REVIEW: The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park by Dermot Turing
At Bletchley Park, some of Britain’s most talented mathematicians, linguists, and intellectuals were assembled to break Nazi codes. Kept secret for nearly thirty years, we have now come to realise the crucial role that these codebreakers played in the Allied victory in World War II.
Written by Dermot Turing – the nephew of famous codebreaker Alan Turing – this illustrated account provides unique insight into the behind-the-scenes action at Bletchley Park. Discover how brilliant and eccentric individuals such as Dilly Knox, Alan Turing and Joan Clarke were recruited, the social life that grew up around the park, and how they dealt with the ever-present burden of secrecy.
Including a foreword by Professor Christopher Andrew of Cambridge University, author of MI5’s official history The Secret World, this book brings to life the stories of the men and women who toiled day and night to crack the seemingly unbreakable enigma code.
I began this book thinking I knew a lot about the code breaking and Bletchley Park. I mean Alan Turing, the Enigma machine, breaking the German codes, turning the course of the war. Simple. Turns out I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.
Yes, there is a lot to learn here and though it eventually gets much more interesting and on to what I was expecting, there’s a learning curve to start us out. The eventual activities and many of the people involved had their beginnings far before the war – usually in World War I code breaking when things were still mainly done by hand and also (mainly) from Kings College, Cambridge. Getting noticed and recruited still had much to do with the ‘old boys’ (rarely women’s) network of who knew whom. When the mathematicians finally arrived, it took some convincing to get the standard linguists, history, and classics people to accept that they might be useful.
The short 2-3 page biographies of some of the major players in the efforts at Bletchley were helpful as many of them I’d rarely or barely or never heard of before (see first paragraph) but scattered as they were through the text, they did also break up the flow of the chapter. Much more interesting was the information in the chapters themselves that integrated the people discussed in the bios with the specific things and breakthroughs they were responsible for. I was also astounded at the huge number of WRENS who worked there and at outstations in (often mind numbingly boring) clerical jobs.
The details about the machines used to help break the German, Italian, and later – once Italy had made peace – Japanese codes weren’t too complicated but had enough information to show how fiendishly brilliant were the people who devised them to deal with the complex code of the machines they were trying to crack. That some of them were reverse engineered without the British ever seeing them until after the war is astounding. What I really enjoyed, though, were the little nuggets of information about the people who harnessed their various creative skills and knowledge to tackling that enormous task. B-