The Secret Lives of Codebreakers

Book Review
Title: The Secret Lives of Codebreakers
Author: Sinclair McKay
Published: Penguin Group 2010

Recently I saw the 2014 film The Imitation Game about British Intelligence’s codebreaking of German communications during World War II. The movie was interesting enough that I went straight to Barnes & Noble and bought a book to learn more. I just finished reading The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, which was published a few years before the film came out.

The film is based on real events, with important differences. The film depicts seven or eight people achieving one big breakthrough that opens the German Enigma code and gives England the upper hand for the rest of the war. In real life, there were about 10,000 people at Bletchley, there were several different versions of Germany’s Enigma machine, there were several breakthroughs and setbacks, and a constant effort to keep up with changing keys and encryptions. Different branches had different codes: army, air force, intelligence, navy (the “shark” key used by the U-Boats).

Bletchley Park was an old estate converted to the covert wartime campus for cryptanalysis. Most of the codebreaking work was done in a series of rapidly constructed huts.

The movie’s main genius character is Alan Turing. In real life Turing is one of a select few whose flashes of brilliance produced major advances in proto-computer decryption and codebreaking in general. Turing was a major figure, but he was not alone.

The first big break happens early in the book, “On a snowy January morning in 1940” (77), followed by Turing’s controversial and covert trip to France to share information with French and Polish cryptographers in Paris. This was followed shortly by John Herivel’s simple but valuable insight, to look at messages not just as puzzles to decode, but as messages sent by humans. The insight was to consider the personality of the German Enigma operators. Eventually, British listeners learned to recognize the different operators of different messages, with knowledge of their individual quirks and ways of greeting and signing off, which gave important clues to associate known words with encoded characters.

The naval Enigma code was the most complex and seemingly random, and was considered unbreakable. This is where Turing’s personality helped as much as his intellect. He latched onto that challenge simply because it was deemed impossible. “Turing thought it could be broken because it would be so interesting to break it” (134). His new method of calculation became known as Banburismus, which finally broke Germany’s navy Enigma.

Operations at Bletchley Park ran twenty-four hours a day every day, starting in 1939 several months before WWII, lasting until several months after the war ended in the summer of 1945. The intensity of the work was often tedious as well as grueling. The pressure resulted in highly charged but focused recreational activities. They formed clubs and competitions in chess, riding, tennis and other sports, dances, professional-level plays and concerts. Breaks for tea in the afternoon, or at three in the morning, often consisted of mathematical conversations among the many math professors and recent graduates who had been recruited.

One intelligence officer who was not stationed at Bletchley, but whose liaison work with naval intelligence brought him regularly to Bletchley Park, was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond and author of the James Bond novels. Fleming used his knowledge of Enigma and Bletchley Park’s codebreaking in several Bond stories; for example, the central role of the Soviet enciphering machine called LEKTOR in Fleming’s 1957 From Russia with Love. Many other residents of Bletchley went on to brilliant careers as writers, actors, musicians, mathematicians, statesmen, and of course, spies.

Decoding machines evolved during the war. With almost unlimited funds and brainpower, and with survival at stake, great strides were made with each new iteration. During the latter part of the war, the ultimate electronic-valve digital machine, Colossus, became essentially the very first true computer in history (263). It was primarily the brainchild of Max Newman, Thomas Flowers, and Alan Turing. Colossus filled a room, and with the eccentric Turing standing next to it, gave observers the distinct impression of the mad scientist with his effervescent bulbs and dials making idiosyncratic noises.

But it wasn’t mad, it was one of the most productive concentrated moments in history. In retrospect, evaluating the advantages the codebreakers gave to the allies, General Eisenhower (later President Eisenhower) and other analysts said Bletchley Park shortened the war by two years. That equates to millions of lives saved, on both sides. It’s an amazing accomplishment, in sharp contrast against the absolute silence about it after the war, and the complete absence of any public recognition for this bizarre collection of masterminds and heroes.

Bletchley Park was completely unknown to all but those who worked there or held the highest clearance, such as the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and two or three others. Even generals and admirals leading the allied forces knew nothing of Bletchley’s existence. Inside information about German, Japanese, and Italian plans and movements vaguely emanated from British Intelligence “sources.” But allied military leaders knew nothing about Bletchley Park, the super-secret sub-unit under the very secret Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), operating under the invisible branch called MI6.

The Official Secrets Act that all Bletchley Park workers signed prohibited those 10,000 people from breathing a word of their activities for thirty years, until an unauthorized book in the 1970s revealed the secrets of the park. Even after that, most still kept silent. People in different “Huts” were not allowed to reveal their work to co-workers in other Huts. Some couples who met at Bletchley and married, after decades, still never told each other what they had done in their respective Huts or sections.

During the 1990s Bletchley Park was rescued from dilapidation, restored, and converted to a permanent museum, with several original codebreaking machines intact. The story of the Park was widely known by then, and many veterans of the Huts could finally return and revisit the old grounds. Today 200,000 people a year visit the Bletchley Park Museum.

BP, as it was affectionately called, is one of the most important and least known pieces of history. Despite the film’s flaws, I’m grateful for The Imitation Game. It roused my interest and led me to learn more. Search the Internet for bonus features on Bletchley Park.

Contact Form

This entry was posted in Book Review, History. Bookmark the permalink.