Leo Marks

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Leo Marks

Leo Marks in 2000, at the opening of the Violette Szabo Museum, Wormelow Tump
BornLeopold Samuel Marks
(1920-09-24)24 September 1920
Died15 January 2001(2001-01-15) (aged 80)
OccupationCryptographer, screenwriter and playwright
Known forPeeping Tom (screenplay)
Spouse(s)Elena Gaussen (m. 1966–2000) «start: (1966)–end+1: (2001)»"Marriage: Elena Gaussen to Leo Marks" Location: (linkback://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Marks)
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Leo Marks

Leo Marks in 2000, at the opening of the Violette Szabo Museum, Wormelow Tump
BornLeopold Samuel Marks
(1920-09-24)24 September 1920
Died15 January 2001(2001-01-15) (aged 80)
OccupationCryptographer, screenwriter and playwright
Known forPeeping Tom (screenplay)
Spouse(s)Elena Gaussen (m. 1966–2000) «start: (1966)–end+1: (2001)»"Marriage: Elena Gaussen to Leo Marks" Location: (linkback://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Marks)

Leopold Samuel Marks (24 September 1920–15 January 2001) was an English cryptographer, screenwriter and playwright.


Early life

The son of an antiquarian bookseller in London, he was introduced to cryptography when his father showed him Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Gold-Bug". From this early interest, he demonstrated his skill at codebreaking at an early age by deciphering his father's secret price codes that he wrote inside the covers of books. His father, Benjamin Marks, was joint owner of the Marks & Co bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road, which achieved fame with the 1970 book of that title by New York writer Helene Hanff and the later plays and movie.

As a teenager, he earned pocket money by setting the difficult Times cryptic crossword.[1]

Work in cryptography

In January 1942 I was escorted to the war by my parents in case I couldn't find it or met with an accident on the way.

So begins his book, Between Silk and Cyanide, about his work in cryptography. Marks joined the armed services and went to Bedford to train as a cryptographer.

Role at Bedford

His original and unorthodox mode of thought led to his being the only one of his class judged not good enough to be sent to Bletchley Park[citation needed]; instead, he was sent to a rival organisation of the intelligence services, the recently formed Special Operations Executive (SOE). When his abilities became evident, he was referred to by Bletchley Park as "the one that got away"[citation needed].

Marks briefed many Allied agents sent into occupied Europe, including Noor Inayat Khan, the Grouse/Swallow team of four Norwegian Telemark saboteurs and his own close friend, the legendary White Rabbit, 'Tommy' Yeo-Thomas. An empathetic and imaginative personality[citation needed] (as well as a self-professed coward[citation needed]), Marks acted on the rarely expressed premise that agents in occupied territories deserved every support those enjoying safety and freedom could provide. In an interview with Channel Four included in the DVD of the film Peeping Tom, Marks quoted General Eisenhower as saying that his group's work shortened the war by three months, saving countless lives.

Developments of cryptographic practice

Although in charge only of agent codes, the young Marks frequently walked into bureaucratic lion's dens in order to save lives in the field[citation needed]. One of his first challenges (resisted by the establishment[citation needed]) was to phase out double transposition ciphers using keys based on preselected poems. These poem ciphers had the limited advantage of being easy to memorise, but significant disadvantages[citation needed], including limited cryptographic security, substantial minimum message sizes (short ones were easy to crack), and the fact that the method's complexity caused encoding errors.

Cryptographic security was enhanced by Marks's innovations, especially "worked-out keys". He was credited with inventing the letter one-time pad[citation needed], but while he did independently discover the method, he later found it already in use at Bletchley.

Preference for original code poems

While attempting to relegate poem codes to emergency use, he enhanced their security by promoting the use of original poems in preference to widely known ones, forcing a cracker to work it out the hard way for each message instead of guessing an agent's entire set of keys after breaking the key to a single message (or possibly just part of the key.) Marks wrote many poems later used by agents, the most famous being one he gave to the agent Violette Szabo, The Life That I Have, which gained popularity when it was used in the 1958 film about her, Carve Her Name With Pride. According to his book, Marks wrote the poem about a girlfriend, Ruth, who died in an air crash in Canada; supposedly the god-daughter of his superior[citation needed], Sir Charles Hambro.[2]

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
Yet death will be but a pause.

For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Gestapo activities and “Indecipherables”

Gestapo signal tracers endangered clandestine radio operators, and their life expectancy averaged about six weeks[citation needed]. Therefore, short and less frequent transmissions from the codemaster were of value. The pressure could cause agents to make mistakes encoding messages, and the practice was for the home station to tell them to recode it (usually a safe activity) and retransmit it (dangerous, and increasingly so the longer it took). In response to this problem, Marks established, staffed and trained a group based at Grendon Underwood, Buckinghamshire to cryptanalyse garbled messages ("indecipherables") so they could be dealt with in England without forcing the agent to risk retransmitting from the field. Other innovations of his simplified encoding in the field, which reduced errors and made shorter messages possible, both of which reduced transmission time.

“Das Englandspiel” in the Netherlands

The Germans generally did not execute captured radio operators out of hand. The goal was to turn and use them, or to extract enough information to imitate them. For the safety of entire underground "circuits", it was important to determine if an operator was genuine and still free, but means of independently checking were primitive. Marks became convinced (but unable to prove) that the situation in the Netherlands was out of SOE's control[citation needed] and that they were being toyed with by the Germans (who among themselves actually did call it a game—Das Englandspiel). He was repeatedly told (for political reasons) to keep his mouth shut while as many as 50 agents were delivered to the Gestapo[citation needed]. The other side of this story was published in 1953 by Marks' German opposite number in the Netherlands, Hermann Giskes, in London Calling North Pole.

Reporting to Brigadier Gubbins

In his book (pp. 222–3), Marks describes the memorandum he wrote detailing his conviction that messages from the Netherlands were being sent by Germans or by agents who had been turned. His argument was that, despite harrowing circumstances, "not a single Dutch agent has been so overwrought that he's made a mistake in his coding...." Marks had to face Brigadier (later Sir) Colin Gubbins:

Described by Tommy [Marks' closest friend] as 'a real Highland toughie, bloody brilliant, should be the next CD', he was short enough to make me feel average, with a moustache which was as clipped as his delivery and eyes which didn't mirror his soul or any other such trivia. The general's eyes reflected the crossed swords on his shoulders, warning all comers not to cross them with him. It was a shock to realize they were focused on me.

Gubbins grills Marks. In particular he wants to know who has seen this report, who typed it (Marks did):

There was a warning gleam in those forbidding eyes. 'What did you tell Colonel Tiltman about the Dutch situation?'

'Nothing, sir, I was instructed not to discuss the country sections.'
'And you always obey your instructions?'
'No, sir. But in this instance I did.'

There was silence as Celt met Jew on the frontier of instinct. We then went our separate ways.

After SOE

He left SOE in 1946 and declined an offer of employment from the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS)[citation needed].

He went on to write marginally successful plays and films, including The Girl Who Couldn't Quite! (1947), Cloudburst (1951), The Best Damn Lie (1957), Guns at Batasi (co-writer) (1964), Sebastian (1968) and Twisted Nerve (1968).

Marks also wrote the script for Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), the story of a serial killer who films his victims while stabbing them. Marks provided the voice of Satan in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

In 1998, Marks published a book about his work in SOE — Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's Story 1941-1945. The book was reportedly written in the early 1980s, but didn't receive the UK Government's approval for publication until 1998. Three of the poems published in the book were scrambled into the song "Dead Agents" by John Cale and performed at a series of multimedia concerts in London in April 1999

He married the portrait painter Elena Gaussen in 1966, a marriage that lasted until shortly before his death at home, from cancer, in January 2001.


  1. ^ A Very British Psycho (1997), dir. Chris Rodley; included on the Criterion Collection DVD of Peeping Tom
  2. ^ Between Silk and Cyanide, p.452


External links