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The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men…

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma… (edition 2012)

by Sinclair McKay

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Title:The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park
Authors:Sinclair McKay
Info:Plume (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

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Excellent book - very detailed on every aspect of life at Bletchley Park (even the prevalence of Aspergers) - except for the religious aspect of the codebreakers' lives. One would think they were all atheists, given the detail given to other aspects of life there. ( )
  davemac | Mar 5, 2014 |
Before and during WWII, some of England's most brilliant mathematical and linguistic minds, men and women both, went to work at the remote country estate of Bletchley Park. There, they cracked the German Enigma encryption, and the intelligence their decryption provided to the Allies may have shortened the war by years. But they were unable to tell the world about the part they played in the war effort for decades, evading questions even from those closest to them and denying the credit they were due.

Now that their silence has been lifted, Sinclair McKay has written a tremendously enjoyable book about the extraordinary social world of Bletchley Park, where eccentric geniuses roamed free and men and women from every social class rubbed shoulders. After reading this, be sure to watch the brilliant ITV miniseries The Bletchley Circle, about the crime-solving exploits of four female Bletchley alumni a decade after the war. ( )
  circumspice | Feb 18, 2014 |
Recently, I’ve become fascinated by World-War-II era spying – and Bletchley Park. This is just the sort of book I was looking for. It gives the inside story about what went on at Bletchley Park before and through the end of World War II, with a focus on the codebreakers and Wrens who weren’t then and aren’t now household names.

Of course, Alan Turing is a main character, but the most interesting bits come from interviews of the rank-and-file workers, who took sabbaticals from their careers to serve the cause. They came from all social classes, and were for the most part very young at the time. And for most of their lives, they have not been allowed (because of the Official Secrets Act) to speak to anyone about what they did during the war. Now, of course, there is a museum at Bletchley Park and many of the codebreakers have been honored in public recognition ceremonies by the British government.

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers makes for a quick and fascinating read. In these days when the word “secret” is an anachronism – it’s great to know that, at one time, people were able to keep mum about something.

I do wish the book had been longer and that the author would have included a proper bibliography. ( )
  NewsieQ | May 13, 2013 |
Imagine being a member of a team whose work was said to have shortened World War II by at least two years--and not being able to tell anybody about it for decades. Your friends, neighbors and family may even have thought you were a coward who failed to join up and fight for your country. That's exactly the position of the 10,000-plus men and women who worked at England's Bletchley Park to crack the codes used by the Axis powers during the war. They were summoned to Buckinghamshire with no disclosure of the reason for the summons and were required to sign the Official Secrets Act almost as they arrived.

It wasn't until over 30 years later that the requirement of silence was lifted. During all those years, unlike other wartime groups, Bletchley Park's personnel had no reunions and were deprived of the chance to sit and reminisce with old colleagues. By the time they could share their stories with their families, most of their parents had died.

Much has been written about how Germany's Enigma code was broken at Bletchley Park--or BP, as it was often called--but Sinclair McKay's principal focus in this insightful book is the people there; who they were, their working and living conditions, and the social environment in this hothouse atmosphere. And what a grab-bag of personnel BP was. University dons, debutantes and inner-circle graduates of Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge worked alongside the working class--mostly young women--with little of the social stratification that normally typified British life. Because of their long working hours and strict secrecy, they had to entertain themselves in their off hours. And they did, with amateur theatricals, singing groups, dancing, films, tennis, hiking and chess and bridge games.

The work at BP was performed in trying conditions. The manor house was used, but most personnel worked in hastily-built, long buildings they called huts, which were hot in summer and frigid in winter. The secrecy at BP was not just applicable to the outside world, but to other personnel outside the hut. That made each hut like its own cloistered community, intense with shared purpose and long hours. One veteran tells of having to phone in reports, not knowing until decades later that she was speaking with someone in the next-door hut.

BP is best known as the place where Alan Turing and others developed the precursors of modern computers. Germany's Enigma encryption machine performed its encoding mechanically, and Turing's conviction was that decryption should be possible by using a machine. The "bombes," as they were called, that the BP team eventually developed were massive machines straight out of science fiction of the era, with electrical connections snaking all over, long strips of paper feeding through, and loud, rackety clacking noise as the bombes ran through thousands and thousands of possible decrypts.

But before Turing's machines came online--and even afterward--hard work and ingenuity cracked codes, even Enigma codes. The BP boffins were able to study some early Enigma machines, so they knew how they worked. They used that knowledge, together with insights about human nature, to come up with ingenious starting places for decryption.

McKay is at his best when describing how BP's personnel applied their brain power and quirky styles of thinking to their formidable task. BP just gathered a group of academics, bright people from the various armed services, and civilians with language and other skills (like being particularly good at the Times cryptic crossword puzzle) and told them to get on with it. Despite the many privations, most recall it as the time of their lives, and nothing afterward ever quite touched the level of the experience. McKay isn't quite as good at bringing to life the BP personnel in their off hours, but reading about the human context of the work at BP makes this book a valuable reading experience for anyone who enjoys World War II social history.

Disclosure: I received a free publisher's advance reading copy of this book for review. ( )
  Remizak | Apr 7, 2013 |
This is the sometimes fascinating, sometimes surprisingly incomplete, sometimes very heavy handed account of life at Bletchley Park.
I adored reading about the men and women who came to work here, about their ordinary moments (food and entertainment) and their lives during and after the war.
Still, I had many issues with this book.
First, it makes many assumptions about what readers know. (I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about WWII, but still wished for some basic descriptions about Enigma terminology.)
Second, it needed a good editing. There's a lot of repetition and overly long quotes by former Bletchley Park staff.
I also didn't enjoy the author's final chapters, where he does a lot of pondering and lecturing.
Still, I gave it four stars because the good parts were absolutely brilliant. ( )
  Eliz12 | Dec 30, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0452298717, Paperback)

A remarkable look at day-to-day life of the codebreakers whose clandestine efforts helped win World War II

Bletchley Park looked like any other sprawling country estate. In reality, however, it was the top-secret headquarters of Britain’s Government Code and Cypher School—and the site where Germany’s legendary Enigma code was finally cracked. There, the nation’s most brilliant mathematical minds—including Alan Turing, whose discoveries at Bletchley would fuel the birth of modern computing—toiled alongside debutantes, factory workers, and students on projects of international importance. Until now, little has been revealed about ordinary life at this extraordinary facility. Drawing on remarkable first-hand interviews, The Secret Lives of Codebreakers reveals the entertainments, pastimes, and furtive romances that helped ease the incredible pressures faced by these covert operatives as they worked to turn the tide of World War II.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:41 -0400)

Describes the vastly different types of people working alongside each other at Britain's Government Code and Cypher School and how they passed their time at this extraordinary facility when they weren't working on projects vital to saving the world.

(summary from another edition)

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