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"The geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled" (Winston Churchill)
on 28 December 2014
I am sure this book deserves five stars for the comprehensiveness of its account of the code-breaking activities at Bletchley Park; but stars are intended to indicate whether “I love it” (5) or “I like it” (4). I have given it only four stars because there were several times when I considered giving up the book: when its technical details were so dense, when I could not understand the descriptions of the decoding machines, when I lost track of the meanings of abbreviations or indeed of the huge cast of characters.
But each time, just as I was about to give up, the book would spring to life again: we have the depiction of the amazing atmosphere in a military establishment in which so many eccentric academics were allowed to be eccentric. We find young men who will have very distinguished career is later life (Roy Jenkins, for instance; Peter Benenson who would become the founder of Amnesty International; the novelists Angus Wilson and Ian Fleming; the chess master Harry Golombek; others would become well-known academics like the historians Trevor-Roper, Asa Briggs, J.H.Plumb, T.S.R.Boase and the American William Bundy). And of course there are the giants of code-breakers, including Dilly Knox, John Tiltman, Alan Turing, Hugh Alexander and Tommy Flowers. In John Cairncross Bletchley Park had a Soviet double agent who passed information on to the Soviet Union. He was not suspected at the time; but there were often suspicions that American colleagues could not be trusted to keep the strict secrecy to which everyone at Bletchley was so committed that, except at the top level, the great majority of the people who were working there did not even tell each other what they were doing and often did not know what role their individual work was playing in the overall picture. This total secrecy was maintained until the late 1970s, long after the war was over. All loved the work for which their minds - trained in mathematics, in languages, in crossword puzzles, in chess - were so well suited. All always showed utter dedication, but they also had fun, not only in dances and various japes, but also in discussion groups and groups devoted to music, to Scottish dancing and to drama. We are given descriptions of the physical circumstances under which they worked. We see the growth and physical spread of the establishment from 110 people in August 1939 to more than 10,000 at the beginning of 1945, some two thirds of whom were women. And these figures do not include the “thousands more [who] were based at ninety locations in the UK and others around the world.”
Gripping above all, of course, was the real drama of what went on there: the thrill when an enemy code was broken; the even greater thrill when that resulted in victories; the despair when a new code took so long to break that in the interval hundreds of merchant ships were sunk by U boats in the Battle of the Atlantic; the dismay also when the codes were broken but the military possibilities to make use of it were so limited (as, for example, in the German attack on Crete), or when the military, Montgomery especially, chose not to act on the information given to it: he ignored the information which would have speeded up his destruction of Rommel’s army in Tunisia, and - worse - which would have prevented the disaster of the Arnhem airdrop. Intelligence about the impending German counter-offensive in the Ardennes was also ignored. And it was known weeks before Hiroshima and Nagasaki that the Japanese would have surrendered if they could be assured that the Emperor would remain on the throne.
Bletchley Park also ran the Double Cross system, by which false information was ingeniously leaked to the Germans, and then intercepts could tell the occasions when the Germans had fallen for it. So, for example, the Germans were led to believe in 1943 that the Allies would invade Greece rather than Sicily, and, most importantly, that the main landing on D-Day would be near Calais and that any landing in Normandy would be merely a feint. Intercepts then showed that the Germans stationed large bodies of troops near Calais who could have made all the difference in Normandy. Indeed almost all the German dispositions before D-Day were known in detail, partly because messages sent to Tokyo by the Japanese miliary attachés who had inspected the German defences had been decoded. “The achievements of trhe British codebreakers against Japanese codes and cyphers have been persistently underplayed.”
I was amazed how very much Bletchley Park knew about German plans, and how skilfully the intelligence was used in such a way that the Germans did not know that their codes had been cracked. (I wondered whether the Germans ever cracked any of the codes the Allies were using: if so, there is no reference that in this book.)