The British Eighth Army’s victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in October-November 1942 is commonly considered one of the turning points of the Second World War—Winston Churchill called it “the end of the beginning” of the war. Historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg, however, contends that the true turning point in the North African/Middle East campaign was the First Battle of El Alamein fought in July 1942. And the key to success in that battle was the Allied victory in what Gorenberg calls the “War of Shadows”, a war of codebreakers and spies.
Gorenberg, a columnist for the Washington Post and the author of three books on Israeli history, has dived deep into the once-secret archives of Bletchley Park (the home of British codebreakers during World War II), the UK National Archive, and other British institutions, American archives at Fort Meade, the Hoover Institution, the US National Archives at College Park, and the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library, and archival sources in Rome and Israel. He also gained access to the personal papers of some of the Allied codebreakers, and interviewed the children and grandchildren of some of the men and women who fought the War of Shadows.
The result of Gorenberg’s extensive research and legwork is a scintillating history of the secret war waged by mathematicians and spies to infiltrate foreign embassies, seize enemy code books, and, most importantly, break enemy codes. In war, the surest way to defeat an enemy on the battlefield is to know their dispositions and plans in advance by intercepting and deciphering their communications. And the enemy the Allies needed to beat was the famed German Panzer commander Erwin Rommel.
During the war, many US military and political leaders considered North Africa, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Middle East as a sideshow to the more important theaters of Northwest Europe, the Russian front, and the Far East. But for Britain, Gorenberg writes, Egypt and the Middle East “were the keystone in the long arch of empire.”
But the reasons for defending Egypt were more than emotional or ideological. They were also strategic. The Middle East was what still gave Britain a hold on the Mediterranean and a chance to threaten Italy and Germany from the south. The Suez Canal and the oil fields of Iraq and southern Persia were prizes that had to be kept from the Axis.
Rommel was winning victory after victory in the desert, in part due to German and Italian codebreakers and spies. North Africa was the first long-promised (to Stalin) Allied military effort designed to confront the Axis powers with an unwinnable two-front war.
Gorenberg shows that the seeds of the Allied victory in the Middle East were planted in the 1930s, when Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski and two of his colleagues in Poland’s prewar Cipher Office cracked the codes of the German Enigma machines that were used to send and receive military communications. The Germans believed that their Enigma machines were safe from codebreaking. Rejewski, Gorenberg notes, cracked the codes in less than three months. “Enigma appeared unconquerable,” Gorenberg explains. “Its fundamental flaw was that human beings built it, and other human beings could see it differently.” Codes that one human mind designs, another human mind can break.
The flaw in the machine was the man. The flaw in the machine’s design was forgetting that people—tired people, stressed people, people who don’t think randomly—would use it.
On 24 July 1939, two months before the outbreak of war, British codebreakers met in the village of Pyry (located in a heavily guarded building in a forest clearing) with Major Maksymilian Ciezki, Rejewski’s boss, who told them how Rejewski had cracked Enigma. That meeting at Pyry, Gorenberg notes, “made everything that Bletchley Park did possible.” When Germany and Soviet Russia attacked Poland in September 1939, Rejewski and his two colleagues fled to the French embassy in Romania, and then made their way to Vichy France where they helped the French underground intercept and transmit German communications to London.
Armed with knowledge of Rommel’s plans, the Eighth Army held at El Alamein. British General Claude Auchinleck later acknowledged that the work of the silent warriors at Bletchley Park was a decisive advantage.
Bletchley Park codebreakers—some with names lost to history like Margaret Storey, John Herivel, Russell Dudley-Smith, and Gordon Welchman—working endless hours, sifting through thousands of messages, deciphering numerous codes—fed Britain’s political and military leaders information that helped military commanders and soldiers stop Rommel and end the Nazi threat to the Middle East. As Churchill said about the brave pilots of the Royal Air Force: so much owed by so many to so few.
Gorenberg, though focusing on Bletchley Park, does not neglect the other silent warriors on both sides who fought in the War of Shadows: the Americans Bonner Fellers and William Friedman, France’s Gustav Bertrand, the Hungarian Lazlo Almasy, the Italian spymaster Manfredi Talamo, and many others. And as British and German forces clashed on the desert battlefields, in Egypt future leaders Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat sided with the Germans to throw off British imperial rule, while Palestinian Jews fought with the British to avoid the death camps of Hitler’s Final Solution.
Gorenberg writes that “the battle for the Middle East was one of the critical fronts of World War II [and] much of what determined the outcome of that battle, and therefore of the war as a whole, remained secret.” Historians will undoubtedly continue to debate this. But what is not debatable is Gorenberg’s conclusion that “what happened then shaped the Middle East, and continues to shape it today.”