Leo Marks

Leo Marks

Leo Marks, the son of a Jewish bookseller, was born in London on 24th September, 1920. Marks joined the British Army in January 1942. Trained as a cryptographer he was assigned to the Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Marks became an expert in cryptanalysis (making and breaking codes and ciphers) and eventually became head of SOE's codes and ciphers with a staff of 400 people. It was Marks's responsibility to provide agents with the ciphers with which to send information to London by radio.

These ciphers were often based on famous poems or brief passages of memorable prose such as the Lord's Prayer. Marks argued that the enemy might know the poem or the prose passage and would then be able to break the cipher. To overcome this problem Marks provided unknown poems for his agents. This included the poem The Life That I Have, that had originally been written for his girlfriend, Ruth Hambro who had been killed in an air crash in Canada. He later gave the poem as a cipher to the SOE agent Violette Szabo when she was sent to France during the war.

When agents based in Holland began sending messages without any errors, Marks suspected they had been arrested by the Gestapo. To test his theory he sent indecipherable messages to the agents. When they did not complain he knew that the short-wave morse transceivers were under the control of the Germans. His warnings were ignored by Maurice Buckmaster and agents continued to be sent to Holland where they were arrested and in most cases executed.

On 23rd June, 1943, three key members of the Prosper Network, Andrée Borrel, Francis Suttill and Gilbert Norman, were arrested by the Gestapo. Noor Inayat Khan reported back to the Special Operations Executive that she had lost contact with the rest of the group and feared they were in the hands of the Germans. Jack Agazarian, who was on leave at the time, told the SOE that if this was the case, he suspected that they had been betrayed by Henri Déricourt, a former pilot in the French Air Force, whose job it was to find suitable landing grounds and organize receptions for agents brought by air.

Gilbert Norman continued to send messages to London. Marks, was convinced that Norman was under the control of the Gestapo. Major Nicholas Bodington disagreed and persuaded Maurice Buckmaster to let him go to France to find out what had happened. Jack Agazarian was recalled from leave and the two men were taken to France.

Messages from the wireless owned by Gilbert Norman were still being sent to the Special Operations Executive in London. Instructions were passed on to Bodington by the SOE to arrange a meeting with Norman at the address he had sent them. Bodington later claimed that he and Jack Agazarian tossed to decide who should visit the address. Agazarian, who was convinced it was a trap, lost, and when he arrived at the address he was immediately arrested. Agazarian was tortured by the Gestapo for six months at Fresnes Prison before being sent to Flossenburg where he was kept in solitary confinement.

After the war Marks became a writer for stage and screen. This included writing the script for Peeping Tom. Directed by Michael Powell in 1960 it tells the story of a serial killer who films young women as he stabs them to death. Condemned as pornographic and evil, it was not shown on television until 1997.

Marks also had trouble with his autobiography Between Silk and Cyanide, that challenged the official history of the Special Operations Executive written by M.R.D. Foot. Although written in the early 1980s it was blocked by Whitehall and only appeared in 1998. He also published The Life That I Have in 1999. Leo Marks died on 15th January 2001.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Leo Marks wrote a poem about a girlfriend, Ruth Hambo, who was killed in an air crash in Canada. Marks later gave the poem as a ciphar to Violette Szabo.

The life that I have is all that I have

And the life that I have is yours

The love that I have of the life that I have

Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have

And death will be but a pause

For the years I shall have in the long green grass

Are yours and yours and yours.

(2) Leo Marks, obituary, New York Times (22nd January, 2001)

Leopold Samuel Marks, a native of London, had been intrigued by codes since he was 8 years old, when his father, Benjamin, a partner in London's well-known antiquarian book store Marks & Company showed him a first edition of "The Gold Bug" by Edgar Allan Poe.

Fascinated by Poe's tale of a treasure whose location was concealed in a cipher, he broke the code his father used to denote the lowest price he would accept for that book, a series of letters penciled on the inside of the cover. The boy discovered that the 10 letters making up the names of the bookstore owners, Marks and Cohen, each corresponded to a number.

Mr. Marks enrolled in Britain's school for cryptographers in January 1942, then joined the Special Operations Executive. He continued to live at home, but his family thought he was working for the Ministry of Supply.

When Mr. Marks joined the intelligence agency, it was using ciphers based on phrases in classic works of British literature. Mr. Marks realized that these codes were hardly unbreakable since the Germans might have sampled Shakespeare or Keats or could check on specific passages in reference books.

So Mr. Marks wrote his own poems, substituting passages from them for those in the great English works. "It would make it slightly more difficult for S.O.E.'s messages to be read like daily newspapers if we started a Baker Street poets' corner," he recalled.

(3) Leo Marks, obituary, The Times (22nd January, 2001)

He certainly saved a great many lives by improving wireless operators' security. He had grave doubts about operations into Holland, which he feared had been compromised. All the messages reaching SOE by wireless from Holland arrived without being mutilated in transit - a stark contrast with the traffic from everywhere else in north-west Europe. In 1989 he recounted, at a conference attended by Prince Bernhard, how he had established that his suspicions were well founded. He arranged for a British operator to send 'HH' at the end of a routine message; this provoked an instant 'HH' in reply from Holland. This was standard Nazi operators' drill: HH stood for Heil Hitler. But it took months to convince the operational staff of the danger.

He also had incessant troubles with the Free French, who persevered in using a code he reckoned an intelligent schoolboy could break in an afternoon. With the help of Yeo-Thomas, GC, he persuaded even them to change.

At the end of the war Marks was moved, for a transient and embarrassed few months, into the signals branch of the secret intelligence service, but was then released. He abandoned the book trade to become a film impresario, and spent more than fifty years in the tumultuous world of the cinema. Many harrowing experiences of his SOE years continued to haunt him. He condensed them into the script of a 1960s film, which Michael Powell directed, called Peeping Tom. The critics all denounced it as criminal porn, and Powell's career suffered. It was recently revived, for a more tolerant age, on television.

At the turn of the century, Marks's life began to crumble. A childless marriage of more than forty years with Elena Gaussen Marks, the painter, suddenly dissolved in acrimony. A liver complaint necessitated a big operation. He got into troubles over money. Yet he deserves to be remembered as he was a man of undoubted brilliance, who played an outstanding part in the war against Hitler.