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Covert Radio Agents, 1939–1945 (Hardback)

Signals From Behind Enemy Lines

WWII Espionage & the SOE Photographic Books Military

By David Hebditch
Imprint: Pen & Sword Military
Pages: 320
Illustrations: 180 black and white illustrations
ISBN: 9781526794949
Published: 2nd February 2021

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Clandestine radio operators had one of the most dangerous jobs of World War 2. Those in Nazi-occupied Europe for the SOE, MI6 and the OSS had a life-expectancy of just six weeks. In the Gilbert Islands the Japanese decapitated 17 New Zealand ‘Coastwatchers’.

These ‘behind the lines’ highly skilled agents’ main tasks were to maintain regular contact with their home base and pass vital intelligence back. As this meticulously researched book reveals, many operators did more than that. Norwegian Odd Starheim hi-jacked a ship and sailed it to the Shetlands. In the Solomon Islands Jack Read and Paul Mason warned the defenders of Guadalcanal about incoming enemy air raids giving American fighters a chance to inflict irreversible damage on the Japanese Air Force. In 1944 Arthur Brown was central to Operation Jedburgh’s success delaying the arrival of the SS Das Reich armoured division at the Normandy beach-heads. The author also explains in layman’s terms the technology of 1940s radios and the ingenious codes used.

Most importantly, Covert Radio Agents tells the dramatic human stories of these gallant behind-the-lines radio agents. Who were they? How were they trained? How did they survive against the odds? This is both a highly informative and uplifting work about unsung heroes.

Useful narrative about these fearless individuals who put their lives at risk to operate behind enemy lines. Such was the nature of their work that one time, life expectancy for these brave men and women was just six weeks.

There are some good case histories here, and the detail about equipment and the manner of operations are included in the Technical Briefings chapter. Read this book and be thankful for the service of these covert radio agents; thankful too that we are not called upon to make such sacrifices.

Read the full review here

Paul Nixon

This book was really enjoyable and informative, I learned so much from it. Right from the beginning, these men and women are like the forgotten few and they had such a dramatic and vital role in how the future of the war played out. The bravery needed was immense, it was such a cloak and dagger operation for each person put behind the lines. Also to think that the life expectancy of radio operators was about 6 weeks, really shows how dangerous things used to be for them. The book is well written in that it very much informed the reader, but it was easy to read in layman’s terms. Sometimes these types of books can be complex, complicated and detailed but this book was easy to read and understand. I would certainly recommend this book to others who enjoy the spying and communications game. I must admit I used some of the information I learned in this book to help teach the Navigator Youth group I run on a night about communications.

Read the full review here

UK Historian

"...a treasure of a book, part narrative, part tutorial and throughout, an authentic adventure saga. Ultimately, it is a very human story generously seasoned with ingenuity, technology and hardy individualism."

K9YA Telegraph

 "...oddly entertaining for a book that deals in deception, espionage, death and destruction. It’s copiously illustrated with pertinent photos, maps and diagrams gleaned from official and unofficial sources."

The Spectrum Monitor - July 2021

I thoroughly enjoyed this book - it has plenty of detail about the technical aspects of what was required for agents (during WW2) to set up and send out coded messages. Watching any film about this era makes you think that all they needed to do was open a suitcase, pull out the telescopic aerial and start tapping out the message... the reality of lugging around a 25Kg set, putting up a 20 meter wire aerial, and sending messages at an exact time, for a maximum of a couple of minutes... all the while waiting for the enemy to track you down from the signals you are sending - with a bullet in your head if found out... terrifying.
The process of encoding is detailed here - and it makes your head spin. I was aware that a book would be chosen to provide random letter choices for any day/time, but the procedure for creating groups of 5 letter groups is mind boggling - even for this cryptic crossword fan! How on earth anyone could do this while under the constant strain of discovery, or worse, getting it wrong, is truly inspirational.
The book has many actual events detailed from the time, and the impact that the signals sent had on the outcome of the war. A great read about a truly incredible and inspirational bunch of very brave people.

Amazon UK Review

We just watched a very good show on women agents behind the lines during WW II so this book was a timely read. It was dangerous enough to be a common or garden spy but add in the complexities of the machinery and the difficulty in transporting it and keeping its location hidden and you have danger on steroids.

It took some courageous, resourceful and dedicated individuals to gather information, convert it into code and then send it back to the people who could make good use of it. In many cases nerves of steel does not begin to describe it. These people needed to be trained to be good agents as well as technicians. One could not call up a service repairman if something went wrong. In this area, the British were the gold standard in training and while credit is often glossed over in favour of a good book or movie, even the Americans could not have succeeded behind enemy lines without their assistance in training.

The book does a good job of telling the stories of different fronts and the people who got out reconnaissance crucial to the war effort. The conditions in which they toiled were quite different but the cost of failure was the same- a gruesome and often excruciating death. The odds of coming home safely were not great but these heroes did it anyway.

Kudos to the brave souls who did the job and kudos in telling their stories.

NetGalley, Susan Johnston

The amount of research that went into this book was incredible. Hebditch manages to cover the individual backstories of many agents and go into detail about the technical aspects of cryptology and radio transmission in the 40s. For anyone who enjoys historical fiction about this topic, this is a great introduction to the nonfiction side. If you’ve already read a lot on the subject, Hebditch goes beyond the areas and actors usually discussed in this subgenre. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more. It is also a great book for those who love reading books that make you want to pick up a million more books about individuals or events mentioned in passing.

NetGalley, Émilie Weidl

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This book tells the story of radio agents in WWII, which is a story not often told. It covers agents all over Europe as well as the Solomon Islands.

Well researched and meticulous detail are the hallmark of this book. There are tales of derring-do interspersed with logistical nightmares and the sad end of some of the radio agents. Being a radio agent was very risky work and there are a lot of soldiers who owe their lives to these men and women.

I particularly liked the story of Tommy Macpherson - what a character! And I am considering learning morse, now that I know you can do a course online. Talk about melding 20th century smarts and 21st century technology.

Enjoyable book! Dare I say it - quite a nerdy one. If you are a radio enthusiast, you will love it. Or someone who loves cyphers and codes.

5 stars from me.

NetGalley, Monica Mac

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

An excellent, well-written book about covert radio operations during WWII. It is apparent the author went to great lengths to research available materials about the individuals and operations and training aspects of covert radio operatives. Vast amounts of details about covert radio operatives left me with a lot to reflect upon and added greatly to my knowledge about this aspect of the war.

NetGalley, Brenda Yeager

A solid, thorough read about exactly what you think it's about: covert radio operatives during WWII.

NetGalley, Emily C

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Covert Radio Agents, 1939-1945 by David Hebditch is a well researched and clearly written account of some of the most important yet least remembered participants in World War II. While not an exhaustive or comprehensive account, it serves as a wonderful introductory account for those of us with an interest.

My comment about not being exhaustive is not a negative, in fact, I mean it as a positive. No doubt there could be many books written on the topic and, especially, about these people. Hebditch does a remarkable job of discussing the training, the technology, the people, and the importance to the war effort all while keeping the reader engaged and interested.

I highly recommend this to any reader interested in the lesser known aspects of the Allied efforts in World War II. The notes and bibliography at the end offer many avenues for further reading in areas of interest to the reader.

NetGalley, Jack Messer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Fascinating book into the covert radio agents! The author researched well this book and educates us on how they trained, their jobs/ duties and the risks they took! Highly recommended for history buffs!

NetGalley, Kamila Bouvier

Very well written book, lots of details, gives a good sense of the training and amount of pression these agents went on during war. I love to learn more about the war time and how people lived in that time.

NetGalley, Aline Mello

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I enjoyed the 8.5 hours I spent reading this 320-page WWII history. I had read about some of the activities before, but this book certainly contained a lot of new material. I found the technical details towards the end of the book to be particularly interesting. You will find this book of special interest if you are researching SOE & OSS activities during the war. I do like the chosen cover art.

NetGalley, John Purvis

About David Hebditch

David Hebditch is an award-winning author and documentary film-maker. His first book for the general reader was about the smuggling of sensitive western technology to the Soviet Union (Techno-Bandits, 1983). In 2001 he produced and directed Allies and Lies, an investigation into covert operations in Bosnia, for BBC2. From 2003 he worked for NRK Television, Norway, on Stealing History about the looting of antiquities from war zones. Subsequently David and Ola Flyum won the 2005 Skup (Scoop) and ICIJ awards for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting. Between 2006 and 2016 he was involved in the production of Sarajevo Ricochet, A Town Betrayed and Taliban Oil. David is also the author (with SAS veteran Ken Connor) of How to Stage a Military Coup.

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