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on 15 July 2010
This book is rivetting. I know we've all been told quite a bit about Bletchley Park since the wraps were removed, but this book makes one realise how absolutely extraordinary a place it was; and how amazingly extraordinary were the girls and boys, men and women who worked there. It is wonderfully human in its descriptions of personalities and is better than any novel I have ever read set in this period and a similar background. It shows how beautifully English-amateurish and ad hoc was the setting up and gathering of suitable personnel; and how very well-chosen and suitable they all were ! Doubt it would be allowed to happen today ! And how much we owe them all can never ever be calculated. I'm so glad this has been written and published whilst so many of them are able to receive this salute to their loyalty and commitment. We owe them our un-dying gratitude....literally !
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on 30 June 2010
There have been a plethora of books on Bletchley Park and the crucial part it played in the downfall of Nazi Germany. This, though, is the first to put a human face to the extraordinary ordinary people who toiled tirelessly to crack the intercepted enemy codes and help turn the Second World War in the Allies' favour. Through a series of interviews with those who worked at the intelligence centre in the nondescript Buckinghamshire town, Sinclair McKay has been able to breathe new life into a well-mined story. Bound by the Official Secrets Act, many had not spoken about their war-time roles before; indeed, so assiduously did they follow the letter of the Act, relatives went to their graves thinking their offspring had somehow shirked their patriotic duties during the conflict, rather than being unsung, anonymous heroes. A book that deserves to sit alongside more scholarly offerings on the shelf.
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on 3 August 2012
I didn't read the blurb for this book before I ordered it, but went on the recommendation of a friend. Since she, like me, is interested in codes, puzzles and wordgames of all kinds, I imagined the book would give detailed information about the enigma machines and how the German codes were cracked in WW2.

But this is a social history of Bletchley Park and it gives most detail about the working conditions, social lives and lodgings of the many poor people who strove to crack the codes. I say poor, because it's clear their conditions were not particularly good in or outside of work. And worst of all, since they were all covered by the Official Secrets Act they were unable to tell even their immediate family and friends at the time or for 30 years after what contribution they had made to ending the war.

I found the description of Alan Turing's life and his bizarre death especially moving. Who knows what Turing might have gone on to contribute to the development of computers had he lived in a more tolerant society?
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Although this book does look at how codes were broken, the war changed and lives affected by what happened at Bletchley Park, this is essentially about the people who worked there. And, what a cast of characters to work with! Boffins, socialites, professors and tea girls. Everyone had a part to play and this is a very interesting book about a fascinating time. Buy and enjoy.
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VINE VOICEon 22 October 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
What has always amazed me about Bletchley Park is how it has remained so 'secret' for so long. This book goes a long way to explain why that is. The book looks at the lives of the people who worked at the Park during the war, how they came to be there and what it was really like. These are actual accounts from the people themselves. It is a very easy to read and facinating insight into a massive secret operation that probably won us the war. I actually live in Milton Keynes and I know many of the areas mentioned in the book so it is a very vivid, real-life, story for me. I would strongly encourage anyone reading this book, who has not done so already, to visit Bletchley Park, you will definitely feel a need to do so after reading this book. The huts are still there as is the house, lake etc. I found this book an amzing insight into somewhere I have visited several time, but now realise I knew so little about. The accounts of people like Alan Turing and 'Dilly' Knox are fascinating and shows the amazing foresight these people had. This is an excellent book.
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on 18 March 2013
This book is an interesting addition to the extensive literature about the code-breaking activities of Bletchley Park. It focuses on the lives of the code breakers rather than the technical aspects of their work. McKay has drawn on the existing literature and also interviewed a number of survivors whose testimony forms the bulk of the text. McKay is to be congratulated on his work in gathering this eyewitness material.

However, the book is deeply flawed because McKay has not paid the same attention to checking his facts with regard to the War itself. For example, he says that the Battle of Britain ended at the end of August 1940 (p 109). Does he not know that Battle of Britain Day is 15 September? On p 133 he says that U-110 had sunk the "Athenia" in the first few days of the war. In fact it was the U-30. The connection was that Lemp, the commander of U-30, had taken command of the U-110 for the cruise in which she was captured. McKay speaks of the "ferocious 1950s pride" in the Harrier jet (p 320). The prototype VTOL plane first flew in 1960 and was not ordered by the RAF as the Harrier until 1966. These are just a few of the errors and distortions that mar the book.

McKay also seems to want claim more credit for Bletchley Park than is due. BP contributed to the Battle of the Atlantic but it was won by technical innovations such as centimetric radar, high-frequency direction finding, long range aircraft and escort carriers; not to mention the courage of the sailors of the Royal and merchant navies. The Luftwaffe navigation beams (p 110f) were identified by a combination of technical examination of shot down German bombers, interrogation of prisoners and BP decrypts. The existence of the beams still had to be confirmed by detecting them using aircraft equipped with sensitive radio receivers. The German beams were jammed not bent.

Perhaps the greatest distortion occurs in McKay's account of the operations against the "Bismarck" in May 1941(p 113). He claims that "Bismarck" had been tracked after BP had broken certain codes and a "pantomime" was organised in which a RAF reconnaissance plane pretended to find the German ship. This is nonsense. The "Bismarck" was tracked by espionage, by aerial reconnaissance, by radar and by radio direction-finding. The Admiralty had concluded that "Bismarck" was heading for Brest and this was later confirmed by a BP decrypt. (This is explained in the War Diary for May 1941 on the BP website) However, the position of the ship was not known so the aerial reconnaissance carried out on May 26 was a necessary search which genuinely found the "Bismarck".

If you want to read about the life-style of the people of Bletchley Park, this is a book for you. But don't trust anything McKay says about the War itself.
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on 2 March 2011
Contrary to many of the reviews listed here on Amazon and indeed in the blurb on the back of the book, this book is not, in fact, a new take on the Bletchley Park story. In 2004 a similarly themed book, the social history of the institution, was published by Marion Hill calledBletchley Park People. This point noted, and due credit as pioneer awarded to Hill, McKay's work does have some merit to it. Primarily this is in the structure and sources employed in the book. McKay produces a fine narrative of events, not from the birds eye view of many previous accounts of the Bletchley Park story, but from on the ground. As a result the book is filled with rich and colourful anecdotes that will be new to even the most seasoned historian of the subject. The book also addresses issues that historians of the institution have previously shied away from, we get accounts of the mundane, such as the catering, through to issues of class and gender.

This is, however, the point where the book begins to fall down. For example, issues of both gender and class make up a considerable portion of the general historical literature on Home Front Britain, and no attempt is made to place the Bletchley Park case study within this wider literature. As a result penetrating questions, such as whether the Bletchley setup was unique, are avoided. The dark under-belly of the institution, such as the inherent sexism, which even a cursory examination of the archival material left behind by the institution soon reveals, is skirted over far too quickly for this reviewers liking. Such questions are key to any real understanding of GC&CS (the Governemnt Code and Cypher School) as an institution from a social perspective, and McKay just never gets to grips with them which is a pity given the admirable scope and aims of the book. Then again, perhaps these criticisms are a little harsh given that it is clear that McKay aimed to produce a history of Bletchley Park for the casual reader where it might be argued that such considerations are not necessarily warranted.

Beyond omissions, such as the example above, there are some factual errors which crop up from time to time. For example, McKay describes the `Colossus' computer as being the "successor" to the `Bombe' machines (p. 87). This is true only in the sense that the `Bombe' machines were invented prior to the `Colossus' computer. As it happens that `Colossus' computers were invented to attack an entirely different cipher system to that of the `Bombe' machines, and the former was not an extension or designed as an improvement on the latter. Thankfully McKay goes onto clarify this point later on in the book (p. 260), but it is nevertheless a misleading statement which should have been omitted.

The referencing in the book also requires mention. While endnotes are added, pointing the reading to the relevant archive from which the source material was drawn (typically, if not invariably, the National Archives at Kew), no effort is made to provide any further details. As any individual who has attempted to navigate the records of GC&CS can tell you, the files produced by the institution are intimidating in scale and the documents number in the hundreds of thousands if not millions. Simply telling the reader that the source document came from Kew but providing no further detail is, therefore, next to worthless. Similarly McKay tells us which books certain quotes come from, but fails to provide further details such as page numbers, which again would be useful for interested parties looking to examine further.

These criticisms aside the book is a very useful contribution to the literature on Bletchley Park, far expanding the work conducted by Hill mentioned earlier in the review. The anecdotes provided are both interesting and insightful, and I would certainly recommend this book to any interested individual.
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VINE VOICEon 28 October 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a very interesting book about the people that worked at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire during the Second World War working on code breaking, including that of the infamous Enigma machine. This is the story of the codebreakers and other workers rather than about the codes, for which there are many other books available.
The book has some interesting photos and has been written following interviews withthose that were there working at Blecthley during the war.

There is an extensive list of references and so will give anyone wanting to know moew a good set of additinal references. If you have read or seen the film based on the book Enigma and are interested to find out more - then this is a good book to read.
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VINE VOICEon 18 December 2012
Group Captain Winterbotham's 1974 book The Ultra Secret and Ronald Lewin's slightly later (1978) book 'Ultra Goes to War give a detailed insight into the wartime activities of Bletchley Park and of the enormous contribution made to the overall war effort. General Eisenhower openly stated that, without the code breakers at Bletchley Park, World War II would have lasted another couple of years and cost several million more lives.

'The Secret Life of Bletchley Park' approaches the story from a slightly different and more human perspective. It gives an intriguing insight into the code breakers and support staff themselves: the people who, from 1939 onwards, were responsible for the cracking the supposedly unbreakable German, Italian (and latterly) Japanese military ciphers.

The book tells us a lot about the brilliant intellectuals (recruited from top-flight universities, from the law and from various scientific institutions) and the equally important WAAFs and Wrens who carried out much of the routine work involved in code breaking on what quickly became a near-industrial scale. And, of course, the messengers, domestic staff and drivers who had an unsung but equally important part to play.

Even towards the end of the war very few people knew exactly what was happening at Bletchley; the families of the staff knew nothing and there's a well-recorded instance of a surgical procedure being deferred because the girl in question wasn't prepared to risk talking whilst under an anaesthetic. At the end of the war, when Commander Travis (who was responsible for running Bletchley Park for several years) received a well-deserved knighthood, his wife simply asked 'What for?'

The Germans never suspected that, from 1939 onwards, an increasing amount of their military radio traffic (including orders from Hitler to his top commanders) was being routinely deciphered at Bletchley and passed almost immediately to the Allied commanders. The source of the intelligence was always hidden from all but a selected few and there are many instances where the Allied commanders received the message before their Axis counterparts.

There was also a lighter, and well documented, side to Bletchley - dancing, literary appreciation, music, crossword, hiking, theatrical activities (and much more) were organised by the staff. Many of these events, particularly the theatrical and musical activities, were of a top-class professional standard.

You'll find the book is a fascinating story of people working under unremitting pressure and under extreme secrecy - of never talking about their work and never understanding how the end product was being applied.

Sinclair McKay's companion book The Secret Listeners: How the Y Service Intercepted the Secret German Codes for Bletchley Park is equally fascinating story of the the people responsible for listening in to enemy wireless traffic and, from an increasingly large number of points around the world, passing the information back to Bletchley Park for decoding.
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on 30 December 2012
Much of this as already been said by others, but I found the book a huge disappointment. The author seems to have interviewed only a handful of people who were actually there (the rest, one presumes, being dead by now) and what he has to say about their experiences is, for the most part, dull and repetitive.

The former shortcomings are sad, but the inaccuracies are inexcusable. For example, 10 seconds on Google would have revealed that there could not possibly have been 2500 fatalities on HMS Hood; it had a crew of 1418, of whom 3 survived. And to say that Fasson and Grazier got the VC is a schoolboy-level error. Integral to their story was the fact that they could not be given the VC as the action did not take place in the face of the enemy (no German sailor was allowed to witness the retrieval of the code books).

With difficulty, I made it through to the end of this rather shoddy book. But my recommendation to others is to leave it un-read.
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