How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code

Posted on by Ben Rothke

When it comes to documenting the history of cryptography, David Kahn is singularly one of the finest, if not the finest writers in that domain.  For anyone with an interest in the topic, Kahn’s works are read in detail and anticipated.

Kahn’s first book was written almost 50 years ago: The Codebreakers – The Story of Secret Writing; which was a comprehensive overview on the history of cryptography.  It is now considered a classic.  Another classic title of his is Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boats Codes, 1939-1943.  The Codebreakers was so good and so groundbreaking, that some in the US intelligence community wanted the book banned.  They did not bear a grudge, as Kahn became an NSA scholar-in-residence in the mid 1990’s.    In 1996, Kahn updated his classic with a major update in The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet.


With such a pedigree, many were looking forward, including myself, to his latest book How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code.  While the entire book is fascinating, it is somewhat disingenuous, in that there is no new material in it.  Many of the articles are decades old, and some go back to the late 1970’s.  From the book description and cover, one would get the impression that this is an all new work.  But it is not until ones reads the preface, that it is detailed that the book is simple an assemblage of collected articles.

For those that are long-time fans of Kahn, there is nothing new in the book.  For those that want a wide-ranging overview of intelligence, espionage and codebreaking, the book does provide that. 

The book gets its title from a 2007 article in which Kahn tracked down whom he felt was the greatest spy of World War 2.  That was none other than Hans-Thilo Schmidt, who sold information about the Enigma cipher machine to the French.  That information made its way to Marian Rejewski of Poland, which lead to the ability of the Polish military to read many Enigma-enciphered communications.

An interesting question Kahn deals with is the old conspiracy theory that President Franklin Roosevelt and many in is administration knew about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor.  He writes that the theory is flawed for numerous reasons.  Kahn notes that the attack on Pearl Harbor succeeded because of Japan’s total secrecy about the attack.  Even the Japanese ambassador’s in Washington, D.C., whose messages the US was reading were never told of the attack. 

Chapter 4 from 1984 is particularly interesting which deals with how the US viewed Germany and Japan in 1941.  Kahn writes that part of the reason the US did not anticipate a Japanese attack was due to racist attitudes.  The book notes that many Americans viewed the Japanese as a bucktoothed and bespectacled nation. 

Chapter 10 Why Germany’s intelligence failed in World War II, is one of the most interesting chapters in the book.  It is from Kahn’s 1978 book Hitler's Spies: German Military Intelligence In World War II.

In the Allies vs. the Axis, the Allies were far from perfect.  Battles at Norway, Arnhem and the Bulge were met with huge losses.  But overall, the Allies enjoyed significant success in their intelligence, much of it due to their superiority in verbal intelligence because of their far better code-breaking.  Kahn writes that the Germans in contrast, were glaringly inferior.

Kahn writes that there were five basic factors that led to the failure of the Germans, namely: unjustified arrogance, which caused them to lose touch with reality; aggression, which led to a neglect of intelligence; a power struggle within the officer corps, which made many generals hostile to intelligence; the authority structure of the Nazi state, which gravely impaired its intelligence, and anti-Semitism, which deprived German intelligence of many brains.

The Germans negative attitude towards intelligence went all the way back to World War I, when in 1914 the German Army was so certain of success that many units left their intelligence officers behind.  Jump to 1941 and Hitler invaded Russia with no real intelligence preparation.  This arrogance, which broke Germany’s contact with reality, also prevented intelligence from seeking to resume that contact. 

Other interesting stories in the book include how the US spied on the Vatican in WW2, the great spy capers between the US and Soviets, and more.

For those that want a broad overview of the recent history of cryptography, spying and military intelligence, How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy and Other Stories of Intelligence and Code, is an enjoyable, albeit somewhat disjointed summary of the topic.

The best part of the book is its broad scope.  With topics from Edward Bell and his Zimmermann Telegram memoranda, cryptology and the origins of spread spectrum, to Nothing Sacred: The Allied Solution of Vatican Codes in World War II and a historical theory of intelligence, the book provides a macro view of the subject.  The down side is that this comes at the cost of the 30 chapters being from almost as many different books and articles, over the course of almost 40 years.

For those that are avid readers of David Kahn, of which there are many, this title will not be anything new.  For those that have read some of Kahn’s other works and are looking for more, How I Discovered World War II's Greatest Spy will be an enjoyable read.


Ben Rothke

Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

key management

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