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

by Sinclair McKay

New York: Plume, 2012.

352 pp. $16.00 (paperback).

In the Summer 2008 issue of The Objective Standard, John David Lewis concluded his review of Suntzu: Art of War with this important truth: "War is fought with wits as well as with weapons, and the way to victory is to use one's mind to defeat one's enemy." In The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park, Sinclair McKay relays how this truth played out in Britain's relentless fight against Nazi Germany.

McKay's primary focus is on what took place at Bletchley Park, a country house in wartime Britain that was converted into a top-secret facility with the purpose of decrypting the Enigma coding technology used by the Nazis.
  The principle of Enigma was that the [compact and portable]
  machines both enciphered messages and, at the other end,
  deciphered them.

  The operator would type a letter on the normal-looking keyboard; a
  couple of seconds later, via an electric current sent through the
  rotating code-letter wheels, another letter on the adjacent
  keyboard would be illuminated. This substitute letter would be
  noted. And so on through all the letters of a message.

  The recipient, with his Enigma machine set up in exactly the
  same way, would tap these encoded letters in, one by one--and
  one by one, the real letters would be illuminated on the
  lampboard. (pp. 41-42)

To make the messages even more secure, the Germans added a plug board--which allowed for millions more letter combinations--and on top of that changed the settings every twenty-four hours.

It's no wonder the German High Command considered messages delivered by Enigma to be absolutely safe. And thus readers can easily see both why the Nazis used it so often and how valuable it would be to Britain should its top minds be able to decode the messages they were transmitting.

Surprisingly, perhaps, life at Bletchley Park was not all dour faces and stiff upper lips. According to McKay, despite and partly because of the long, stressful hours, there were a variety of clubs, parties, plays, and performances put on by the staff.

The presence of so many brilliant, eccentric personalities also gave Bletchley Park a certain charm--or at least made things interesting. For instance, Alan Turing, arguably the smartest of the lot, often rode his bicycle through the countryside while wearing a gas mask, chained his tea mug firmly to a radiator, and held up his trousers "not with a belt but with a striped necktie" (pp. 17, 144, 126).

McKay relays fun anecdotes of that variety here and there, but his main focus remains on portraying the makeup of the facility and how a wide range of intellects and skills were integrated toward a common purpose that enabled success.
  It is broadly assumed nowadays that the work at Bletchley required
  its inmates to be near-autistic, socially inept geniuses. In fact,
  the more prized quality would have been a certain nimbleness and
  litheness of mind, the ability to approach and solve a problem
  from hitherto unconsidered angles.

  This was certainly the case with Enigma. The breaking of the German
  codes would turn out to be the result of a combination of flashes
  of logical and mathematical insight plus a certain psychological
  brilliance. And this is even without mentioning the formidable
  technical skills of the men who built the "bombe" machines, the
  vast, revolutionary proto-computer constructions that could sift
  through the dizzying millions of potential combinations of
  each code.

  Nor was it just the codebreakers who were needed. Bletchley Park
  also required the services of able, fast-witted linguists--young
  men and women fluent especially in German.

  It also needed stalwart administrative backup: people who could
  attend to the grindingly tedious yet crucial roles of filing and
  archives. For not only were there enemy transmissions to be logged,
  translated, decoded--they also had to be filed in such a way that
  they could be cross-referenced with other messages in
  the future. (pp. 19-20)

Seeing how all these different kinds of people worked together toward deciphering messages and winning the war is one of the great joys of reading The Secret Lives of Codebreakers. Would you have guessed that British socialite girls more interested in personalities than in numbers, and incapable of grasping what Turing and his kind were up to, proved invaluable in the war effort? They did. Using decoded messages supplied by Turing and company, they successfully applied the social knack they had for remembering people's names and positions, where they were from, who they were friends with, and so on, to the tracking of the German High Command.

For some, explains McKay, code breaking seems to have been viewed as like a challenging Sudoku puzzle (p. 91). But as one of the code breakers recalled, "the nature of the work often had very little to do with mathematics and everything to do with patience and concentration" (p. 70). Or, as McKay puts it:
  The work was ... not simply a matter of clever young people in Fair
  Isle sweaters gazing blankly at apparently random letters; it was
  these same young people using tiresome though necessary means to
  test and test and test again, against such regular messages as
  enemy weather reports and call-signs, the language of which were
  presumed straightforward and repetitious enough to help produce
  some kind of crib [that the "bombe" machines would
  then test]. (pp. 74-75)

There were many times, according to McKay, when the men and women at Bletchley would work straight through a 24-hour shift--or discover the meaning of some seemingly important message in the middle of the third night of working on it.

We all can, of course, be thankful that such heroic efforts paid off. McKay quotes Eisenhower's estimate that breaking into Enigma ultimately shortened the war by two years (p. 322), and he indicates how many lives were saved as a result.

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers shows readers not only the truth stated by Lewis, that wars are fought "with wits as well as with weapons," but also the truth stated by Voltaire, that "No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."

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Author:Wahl, Daniel
Publication:The Objective Standard
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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