November 11, 2022

Historian and journalist Gershom Gorenberg’s dual vocations are manifest in his new fascinating work, “War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East” (New York: Public Affairs, 2022). Gorenberg writes history as a journalist: The story is personalized, the scenes are set, the personalities examined, their human frailties explored, the narrative is riveting and yet he has read all the relevant archives, document after often tedious document, and done his homework by interviewing all the key subjects available to him. And when they are no longer among the living, he has pursued their children, their nieces and nephews. He is steeped in the secondary literature. The result grips his readers.

Gorenberg tells multiple stories: Rommel’s battles in North Africa against the British army, American efforts to supply that army, and German efforts to keep Rommel’s army supplied—all the standard stuff of history. He takes us into the corridors of power in Cairo, describing those political figures around the king, those who would like to depose—and eventually succeed at doing so—the king including Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat, those supporting the British Empire and enjoying the privileges of colonial power and those bent on destroying the Empire during the war, or those more loyal who want to wait until after the war. He portrays the spies and the counterspies who frequent the palace, the plush hotels, and the pubs of Egypt. He depicts Nazi German efforts to lure the Egyptians to their side, including the promise of dire consequences for the Zionist project of creating a Jewish homeland, establishing a Jewish state.

But most interestingly and most unexpectedly, he explores in the declassified archives and countless interviews the successful British efforts to break the German Enigma code and thus gain access to Germany’s most secret communications.

Anyone who works in the field of Holocaust history know the importance of those efforts because the British had access to the reports of the Einsatzgruppen, their daily chronicle of going from town to town, village to village, city by city and murdering Jewish men, women and children, counting the bodies and reporting back to their superiors in great detail and without a shred of emotion, and certainly neither moral revulsion nor regret. These reports were forwarded to Winston Churchill directly—until such time as British intelligence determined that the systematic murders were occurring throughout the theater of the German occupation of the Soviet Union and the Prime Minister need not be distracted by the details.

British intelligence had an understandable and justifiable policy that it would not act on the information it learned this way, even to save British lives unless there was a second possible source for such information so as not to reveal to German counterintelligence that the code had been broken.

Breaking the code was a spectacular intellectual achievement requiring the collaboration of mathematicians, logicians, linguists and historians. And Gorenberg does a superb job of detailing how it was done and by whom. He reveals what personnel it took, what skills they had, what hurdles had to be overcome. He uses his journalist skills to depict the men and women involved and the urgency of their most important task. Sworn to silence, they could not speak of their work during the war and were not allowed to speak of it afterward when combat soldiers all returned from the front boasting of their accomplishments. These men and women were often asked with condescension: “And what did you do during the war?” Even their spouses did not know, could not know, what they did. I came to appreciate his understanding of how the process of breaking the code worked and his ability to communicate it in non-technical language. I even came to believe that I actually understood the process.

Breaking the code was a spectacular intellectual achievement requiring the collaboration of mathematicians, logicians, linguists and historians.

Logistics and intelligence are essential to an army’s success—witness the events in Ukraine—and Rommel, the Desert Fox as he was called, was extremely aggressive, pushing forward even against orders, often outrunning his supply lines. His secret weapon was that German intelligence had discovered that an American official in Cairo was forwarding to Washington accurate, insightful reports of British military positions, their strengths, and their vulnerabilities. Bravo for his vital intelligence efforts and ability to assess events and their military implications in real time. Unbeknownst to him, Rommel thus had a clear and immediate knowledge of enemy positions. He knew precisely what to expect and where and when to attack. A British intelligence agent, an unassuming, brilliant, quiet woman who never spoke even to her family of her wartime service to the nation, reasoned that if the British had cracked the German military code, then it was possible that the Germans had cracked the British military code and looked for evidence that would indicate that there was an intelligence leak. She found that, but even then, the ordinary RCA radiogram instructing the American to cease sending his data was not delivered and the American official continued to offer his insights giving the German General a vital actionable advantage.

Fortuitously, American cables were finally stopped when Rommel and his troops were at the peak of their vulnerability. Hence the British victory at El Aleman. The Desert Fox was stopped; his military career went downhill. Once Hitler’s favorite, he was now a loser, and after the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler’s life and the subsequent purge of German military leadership, he was given the option of taking poison or facing execution. Rommel chose to die at his own hand, an innocent man not involved in the assassination plot.

If Rommel had triumphed at El Aleman, Cairo was next and then the Sinai and on to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Not only would the Jews of Palestine have been subject to the Final Solution, but also Jews who were then living in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt as well. The Middle East would have become the scene of mass murder and/or sites of deportation, the hopes for a Jewish homeland dashed.

David Ben-Gurion articulated Jewish policy after the British White Paper of 1939: “We shall fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler and fight Hitler as if there was no White Paper.” Gorenberg points out that the Arabs of the Middle East chose to sit out the war, remaining steadfastly neutral even when titling toward the Nazis against the British Colonial Empire. As a result, the Jews of Palestine serving either in the Jewish Brigade or in the British Army as ordinary soldiers as well as Jews throughout the Allied Armies gained invaluable tactical and practical military experience that proved essential during Israel’s War of Independence, while Arab armies remained untested and with limited military experience, which proved indispensable for the newly independent Jewish state.

Michael Berenbaum is a Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at American Jewish University. 

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