The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay

13542383The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, also known as The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, delves into the history of British counter-intelligence during World War II by way of anecdotes from the numerous Britishers who served in it. Until the 1970s, a code of silence concealed all knowledge of Bletchley Park activities – the individuals who worked there continued to stringently conform to the Official Secrets Act that they had pledged to uphold. Some do even to this day in a digital, globalized world that makes secret-keeping ever more difficult. Although several works of fiction and nonfiction have been published since then, Sinclair McKay does an excellent job of consolidating both the history of Bletchley Park and the personal stories of its staff.

As the title indicates, this book focuses mostly on the lives of the codebreakers, though it also discusses the history of Bletchley Park and the GC&CS (government code and cypher school) and the interaction of Bletchley operatives with the public and other governmental agencies. However, much of the text examines, for example, how the personnel were chosen, where they were billeted, the food at the canteen, the various social clubs they created (ranging from Scottish dancing to theatricals), and other minutiae of their everyday lives outside of codebreaking, translating, or whatever their occupations were. At the height of operations in 1944/45, there were some 9000 individuals working there among the 3 daily shifts.

One of McKay’s most interesting observations was the blend of social classes found there. A number of women, especially at the beginning, were pulled from the upper-class because the male directors believed that debutantes had more loyalty to the country and would know how to keep their mouths shut. Additionally, several famous artists and intellectuals spent time at Bletchley, including James Bond creator Ian Fleming, novelist Angus Wilson, historian Harry Hinsley, and several noted actors and actresses of the day. Yet, there was little tension – in a socioeconomic way at least, though plenty romantic and creative tensions arose.

In addition to the character sketches of ordinary individuals, McKay shines the spotlight on the leaders and pioneers in the code-cracking, including Alan Turing, Dilly Knox, John Jeffreys, and Gordon Welchman who were some of the earliest recruits and the finest mathematical minds in the nation. Quirky, complicated individuals, they nevertheless managed to work closely together to break through German codes, critically saving the lives of thousands and helping the Allies win the war. The time Turing, and also Tommy Flowers who worked with GC&CS via the Post Office, spent at Bletchley led to some of the earliest forms of computers.

(Aside: The upcoming film The Imitation Game” stars Benedict Cumerbatch as Alan Turing, including the excerpts of his life that he spent at Bletchley leading efforts on German cryptanalysis and becoming briefly engaged to a (female!) colleague, before he dies after being prosecuted for homosexuality.)

While the book was largely full of fascinating facts, I am skeptical of its editors’ prowess. Often, the narrative seems disjointed and abruptly switches between topics – it was very ill-organized. Explanations of certain things (i.e. the bombes) come chapters after the terminology is introduced, without even a glossary at the end to lend clarity. Compounding this issue was the repetition of specific facts, which led to redundancy and thus boredom. Additionally, since so many people are featured, it’s hard to distinguish between them as they pop up throughout the text.

Spy-enthusiasts, conspiracy-theorists, and World War buffs will find this book intriguing, if far less adventurous than would be imagined. For me, the highlight was hearing about these extraordinary youth – many were my age or younger and I can’t even fathom the boundless intelligence or persistence they expressed in a climate of stress and fear.

3 Stars

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