Fall 2012Vol. 7, No. 3

This article is from TOS Vol. 7, No. 3. The full contents of the issue are listed here.

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).

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers

In the Summer 2008 issue of The Objective Standard, John David Lewis concluded his review of Sun-tzu: 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.”