on 2 August 2012
"The Secrets of Station X" is a brilliant book. Through this compact publication, the author Michael Smith introduces the reader to the secret world of the World War Two code-breakers working under the guise of the Government Code & Cypher School based in Bletchley Park, a quirky English Mansion in the heart of rural Buckinghamshire.
Working his way chronologically from 1938 to 1945 the author calls on substantiated evidence and code-breakers' memories. With his easy read, writing style Smith tells the story of some of those people, the place they worked and the work they did, breaking into the enemy codes and cyphers.
By integrating the history of the Second World War with the work of the code-breakers Smith highlights the importance of their work, their frustrations and the tensions under which they were working.
With simple explanation of codes and cyphers the author explains the breaking into the Enigma cyphers, the working of the Enigma machines and that of the Bombe machines tasked to assist in breaking those cyphers; the building of Colossus to identify the wheel settings of the Lorenz machine used to encipher the teleprinter messages between Hitler and his high command. He also introduces, the often ignored, work undertaken on hand cyphers and in particular the breaking of the Japanese codes.
With 295 pages of substantiated facts 24 pages of notes and 9 index pages, this book is well laid out and well presented. To my mind, this book makes for good reading and is an ideal reference tool.
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.)
on 17 August 2014
Sometimes I find the daily Amazon emails can be a little annoying or irrelevant but they are always worth keeping for the occasional gems they point you in the direction of, The Secrets of Station X being one of them.
I couldn't say I knew much about what went on at Bletchley Park but was well aware of the legend that has been built up about the place and the significance of its contribution during the Second World War.
So when the opportunity arose to find out more, at a snip of a price, I might add I quickly added the book to my Kindle library.
It proved to be a thoroughly absorbing and rewarding read and tells the tale in some detail as to the extensive contributions made by the many people at Bletchley Park and the positive impact those fine and talented people had.
As well as being a great read in itself Michael Smith's book has piqued my curiosity to read more about some of the missions, battles and events referred to. And in reading those other books specific to those operations and events I've learned yet more about those at Bletchley Park and how their work and efforts were perceived by those benefiting from their achievements in breaking enemy codes.
A book, well worthy of your time and your hard earned.
on 26 March 2015
Although much is now known about the wartime goings on at Bletchley Park, Michael Smith vividly brings it to life with detailed character portraits and a voyeuristic look at the politics of secrecy.
Well written, in the style of a novel, the author captures the excitement of the place and the far reaching consequences of the work performed by a motley crew of very humble people. I knew the basics facts about how important Bletchley Park was to the war effort, but this book expanded my knowledge immensely.
A good, enjoyable slice of history, from a slightly quirky perspective.
on 10 January 2015
I bought this book after seeing the film about Alan Turin and wished to find out more about Bletchley Park. The book gives you a fascinating insight into the world of the code breakers. Professors , mathematicians graduates from the universities all worked to crack the codes. It made one realise just how many clever people there was who contributed to the war effort. I enjoyed reading about the Battle of the Atlantic with the German u boats sinking the convoys it was imperative to crack the codes.
The North African campaign between Rommel and Monty owed much to the code breakers being able to break the German codes, this does not be little the efforts of Monty and the Desert Rats.
Please buy this book it is excellent reading.
on 12 March 2013
This enjoyable book describes the activities at Bletchley Park (BP) during WW2 and their influence on various stages of the war. The approach is similar to that in Sinclair McKay's book: 'The Secret Life of Bletchly Park' but in Smith's book, there is much more emphasis on the technical achievements and their impact on the war and less on what life was like at BP. For this reason I preferred this book, although it was good to get an introduction to the people involved through reading Sinclair's book first.
Smith's book describes how military commanders were reluctant to use `Ultra' information until it proved it's worth in the North African campaigns. At the start of the war, Naval Intelligence was jealous of the information from BP but soon accepted it's worth and used it to re-route convoys away from the U boat packs.
The achievements made by the key codebreakers; Knox, Tiltman, Turing, Alexander, Tutte, Welshman and others in breaking the Enigma and the Lorenz ciphers are described in essence as is the enormous accomplishment of Tommy Flowers in building the Colossus computer.
Smith frequently cites and copies whole pages of text from other sources, which I would normally find acceptable. However, in many of these cases he is repeating pages from a previous book of his own; entitled `Station X'. This seems like `padding out' to me and is perhaps the only criticism I have of the book. Nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed this book and give it 5 stars.
on 17 May 2013
This is an excellent book. It is authoritative, meticulous and detailed. The objective and informative core is liberally punctuated with a wide range of personal testimonies enabling a rich cross-section of first-hand accounts to put the cold facts into an endearingly human perspective. As well as getting a satisfying and logically assembled historic account, the reader is also rewarded with an impression of the people whose remarkable achievements in cracking and processing the secret codes was matched by their own supreme discretion regarding the nature and importance of their work. I was looking for a book that gave me a comprehensive account of the wartime activities at Bletchley Park. This is it.