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A Codemaker's War

Leo Marks Leaves Home

Converted for the Web from "A Hard Man to Place," chapter one of "Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945" by Leo Marks

In January 1942 I was escorted to the war by my parents in case I couldn't find it or met with an accident on the way. In one hand I clutched my railway warrant -- the first prize I had ever won; in the other I held a carefully wrapped black-market chicken. My mother, who had begun to take God seriously the day I was called up, strode protectively beside me -- praying that the train would never arrive, cursing the Führer when she saw that it had and blessing the porter who found me a seat. Mother would have taken my place if she could, and might have shortened the war if she had.

My father, who was scarcely larger than the suitcases he insisted on carrying, was an antiquarian bookseller whose reading was confined to the spines of books and the contents of the Freemason's Chronicle. His shop was called Marks & Co. and its address was 84 Charing Cross Road. He never read the gentle little myth by Helene Hanff; long before it was published he'd become one himself.

My parents accompanied their only joint venture to the door of the train and, for the first time in twenty years, prepared to relinquish him. Mother's farewell to her only child was the public's first glimpse of open-heart surgery. Late-comers were offered a second. As I entered the carriage clutching my chicken and bowler hat, she called out at the top of her voice -- if it had one -- "LOOK AFTER MY BOY."

The captain in the seat opposite me accepted the brief. To distract me from the spectacle of Mother comforting Father and the station master comforting them both, he silently proffered his cigarette case. I indicated my virgin pipe.

"Going far, old son?"

My security-minded nod convinced him, if Mother's performance hadn't already, that I was being dispatched to some distant outpost of what remained of Empire. I was, in fact, going all the way to Bedford.

I had been accepted as a pupil at a school for cryptographers. Gaining admission hadn't been easy: I'd written to the War Office, the Foreign Office and the Admiralty, enclosing specimens of my home-made codes with a curriculum vitae based loosely on fact, but no more loosely than their formal replies stating that my letters were receiving attention. Since codes meant as much to me as Spitfires did to those who had guts, I resolved to make one last try and suddenly remembered that I had a godfather named Major Jack Dermot O'Reilly who worked in the Special Branch at Scotland Yard. I also remembered that Major Jack (like Father) was a Freemason, a branch of the Spiritual Secret Service for which I was still too young.

Arriving at the Special Branch unannounced, I called upon Major Jack carrying my codes in my gas-mask case, which he clearly considered was the most appropriate place for them. However, he must have put his "Brother" before his country because a few prayers later I was invited by the War Office to attend an interview at Bedford "to discuss my suitability for certain work of national importance."

My audition took place at a large private house which tried to ramble but hadn't the vitality. A friendly sergeant told me the CO was expecting me -- and I had my first meeting with Major Masters, the headmaster of the code-breaking school. He began the interview by asking what my hobbies were.

"Incunabula and intercourse, sir."

It slipped out and wasn't even accurate; I'd had little experience of one and couldn't afford the other. I suspected that he wasn't sure what incunabula was and added: "And chess too, sir -- when there's time," which proved a better gambit.

I answered the rest of his questions honestly -- with one exception. He asked me how I first became interested in codes. There is only one person to whom I've ever told the truth about this and we hadn't yet met. The reply I concocted didn't impress him. I didn't think much else had either.

Three weeks later I received his letter of acceptance.

Copyright © 1998 by Leo Marks. All rights reserved. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Click to Amazon to purchase "Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945."

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