FANYs, he noticed, were occasionally and uncharacteristically erratic in their work, and this caused acute difficulties to agents in the field. In an attempt to solve the problem, Marks took to noting the dates when mistakes were made by each decoder, and discovered that a pattern emerged. Turning to Sigmund Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Marks read that most carelessness was triggered by subconscious sexual frustration. 'If this were true of the girls,' Marks mused, 'I must put my country first and end their frustration.' He confided in the decoders' personnel officer, a redoubtable FANY named Captain Henderson, who patiently and at some length explained to Marks that women had periods - a fact of which, up to that moment, Marks had been blithely ignorant. 'I was amazed,' says Marks. 'I wanted to hold a national period conference, and compare notes with the people at Bletchley.' Sternly, Captain Henderson informed him that this was a private matter, and one which the FANYs would not wish discussed.
Marks's nemesis was a major in the German Abwehr named Giskes. A subtle and experienced intelligence officer, Giskes was responsible for counter-espionage in occupied Holland, and Marks became increasingly convinced that he had penetrated SOE's Dutch network. Agents' messages were transmitted to London without security checks, and even more revealingly, no 'indeciph-erables' were received for months on end. To Marks, already suspicious of the Dutch network, this lack of errors indicated that the messages were being transmitted by agents in captivity (agents at large tended to make mistakes as a result of the desperate haste in which they had to work). Marks confided his fears to his superiors on several occasions but was disregarded. As agents continued to be dropped into Holland, a battle of wits developed between Marks and his German counterpart. 'He shared my office for a minimum of 20 hours a day,' remembers Marks. 'He was a man of integrity, subtlety and very substantial skill.' Marks laid cryptographic traps for Giskes, forcing the German to reveal his hand, but without official support there was very little Marks could do but watch as agent after agent was sent in. By the end of what Giskes and his Abwehr colleagues called the 'Englandspiel' (the match against England), 51 SOE and nine SIS agents were in captivity. Almost all were executed, and Marks later discovered that many of his SOE colleagues had shared his conviction that the network had been blown.
At the end of the war an attempt was made to recruit Marks into SIS. He spent a few months in the basement of its Curzon Street HQ, writing up the details of SOE's code war (the report, hundreds of pages long, was later shredded) but found the SIS atmosphere 'horrendous'. He never took over the running of 84 Charing Cross Road, as his father had wished. 'When you've briefed agents like Yeo-Thomas and Knut Haugland,' he tells me wryly, 'selling rare books at inflated prices loses its attraction.' Marks's father died in 1968, and 84 Charing Cross Road, a victim of redevelopment, closed in the early Seventies. By then, Marks was fully engaged in the very different world of showbusiness: he was developing further scripts for Michael Powell, was friendly with the likes of the Boulting Brothers, and was exploring the possibilities of television.
Over the course of the half-century since the end of the war, Marks has found himself torn between the urge to remember events at Baker Street and the urge to forget them. Writing his memoirs has not been easy. His wife, he admits, has endured ten years of hell as he has relived the anguish of his time at SOE. 'When he was writing,' says Elena, 'it was as if I was alone in the flat.' With the book published, however, Marks can at last turn his attention to other things. He is considering writing a novel. If he does so, and Marks has a habit of achieving the things he sets his mind to, we can count on it being a work of some complexity.
Between Silk and Cyanide by Leo Marks is published by HarperCollins, 19.99.
Peeping Tom screenplay by Leo Marks is published by Faber and Faber, 8.99.
(c) Associated Newspapers Ltd., 08 January 1999 This Is London