Reading the Enemy’s Mail

 

One of the most storied commanders of World War II was German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.  A hero in his own country he was Britain’s most admired enemy during that war. He gained much of his reputation while commanding the Afrika Korps against the British in Egypt. Rommel claimed his success was due to his ability to think like his opposite number, putting himself inside the mind of his opponent. It turned out Rommel was not reading his enemy’s mind. He was reading his mail.

“War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East,” by Gershom Gorenberg, examines espionage and signal intelligence during the 1940-42 African campaigns.

Gorenberg takes a fresh look at World War II in Africa using previously unpublished memoirs and interviews of surviving participants (some made years ago, saved and archived) and recently declassified war records. Many records, especially those relating to wartime espionage and signal intelligence remained classified into the opening years of the twenty-first century.

The result is an enlightening revisit of African events prior to the US North African landings in November 1942. Gorenberg provides a broad outline of the back and forth thrusts in the Libyan and Egyptian desert during those years. However, this is secondary to Gorenberg’s main focus: the action off the battlefield which drove the results of the battle.

He offers readers a deep dive into the role codebreaking played (for both sides). He examines the politics of the Near and Middle East, including the diplomatic maneuvers both Britain and the Axis powers use to influence the region’s governments. He also presents the actual physical espionage conducted during the period – agents on the ground.

He also strips away much of the mythology of the desert war. Rommel is revealed as an ardent Nazi. Gorenberg reveals it was not a gentlemanly war. The Nazis prepared to implement the final solution in Egypt and Palestine as they prepared to conquer them. Nor were German spies tipping off Rommel. Rather Germany was reading coded messages sent by a US military observer in Egypt, using cyphers stolen from the US embassy in Italy.

“War of Shadows” is a book that informs as much as it entertains. Gorenberg manages to produce a work that is simultaneously told on a personal level and that of grand tactics and national strategy. Highly readable, it is a gripping read.

“War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East,” by Gershom Gorenberg, PublicAffairs, 2021, 496 pages, $34.00 (Hardcover), $18.99 (Ebook) $40.00 (Audio CD)

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

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  1. David March Thatcher
    David March
    @ToryWarWriter

    I certainly knew about the American observers codes being broken, cant remember the book I read that in.

    One problem for the allies, was they read Rommels message traffic via Enigma and believe it was true.  They didnt understand that Rommel would lie to Axis high command about the state of his forces, in order to get priority in the Axis logistics system.  Rommel would say he was missing critical amounts of supplies, leading the UK to do attacks like Battleaxe, because they thought he was weaker than he was.

     

     

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    David March (View Comment):

    I certainly knew about the American observers codes being broken, cant remember the book I read that in.

    One problem for the allies, was they read Rommels message traffic via Enigma and believe it was true. They didnt understand that Rommel would lie to Axis high command about the state of his forces, in order to get priority in the Axis logistics system. Rommel would say he was missing critical amounts of supplies, leading the UK to do attacks like Battleaxe, because they thought he was weaker than he was.

    This book discusses both of those – the American observers’ code and the Allies reading Rommel’s messages. 

    • #2
  3. Mim526 Member
    Mim526
    @Mim526

    Sounds like an interesting book.  Rommel as an ardent Nazi is restructuring history.

    • #3
  4. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Mim526 (View Comment):

    Sounds like an interesting book. Rommel as an ardent Nazi is restructuring history.

    Um. No.  More like restoring it.

    • #4
  5. Mim526 Member
    Mim526
    @Mim526

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Mim526 (View Comment):

    Sounds like an interesting book. Rommel as an ardent Nazi is restructuring history.

    Um. No. More like restoring it.

    Much better way of saying what I meant.  It’s not the commonly accepted view of Rommel.

    Is the altered view of Rommel clear from the newly unarchived records in the book?

    • #5
  6. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Mim526 (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Mim526 (View Comment):

    Sounds like an interesting book. Rommel as an ardent Nazi is restructuring history.

    Um. No. More like restoring it.

    Much better way of saying what I meant. It’s not the commonly accepted view of Romney.

    Is the altered view of Rommel clear from the newly unarchived records in the book?

    Not so much. But the book shows Rommel as a major supporter of Hitler through 1944, including commanding Hitler’s bodyguard. The Allies were complicit in the “Rommel was anti-Nazi” myth. He was safely dead when the war ended, and it allowed the Allies to craft the story that their favorite enemy was one of those opposing Hitler, something which made the occupation of Germany easier.

     

    • #6
  7. David March Thatcher
    David March
    @ToryWarWriter

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Mim526 (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Mim526 (View Comment):

    Sounds like an interesting book. Rommel as an ardent Nazi is restructuring history.

    Um. No. More like restoring it.

    Much better way of saying what I meant. It’s not the commonly accepted view of Romney.

    Is the altered view of Rommel clear from the newly unarchived records in the book?

    Not so much. But the book shows Rommel as a major supporter of Hitler through 1944, including commanding Hitler’s bodyguard. The Allies were complicit in the “Rommel was anti-Nazi” myth. He was safely dead when the war ended, and it allowed the Allies to craft the story that their favorite enemy was one of those opposing Hitler, something which made the occupation of Germany easier.

     

    Right a lot of us on the inside no how much closer the two were.  Rommel was like Hitler an outsider.  A commoner and not part of the General Staff or Junker officer class.

    • #7
  8. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    David, didn’t Rommel carry a bomb into a meeting with Hitler?  Disillusionment must be really tough.

    • #8
  9. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Doctor Robert (View Comment):

    David, didn’t Rommel carry a bomb into a meeting with Hitler? Disillusionment must be really tough.

    Rommel was only peripherally associated with the July 20 attempt to kill Hitler. To me it always seemed like a “wink, wink, nod, nod, if you get rid of him I will support you” deal. In a real sense he was trying to have it both ways and come out on the winning side regardless of whether the winning side was Hitler or the plotters.

    • #9