Thursday, June 2, 2022

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

Title: The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park
Author: Sinclair McKay
Publication: Penguin, trade paperback, 2012
Genre: Nonfiction, history, WWII
This book, published in the UK as The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, is one of several recommended by my professor and Dr. Welsh (who created the British Studies program I will embark on this weekend) to read and review prior to our trip to London. Of course, I have been eager to visit Bletchley Park ever since I first read about it, long before it was actually made open to the public. Author Sinclair McKay is a features writer for British newspapers, The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. He is also the author of two other nonfiction books, The Fire and the Darkness, about the bombing of Dresden in 1945, and Berlin: Life and Death in the City at the Center of the World.  

Codebreakers is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the secret work done at Bletchley Park to decipher German ciphers by a surprisingly large group of enlisted men and women as well as individuals recruited from academia, the aristocracy, and other walks of life. According to the author, because those working on highly confidential war projects were required to sign the Official Secrets Act which prohibited discussion even with family members, many of these people did not tell their stories until the end of the twentieth century.

Historians believe the code-breaking work at Bletchley Park likely shortened World War II by up to three years. McKay interviewed dozens of those who worked at Bletchley, and even some of their children, in order to tell their stories from the youngest, Mimi Gallilee, who worked as a messenger carrying mail from building to building when she should have been in school, to Dilly Knox, a quirky cryptographer and classics scholar from Cambridge University who died before the war ended, and including Alan Turing, the brilliant computer scientist, later brutally mistreated by the British government. In 1991, a local historic preservation committee invited a group of veterans to bid farewell to the building before it was torn down but upon hearing some of the stories of their work, the idea of turning it into a museum developed. It opened in 1994 as a heritage museum that attracts visitors from all over the world.

The chapters include highly technical descriptions of cryptography which are necessary and interesting but not as entertaining as the vivid descriptions of the personalities who converged on Bletchley and how they interacted. McKay reveals the ways these talented men and women were recruited, the inadequate housing provided in the homes of local residents, and how they entertained themselves during non-working hours. He conveys how discreet these individuals were: there was no discussion between the various building of what each group was working on although all were under intense pressure to discover something that would aid Britain’s war effort. McKay also describes how they all took pride in a visit from then Prime Minister Winston Churchill who knew and valued their work, and said so.

The book consists of 338 pages, with a Notes section that serves as a bibliography, organized by chapter, as well as a brief Acknowledgments. There is also a six-page index that is fairly detailed and allows retrieval of names, battles, and key war terms. An eight-page black and white photo insert features pictures of Bletchley Park during World War II and at the time it was opened as a visitor attraction; individuals mentioned in the book, including Alan Turing, the most famous resident; and a picture of the famous Enigma machine.
Recommendation: Due to the recent success of The Rose Code by Kate Quinn which was a New York Times bestseller, there is more interest in Bletchley Park in the United States now than there likely was when Codebreakers was first published. I would recommend the book for inclusion in large and medium-sized public library collections in the United States, especially those with robust World War II history collections and circulation, as well as patrons who are known Anglophiles. It would also be suitable for academic libraries with strong history departments. It is appropriate for high school students and adults.

Further Reading: Reference was my favorite class in library school and when we had to create a resource guide for a topic, I chose Bletchley Park.  Initially, I wanted to include all the intriguing WWII fiction (The Rose Code had not come out yet but there are others) but it was hard to find them online so I concentrated on nonfiction.

1 comment:

Sue in Suffolk said...

I recently watched the film - The Imitation Game - when it was on TV - with Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Not sure how true to real life it was, but a good film anyway