This Week’s Book Review – Code Name: Lise

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

“Code Name: Lise” reads like a thriller and a romance, yet is solid history

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 9, 2019

“Code Name: Lise, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis, Gallery Books, 2019, 385 pages, $27

On July 16, 1940, Winston Churchill began an effort to “set Europe ablaze,” creating the Special Operations Executive to strike at Nazi Germany from within Occupied Europe — the nations conquered by Germany. One of the agents recruited to infiltrate into France was Odette Sampson, a married mother of three.

“Code Name: Lise, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis tells her story.

Sampson was born in France, but had moved to Britain between World War I and II after marrying an Englishman. She wanted to do her bit for Britain after France fell in June 1940, and offered her services. She thought she could be useful as a translator. Instead, as Loftis shows, the SOE saw her as a perfect agent to infiltrate into occupied France. They convinced her to do so, leaving her children with relatives in Britain.

Assigned to the SPINDLE network, she served in Southern France, then run by the German-friendly Vichy government. She was a courier, carrying messages, money, and munitions to other agents. Women could move more freely than men.

She proved competent, gaining the trust and admiration of the network’s leader, Peter Churchill. Danger brought the two together. Their relationship passed from admiration to love, although neither acted on their inclinations while active agents.

In turn, the SPINDLE network was being tracked by Hugo Bleicher, a sergeant in the Geheime Feldpolitzei. He proved outstanding at counterespionage, successfully turning one SPINDLE agent and rolling up the network. He captured Sampson and Churchill as they attempted to escape to Switzerland.

When captured, Sampson claimed she was married to Churchill and that he was related to the British Prime Minister. Both claims were false. The Germans believed it, and ultimately it kept the two from being executed due to their “hostage” value. They also were sheltered and fostered by Bleicher, an oddly humane counterspy.

Loftis follows the story from its origins through the end of the lives of the participants, well after the war’s end. “Code Name: Lise” reads like a thriller and a romance, yet is solid history.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Gray Day

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Gray Day’ details uncovering a cyber spy

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 25, 2019

“Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy,” by Eric O’Neill, Crown, 304 pages, 2019, $27

In 2000, FBI agent Eric O’Neill’s career was in eclipse. He had married a German foreign national. She was from the former East Germany and viewed as a potential security risk. Germany might have reunified and the Soviet Union gone, but Russia was still there. Because of that he got tapped for the biggest case of his career.

“Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy,” by Eric O’Neill recounts what happens next.

Robert Hanssen was selling secrets to Russia and earlier the Soviet Union. The FBI needed to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. They wanted him in prison. He had been betraying the United States for decades and his revelations had led to the execution of several spies working for the United States. He was going to retire in April 2001.

The FBI set a trap for Hanssen. They put him in charge of a new FBI cybersecurity group, offering Hanssen a new batch of secrets to sell. They wanted O’Neill to be his deputy, to spy on Hanssen. O’Neill agreed.

The book follows the effort to trap Hanssen, as seen through the eyes of O’Neill. Despite Hanssen’s new posting being an FBI deception, as O’Neill shows, it filled a desperate need. The FBI entered the 21st century with its computer technology mired in the early 1980s and organizational attitudes toward computers from the 1960s. Hanssen’s spying exploited that.

“Gray Day” (Hanssen’s code name in the investigation) shows O’Neill cope with the pressure of juggling an abusive boss (Hanssen), keeping up with his schoolwork (O’Neill was a law student) and keeping his marriage intact — while secretly investigating his boss.

The book reads like a John Le Carre spy novel, but the events happened. Some names are disguised. O’Neill walks readers through the methods the FBI used to weave a net around Hanssen, including success and failures. He also shows the personal cost to him. His marriage started unravelling due to the pressures of the investigation.

“Gray Day” is a book that keeps readers on the edge of their seat, and contains an important message about data security.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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