Home News How spies and code breakers conquered the Middle East in World War II

How spies and code breakers conquered the Middle East in World War II

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Gershom Gorenberg, Historiker, Journalist und Autor von War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle To Drive the Nazis From the Middle East. Bildnachweis: Yasmin Gorenberg

Reports of military capabilities and strategies in the Middle East during World War II are well documented, but tanks and rifles weren't the only weapons used in these battles. In his historical book, which reads like a spy novel, War of Shadows: Code Breakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis Out of the Middle East Gershom Gorenberg, Associate Professor at Columbia School of Journalism, reveals how much the work of spies, British code breakers, and sheer chance changed the course of the war in this region.

Colombia News spoke to Gorenberg to find out what inspired him to write this book now, how he put the narrative together, and which code breakers and spies he would invite to an imaginary dinner party.

F: In your introductory notes too War of shadows You write that a conversation with your friend Daniel Avitzour in Jerusalem prompted you to write the book. Describe how this moment inspired you.

TO: Daniel told me that his father, a Palestinian Jew, had served as a British officer during World War II. The British Army wanted to evacuate his mother - like the wives of other officers - from Palestine because she could fall victim to the enemy. His story made it clear how imminent the threat of the Axis' conquest of the Middle East was and how different the outcome of the war could have been. I quickly learned that the SS had already deployed a task force to carry out genocide in Egypt and Palestine.

Then I came across garbled reports of the espionage affair that led German General Erwin Rommel to invade Egypt - and which led to his defeat at El Alamein. I was obsessed with knowing the truth.

F: Could you describe your process of putting together the documents, letters and interviews that helped you recreate the scenes in scenes? 'War of shadows' ?

TO: I looked for official papers that would reveal the spy trail and personal material that would enable me to understand and portray the men and women involved. I searched thousands of documents in the UK National Archives, particularly those long classified from Government Communications Headquarters, the UK intelligence and code breaker agency. I found further material in several American archives. My wonderful research assistant Sam Miner pored over captured German papers in the US National Archives. A fund of important US cables was missing from official collections; it appeared in the attic of a granddaughter of a colonel serving in Cairo. Colleagues shared Italian documents. When I put them together, I could see how the Axis powers stole Allied secrets, when and how the British found out, how America reacted, and how all of this changed decisions on the battlefield.

The personal papers were just as exciting: diaries of the famous and forgotten, the unpublished memoirs of an MI5 colonel and a woman who served as a British cipher officer in Egypt, the palm-sized log of a destroyer navigator and travel notes from Laszlo Almasy - the real Hungarian explorer, not the fictional in The English patient.

F: How did the conflict in the Middle East during World War II shape the region today?

TO: First of all, the region would have changed in ways that we would not have imagined or imagined had the Axis powers conquered the Middle East in 1942. The combination of military decisions and code-breaking genius that spawned the British victory at El Alamein set the stage for everything since then.

In addition, the war forced everyone to make difficult political decisions. The British ambassador to Egypt launched a coup in 1942 to install a pro-Allied prime minister. The coup de-legitimized the old political order and set the stage for the Free Officers Revolution of 1952, from which Gamel Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat emerged as Egypt's leaders. During the war, the Egyptian military remained on the sidelines while up to 30,000 Jews enlisted in the British military in Palestine. The experience gap played a role in Israel's victory in the 1948 war. These World War II aftershocks created the Middle East we know.

F: Hopefully after you've finished writing your book, you'll have some time to enjoy yourself. Which books are on your reading list?

TO: I teach a story writing course for journalists and I am always on the lookout for good models. So I expect to read Reaganland, by Rick Perlstein and A Mighty and Irresistible Flood: The Epic Battle for American Immigration, 1924-1965, by Jia Lynn Yang. One of my favorite writers on Israeli history is Tom Segev, who is excellent at immersing himself in the character of a historical figure, so I have to read his biography of David Ben-Gurion. A state at any price . And I've been waiting to get to Stephen Greenblatts Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics to better understand how Shakespeare wrote politics.

TO: You're having a little dinner party. Assuming everyone is fully vaccinated, what three scholars, writers, World War II code breakers or artists, dead or alive, would you invite and why?

F: Quite simply: Marian Rejewski, the Polish mathematician who cracked Germany's supposedly unbreakable Enigma cipher in 1933; Genevieve Grotjan, the American mathematician who figured out how Purple, Japan's diplomatic cipher, worked in 1940; and Margaret Storey, the British intelligence analyst who searched Enigma messages decoded in 1942 to identify Germany's source of prices in the Middle East. They were young and worked under incredible pressure and had very few people to talk to about what they'd done, so I'd love to hear them talk to each other. Perhaps I would learn how much of their breakthroughs were conscious analysis and how many leaps of brilliant intuition were - sparks leaping between two charged points in the clouds of semi-consciousness.

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