The Secret Life
of Bletchley Park

The WWII Codebreaking Center and
The Men and Women Who Worked There

Sinclair McKay
It's all very romantic. A small village fifty miles north of London was chosen as the site of a vital code-breaking operation just before World War II. Mathematical geniuses, Egyptologists and language experts from Cambridge and Oxford were taken on, as were professional military codebreakers, upper class ladies from English society, and Wrens --- young women newly inducted into the services --- along with a few workers from the village.

All were thrown together starting in 1939 in this rather dingy town, sited in an ancient (and ugly) estate, retrofitted with huts for the tedious work of receiving messages transmitted from the German high command, messages sent between German ships, submarines and their naval bases, along with transmissions to and from their aircraft. All these communications were monitored: the vital facts about troop movements, there whereabouts of submarines and larger ships, airplanes, and, as well, communications between the Germans and their allies, the Japanese and the Italians.

It was Bletchley's task to unravel the diabolical code from "Enigma" machines, which, by means of a series of rotor wheels, plug-ins, and levers were designed to code message, turn all into a mass of meaningless letters. Just to add to the confusion, the German High Command ordered that Enigma settings be changed every twenty-four hours, at midnight, so that each day delivered a completely new puzzle to Bletchley. The Germans were supremely confident --- and remained so until the end of the war --- that their code would never be broken. And Bletchley was betrayed only a few times, not so seriously as to blow their cover.

§     §     §

This was the time before computers; indeed, this was the site --- according to author McKay --- where the first computer came into being, called, improbably, "an electronic valve machine." It was put into service in November of 1943, the product of the combined genius of Alan Turing, Max Newman, and an upstart East Ender, Tommy Flowers.

There is a truth about the secrecy of Bletchley: it was deemed vital that the Germans should never get a hint that their top-secret code had been compromised. If they knew of its vulnerability, they would immediately invent an even more diabolical one, and McKay rightly emphasizes the basic paradox, which may be the paradox of any deep love or hate: if you know, and your opposite number knows you know, then all may be lost.

Thus the big question: Should these top secrets be shared with the allies --- the Americans on the one hand (notorious with their easy-going security) and, on the other, the Russians (who might use the information so openly to defend themselves that the German will know at once that they have been compromised). Then there was the question of humanity.

As early on as 1941, "Bletchley was able to break into the codes dealing with German railways --- the same railway lines that led to the concentration camps."

    They were able to glean from these messages the forced deportation of waves of thousands upon thousands of people, the lines leading inexorably to these places of death.

What should be done with this information? "The answer, according to those in charge: nothing could be done that would betray the Bletchley secret."

§     §     §

Encoding is a mechanical process. So, the key theory --- proposed by Turing --- was that there has to be a mechanical process that can unravel these exchanges. To those of us fans of the mechanics of war, this should provide a fascinating study. Unfortunately, there are a few problems with McKay's presentation.

For one, we don't get the details. We find out that just before the disaster at Dunkirk, Bletchley broke the vital "Red Enigma" key:

    "To have a way into the German air force messages was a glittering prize. The Red became of vital importance immediately," commented one veteran of Hut 6, "and remained so all the way through the war and in all the main theatres of war."

But we are given no examples of why and --- even more --- how this came to pass. How was Red broken? What were the mechanics? Who did it?

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park has chapters on the daily elements of what was known as "BP" --- the interactions, the disputes, the love affairs, the drudgery of professors, classicists, eccentrics, upper class ladies, and the Wrens. We have no end of details of the ghastly working conditions, the jammed rooms, the bad food, the need to hide --- even from friends and family --- exactly what was being done.

There are whole chapters devoted to the social events, the dances, the ice-skating on a near-by lake, the courtships, the romances, the plays and concerts, the "Christmas revue." But the nuts and bolts (and the many successes) are given short shrift.

The book fails, I suspect, because McKay knows how to write a tale ... but he doesn't know how to tell one. He lacks the sweeping vision of a Barbara Tuchmann or Niall Ferguson or Michael N. Kennedy.

The story may be good enough to carry us along (it does, sort of); we can empathize with the total commitment (the survival of England was at stake); and we see, perhaps too much, the endless detail work:

    You could spend nights in which you got nowhere at all. You didn't get a single break, you just tried, played around through this long bleak night with total frustration and your brain was literally raw [said one decoder.] I remember one night when I made thirteen breaks. But there were an awful lot of nights when I was lucky if I made just one.

The seeds are all here. They just don't get a chance to flower.

--- Richard Saturday
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