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How a few Polish and UK geniuses changed Middle East history

New book deciphers forgotten intel war that kept the Nazis from the Holy Land

American-Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg’s deeply researched tome serves as a corrective, bringing long-overlooked history of the North Africa campaign in World War II to the fore

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

British infantrymen advance through the battlefield at El-Alamein in October 1942. (Sgt. Len Chetwyn/No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit/Wikimedia)
British infantrymen advance through the battlefield at El-Alamein in October 1942. (Sgt. Len Chetwyn/No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit/Wikimedia)

But for the grace of God and a few Polish and British geniuses, the Nazis would have defeated the Allies in Egypt, swept into then-Palestine, destroyed any chance that the State of Israel had of coming into existence and massacred the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in North Africa and the Middle East.

This is one of the key takeaways from American-Israeli journalist and historian Gershom Gorenberg’s new book on the battle for North Africa during World War Two, “War of Shadows: Codebreakers, spies, and the secret struggle to drive the Nazis from the Middle East,” which was published in January.

The book challenges somewhat the importance of the so-called Jewish Brigade — a British contingent made up of Jewish Palestinians — and figures like Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan in the defense of the holy land during the war, a period of time that was instrumental in the building of Israel’s do-it-ourselves mythos in the early days of the state.

“It became sharply clear to me as I was working on it — and this runs against the myth that we in Israel have developed for ourselves over the last 70 years — that the reason why Palestine, the land of Israel, was a refuge for Jews [during World War II], the actual reason why they did not find themselves subjected to genocide was because the British drew a line in the sand at El-Alamein. We as Jews played only a very, very tiny role in that,” Gorenberg told The Times of Israel over tea in his Jerusalem apartment before the book was published, sitting a socially distanced two meters apart.

‘War of Shadows: Codebreakers, spies, and the secret struggle to drive the Nazis from the Middle East,’ a new book by American-Israeli historian Gershon Gorenberg, which was released in January 2021. (courtesy)

“The Jewish desire to defend ourselves during World War II was critical in shaping the fate of Israel and the Israeli military later. During the actual events, what saved the Jews of the land of Israel/Palestine from the Nazis was an army consisting of people from Britain and South Africa and New Zealand and Australia and India and a half a dozen other countries. And they weren’t defending Palestine, they weren’t defending the Jews, they were defending the British empire,” he said.

The deeply researched book brims with anecdotes and rich details — the texture of a wall, the color of ink used in a note, which Cairo nightclubs were preferred by ineffectual Nazi spies — as it tracks the battle in the Mediterranean from 1939 to 1942, shedding much needed light on a long-overlooked period and part of the war — at least for most Americans. In popular culture, the majority of World War II films, television shows and books focus on the European and Pacific theaters in general. The notable exception to that — the film “Patton” about the eponymous general — was released over 50 years ago.

“As I got to work on the book, I actually realized the extent to which the entire war in North Africa had slipped from the consciousness of English-speaking and especially American readers,” Gorenberg said.

This reporter shamefully admits to having only vaguely remembered the words “Erwin Rommel” and “El-Alamein” from a high school history class, but no real context for what he did there, before reading this book.

Erwin Rommel (Photo credit: German Federal Archives/Wikipedia)

(For the record: The Nazi general’s army was accidentally suckered into the Egyptian town of Alamein — more on that stroke of luck later — where they met a far stronger British contingent than he was expecting, which routed the German forces and effectively won the battle of North Africa for the allies.)

“War of Shadows” marks a significant departure from Gorenberg’s previous works, which focused on modern Israeli history, mostly dealing with the period following the 1967 Six-Day War. Gorenberg also writes opinion pieces for the Washington Post and other outlets.

“I wanted to do something new. The last two books dealt very heavily with settlements, occupied territories, internal Israeli politics, and to be creative you need a new challenge. I wanted something where I could learn a lot,” Gorenberg said.

“I fell in love with archival research,” he added.

The book is the result of over seven years of research, reporting and writing around the world, leading Gorenberg to papers and archives that had never before been seen by the public.

“I can only say that my wife and children have a great deal of patience because I was obsessed and basically worked on it 24/6,” quipped the Shabbat-observant Gorenberg.

It looks principally not at the battlefield maneuvers and fighting in North Africa, but at the behind-the-scenes intelligence war, the sometimes literal palace intrigues and the diplomatic efforts of the campaign.

Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Imitation Game’ as Alan Turing, the man chiefly responsible for cracking the vaunted Enigma code used by the Germans in World War II. (courtesy)

Movies like 2014’s “The Imitation Game” about Alan Turing, as well as popular novels like Neal Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon,” have explored the cryptological aspects of World War II before, specifically the breaking of the Nazi Enigma system. But these focused principally on the war in the Atlantic, where German submarines were sinking ally ships with near impunity.

According to Gorenberg, however, codebreaking played “an absolutely crucial role” in the North Africa campaign, on both sides of the conflict, well beyond what had been understood and reported until now.

Along the way the book also brings to light the oft-overlooked plight of North African Jews during World War II, the hundreds who were killed and thousands more who were sent to concentration camps and labor camps, as well as the legitimate threat of a much wider extermination campaign by Nazi Germany during that period. Only in recent years has the plight of North African Jews during the Holocaust been widely discussed, with recognition by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center and inclusion in the Israeli Education Ministry’s Holocaust curriculum, though some historians maintain that this area remains insufficiently acknowledged.

A posed portrait of Australian troops advancing during the Battle of El Alamein on September 3, 1942. (Sgt. Len Chetwyn/No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit/Wikimedia)

“To this day, in synagogues, the prayer that is said at Yizkor [memorial service] refers to the Holocaust in Europe. The idea that Libya or Iraq or Tunisia were directly affected, that Egypt and the Levant, including the land of Israel, were on the very, very verge of being subjected to the Nazis and the SS is just completely absent from memory,” he said.

“So that grabbed me. There was a story there to be told,” Gorenberg added.

The inspiration for the book came from a chance reference made by a friend, David Avitzour, in 2013 about how his British civilian mother had been either asked or commanded by the British to leave Palestine during World War II out of concern that the fighting would soon extend into the area. Never before had Gorenberg realized how real were the concerns of a Nazi invasion of Palestine in World War II.

“I read a great deal of Israeli and pre-state history and I always knew that the Nazi threat was part of that period, but the immediacy that he was describing was more intense than I thought remains in memory,” Gorenberg said.

In fact, German, Italian and Vichy planes bombed Tel Aviv and Haifa several times in the two years before Rommel’s push toward Palestine, part of an axis effort to slow down the British war effort by hitting refineries. Over 200 people were killed, but the raids swiftly faded into little more than a footnote against the enormity of the larger war.

In the book, Gorenberg wrote that his conversation with his friend set him on a “journey — to Rome, to Cairo, to the sands of El Alamein, to London and the once-secret huts of Bletchley Park, to archives in places from Tel Aviv to Palo Alto, to the homes of the children and grandchildren of people whose names have been forgotten.”

Not only forgotten. In part, the role of codebreaking and intelligence was deliberately hidden from the public even after the Second World War had ended, in an ungainly attempt to prevent a third. Following World War I, Germans felt they had been cheated out of a victory, believing that the country hadn’t really lost on the battlefield — despite the fact that it absolutely had — but instead that they were betrayed by corrupt leadership, a theory that bred resentment and anger, giving way to the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The Allies did not want such beliefs to return.

“So they said, we can’t let them have any feeling that anything happened but that the pure brute force of the Allies defeated them, and if they hear about this espionage thing, it may contribute to a new version of the ‘stab in the back’ theory,” Gorenberg said.

Though over the decades bits and pieces of the espionage and cryptographic history of the war have come to light, this has mostly been through memoirs and autobiographies — not the most objective accounts. Gorenberg sought to set the record straight.

The ‘good source’

Through the first few years of the war in North Africa, Rommel relied on a “good source” and a “particularly reliable source” to get their intelligence on the allies’ activities, an edge that allowed the Nazi general — along with his bold tactics — to repeatedly defeat the British and allied forces across Egypt, Libya and the Mediterranean.

An Enigma machine, the more commonly known coding device used by the Germans for sending encrypted messages during WWII. (Toby Oxborrow / Flickr)

But unbeknownst to the Nazis, the British eventually learned that Rommel had this “good source” — though it took a while before they figured out who it was — because they were reading German military messages, despite the Nazi’s vaunted Enigma cipher machine, an extremely powerful cryptological system that the Germans believed to be unbreakable, with 150 quintillion (that is 150 with 30 zeros after it) possible ways of setting up the device.

And yet, a group of brilliant Polish mathematicians — Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, whose contribution to the war effort have long been downplayed, according to Gorenberg — were able to work out the underlying mechanics of how the machine worked and a team of British cryptanalysts were able to then break the Nazi codes and read their correspondence.

“The Polish role in breaking Enigma hasn’t made it into the popular reports on what happened,” Gorenberg said. (His book certainly trumpets the contributions of Rejewski, Różycki and Zygalski.)

Ultimately, the fatal flaw of the supposedly unbeatable Enigma, according to Gorenberg, was that humans operated it, and people are prone to be lazy, to reuse the same settings for the Enigma machine or to only change them slightly, allowing British cryptologists to crack the codes day after day.

In his research, Gorenberg uncovered the name of the British codebreaker who was tasked with figuring out who the Nazis’ “good source” was.

“I was going through a file on security at Bletchley Park and I found this reference to the work of Ms. Storey. Now, remember I’m thinking half in Hebrew, this woman’s name is ‘mistori‘” — literally meaning mysterious in Hebrew — “that was amazing,” Gorenberg said with a chuckle.

Through determined research, Gorenberg was able to track down relatives of Ms. Margaret Storey, whose contribution to the war effort had never been told publicly, and fill in some of the blanks about her.

“I discovered this person, whose name had never been mentioned before but who played a critical role [in the war],” he said.

This cat-and-mouse game of the Nazis’ “good source” and the British uncovering of that source’s identity — one of the central narratives of the book — comes to a head before the battle of El-Alamein.

A mine explodes close to a British truck as it carries infantry through enemy minefields and wire to the new front lines in El-Alamein, in October 1942. (Sgt. J Mapham/No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit/Wikimedia)

The British eventually learn that the “good source” was an unwitting one, an American officer — Maj. Bonner Fellers — whose communications were being read by the Nazis. In “for want of a nail” fashion, the British had been getting creamed on the battlefield because lax security in the American embassy in Rome was exploited by an Italian spy chief to get his hands on the Americans’ cipher, which he passed along to Berlin, allowing the Nazis to read their communiques, including those dealing with British war plans.

As the British were closing in on the identity of the “good source,” the Nazi general Rommel — based in Italian-occupied Libya — was moving eastward toward Egypt, an erstwhile British colony that was still the United Kingdom’s main base of operations. From there, he could carry on through the rest of the Levant: Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq.

This put Rommel at something of a disadvantage strategically, the more he advanced, the longer his supply lines stretched, whereas the British got stronger the more they retreated.

In June 1942, an already stretched-thin, but seasoned Rommel with well-trained forced set out on a major push to once and for all take over North Africa from the allies.

And it is at the stage that the aforementioned grace of God comes into play.

The British had been telling the Americans to change their codes in light of their discovery about the “good source,” including with a direct warning by Winston Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt. After a bit of foot-dragging, on June 17, Washington indeed sent out word to its offices and officials around the world to change their cipher. But it took a little while for that word to get there — about a week.

After the British knew that the Americans’ compromised cipher was the cause of the “good source,” but before the cipher change went into effect, the British had planned to make their last stand at a town called Mersa Matruh, a port city on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Fellers passed this information on to his superiors in Washington, a message that was intercepted and read by Rommel.

And then on June 25 the ciphers changed, and the Nazi general’s “good source” suddenly disappeared and was thus unable to inform him that at the last minute the commander of the British military’s Eighth Army, Gen. Claude Auchinleck, decided to instead make his stand at El-Alamein, not Mersa Matruh, where only a small detachment would remain.

A Nazi Panzer tank explodes during a World War II battle in north Africa, in 1942. (Frank Hurley/Australian armed forces/Wikimedia)

When Rommel conquered Mersa Matruh, he believed that he’d effectively won the North African campaign, paving the way to the rest of the Middle East. But as he moved his troops east, instead of the cakewalk that he expected, Rommel encountered fierce resistance at El Alamein, which he’d neither expected nor prepared for.

“Rommel had stuck his fists in a thornbush and they were caught,” Gorenberg wrote.

If Rommel hadn’t received his report from the “good source” that the British were making their last stand at Mersa Matruh, he might have listened to his own intelligence officers telling him about the British fortifications at El-Alamein. And if the ciphers had changed after June 25, he would have discovered that the British plans had indeed been altered.

This was no deliberate deception — luring Rommel into a trap — but a fluke of incompetence that changed the course of the war.

According to Gorenberg, that period in time between the Americans deciding to change their codes and the actual codes being changed was the result of “God or luck or whatever depending on what your theological inclinations are.”

A message had been sent via radio to the American contingent in Cairo “but for some incomprehensible reason [the RCA radio company that actually performed the transmissions] failed to send the message,” Gorenberg quotes an American intelligence officer as saying after the war.

And so thanks to an improbable chain of events and — obviously — the actions and bravery of the Allied soldiers on the ground, Rommel was routed at El-Alamein. The Axis campaign was effectively defeated, preventing the extermination of the Jews of North Africa and the Middle East and allowing for the eventual creation of the State of Israel.

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