South African Military History Society

Tel (+27)(0)10-237-0676 Fax (+27)(0)86-617-8002


The new Chairman, Ivor Little, opened the May meeting by welcoming all present, particularly Robin Smith who was visiting from the Natal Branch.

Opening the proceedings, Ivor asked Judge Kathleen Satchwell to come forward to accept the Felix Machanic Prize for the best main lecture of the past year. The prize, in the form of a framed certificate plus cash, was handed over to Kathleen by Committee Member Colin Dean and graciously accepted. Ivor then conveyed the Society's official sympathies to Tim Waudby who had recently lost his wife, Pat, to a sudden heart attack. On a happier note, he also thanked Bob Smith for the excellent tour of the Transvaal Scottish Headquarters, which Bob had organised, and then wished him a happy birthday.

The final notice was a plea to anyone in the audience with ties to Johannesburg Power to identify him or herself. It was hoped that a bit of personal intervention might help to get the lights on the Museum surroundings working, as all official channels towards this end had been exhausted. Sadly, there were no takers from the floor!

The meeting then moved on to its real purpose when Ivor introduced the first speaker. This was Emilio Coccia, whom many of us had already met in his capacity as curator and guide at the Zonderwater Italian Prisoner of War Museum.

Emilio started his talk on "Italian Prisoners of War in South Africa" at the point when Italy entered the Second World War on 10 June 1940. Hostilities commenced with an Italian invasion of Egypt, followed by a rapid Italian advance against an unprepared British force. The Italian advance reached a point 100 kilometres from the Libyan border at Sidi El-Barrani. At this point the British rallied and, on 9 December 1940, went over on to the attack in an offensive known as Operation Compass. Within two months about 40 000 Italian solders were taken prisoner and shipped out of the operational area to Egypt, India, Kenya and South Africa.

For reasons of its distance from the scene of action; space available; food supplies and infrastructure, South Africa emerged as the destination of choice and a number of prisoners of war (POW) camps were established here, the largest being at Zonderwater, near Cullinan. This was in fact the biggest Allied POW camp of the Second World War and was opened in April 1941. About 109 000 Italian prisoners would ultimately pass through this camp. They were initially housed in tents but, after several had been killed by lightning attracted by the steel tent poles, they were re-housed in barracks at the insistence of Colonel H F Prinsloo, the Camp Commandant appointed by General Smuts in January 1943.

Under Prinsloo's supervision conditions steadily improved. A proper hospital was established, followed by sports facilities and then schools for the many illiterate prisoners. These were staffed by fellow Italian prisoners, who also produced the textbooks. A vocational centre was brought into being to further the production of arts and crafts; theatres were built and orchestras and bands established.

Starting in June 1942, about 25 000 POWs were also allowed to serve as skilled labourers on South African farms and infrastructure projects, the best-known of these being the construction of Du Toits Kloof Pass and Chapman's Peak Drive. Churches, schools, mansions and other buildings were also erected and are well-known landmarks today.

Zonderwater was finally closed down in 1947 and today serves as a jail that surrounds the beautiful Italian cemetery, monument and museum. There are 252 Italians buried at Zonderwater, 25 in Worcester and 35 in Pietermaritzburg. The total of 312 deaths from 109 000 prisoners is a remarkable tribute to the camp authorities and their humane treatment of the POWs. An even better tribute is the fact that 870 POWs elected to remain in South Africa after the war, while several thousand immigrated back with their families during the 1950s. They and their descendants have played a substantial part in the subsequent development of this country.

A lively question period followed, which had to be cut short by the Chairman so that he could introduce the next speaker.

This was our well-known Committee Member and past Chairman, Colin Dean. The subject of his talk was "WOKs, LOKs and MOPs - The Story of a Master Code Maker".

This rather odd and intriguing title served to introduce a most interesting lecture on the life of Leopold Samuel Marks, a master code-breaker, and the three coding systems he introduced to protect British agents in the field in the Second World War when they sent information back to Britain.

Leo Marks was born in London in September 1920 and was the son of the owner of the famous bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road. He became interested in cryptography at the age of eight when he came across Edgar Allen Poe's story "The Gold Bug". He then developed this skill as a hobby while being educated at St Paul's Independent School in London. In January 1942, at the age of 22, he was called up for an interview as a learner army cryptographer at Bedford. His course did not go well because of his being labelled a misfit and he was passed on to the Inter Service Research Bureau, also known as the Special Operations Executive (SOE). This was located at 64 Baker Street in London and its mission was "to set Europe ablaze". To do this, agents were landed on the Continent to make contact with Resistance groups and these agents had to remain in contact with their headquarters in London. This gave rise to the problem of designing a system of codes that an individual agent could safely use in enemy territory. The system had to be such that it could not be revealed easily to the enemy and also had to have a built-in means by which it could be seen if the agent had been compromised and the enemy was now using the agent's code.

Marks was drafted to the SOE to keep an eye on the security of agents' traffic. As a side task he had to try and decipher those messages that came in garbled from agents, because of human or transmission errors. This could be as many as 50% of incoming messages. At that time agents were using Poem Codes, i.e. codes which were based on published poems which the individual agent personally selected. Colin then took the meeting through the complexity of drawing up a message using the Poem Code method to illustrate the problems with this type of code. These were the problems that Marks had to face as he slowly but surely reduced the number of indecipherable messages, first alone and then, as his influence spread, with large groups of women recruited from the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY).

The headquarters of SOE's Signals Directorate were transferred from London to Grendon Underwood in Buckinghamshire and a large code room was established there. Known as Station 53, it was manned by Marks and his FANYs, who proved ideal at their task and soon became experts.

Marks slowly improved the Poem Code system by doing away with the use of only published poems, many of which were so well known that an educated German code-breaker could recognise the quotation. He wrote the poems for agents to use and many of these poems exist today. Eventually, he decided to scrap the Poem system and introduced a system known as "Worked Out Keys", the WOKs of this lecture's title. This was based on random numbers supplied to the agent on specially printed sheets of silk.

Colin then showed the meeting how a message could be coded and decoded using WOKs and how the pre-arranged indicator to show that the agent had not been compromised by the enemy was arrived at. When he was satisfied that that his audience understood the principles involved, Colin then moved on to Marks' next innovation. This was "Letter One-time Pads" or LOPs.

This system also involved printing numbers on silk and complicates the code for the enemy by taking pairs of letters and replacing them with a single letter. Once again Colin led us through the process of how this code was used and how it would frustrate normal de-coding methods. Not content with this, Marks then progressed to "Mental One Time Pads", or MOPs.

MOPs used the transposition of letters as in previous codes but this was disguised to increase the use of consonants, making any anagram almost impossible to identify. Once again Colin led us painstakingly through the process, this time an even more complicated one.

It became very clear that Leo Marks was a cryptographical genius. He provided codes for hundreds of men and women planted behind enemy lines and his LOP (Letter One-time Pad) eventually influenced code systems used by secret services the world over, including the SAS and Free French. Marks died on 15 January 2001, at the age of 80. There were no questions.

At the conclusion of this deeply researched and erudite talk it was obvious that the audience was still reeling under the mathematics they had just been taken through!

Ivor then called on Committee Member John Parkinson to thank Colin and Emilio and thereafter the meeting adjourned for tea.

Ivor Little

For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Cape Town details contact Ray Hattingh: 021-592-1279 or 531-6781
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469

* * *


* * * * * * *

Fellow KZN branch member David Bennet advises: DURBAN - ARCHITECTURE AND HISTORY : A GUIDE
Cost: R80.00 (R70.00 + R10.00 p&p, in South Africa)
Published by: Itafa Amalinde Heritage Trust (Formerly the Durban Heritage Trust). 2010
Contact him at e-mail Telephone: 031-564-2226 Fax: 031-564-2381
Details are on our website too..

* * * * * * *

For KwaZulu-Natal details contact Ken Gillings 031-702-4828
For Cape Town details contact Ray Hattingh: 021-592-1279 or 531-6781
For Eastern Cape details contact Malcolm Kinghorn 041-373-4469
For Gauteng contact (Joan Marsh)

* * *

* NOTE* Fast mirror and backup site      BOOKMARK FOR REFERENCE     Main site * NOTE*

South African Military History Society /