An Illustrated History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre
By Sinclair McKay
Aurum Press Ltd
ISBN: 978 1 78131 191 2

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

I wanted to find a clever historical quote for this review so I could add some authority to my comments – but, I just can’t find the right one. Never mind. I wanted the quote to illustrate how wars are not entirely won on the battlefield, but I’ve failed you. Perhaps someone can suggest something suitable via our Facebook page?

Any road up, here we are with this terrific book about the place where a great deal of World War II was won. It isn’t a battlefield per se just an old house surrounded by decaying temporary structures in the Buckinghamshire countryside, but this is Bletchley Park, where the Allies’ window into the minds and deeds of their enemies was opened up. Code breaking is a mysterious and devilishly clever science. So much so that people with a basic knowledge of mathematics are bamboozled by it. (My dad told me the only thing I needed to know was how to add up was money). It isn’t all maths, there is also logic. I could never solve a Rubic’s Cube or do soduku puzzles. I don’t have that brain. Corner me on general knowledge, certain historical quotes aside obviously and I might come in handy for your quiz team. But this code breaking stuff involving beautiful minds, chess masters and superior puzzlers is on another plain.

This book goes beyond the genius of the inevitable giants of the story – the likes of Alan Turing, despicably treated by an ungrateful establishment; perhaps for being gay or just for being impossible to pigeon hole. We see the Wrens and other servicewomen who did a lot of the endless work prepping the Nazis’ coded messages ready for decoding. We see a bit of every day life at Bletchley Park and not a little about the house’s time as a home in the pre WW2 summer of the gentry. We see the naval men who captured the Enigma machines, men of the Royal Navy, not that nonsense from U-571. We learn a bit about the important role played by tea.

Code breaking was not new to the people taking on the Axis war machine. Back in the Great War similar minded folk in Room 40 at the Admiralty worked out what the High Seas Fleet was up to before Jutland in 1916, but an officer hostile to the rum world of spooks and boffins elected not to pass the facts on to Jellicoe at Scapa and the chance to win a complete victory was lost to the British. Things improved with the decoding of the infamous Zimmerman telegram revealing Germany’s flirtations with the Mexicans, inviting them to take back lost territories along the border with the United States. The revelation did more as much as the imposition of unrestricted submarine warfare by Berlin to bring America into the war.

Twenty years later, being one jump ahead of the enemy was vital to the Allies. The Ultra Secret, not revealed until the mid 1970s, was their ultimate weapon. The truth of it’s existence rendered hundreds of history books obsolete overnight. Ultra changed everything in the way we appreciate the war. Some things are still secret to this day. I met a chap once, an Oxford professor, who was put into uniform and tasked with learning both Russian and Chinese in a very short time during the war. He was the sort of bloke who could do it without much trouble. Places like Bletchley Park were being used to watch everybody and not much has changed today if we are to believe some of the dodgy whistle blowers and ne’er do wells cropping up in recent times.

Unlocking the Axis comms traffic took hard work from the incredible minds who worked it all out. They were people of the black arts but they also built new fangled massive machines to speed through the vast array of German signal traffic and today we call them computers. Bletchley Park did this, but in the Cold War era when our enemies changed, it was allowed to fall to ruin. No longer: Money is being raised and spent to restore this most incredible of places. It isn’t Normandy or El Alamein, but it is just as important and the great victories won at those legendary places could not have happened without the incredible things done in Buckinghamshire by a gathering of remarkable people.

The author is steeped in the history of Bletchley Park and his knowledge and passion for the place chimes from the pages of this extremely entertaining book. The photographs are fantastic and I love the accounts of how people worked. The true story of the capture of Enigma machines from U-Boats is something we should all know the truth about. Many of the stars of code breaking are revealed and we learn something of how they did it. The fact that this is an all inclusive book, telling the stories of the great minds and the ordinary background staff; their day to day lives and attempts to break the monotony of a rigorous but brain sapping existence, makes it really special. If you had a grandmother or an aunt who spent her days hunched over a typewriter transcribing coded messages then you should be as proud of her as any soldier or airman at the tip of the spear. In every sense these people were on a par with them. Their battles were different but they were intense and it took the best we had to insure victory. Celebrate them with this book. You might end up reading the others about this story by the same author. It’s all good.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.