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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
352 pages



CNN reported today that an Enigma machine, the encoding device used by the Germans in World War II, was sold at Christie’s after a three-day bidding war for $208,137, to a “collector.” A collector of what, I wonder? Archaic keyboards? Not that I have anything against archaic keyboards, mind you. I still miss my typewriter, and think fondly of the insanely and even then antique huge adding machine my father had in his office. More likely, the collector collects memorabilia of World War II, which makes me wonder what else he has in his collection, if he can shell out that much for an unsightly and useless machine.

The reports of the sale, to this enigmatic collector, touch glancingly on the novel “Enigma” by Robert Harris, giving greater weight to the fact that the novel was made into a “Hollywood movie starring the award-winning actress Kate Winslet.” This is unfortunate, because the movie was rubbish, but the novel really is very good.
A high-strung, brilliant mathematician,Tom Jericho, returns to Bletchley Park (headquarters of the code-breakers) after cracking up while trying to crack the code. His fickle perhaps traitorous former flame Claire (played in the film by Saffron Burrows) has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Claire’s plain Jane roommate Hester (played in the film by Kate Winslet, in glasses and a frumpy cardigan because, right, that will make her plain), also employed at Bletchley, assists Tom in his quests to break both the Enigma code and the mystery of what happened to Claire and why the Nazis suddenly changed the code after Claire disappeared.

I read this novel several years ago and what I remember most is its depiction of a nearly-defeated Britain, in its fifth year of war, depleted of nearly all its resources, fighting to keep what little remained out of the hands of the callous Americans. A riveting read.