History, Lost

In his classic WWII memoir Between Silk and Cyanide, the late Leo Marks makes two or three references to a paper he wrote in or about 1944 called “Ciphers, Signals, and Sex”, which apparently investigated how the FANY volunteers at Bletchley Park – all women, mind you – could be prevented from making so (comparatively) many mistakes during “that time of the month”, a biological imperative that the then-young Mr. Marks apparently little understood.

If Marks is to be believed, Ciphers, Signals, and Sex was one of the few documents attributable to Marks himself which survived in SOE’s archives after the war. (Some estimates put the percent of SOE wartime records lost over the years as high as 85%.)

At first, it seems surprising that Ciphers, Signals, and Sex has never been published anywhere – by all accounts (all of them Marks’, mind you) it was quite the entertaining little wartime report; he describes in Between Silk and Cyanide how the preservation markings on the cover – “preserve indefinitely as of historical value” had been amended to read “hysterical value”, for example.

Then again, Between Silk and Cyanide was published in 1998, and was perhaps written a decade earlier; the United Kingdom didn’t get a Freedom of Information Act until 2003, a half-decade later. And, somewhat self-evidently, no fan of cryptography jumped at the opportunity to make one of Leo Marks’ only surviving wartime reports accessible online.

That’s okay, though. I tried, earlier this year.

Regrettably, according to the Ministry of Defense:

“Your request was passed to a number of subject matter experts for consideration but I have to advise you that the MOD does not hold the information you require.”

They did advise that the National Archives might hold a copy, but after poking through their online index, it doesn’t immediately appear that this is the case. (If anyone is in London and would like to dig through the National Archives’ files, Ciphers, Signals, and Sex, if it survives, would either be in collection KV 6, or possibly KV 4, presumably in an un-indexed holding therein; you’d be doing the world quite a service, apparently.)

As near as I can tell, one of four things is true:

The MOD is wrong/mistaken/telling a porky, and they really do have the report;

The National Archives have a copy, but it’s mis-filed or not indexed correctly;

The report never existed outside Leo Marks’ imagination;

The sole copy of the report has been lost to history sometime during the last two decades or so.

I have no idea which of these is true. It’s a bit of a shame that the report – if it ever existed – doesn’t appear to be accessible to the public, but it’s probably not an enormous historical and cultural loss, compared to all the other records of WWII which have disappeared over the last half-century. I mean, hell, even among things in Between Silk and Cyanide which the author takes credit for but which have never been made public, Ciphers, Signals, and Sex probably doesn’t lead the pack.

Ah, well. I tried. Sorry; no Ciphers, Signals, and Sex for you – at least for now.

Published in: General, History | on October 19th, 2009| Comments Off on History, Lost

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