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From: "Chris Ogden" <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
To: "Robert Hettinga" <[EMAIL PROTECTED]>
Subject: Leo Marks
Date: Fri, 26 Jan 2001 10:26:29 -0000



Leo Marks

Codebreaker who saved agents’ lives by improving the security of wartime

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 father’s and his uncle’s shops.
Schooled at St Paul’s, 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

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 SweetEscott 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

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

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.

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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: [EMAIL PROTECTED]>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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