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The Secret Life of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay

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A Sinclair McKay book
1 review about The Secret Life of Codebreakers by Sinclair...

They had the time of their lives

  • Sep 17, 2012
Imagine being a member of a team whose work was said to have shortened World War II by at least two years–––and not being to tell anybody about it for decades. Your friends, neighbors and family may even have thought you a coward who failed to join up and fight for your country. That's exactly the position of the 10,000 or so men and women who worked at England's Bletchley Park to crack the codes used by the Axis powers during the war. They were summoned to Buckinghamshire with no disclosure of the reason for the summons and were required to sign the Official Secrets Act almost as they arrived.

It wasn't until over 30 years later that the requirement of silence was lifted. Sadly, unlike other wartime groups, Bletchley Park's personnel had no reunions in all those years and were deprived of the chance to sit and reminisce with old colleagues. By the time they could share their stories with their families, most of their parents had died.

Much has been written about the how Germany's Enigma code was broken at Bletchley Park, or BP as it was often called, but Sinclair McKay's principal focus in this riveting book is the people there; who they were, their working and living conditions, and the social environment in this hothouse atmosphere. And what a grab-bag of personnel BP was. University dons, debutantes and inner-circle graduates of Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge worked alongside the working class, mostly young women, with little of the social stratification that normally typified British life. Because of their long working hours and strict secrecy, they had to entertain themselves in their off hours. And they did, with amateur theatricals, singing groups, dancing, films, tennis, hiking, chess and bridge games and more.

The work at BP was performed in trying conditions. The manor house was used, but most personnel worked in hastily-built long buildings they called huts, which were hot in summer and frigid in winter. The secrecy at BP was not just applicable to the outside world, but to other personnel within BP. That made each hut like its own cloistered community, intense with shared purpose and long hours. Though conditions within each hut were collegial and non-hierarchical, one hut had no idea what the others might be doing. One veteran tells of having to phone in reports, not knowing until decades later that she was speaking with someone in the next-door hut.

BP is best known as the place where Alan Turing and others developed the precursors of modern computers. Germany's Enigma encryption machine performed its encoding mechanically, and Turing's initial insight was that decryption should be similarly possible by using a machine. The "bombes," as they were called, eventually developed were massive machines straight out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, with electrical connections snaking all over, long strips of paper feeding through and loud, rackety clacking noise as the bombe ran through thousands and thousands of possible decrypts.

But before Turing's machines came online––and even afterward––hard work and ingenuity cracked codes, even Enigma codes. The BP boffins were able to study some early Enigma machines, so they knew how they worked. They used that knowledge, and insights about human nature, to come up with starting places for decryption that were often successful.

McKay is at his best when describing how BP's personnel used their brain power and quirky styles of thinking to their formidable task. BP just gathered a bunch of academics, bright people from the various services, and civilians with language skills––or who happened to be particularly good at cryptic crosswords––allocated them into groups and told them to get to it. Despite the many privations, most recall it as the time of their lives, and nothing afterward ever quite touched the level of the experience. McKay isn't quite as good at bringing to life the BP personnel in their off hours, but reading about the human context of the work at BP makes this book a valuable reading experience for anyone who enjoys World War II social history.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book.

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September 18, 2012
Nice review Maine Colonial. Welcome to Cafe Libri. Hope you enjoy the literary experience. Mike
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