January 22, 2001

Leo Marks

Codebreaker who saved agents' lives by improving the security of wartime ciphers

 

As a young man Leo Marks played a critical, if contentious, role in the wartime Special Operations Executive. He then moved into film.

Marks was born into a devout Jewish family: his father was the bookseller later immortalised by Leo's friend Helen Hanff at 84 Charing Cross Road. Leo, a bright only child, began his codebreaking experience at the age of eight, by cracking the price codes in his fatherís and his uncleís shops. Schooled at St Paulís, he showed great if erratic promise, and on leaving school helped his father sell antiquarian books.

Coding was already a hobby, and he bombarded several government departments with suggestions for new systems. Early in 1942 he was sent to a course at Bedford of formal instruction on cipher and decipher, with a score of companions. They all satisfied their examiners and disappeared to Bletchley. He, wayward as always, appeared to have failed, and found himself directed (on a month's trial) to SOE to take charge of its agents' ciphers. It was impressed on him from the start that he was in a secret service: his family thought he was in the Ministry of Supply.

He survived his month's trial, and settled down to reconstruct a cipher system that he could see was fundamentally flawed. Agents' ciphers each hinged on a separate poem or brief passage of memorable prose (such as a phrase from the Lord's Prayer). No one else seemed to have noticed that the enemy might know the poem, or the prose passage, and so be able to break the cipher with ease.

As a start, he took to composing agents' poems himself. He lived with his parents in a block of flats on the Edgware Road, where the current executive head of SOE, Sir Charles Hambro, also had a flat. Marks cherished a hopeless passion for a daughter of Hambro, and when she was killed in an air crash in Canada wrote a brief dirge. This he later gave to a woman agent he was briefing, Violette Szabo. It went public when it was included in a best-selling life of her, and has since become a very popular poem. It begins: The life that I have Is all that I have And the life that I have Is yours.

After 18 months' effort, he managed to convince his seniors that they had made a catastrophic mistake in using poem codes at all. He reinvented one-time pad, not knowing that the Foreign Office had been using it all through the war. This gave agents a much safer cipher base. He also vastly improved their inefficient systems of security checks.

All this he set out, long after the event, in Between Silk and Cyanide (1998), a six-hundred-pager on life inside SOE's headquarters which is startlingly at variance with the more robust accounts of such writers as Bickham Sweet Escott or John Beevor. It presents a view from below, by a Jewish civilian junior staff officer who believed himself despised because he was Jewish, and knew himself to be cleverer than most - or perhaps all - of those with whom he had to deal.

He certainly saved a great many lives by improving wireless operators' security. He had grave doubts about operations into Holland, which he feared had been compromised. All the messages reaching SOE by wireless from Holland arrived without being mutilated in transit - a stark contrast with the traffic from everywhere else in north-west Europe. In 1989 he recounted, at a conference attended by Prince Bernhard, how he had established that his suspicions were well founded. He arranged for a British operator to send 'HH' at the end of a routine message; this provoked an instant 'HH' in reply from Holland. This was standard Nazi operators' drill: HH stood for Heil Hitler. But it took months to convince the operational staff of the danger.

He also had incessant troubles with the Free French, who persevered in using a code he reckoned an intelligent schoolboy could break in an afternoon. With the help of Yeo-Thomas, GC, he persuaded even them to change.

At the end of the war Marks was moved, for a transient and embarrassed few months, into the signals branch of the secret intelligence service, but was then released. He abandoned the book trade to become a film impresario, and spent more than fifty years in the tumultuous world of the cinema. Many harrowing experiences of his SOE years continued to haunt him. He condensed them into the script of a 1960s film, which Michael Powell directed, called Peeping Tom. The critics all denounced it as criminal porn, and Powell's career suffered. It was recently revived, for a more tolerant age, on television.

At the turn of the century, Marks's life began to crumble. A childless marriage of more than forty years with Elena Gaussen Marks, the painter, suddenly dissolved in acrimony. A liver complaint necessitated a big operation. He got into troubles over money. Yet he deserves to be remembered as he was a man of undoubted brilliance, who played an outstanding part in the war against Hitler.

Leo Marks, codebreaker, codemaker and impresario, was born in 1920. He died on January 15 aged 80.


Leo Marks, British War-Code Wizard, Dies at 80

 

By Richard Goldstein,, 29 January 2001

Leo Marks, who played a major role in Britain's sabotage operations against Nazi Germany in World War II as the chief designer of codes used by agents behind enemy lines, died Jan. 15. He was 80.

In July 1940, Churchill created the Special Operations Executive and ordered it to "set Europe ablaze" by sending agents into France, Norway and the Netherlands on a campaign of destruction. Operating from the agency's headquarters on London's Baker Street, Mr. Marks revolutionized the development of codes for saboteurs communicating with England via wireless radio. At the same time, British experts at Bletchley Park were breaking the German codes.

Mr. Marks provided code briefings to commandos who destroyed the heavy water plant in Norway that the Germans were using for an atomic weapons program, and his agency carried out extensive sabotage in conjunction with the D-Day invasion.

Leopold Samuel Marks, a native of London, had been intrigued by codes since he was 8 years old, when his father, Benjamin, a partner in London's well-known antiquarian book store Marks & Company showed him a first edition of "The Gold Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe.

Fascinated by Poe's tale of a treasure whose location was concealed in a cipher, he broke the code his father used to denote the lowest price he would accept for that book, a series of letters penciled on the inside of the cover. The boy discovered that the 10 letters making up the names of the bookstore owners, Marks and Cohen, each corresponded to a number.

That bit of enterprise gave rise totwin ambitions ó to create codes and to be a writer.

Mr. Marks enrolled in Britain's school for cryptographers in January 1942, then joined the Special Operations Executive. He continued to live at home, but his family thought he was working for the Ministry of Supply.

When Mr. Marks joined the intelligence agency, it was using ciphers based on phrases in classic works of British literature. Mr. Marks realized that these codes were hardly unbreakable since the Germans might have sampled Shakespeare or Keats or could check on specific passages in reference books.

So Mr. Marks wrote his own poems, substituting passages from them for those in the great English works. "It would make it slightly more difficult for S.O.E.'s messages to be read like daily newspapers if we started a Baker Street poets' corner," he recalled.

But he became dissatisfied with that effort as well and created a system in which codes were transferred to squares of silk carried by agents. Each code would be used to send only one message. Then an agent would cut the square containing that code from the silk and burn it. The codes were invisible until an agent shined a specially designed ultraviolet flashlight on them.

Because the codes kept changing as successive squares were used, agents did not know the basis for the codes they had not yet used, and so they could not divulge their codes under torture if they were caught.

Following World War II, Mr. Marks turned to writing for stage and film. He wrote the screenplay for "Peeping Tom," the story of a cinematographer who kills women after filming their last, fearful moments. The film, released in Britain in 1960, was denounced by critics as immoral, was quickly withdrawn from circulation and severely damaged the career of its director, Michael Powell. But it came to be viewed as a classic film about film-making itself.

The Marks family's bookshop was featured in Helene Hanff's popular memoir "84, Charing Cross Road" ó the title taken from the store's address ó an account of her 20 years of witty and sometimes biting correspondence from her New York home with the shop's chief buyer, Frank Doel. "84, Charing Cross Road" (Grossman, 1970) was made into a play and a movie.

Mr. Marks recounted his wartime exploits in "Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941- 1945" (The Free Press, 1998), the title referring to his use of silk surfaces for his codes and the practice of supplying cyanide pills to agents who could swallow them if facing torture to elicit information.

Mr. Marks's marriage to Elena Gaussen Marks, a painter, ended in divorce. They had no children.

After the war, Mr. Marks met Churchill and told him that he was happy to have turned from code- making to writing. Churchill's reply: "I, too, wish I could have devoted further time to my writing, but other events intervened."


Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations

Go to: Obituaries

neil@mishalov.com

© 2001 by Neil Mishalov