I wasn’t too fond of English literature lessons at school. I loved reading (and still do) but couldn’t always understand the need to launch into minute analysis as soon as the final page was turned. Who could really claim to know what the author meant by certain phrases? Who knew if we on track with our character analysis? However, I recently joined a non-fiction book club in Paphos and the concept is growing on me. My main reason for enjoying the set up is that I get to read books that I would never have considered if left to my own devices. This month’s choice was a case in point.
The January book of the month at my group was
The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There
Book description from Amazon
Bletchley Park was where one of the war’s most famous – and crucial – achievements was made: the cracking of Germany’s “Enigma” code in which its most important military communications were couched. This country house in the Buckinghamshire countryside was home to Britain’s most brilliant mathematical brains, like Alan Turing, and the scene of immense advances in technology – indeed, the birth of modern computing. The military codes deciphered there were instrumental in turning both the Battle of the Atlantic and the war in North Africa. But, though plenty has been written about the boffins, and the codebreaking, fictional and non-fiction – from Robert Harris and Ian McEwan to Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing – what of the thousands of men and women who lived and worked there during the war? What was life like for them – an odd, secret territory between the civilian and the military? Sinclair McKay’s book is the first history for the general reader of life at Bletchley Park, and an amazing compendium of memories from people now in their eighties – of skating on the frozen lake in the grounds (a depressed Angus Wilson, the novelist, once threw himself in) – of a youthful Roy Jenkins, useless at codebreaking, of the high jinks at nearby accommodation hostels – and of the implacable secrecy that meant girlfriend and boyfriend working in adjacent huts knew nothing about each other’s work.
I’m not going to spoil the story for you by detailed description but I’ll highlight the 3 points that struck me the most overall:
- Cracking the code was only the start. Knowing the next move of the enemy was of huge benefit of course but the real difficulty lay in using the decoded information in such a way that the Germans did not suspect that their coding system had been hacked.
- Alan Turing committed suicide at a young age. He was a computer genius. If he had lived, imagine what he could have achieved in that area after the war?
- The level of secrecy surrounding the activities undertaken at Bletchley Park was incredible. This silence was maintained throughout the war and for many, many years afterwards. This is especially notable considering the thousands of people employed in the operation. Parents died without ever knowing the hugely important role played by their sons and daughters based at Bletchley Park. Often the parents were disappointed at this apparent ineffectiveness during the war period and even suspected conscientious objection. Can you imagine not telling your mum and dad – even on their deathbed?
Do read the book – even disregarding the security-minded and regimented mindset of the populace at the time for whom “a secret was a secret” the Bletchley Park scenario could NEVER be repeated today – not least because of the prevalence of mobile phones and existence of Facebook and Twitter!