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on 12 May 2018
The Secret Life Of Bletchley Park is a non-fiction examination of the lives of those enlisted for the vital job of deciphering coded messages during the Second World War.

Because of certain laws contained within the Official Secrets Act, and because countries around the world continued to use similar coding techniques after the war, the decoders were not allowed to speak about their experiences at Bletchley until the 1970s.

During the war, Bletchley became a nerve centre of secret information. It was the home of a mix of people drawn from many areas of society whose job was to decode messages collected from a range of listening posts across Britain and the world. The most famous of these was the Enigma coding technology, used by the German military forces.

This book reveals the lives of ordinary men and women who worked alongside pioneers like Alan Turing as they cracked codes and created decoding machines to help them with their work. Afterwards, the blanket of silence meant many missed recognition for their efforts, the comradeship of reunions and often the opportunity to tell their family about the part they played in the war.

I’ve always been interested in these coding secrets. There was plenty to keep me reading, without going into too much technical detail. This book is just one of many memoirs written by both men and women who were involved in the workings of Bletchley Park. One day I would like to visit the museum which now preserves some of their work.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 11 October 2015
This is a very readable account of the activities and lives of the thousands of men and women who in conditions of essential and near absolute secrecy laboured to break German cipher codes during the Second World War, particularly those codes transmitted on the famous Enigma machines, which were originally developed back in the 1920s for commercial use by German banks, before being bought up by the Weimar Republic government and made further secure by the Nazis. But this is much more than a book about the mechanics of code-breaking. This tells the stories of those men and women in their own words: how they were recruited; how they coped with the pressure of having to exercise a high degree of intellectual rigour, while knowing that a single mistake could change military fortunes and cost lives; and how they were bound by secrecy to tell nothing of their work, either during the war or in subsequent decades, until the story of Bletchley Park became generally known in the 1970s. Their contribution was for a long time therefore unsung, and they did not have the satisfaction and personal catharsis that former soldiers, statesmen and others had of recounting their wartime experiences. But it is clear that their actions hugely helped the British and Allied war effort and that, without this patient, unseen work, the outcome of the War might have been very different.
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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 31 October 2014
I bought this book, took it on holiday for a read. I was a little apprehensive about commencing it, but as I began reading, I found the book fascinating and intriguing. I found I couldn't put it down, always wanting to know more. For a person who really doesn't like war or films on either world wars, I found I was immersed in a bubble of intrigue and fascination. It was amazing how many people from all walks of like ended up in Bletchley Park, folk who didn't know each other worked together on shifts day and night, waiting, listening for signals and then decoding them and taking action on what they found.

I couldn't put the book down, I have enjoyed it immensely, so much so that I will visit Bletchley Park in due course and through this book and the gift which Alan Turing had alongside the others who worked so hard, I know that Bletchley Park will come alive for me.

I would certainly recommend this book, I've not read anything like this before, you'll not be disappointed.
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on 27 March 2014
Thoroughly enjoyable, if history is your kind of reading material and if it isn't - you'd probably enjoy it anyway as it's very well written and a part of history that changed all our lives......

Sinclair McKay gives us, not just a mere glimpse into the lives of the incredible people that helped to win WW2 and thus ensure the freedom of us all for decades to come, but he writes in a way that enables us to re-live some of those moments in their lives and understand how difficult and intense their work must have been. When you read this account, you are their with them - you can feel the tension come off the page.

I especially enjoyed the many first hand accounts which are scattered throughout the text and give it its authenticity. Without these accounts, the book would not have the impact that it does. He uses one interviewee more than any other - a Ms Galilee - whose accounts of her time at Bletchley are intriguing, and it could be argued that this makes the book a little 'narrow' with regards to perspective, but nonetheless, her account is invaluable to the text.

The prose is easy to read and the material accessible - you don't need to be a codebreaker yourself to read this book - some more 'academic' texts on the subject can be like that, but this one isn't and overall, it's a highly recommended read.
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VINE VOICEon 30 April 2012
The whole code-breaking, history of computing, history of Bletchley Park needs to be remembered. I've followed the technical stuff for some time and was pleased to see something that looked like a social history.

The content came through: how different social strata came together, worked together, played together along with how the relationship of the work and the workers fitted to the war effort and society at large.

Which is just as well, because while it seems that the author has undertaken a deal of research, the preparation of the material was lazy, e.g., you will read a lot about Mimi Gallilee, who seems to have joined up when she was 13 or was it 14, and later on we read "as 16 yr old Mimi Gallilee said..." perhaps we got to read too much about her age. Suddenly Sarah Baring became the Hon Sarah Baring which contrasts with her being the primary source for suggesting that the occupants were not particularly status conscious (p172). The narrative is disorganised and repetitive. It is over written: "diamond sharp minds" "waves of anger" "German marauders" as a sample. On top the author brings his own point of view intrudes with unsupported assertions on sexual attitudes according to class (the working classes and upper classes put it about, the middle classes had reputations to protect, those in the countryside were more likely to be at it; all that space) and opinions about international relations - apparently "a close relationship between UK/USA forged during WWII has become one of the "abiding assumptions of our political landscape". We had a "pluck that earned the admiration of Uncle Sam", (did I mention over writing?). And apparently the war "it is believed" shifted the relationship irrevocably to mutual respect...

For all that and the constant quoting of the aforesaid Mimi it's well worth the read.
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on 20 July 2012
This interesting book deals primarily in an anecdotal sort of way with the characters of the Bletchley staff and their social/professional interactions. It makes essential mention of the technical nature of the operation and of the huge contribution Bletchley made to the allied war effort, but should be read after or in conjunction with other books which more fully describe the technical performance of the Bletchley equipments and the brilliant academic/technical minds which went in to the design, production and operation of the decyphering equipments.

Bletchley would not have worked without those (often eccentric) brilliant minds, its state-of-art engineering, the dedicated efforts of its staff and (somewhat miraculously) the maintenance of total secrecy about the whole operation notwithstanding there having been up to 9000+ people working there.

This book provides particular insight into the two last of these factors and adds "colour" to one's appreciation of the other two when reading more widely elsewhere about the more technical aspects of the operation.
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on 29 December 2011
I recently watched a documentary on BBC2 about the WW2 codebreakers, and my reaction to the fascinating subject was to immediately go to Amazon.co.uk and find book that would tell me more. This was the book I bought, and I am glad that I did. This really is a fascinating book, that lifts the veil on an extraordinary place and the dedicated men and women who spent the war years undertaking such crucial work. One of the things which both amazed and impressed me the most, was the level of secrecy that was needed, for Bletchley park to be able to exist at all. The thousands of people who worked there - kept silent - with each other, and with their families after the war - right up untill the 1980's. Additionally the people of the surrounding areas who provided "billets" for these hordes of Bletchley workers, not only kept quiet - but didn't even ask their boarders what it was they were doing up at the park. In the world we are living in now, such secracy is unimaginable. I must admit - some of the mathematical, engineery, code descriptions and details - went a tiny bit over my befuddled head - however this is a very accessible book, and certainly not academic or dry. Even the sections I found hardest to understand - and there were only a couple - were still strangely fascinating to read - and I know I have come away from the book with a much better understanding of code breaking than I would otherwise have ever had. The majority of the book however, and what makes it so readable, is about the people who worked there, the society girls, the brilliant ox-bridge minds, the factory workers, the romances, the dances and plays, the miserably cold huts and the revolting food.
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on 24 October 2012
I love anything to do with code-breaking and Enigma and this book really fit the bill. The very fact that I'm typing this review on a computer is testament to the work and development that occurred at Bletchley Park in the war.

This isn't a book about the code-breaking itself but rather the social history of life at the park and the extraordinary work that went on behind the scenes of the Second World War I had no idea just how large the operation was, approximately 9000 people were working there when it was at its height. It was the little details that were most interesting, such as the billets they lived in and the different personalities of the men in charge. There was also a good deal of perspective from the many women who worked there, from the code-breakers to the WRENs who managed the bombes to the messenger girl.

It was very good at explaining the pressures the people were under, the difficult shifts they had to work and the mental stress this would cause. Lots of fascinating stories such as the romances and cultural side as well. It was also very interesting to read how the secret was kept for so long, which was a minor miracle in itself.

What I found most moving was the story of Alan Turing and his tragic end. What a waste, imagine what would have happened if he had lived to his natural age and the developments he could have created.

Fascinating stuff and if you are interested in the part of history, then a must buy.
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on 30 December 2016
Bought this as a present - unbeknown to me that I had purchased the same thing last year! Be careful there are two different covers to the same book! My father has thoroughly enjoyed this book - and loves reading about Bletchley. He has said it is the best read - entertaining, light hearted and without too much in depth 'code breaking' analysis. This is more a social history of the people who worked there.
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