Max Hastings: The Secret War – Spies, Ciphers and Guerrillas in WWII reviewed by Patrick McGuckin

Max Hastings told us about The Secret War. His talk was peppered with accounts of what he called “outlandish and fascinating figures”. These were the spies and those who worked in intelligence during the Second World War. At 6’5″ Hastings towered over the podium to deliver what was more of a lecture than a presentation. Wearing his tweed jacket he came over as a favourite uncle, passionately talking on his pet subject. I couldn’t decide whether it was his very upper class accent or his evident heavy cold which made him difficult to hear at times.

He has clearly put a lot of research into the book. His desire to tell us about as many figures as possible in three quarters of an hour, plus questions came over as a little rushed as we got the barest notion of each one. But maybe this was just a cunning ploy to get us all to buy the book to find out the details!

We did learn that the Russian spy network ‘the Red Orchestra’ was probably the largest network of all time. Although Britain had the Cambridge Five, Hastings told us that there were more than five hundred agents in the US and that McCarthy wasn’t wrong in his understanding that there were many working in the country whose loyalty was not to the US. We also learnt that it was difficult for many spymasters to know which side their agents were on.

Until 1939, we were told, the intelligence network was full of second-rate people. The first class people and minds were reserved for the front line of the armed forces. The ‘Ultra’, the output from Bletchley Park did much to change this attitude. Hastings clearly has no truck with the influential film The Imitation Game. He described it as a “silly romp “.

We were told that the use of intelligence had to be backed up by “hard power” in World War II in order to be of any use. Military strength was still important. Equally fascinating to learn was that on the Axis side, although intelligence was gathered, it was frequently not fed up to high command for fear that bad news would not go down well with Hitler.

Hastings ended by telling us that the Secret War was in its infancy in World War II. However, in the 21st-century the importance of intelligence has never been greater. The Secret War may well prove to be the war of the future.

Patrick McGuckin is part of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team.

Patrick has lived in Ilkley for 18 years and attended Ilkley Literature Festival for most of those years. Since attending the Review Writing Workshop a few years ago on a whi his has regularly reviewed events for the Festival. Patrick also reviews performances at Ilkley Playhouse for Ilkley Gazette.