Based upon superb archival research, including evidence from recently opened secret files, War of Shadows is a well-written, insightful investigation of how the Allies won the war in the Middle East because of better intelligence.
What would happen to the estimated 450,000 Jews living across North Africa, from Morocco to Jerusalem, if Germans won the battle for North Africa during World War II?
This theater of war is usually depicted as a contest between Germany’s General Irwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox,” and British Commonwealth forces: Australians, New Zealanders, Indians, Scots, Welsh and English. What is often not discussed are German efforts and plans to overrun Palestine from the west via Egypt, and from the north through modern day Turkey and Syria.
But what if Rommel wasn’t all that crafty, not really sly as a fox? What if much of his early success was due to a secret source of precise intelligence about British forces? In War of Shadows: Codebreakers, spies, and the secret struggle to drive the Nazis from the Middle East, American-Israeli author Gershom Gorenberg provides the answers.
Gorenberg has written the best book on the subject. Based upon superb archival research, including evidence from recently opened secret files, it is a well-written, insightful investigation of how the Allies won the war in the Middle East because of better intelligence. Moreover, in doing so, they saved thousands of Jewish lives and laid groundwork for the future Israeli Defense Forces.
Ironically, as critical as the War of Shadows was for Jews living in Palestine and North Africa, they are not prominent actors in the narrative. Gorenberg does discuss a few important roles for Jews that had lasting effects. Some Jews fought in British military units. Others, such as future leaders of Israel Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan, gained experience in the British-supported Palmach, the Haganah’s elite fighting force. The result of the war was, however, crucial for Jews.
Very little of Gorenberg’s narrative is about battlefield action. Instead, he goes behind the scenes, into the shadows, where the war was fought among code breakers, spies and espionage. Gorenberg demonstrates that much of Rommel’s early success was due to outstanding intelligence from a “good source.” The British finally discovered the source. An American, Maj. Bonner Fellers, liaison to the British military, had intimate knowledge of operations. Unfortunately, his communications were being read by the Nazis. The British warned Americans just in time.
Indeed, the bulk of the book deals with the critical role of codebreaking in military operations. Gorenberg recognizes the work of three Poles, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski, whose brilliant contributions to breaking Germany’s Enigma code, he believes, have been neglected. The famed Bletchley Park gets its due as the center for England’s premier codebreakers. Gorenberg also presents fresh stories about critical players, such as the unknown Margaret Storey, who relentlessly pursued the “good source.”
Gorenberg also discusses the potential for a Holocaust in the Middle East. The Nazis had already rounded up Jews in areas they controlled, but anticipating a complete victory, the notorious SS commander Walter Reuff was ordered to develop Operation Atlas, a comprehensive plan to deal with Jews in North Africa. Had the Allies failed, the Holocaust would have been extended to Palestine.
War of Shadows is an excellent book. Readers interested in spy work, critical moments in World War II, the Middle East or the pre-history of Israel will find it fascinating.