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Spies in History & Literature ~
British “Insider” Spy Fiction in the Twenty-First Century – Alan Stripp’s Novel The Code Snatch

By Mark T. Hooker


Cover – The Code Snatch

Alan Stripp (1924-2009) was a Japanese SIGINT linguist during World War II.

He was famous for his book Codebreaker in the Far East (1989), based on his experiences in Anand Parbat, just outside Delhi at the Wireless Experimental Centre, a name that will bring a smile to the faces of Army Security Agency Vietnam vets, who were assigned to what were known as Radio Research Units.

Stripp was also one of the contributors and, together with Professor Sir Harry Hinsley, one of the editors of Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park (1994). He even wrote the introduction for the new edition of The Man Who Never Was, the story of Operation Mincemeat by Ewen Montagu (1996).

Stripp’s non-fiction has been well-received, and is highly recommended, but his novel, The Code Snatch (2001), is under-appreciated. It is the fictionalized tale of Operation Paperchase, the daring mission to steal a new Japanese codebook before it replaced the one that the British were already reading. In an “Author’s Note,” Stripp says that even though he has taken liberties with some of the technical details of this “unusual, colorful and successful operation,” he hopes that the novel “will fill a gap in the history of secret intelligence” in World War II.

As an author Stripp has an easy-to-read, relaxed style that carries the sequence of events inexorably through to the mission’s conclusion. It reads more like a participant’s memoir told with the cold precision of history than the text of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel. Stripp’s narrative is full of local color, and technical details, but lacks the drama of Fleming’s tales, even though the participants’ lives are very much on the line. This does not, however, make it an any less-absorbing tale to read.

The plot of the story is that during the closing phase of the war in Burma, the British learned from decrypts of Japanese Air Force coded messages that the Japanese were planning to replace the crypto-system the British were reading with a new one. While there was every expectation that British cryptographers would be able to break the new system in due course, time was of the essence, and losing the intelligence that they were obtaining from the compromised Japanese system would be critical to the war effort in Burma, possibly extending the war by as much as a year, costing the lives of thousands or more allied soldiers and airmen, and prolonging the suffering of those being held prisoner by the Japanese.

In a turn of events somewhat reminiscent of the scene in The Hunt for Red October (1990, Runtime: 134 minutes) in which Jack Ryan is told to implement his idea about contacting Ramius and helping him defect, the first person narrator of The Code Snatch finds out his idea to steal a copy of the new codebook has been approved, and he is going to help do it.

“Are you sure that you wouldn’t be better off with one of the big guns from our units?” asks the narrator in The Code Snatch.

“Nonsense,” replies Colonel Preston, the organizer of Operation Paperchase. “You had the brainwave – if it is a brainwave, as I very much hope – and you are now the proud father. We can’t go selling the baby to anyone else.” (p. 32)

“When do you leave?” asks Jeffrey Pelt, the President’s National Security Advisor in The Hunt for Red October. “I can’t ask any of these characters to go. One: they don’t believe in it. Two: They’d never stake their reputation on a hunch, whereas you . . . ”

“ . . . are expendable,” says Ryan, finishing Pelt’s sentence.

“Something like that,” replies Pelt. (0:42:30 on the DVD)

And both heroes – Stripp’s narrator and Clancy’s Jack Ryan – know better than to volunteer. Stripp’s narrator is well familiar with “the unofficial army motto” – “Keep out of trouble. Never volunteer for anything.” (p. 27)

As Ryan is preparing to take off in a Seahawk helicopter to fly to the submarine Dallas across the North Atlantic, he says “Next time, Jack, write a goddamn memo.” (1:15:15 on the DVD) But they go anyway, because they are the kind of people who make things happen that would otherwise go undone.

They are not, however, what Colonel Preston calls “Guards Officers,” who, as he puts it, “have brought the art of dying bravely to perfection.” “On this occasion,” notes Preston, “it will be more helpful, as well as more pleasant, to stay alive. So no heroics.” (p. 40)

The plan for Operation Paperchase is to send a bogus message encrypted in the old crypto-system to a crypto-custodian at a Japanese airbase instructing him to turn over the new codebook to an equally bogus Japanese General played by a British officer, who will fly in on a captured Japanese military aircraft to pick it up. The narrator gets to go along to confirm that the material the Japanese crypto-custodian turns over is in fact the new codebook. Needless to say, if anything goes wrong with the plan, or if news of it reaches the Japanese, the British-American-Dutch crew of the captured Ki-67 “Flying Dragon” twin-engine heavy bomber will not be making a round-trip.

The plot of The Code Snatch bears some resemblance to the plot of the movie U-571 (Runtime: 107 minutes), directed and written by Jonathan Mostow, starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, and Harvey Keitel, which came out in 2000 just before The Code Snatch did in 2001. If Jonathan Mostow is looking for another tale of crypto daring-do to grace the silver screen, he should definitely consider The Code Snatch. It has all the elements needed to make it an even better movie than U-571.

U-571 is a fictionalized account of the capture of an Enigma machine from a German U-boat during World War II. It is based on actual events during which U.S. and British crews boarded German U-boats and recovered Enigma machines and crypto materials. (Note 1)

On 9 May 1941, a boarding party from HMS Bulldog boarded U-110 and retrieved a working Enigma, its crypto-key books and other cryptological records. U-110 sank before it could be towed to port. (Note 2)

On 30 October 1942, the damaged U-559 was boarded by a party from HMS Petard in the Mediterranean. The boarding party retrieved the crypto-key books, but two British sailors – Tony Fasson and Colin Glazier – were drowned when the U-559 sank before they could remove its Enigma machine. The recovery of the crypto-key books was important, nevertheless, because they helped cryptographers to break the encoding system of the upgraded four-rotor “M4” Enigma code-named TRITON that has been introduced in early 1942, ending their earlier successes against the simpler three-rotor Enigma. (Note 3)

On 4 June 1944, a boarding party from the destroyer escort USS Pillsbury (DE-133), led by Lieutenant (junior grade) Albert L. David boarded U-505, despite the fact that the German crew had set scuttling charges and opened the boat’s vents to the sea. The boarding party disarmed the explosive devices and plugged the leaks, and recovered the crypto-key books. Lieutenant David was awarded a Medal of Honor for his part in this operation.

The German submarine U-570, like the “Flying Dragon” the British captured for Operation Paperchase, was surrendered to the British on 27 August, 1941, and subsequently recommissioned by the British as HMS Graph. In the movie, the Americans approach a disabled German U-boat in just such a vessel.

Potential movie producers should, however, be cautioned that twenty-first-century “insider” spy fiction seems to be characterized by making disparaging comments about the way similar intelligence operations are portrayed in the movies. (Note 4)

The Code Snatch is no exception. As the narrator and the British pilot Taylor are getting to know one another early in the story, they make fun of the way their operation would be brought to the silver screen. “It’s in the best Hollywood tradition. Errol Flynn at the controls, Clark Gable as co-pilot, Spencer Tracy in the turret, Peter Lorre as the Japanese officer. All very colorful.”

The narrator agrees, adding “And a grand triumphal march to welcome us back. But don’t forget they’d invent some phony love interest and the usual personality clash between pilots, preferably over target. They both want the same woman.” (p. 43)

Like other works of twenty-first-century “insider spy fiction” The Code Snatch reveals the organizational pathologies that complicate the lives of intelligence officers. The “enemy” whom the heroes of the novel have to confront is not the Japanese as the plot would suggest, but higher level “friendly” headquarters.

When the team has landed at the Japanese airfield and is waiting for the crypto-custodian to come and deliver the new codebook to them, the narrator says “I knew that whatever went wrong I could not kill this man . . . I could no more shoot him, if he refused to hand over the book, than I could turn the gun on one of our own team. That was it: he had been drafted into the team without realizing it.” (pp. 201-202)

You can hear a similar comment from Kevin, the American transcriber of Russian telephone conversations in Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, an American work of twenty-first-century “insider” spy fiction by T.H.E. Hill. Kevin explains the source of his information to the traffic analyst working with him. “I recognize the voices. We’re practically old friends.” (p. 222)

And when the Chief of Base wants to threaten Kevin, he insightfully says “I’ll take away your friends. You’ll never listen to another tape again as long as you live!” (p. 150) Here again, the Russians are not the “enemy,” they are just the target of the operation.

In another work of American twenty-first-century “insider” spy fiction, The Dream Merchant of Lisbon by Gene Coyle, Shawn Reilly, the CIA case officer handling Boris Sergeevich Parshenko, the SVR (KGB) Resident in Lisbon, has to defend his asset from headquarters more than once. Reilly comments ironically that he “always loved reading the views of CIC, an office full of experts who had never recruited or handled an agent in their entire careers.” (p. 69)

The real “enemy” in The Code Snatch is Lieutenant-Colonel Agnew, the representative from Allied Land Forces, South-East Asia (ALFSEA) in Calcutta. ALFSEA’s “function was to supervise and support [Fourteenth Army in Burma] without interfering in details, but empire-building was as popular a sport with generals as with politicians,” and Agnew showed himself to be “a hell of a nuisance.” (pp. 36-37) Agnew repeatedly tries to insinuate himself into the operation, but his efforts are rebuffed by the team. At one point they all threaten to withdraw from the operation, if Agnew takes charge.

Upon hearing that Agnew is to take operational charge of Paperchase, the American pilot detailed to fly the captured “Flying Dragon” says “we have plenty of ornamental officers who come along for the ride but don’t know what’s going on. I thought we goofed up enough operations and you people knew something we didn’t know. Whoever dreamed up this latest idea is a screwball.” (P.74)

This resonates with the comment in Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary, in which the narrator explains that “credit was always given where credit was due, that is at the highest level of the hierarchy intelligent enough to claim it.” (p. 141)

The Scottish Japanese linguist member of the team adds “the only danger we’re concerned with is the danger of being led by a simpleton who has no idea what it’s all about. Back to your desk, you pallid wee man, and find something better to do than accusing us of cowardice.” (p. 74)

Agnew, says Preston, “never steps out of line, provided someone else draws it for him first. He can’t even conceive that there could be surprises in a job like this. Not a trace of imagination.” (p. 76)

Imagination is a key to success in dealing with the unexpected, but those who don’t have it cannot value it in those who do. Einstein recognized the value of imagination, because he once said “Imagination is greater than knowledge.” Stripp obviously had it too.

Colonel Preston, the man shepherding Operation Paperchase, makes a particularly interesting observation one evening during a lull in preparations to launch the operation. It explains both why the “enemy” is their own military, and why the mission will succeed. He says “I’ve always been out of step, and the Army does not care for it. It’s a balancing trick. If I hadn’t been unorthodox I’d still be a half-colonel. But if I hadn’t been so unorthodox I might have been a general by now.” (p. 58)

The fact that Stripp’s message resonates with similar comments in more recent “insider spy fiction” shows that things have not changed that much since World War II.

The narrator in The Dream Merchant of Lisbon says that Reilly would have had a better career with the CIA, if he had “concentrated more on the bureaucratic side of the business and taken management positions” behind a desk, “but he was a street case officer at heart.” (p. 11) In his final confrontation with his Chief of Station, Reilly says, “I’ve always had trouble seeing the difference between a team player and kiss-ass – thanks for giving me an example.” (p. 257)

The Scottish linguist Henderson has an equally aggressive blow-up with Lieutenant-Colonel Agnew. “And essentially the view at ALFSEA is that specialist officers are incapable of carrying out such an operation without the direction of a more senior officer from outside the team? . . . Even though that officer has had not involvement with its detailed planning?” (p. 72)

In an interview with Lou Novacheck of Blogcritics, T.H.E. Hill, the author of Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary remarks that the similarity between Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H*, Helmut Kirst’s Null-acht fünfzehn (08-15), and Voices Under Berlin is “that none of the characters in these four novels really belong in the military. They are all independent thinkers, and that is what gets them in trouble with a system that just wants them to be little cogs in the wheels of the green machine.” (Note 5)

It is clear that one of the details Stripp changed in fictionalizing the story is the name of the Comanding General at ALFSEA. In the novel he is known as General Greatorex, rex being the Latin word for king. Greatorex is the only obviously fictitious name in the novel. The name given for the officer commanding Fourteenth Army is the correct one – William Joseph Slim (1891-1970).

ALFSEA is also an existing unit. Eleventh Army Group was redesignated ALFSEA on November 12, 1944, and General Sir Oliver Leese (1884-1978) succeeded General Sir George Giffard (1886 - 1964) in command.

Stripp, however, defends General Greatorex in a scene where the “mutineers” have a whiskey after having seen Agnew to his jeep. Stripp’s Colonel Preston says that Greatorex is “an honest, sensible chap. Reliable for orthodox military matters; all at sea with the unexpected.” He is the type of officer, continues Pereston, that was “brought up to think of war as a game,” not a game in the playful sense, but a game with rules that both players observe. “Unfortunately the Japanese invented new rules and did not bother to send him a copy, and he’s too hidebound to learn them.” (p. 75)

Preston then moves to the heart of the matter for any SIGINT operation, repeating the adage that U.S. Secretary of State Stimson made famous in 1929 when he shut down “the Black Chamber,” the U.S. cryptanalytic effort: “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” Preston says that General Greatorex shares this view about SIGINT, “even in wartime” (p. 75), an allusion to the fact that Stimson changed his views on the value of SIGINT when he became Secretary of War during WWII.

In his introduction to The Code Snatch, Oleg Gordievsky, a high-ranking KGB defector to MI-6, explains that The Code Snatch is important because “my experience confirms my belief that SIGINT (codebreaking) was overall more important than HUMINT (Human Intelligence).” Gordievsky recommends The Code Snatch to the general reader as well as those interested in war-time intelligence.

SIGINT novels are indeed few and far between, the only competing twenty-first-century “insider” SIGINT novel being Voices Under Berlin: The Tale of a Monterey Mary about the Berlin spy tunnel.

Like the other works of “insider” spy fiction, I have reviewed here, The Code Snatch is recommended to those who are interested in the human condition of the people on the front lines of the secret war. Stripp’s novel my be historical in basis, but things have not changed all that much.

In the epilogue to The Code Snatch, Stripp answers a key question that is very pertinent when put to authors of “insider” spy fiction – why did he write the novel? The story, he says, “has haunted me long enough. Telling it may help me to forget it.” (p. 219)

The Code Snatch sadly went out of print in 2004, and the rights reverted to the author. I would hope that his widow Mary could be convinced to return it to print, if only in POD.

To learn more about the author, I suggest you read his obituary in The Guardian on-line, posted 6 May, 2009.




Notes ~

Note 1 – Department of the Navy – Naval Historical Center, Washington D.C.,, l.v.o. 28 March 2009.

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Note 2 – Joe Baker-Cresswell, “The Boarding of U110”, l.v.o. 30 March 2009.

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Note 3 – Stephen Harper, Capturing Enigma: How HMS “Petard” Seized the German Naval Codes, Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1999.

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Note 4 – See Hooker, “An Emerging Trend in Spy Fiction – Retired James Bonds Become Ian Flemings” and “British ‘Insider’ Spy Fiction in the Twenty-First Century – Dame Stella Rimington’s Novels”, in the Spies in History & Literature section of this website.

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Note 5 – Blog Critics, l.v.o. 29 March 2009.

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Resources ~

Department of the Navy – Naval Historical Center, Washington D.C., l.v.o. 28 March 2009.

Joe Baker-Cresswell, “The Boarding of U110,” l.v.o. 30 March 2009.

Stephen Harper, Capturing Enigma: How HMS “Petard” Seized the German Naval Codes, Sutton Publishing Ltd., 1999.

See Hooker, “An Emerging Trend in Spy Fiction – Retired James Bonds Become Ian Flemings” and “British ‘Insider’ Spy Fiction in the Twenty-First Century – Dame Stella Rimington’s Novels”, in the Spies in History & Literature section of this website.

Blog Critics, l.v.o. 29 March 2009.