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Three Books

William Kelly

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Three Books that Changed History

More than twenty-five years after World War II there didn't seem much more to write about, as all the battles and all of the personalities had been covered and made into movies, but then three books were published that changed all that.

They came out in succession, and I believe deliberately, in order to reflect the importance and significance of secret intelligence operations in the wake of Watergate.

First there was John C. Masterman's The Double-Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945 (1972), which revealed how the British MI5 Counter-intelligence identified and doubled the entire German espionage network in Great Britain during the war, and fed them false information that led to Nazi bombers and rockets missing their targets and protected the D-Day landing site among other things. And it was pretty nifty how they did it.

That seemed pretty sensational at the time, as all of those involved in the operations maintained the secret for over a quarter of a century after the war, so it is possible for hundreds if not thousands of people to actually keep a secret for a long time.

But then when F.W. Winterbotham's The Ultra Secret (1974) was published a few years later, the idea that the Allied commanders could read the Nazi German military dispatches, thus knowing not only the order of battle but the battle plans and the tactical orders given to the enemy commanders, it was apparent that that entire history of World War II had to be re-written. The Ultra Secret was that the Allies had obtained a German cipher machine from the Polish underground, and figured out how it worked and then began translating the messages it intercepted between Hitler and his commanders in the field. Only Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and the top Allied Commanders had access to the intelligence derived from the code-breakers, and Churchill even kept it out of his multi-volume history of the war.

Then, British-born Canadian author William Stevenson published a biography of Sir William Stephenson titled A Man Called Intrepid (1976), in which Sir William's World War II exploits were detailed, revealing how the British MI6 worked closely with the Americans even before the war began, and helped develop the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the American wartime intelligence apparatus.

Operating out of an office at Rockefeller Center and his penthouse apartment in New York City, Sir William assumed the British intelligence liaison to President Roosevelt from Sir William Wiseman, who had once recruited novelist Somerset Maugham to go to Russia and try to prevent the Bolshevik revolution. Maugham failed in his mission but developed enough material to write the spy saga Ashenden.

Ian Fleming was among those who visited Sir William Stephenson at his New York apartment, and it was through Stephenson that Fleming got some of the stories he later used in his 007 spy novels, and get a mention in A Man Called Intrepid.

Three books that would change the history of World War II more than thirty years after it was fought.

Double agents, code breakers and spys each played special roles in the war that pretty much went unrecognized until these books were published, and changed the way we view the war, how it was fought and the outcome.

But they also shined a light into the dark corners of the Cold War, then still being fought in the mid-70s, which makes me think that these books, all officially sanctioned, were themselves part of a psychological warfare operation to shift public support for continuation of such secret intelligence activities, then being threatened by the Watergate backlash.

Edited by William Kelly
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