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The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park

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During the war, a branch of British Intelligence, the Government Code and Cypher School, set up shop at Bletchley Park, to decrypt ciphers and codes of the Italians, the Japanese and most of all the Germans, whose Enigma machine, which encrypted all their communications, the team eventually cracked.  The team itself was made up of now-legendary mathematician Alan Turing, codebreaker and classics scholar Dilly Knox, and hundreds of young men and women recruited right out of university and spirited away to a remote estate outside the small town of Bletchley, where they signed the Official Secrets Act which forbade them, during the war or for decades after, from ever discussing their work.  It was work that many of them never fully understood, while all of them bore “the heroism of the long, hard slog and the burden of ugly, painful secrets.”

“It was not just the mentally exhausting prospect of facing, day after day, these groups of random-looking letters, trying to think from every conceivable angle of some sort of logical formula that would bring order to the chaos and make the letters resolve into language,” McKay writes.  “It was also the knowledge that they simply had to succeed.”

However, he continues, “at the higher levels, the cryptanalytic work was intensely enjoyable.”

And so is this book.

If you’re an Anglophile, a history buff, a lover of stories of small communities becoming a tribe, this is the book for you.  If you have any interest in Bletchley Park or codebreaking, this will be your go-to book.  Meticulously researched (the author seems to have read every scrap of paper relating to the subject), The Secret Lives of Codebreakers lives up to its title by evoking the day-to-day lives of the Park residents, from the notorious Turing to a 14-year-old waitress who worked in the dining hall while her sister and mother were also employed at Bletchley Park, doing work they never discussed.  Author McKay has interviewed many of the former codebreakers and he relates, in a lively, sympathetic (and so veddy veddy British) voice their romances, mishaps and social lives.  Thorough in its execution and thoroughly engaging.

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers:
The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park
Sinclair McKay
History
Plume
352 pages

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4 responses »

  1. I read another book which I think fictionalized some of the characters but was very readable and hard to put down. My late husband
    fought in the Pacific and his older brother fought in Patton’s Third Army and landed in on the beaches of Normandy and slogged their way to release concentration camps and talked about D Day only when I talked him into seeing Private Ryan with us. He said the fiilm was too realistic. I have reserved this book because I think it will be a wonderfully interesting read

    Reply
    • Thanks, Barbara, I hope you enjoy it!

      I found parts of Saving Private Ryan quite realistic (of course, I wasn’t there) — the constant, terrible confusion of every character, the way that every Yankee CO greeted Tom Hanks’s platoon with the words, “Are you our relief?” and of course they never were. And no one ever was.

      Some of the stereotypes — the cowardly intellectual, the Bible-thumping sharpshooter, the wise-cracking guy from Brooklyn — as well as the flag-waving framing device, held me back from a full embrace. But I do appreciate it. How do you feel about “Band of Brothers”?

      Reply
  2. This sounds like a fascinating book. Thank you for sharing with your very well-written review.

    Reply
  3. Francesca Richer(nee Pagano)

    My father was a radio telecommunications engineer in the RAF during the war. he died in 2007 taking many of the ‘secrets’ with him .He and others were responsible for ensuring the reception of signals were maintained( repairing bombed receiver masts) all across southern UK. At the risk of conveying secrets it has been impossible to secure information as to his exact duties, whilst stationed there. His expertise and knowledge led to his being in the vanguard of the emerging Radar technologies. And where would we be today.with out that!!!!
    sadly family commitments ( our education) prevented his participating in the development of communication and the technology that NASA invited him to join in the mid 50’s.
    Are there other RAF personnel who remember their activities in the ‘radio room’?

    Reply

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