War of Shadows

Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East


By Gershom Gorenberg

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In this World War II military history, Rommel's army is a day from Cairo, a week from Tel Aviv, and the SS is ready for action. Espionage brought the Nazis this far, but espionage can stop them—if Washington wakes up to the danger.
As World War II raged in North Africa, General Erwin Rommel was guided by an uncanny sense of his enemies' plans and weaknesses. In the summer of 1942, he led his Axis army swiftly and terrifyingly toward Alexandria, with the goal of overrunning the entire Middle East. Each step was informed by detailed updates on British positions. The Nazis, somehow, had a source for the Allies' greatest secrets.
Yet the Axis powers were not the only ones with intelligence. Brilliant Allied cryptographers worked relentlessly at Bletchley Park, breaking down the extraordinarily complex Nazi code Enigma. From decoded German messages, they discovered that the enemy had a wealth of inside information. On the brink of disaster, a fevered and high-stakes search for the source began.
War of Shadows is the cinematic story of the race for information in the North African theater of World War II, set against intrigues that spanned the Middle East. Years in the making, this book is a feat of historical research and storytelling, and a rethinking of the popular narrative of the war. It portrays the conflict not as an inevitable clash of heroes and villains but a spiraling series of failures, accidents, and desperate triumphs that decided the fate of the Middle East and quite possibly the outcome of the war.


We were eavesdroppers, strangers reading stolen scraps of other people’s correspondence.

—The History of Hut 3 (Top Secret Ultra)

God delivers his will as visible in events, an obscure text written in a mysterious tongue. People toss off instant translations of it, hasty translations that are incorrect, full of faults, omissions and misreadings. Very few minds understand the divine tongue. The wisest, the calmest, the deepest, set about slowly deciphering it, and when they finally turn up with their text, the job has been done; there are already twenty translations in the marketplace. From each translation a party is born, and from each misreading a faction; and each party believes it has the only true text, and each faction believes it holds the light.

—VICTOR HUGO, Les Misérables

Cast of Characters

* Aristocratic titles appear only when the person was primarily known by that title.

** A list of intelligence and security agencies appears below.


Prescott Currier: officer and codebreaker in the US Navy’s OP-20-G signal intelligence agency

Dwight Eisenhower: general, deputy chief, then chief of army planning; later commander of Operation Torch

Bonner Frank Fellers: military attaché in Egypt

William Friedman: codebreaker, director of the US Army’s Signal Intelligence Service

James Fry: assistant military attaché in Egypt

Genevieve Grotjan: codebreaker, Signal Intelligence Service

Solomon Kullback: codebreaker, Signal Intelligence Service

Alexander Kirk: ambassador to Egypt

Charles Lindbergh: aviator and isolationist leader

George Marshall: general, army chief of staff

Russell Maxwell: general, commander of US military supply mission in Egypt

William Phillips: ambassador to Italy

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: president

Leo Rosen: officer and engineer, Signal Intelligence Service

Frank Rowlett: codebreaker, Signal Intelligence Service

Henry Stimson: Republican politician, secretary of state under Herbert Hoover, secretary of war under Franklin Roosevelt

Sumner Welles: undersecretary of state


Jean Alington: Bletchley Park translator

Claude Auchinleck: general, British commander in chief, Middle East

Ralph Bagnold: army officer and explorer, founder and commander of the Long Range Desert Group

Alan Brooke: general, chief of the Imperial General Staff

Herbert Cecil Buck: army officer, commander of the Special Interrogation Group, SIG

Neville Chamberlain: prime minister until May 1940

Winston Churchill: prime minister from May 1940

Joan Clarke: codebreaker at GC&CS

Dorothy (“Peter”) Clayton: aviator and explorer, wife of Robert Clayton

Pat Clayton: explorer, later officer in the Long Range Desert Group

Robert Clayton: navy pilot and explorer, husband of Dorothy Clayton

Alan Cunningham: general, commander of the Eighth Army in Libya, 1941

Andrew Cunningham: admiral, commander in chief, Mediterranean Fleet

Alastair Denniston: naval officer, codebreaker, first director of GC&CS, Government Code and Cipher School, British signal intelligence

John Dill: field marshal, chief of the Imperial General Staff, later British military’s representative in Washington

Russell Dudley-Smith: naval officer, codebreaker at GC&CS

Aubrey (Abba) Eban: army officer, Special Operations Executive liaison in Palestine

Anthony Eden: Conservative politician, secretary of state for war, then foreign secretary

Ian Fleming: assistant to the director of British naval intelligence, younger brother of Peter Fleming

Peter Fleming: author and army officer

Lord Halifax (Edward Frederick Lindley Wood): foreign secretary, afterward ambassador to the United States

John Haselden: army intelligence officer

John Herivel: codebreaker at GC&CS

Harry Hinsley: codebreaker and traffic analyst, GC&CS

Dillwyn (Dilly) Knox: codebreaker, original head of the Enigma section of GC&CS

Jacqueline Lampson: half-Italian wife of Miles Lampson

Miles Lampson: ambassador to Egypt

Mavis Lever: codebreaker at GC&CS

Percy Loraine: ambassador to Italy

Harold MacMichael: high commissioner of Palestine

Raymond Maunsell: army officer, head of Security Intelligence Middle East, SIME

Stewart Menzies: director of MI6, alias “C,” after Hugh Sinclair

Stuart Milner-Barry: codebreaker, GC&CS

Alan Moorehead: war correspondent

Philip Neame: general, commander of British forces in Palestine, later commander of British forces in Libya

Francis D’Arcy Osborne: envoy to the Holy See

Reg Parker: codebreaker at GC&CS

Hubert Penderel: aviator and explorer

George Pollock: director of Special Operation Executive’s Middle East office

Guy Prendergast: explorer, Bagnold’s successor as commander of the Long Range Desert Group

Hermione, Countess of Ranfurly

Daniel Knox, Earl of Ranfurly: Hermione’s husband, army officer

Neil Ritchie: general, commander of the Eighth Army

Hugh Sinclair: admiral, director of MI6, alias “C,” until his death late in 1939.

Margaret Storey: enemy intelligence analyst, GC&CS

Arthur Tedder: air marshal, commander in chief of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East

John Tiltman: army officer, veteran codebreaker, GC&CS

Edward Travis: naval officer, deputy director, then director of GC&CS

Alan Turing: codebreaker, GC&CS, inventor of the British version of the bombe

Peter Twinn: codebreaker, GC&CS

Valentine Vivian: head of MI6’s counterespionage unit

June Watkins: cipher officer, Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in Egypt

Archibald Wavell: general, first commander in chief, Middle East, replaced by Auchinleck

Gordon Welchman: codebreaker and head of Hut 6 at GC&CS

B. T. Wilson, general: “number one” for Palestine in the Special Operations Executive

Henry Maitland (“Jumbo”) Wilson: general, commander of British Troops in Egypt, later of the Ninth Army


General Bernard Freyberg: commander of New Zealand forces in North Africa


Marian Rejewski: codebreaker

Jerzy Rozycki: codebreaker

Henryk Zygalski: codebreaker


Gustave Bertrand alias Godefroy: army officer, director of cryptological services in French military intelligence

Pierre Koenig: general, Free French commander in North Africa

Philippe Petain: leader of the collaborationist Vichy regime after France’s surrender to Germany

Susan Travers: British-born Free French soldier, Koenig’s driver


Abdul Rahman Azzam: politician, diplomat, and cabinet minister

Kemal el Din: prince and explorer, cousin of Farouk

Farouk: king from 1936

Fouad: king, father of Farouk

Hassan Gaafar: half brother of Johann Eppler

Abbas Halim: prince, cousin of Farouk

Nevine Abbas Halim: princess, daughter of Abbas Halim, cousin of Farouk

Ahmed Hassanein: explorer, later diplomat, mentor of Farouk, chamberlain of the royal household, and head of the royal cabinet

Ali Maher: politician, adviser to Farouk, prime minister

Aziz el-Masri: military figure, mentor to Farouk, briefly army chief of staff

Khaled Mohi El Din: army officer

Mustafa Nahas: leader of the Wafd party, prime minister

Gamal Abdel Nasser: army officer

Nazli: queen, wife of Fouad, mother of Farouk

Antonio Pulli: Italian-born palace electrician, Farouk’s close confidant and reputed procurer

Anwar al-Sadat: signals officer

Ernesto Verucci: Italian-born architect at the royal court, confidant of Farouk

Youssef Zulficar: Farouk’s father-in-law, ambassador to Persia


Yisrael Galili: socialist Zionist political and military figure

Eliahu Gottlieb: German-born soldier in the British Special Interrogation Group, SIG

Hajj Amin el-Husseini: exiled former mufti of Jerusalem

Moshe Shertok: head of the political department of the Jewish Agency

Maurice Tiefenbrunner: German-born illegal immigrant to Palestine, soldier in the British Special Interrogation Group, SIG


Rashid Ali al-Gailani: politician: prime minister after 1941 coup, afterward in exile


Werner Best: deputy to Heinrich Himmler

Wilhelm Canaris: commander of the Abwehr

Hans Entholt: actor, later junior officer, lover of Laszlo Almasy

Johann Eppler, alias Hussein Gaafar: Abwehr agent

Erwin Ettel: ambassador to Iran, afterward Middle East expert in Foreign Office

Hermann Göring: senior Nazi figure with multiple positions, confidant and personal envoy of Hitler

Reinhard Heydrich: head of the Gestapo and the SD, later of the RSHA

Heinrich Himmler: head of the SS

Adolf Hitler: the Führer, Nazi dictator of Germany

Albert Kesselring: Luftwaffe field marshal, commander of German forces in the Mediterranean

Franz von Papen: German ambassador to Turkey

Walther Rauff: SS officer, inventor of the mobile gas chamber

Joachim von Ribbentrop: foreign minister

Nikolaus Ritter: Abwehr officer

Erwin Rommel: general, later field marshal, commander of Axis forces in North Africa

Heinrich Gerd Sandstede, alias Sandy, Peter Muncaster: Abwehr agent

Alfred Seebohm: army officer, commander of frontline signal intelligence company under Rommel


Pietro Badoglio: field marshal, governor-general of Libya, army chief of staff

Italo Balbo: prominent Fascist, aviator, air marshal, governor-general of Libya

Ettore Bastico: general, nominal commander in chief in Libya

Ugo Cavallero: field marshal, army chief of staff after Badoglio

Galeazzo Ciano: foreign minister, son-in-law of Mussolini

Italo Gariboldi: general, briefly commander in Libya after Graziani

Rodolfo (“the Butcher”) Graziani: general and vice governor of Libya; later field marshal and commander of Italian forces that invaded Egypt

Orlando Lorenzini: officer in Libya

Pietro Maletti: general, commander of an army group in Libya

Serafino Mazzolini: ambassador in Egypt

Paolo Monelli: war correspondent

Benito Mussolini: the Duce, Fascist dictator of Italy

Umberto Piatti: general and landowner in Libya

Manfredi Talamo: commander of the paramilitary Carabinieri’s counterespionage center and of its Removal Section, the P Squad


Laszlo Almasy: explorer, aviator, later officer in the German army in North Africa

Gyula Gömbös: fascist and anti-Semitic politician, premier 1932–1936

Laszlo Pathy: honorary consul in Egypt


Abwehr: German military intelligence

B-Dienst: German Navy signal intelligence

GC&CS: Government Code and Cipher School, British signal intelligence

GCHQ: Government Communications Headquarters, previously GC&CS

ISLD: Inter-Services Liaison Department, MI6 station in Cairo

MI5: British domestic security and counterintelligence

MI6: British overseas intelligence, officially the Secret Intelligence Service

OKW/Chi: German High Command signal intelligence

OP-20-G: US Navy signal intelligence

RSHA: Reichssicherheitshauptamt, Nazi roof body of the SS, Gestapo, and police

SD: Sicherheitsdienst, Nazi Party intelligence bureau

Sezione Prelevamento: Removal Section (P Squad) of Italian counterintelligence, responsible for thefts from foreign embassies

SIG: Special Interrogation Group, German-speaking British commando unit

SIM: Servizio Informazioni Militari, Italy’s Military Information Service

SIME: Security Intelligence Middle East, British counterintelligence in the Middle East

SIS: Signal Intelligence Service, US Army signal intelligence

SOE: Special Operations Executive, British agency responsible for training and directing partisans in Axis-occupied countries

SS: Schutzstaffel, feared Nazi security, combat, and genocide force that grew out of Hitler’s personal guard

Note on Names and Spellings

NAMES OF PLACES and countries are given in the form common at the time of the events. There are many ways to spell Arabic and Hebrew names in English. The spellings here are ones commonly used at the time or, when available, that individuals used when writing in English.

Not only do British and American spellings vary, but in some cases more than one form was used. For instance, both cipher and cypher appear in direct quotations from British documents.



OVER LUNCH IN Jerusalem, my friend Daniel Avitzour mentioned that his father had been a British officer in Palestine during World War II, and that the British army offered to evacuate his mother to South Africa. Or perhaps it was a demand that she leave the country, since Palestine was likely to soon be a battlefield. In either case, she refused.

That conversation set me on a journey that lasted years—to Rome, to Cairo and 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 though they changed the direction of history. It was also a journey of the mind, of countless long days and nights spent fitting together the recently declassified or long-lost or long-secret documents of one country with espionage reports of another, of following one lead to another to find someone who still remembered the face and voice of a mysterious woman who’d once tracked spies—obsessed, I admit, amazed as I watched established facts unravel and new ones take their place. In the end, I was able to create a distinctly new portrait of one of the great turning points of the last century.

This is a true story. It is drawn primarily from the documents of the time, official and private. Some papers had remained classified for as long as seven decades. I have also consulted, carefully, even warily, the later memories of people who played a part, and have benefited from the research of many other historians. If a conversation appears here, it was recorded by someone who took part; if the temperature on a certain morning appears, it was written down by someone who suffered the heat or cold. To avoid breaking the flow of the story, the attributions and some technical information about codebreaking appear in the notes.

One human lifetime ago, the battle for the Middle East was one of the critical fronts of World War II. Much of what determined the outcome of that battle, and therefore of the war as a whole, remained secret. Quickly shaped legends turned into accepted memory. Today even that misleading memory is fading. Yet what happened then shaped the Middle East, and continues to shape it today.

Stories have lessons. But lessons are best told after the story, not before. Thus have I done.

Daniel, to my great sorrow, is no longer here to read this. Still I thank him for sending me on the journey.


Early Summer, 1942. Cairo.

THE WORLD AS everyone knew it was coming to an end.

In the vast desert west of the Nile, the Eighth Army of the British Empire was in full flight from the German and Italian forces commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

SMOKE ROSE FROM the grand British embassy facing the Nile. Smoke rose a few hundred yards down the river from the mansions of Garden City that war had transformed into British General Headquarters Middle East. In the Cairo heat, privates fed bonfires with all the paper that must not fall into enemy hands—cables from London, lists of arms, reports radioed in cipher from the battlefield, maps, and codebooks. The flames were too hot, the updraft too strong, and half-burnt secrets floated out over the city.

Smoke rose from the office of the Special Operations Executive, the secret undisciplined unit that backed partisans throughout the occupied Balkans and now was trying to erase its chaotic records. At Royal Air Force headquarters, too many papers were dumped too quickly down a chute to an incinerator. Some wafted whole over the fence and into the streets, which were packed with dusty trucks pouring in from the desert carrying exhausted soldiers, and with convoys evacuating rear units east to Palestine, and with the cars of wealthy Alexandrians who’d fled to Cairo and the cars of rich Cairenes trying to get through the traffic to flee south or east. Everyone honked, as if the horn were the gas pedal.1

The pillars of smoke stood over the city and gave no guidance to the exodus.

ON THE MORNING of her nineteenth birthday, June Watkins emerged from the Metropole Hotel in downtown Cairo. That’s where the Royal Air Force had tucked its cipher office. Around a long table, officers of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force worked as fast as they possibly could, turning words into opaque groups of numbers to be sent out in Morse code by radio, or translating equally opaque numbers from field units back into words. In the summer, the room was too hot, even at night, even if you were wearing a thin cotton tropical uniform. Watkins’s commander was “quite old,” meaning at least twenty-seven, and had once deciphered a list of pilots who’d been shot down. It was from the squadron in which the commander’s boyfriend served. His name was on it. The commander passed on the list and said nothing. No one ever gets a medal for that kind of heroism.2

Watkins’s father had wired her £20 for her birthday, a fortune, two months’ salary for a woman officer, and she headed for the bank to see if it had arrived. The lines outside stretched for blocks.3 When she got inside the grand marble-walled lobby, she found it packed with Egyptian businessmen trying to withdraw their money.

By sheer chance, a large South African captain, an old friend, recognized her and helped her shove through the bedlam to the counter. The man in front of her ranted steadily in French through the grating at the clerk who was counting out his money. The banks had run short of cash and were handing out worn banknotes while waiting for the government map department to improvise printing an emergency supply.4 The man grabbed his notes, accidentally tore some, and started weeping as he cursed the clerk. Calmly, the clerk got Watkins her money. The captain plowed back out through the crowd for her.

Outside they met another South African officer. “What are you still doing here?” he demanded. Women soldiers were supposed to be gone. Five hundred South African women had already been evacuated up the Nile to Aswan.5 Watkins was billeted in the Cairo YWCA hostel, a palace with marble floors outfitted with iron camp beds for soldiers—but nearly all the women were gone.

Her team would remain till headquarters pulled out, she said. “And I want to stay,” she added. “I can look after myself.” She tapped the bulge of a pistol under her shirt. She did not tell him that the same week, on the roof of the Metropole, the women of the cipher room had received a lesson in using pistols.

Among other things, they learned how to shoot themselves. Women who knew the ciphers were not to fall into enemy hands.

Her friend the South African captain took her to Groppi’s café, a favorite among British officers. They wanted to drink iced coffee in the garden but were told it was closed, so they sat inside. From the window of the ladies’ room, Watkins looked into the garden. The restaurant staff was out there, painting welcome signs in German for Rommel’s officers.

At stores that sold suitcases, as at the banks, crowds of people pushed to get in.6

OUTSIDE CAIROS TRAIN station stood the granite colossus called Egypt’s Awakening—a sleek, angular sphinx rising on his outstretched forelegs, facing east toward the dawn, next to the taller figure of a woman lifting a veil from her face. The woman was inspired by Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi, who in 1923 had returned from a women’s conference and demonstratively removed her veil in the train station.7 The station itself, studded with arches and intricate carved arabesques, was modeled on the mosques of Cairo’s medieval Mamluk sultans.8 Together, the sculpture and the railway hall formed a temple to Egypt, its future, its incomplete independence.

Inside, the god of chaos ruled. Trains from Alexandria disgorged anxious mothers and fathers dragging suitcases and children. They had to shove their way out through the wave of soldiers and families from Cairo trying to board trains headed south or east. South lay Aswan in Upper Egypt and, much further, Khartoum in Sudan. East lay the port of Suez, for the fortunate who had managed to book passage to Eritrea, Kenya, or South Africa.9 Or you could gamble on safety in Ismalia, on the Canal. Even if the Eighth Army lost the Nile, surely it would hold the Canal.

If that seemed a poor wager, there was the all-night express to Jerusalem.

For Palestine, you needed the right papers. Halfway across the Sinai, police boarded the train to check everyone.10 The British consulate, war correspondent Alan Moorehead found, was “besieged with people seeking visas to Palestine.”


  • "Vivid...fascinating...sure to be among the year's best histories of World War II."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
  • "Richly detailed...deeply researched account."
    Publishers Weekly
  • "A solid analysis of how espionage impacted an important theater, this book should appeal to anyone interested in World War II history, particularly intelligence operations."—Library Journal
  • “A groundbreaking work.”—The Jerusalem Post
  • War of Shadows is a fascinating look at the politics of the Middle East, a region that would explode after the war, written with a thriller writer’s sense of character and timing.”—Shepard Express
  • “A breakthrough book by Gershom Gorenberg featuring uncovered secrets from World War II reveals how easily the war could have gone the other way…In an effort of meticulous historical research, Gorenberg has pieced together the intelligence saga behind the war for North Africa.”—Haaretz
  • “A masterpiece of scholarship and synthesis…The highest praise that can be bestowed on his book is that it will remind readers of a cloak-and-dagger tale by John Le Carré with an armature of fascinating historical annotation.”—The Washington Post
  • “The deeply researched book brims with anecdotes and rich details… shedding much needed light on a long-overlooked period and part of the war.”—Times of Israel
  • “A fast and gripping read."—New York Journal of Books
  • “The story grips you so much that it’s hard to put aside: the extraordinary spying in both directions, the vivid characters, the huge stakes, and all of this on a World War II front that American readers know surprisingly little about.”—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost
  • “With the pacing of a spy thriller… War of Shadows takes us to the brink of disaster as the Allies and Axis powers vie for control of the Middle East…. Gorenberg belongs to a unique cadre of journalist historians.”—Sarah Wildman, author of Paper Love
  • “A dazzling and groundbreaking portrait of a crucial moment in WWII… Gorenberg has produced a vital new account of one of the key episodes of the last century.”—Matti Friedman, author of Spies of No Country
  • “With an eye for detail and personality quirks, Gorenberg reveals the complicated interplay between codebreakers, diplomats, and soldiers to provide a fresh account of the battle for control of Egypt in World War II.”—Meredith Hindley, author of Destination Casablanca
  • “The book is a must for scholars, the text replete with many hundreds of annotated sources. For the ordinary reader it offers a thrilling spy story encompassing intelligence gleaned both from human sources and Sigint (signal intelligence) sources that played critical roles in determining the ultimate outcome of key battles for the future of the region. The style is captivating, engaging our intelligence and moving us emotionally. If you cannot fathom this or that intricate page – do not stop! Just carry on and you will be rewarded in full for your effort.”—Efraim Halevy, Fathom

On Sale
Oct 11, 2022
Page Count
496 pages

Gershom Gorenberg

About the Author

Gershom Gorenberg is a historian and journalist who has been covering Middle Eastern affairs for more than thirty-five years. His latest book, War of Shadows, began with a conversation in Jerusalem that set off years of searching through archives for long-secret documents, though attics for lost papers, through streets in Cairo, Rome, London—endless days and nights of seeing facts unravel and new ones take shape in place of them, of following one lead to another to find someone who remembered the mysterious woman at Bletchley Park who discovered Rommel's source in British headquarters in Cairo—an obsessive hunt that led to the real story of how the Nazis came within an inch of conquering the Middle East.

Gorenberg was previously the author of three critically acclaimed books—The Unmaking of Israel, The Accidental Empire, and The End of Days—and coauthor of Shalom, Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin, winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Gershom is a columnist for the Washington Post and a senior correspondent for the American Prospect. He has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, and in Hebrew for Haaretz. He will return to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 2021 to teach the workshop he created on writing history. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, journalist Myra Noveck. They have three children—Yehonatan, Yasmin and Shir-Raz.

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