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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Gorenberg takes a fresh look at World War II in Africa using previously unpublished memoirs and interviews of surviving participants (some made years ago, saved and archived) and recently declassified war records.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.