Thursday, 14 May 2009

Top Secret Stuff! Station X: The Code Breakers of Bletchley Park - Michael Smith

Advantages: A wonderful read and a definite eye opener

Disadvantages: None

This magnificent book tells the story of Britain's best kept secret! 

Station X was that secret, and it was probably Station X that played a huge part in ending the war when it did, with the outcome that happened. 

Britain could quite easily have been crushed due to the might of the German Luftwaffe, or we might have been starved by German Naval shipping, sinking ships that supplied us with food, or the Axis forces could quite simply have sailed across the Channel, landed on our beaches and after a short battle could have simply taken over (although it is debatable what they would have come up against the further north they got). 

The Nazis might have managed to over-run us in part due to their communications network and how they passed information through various commands. The Nazis had a machine which encoded their communications in such a way that the allied forces would never know their next move - they had Enigma! 

This machine could encode a message, such that it would take an enormous number of calculations over a hugely impractical time for a cryptographer to decode the message. There were 159 million million million different possibilities! 

But a select number of people managed to do it. Sometimes even before the intended German recipient had managed to unravel their own message. 

And it was all hush-hush! 

Its very existence was kept from even some of the highest ranking. 

Its workers knew the huge importance of their work, but most of the times did not have a clue what even their closest of colleagues was up to. 

This book tells the story of how this select, a choice of academics and others, from the upper classes mainly, set to work inventing methods and machines (essentially the fore-runner of the modern computer) which would outwit the German Enigma. We learn about the unusual recruitment method, involving the Daily Telegraph crossword. We read about the important and much overlooked earlier work of the Polish in this most secret of adventures. How a country estate was bought up and converted into a secret codebreaking site. 

The book does its best to explain to the layman some of the complex principles of cryptography. We get an insight into the personalities behind this phenomena. We are taken through the battle of Britain - despite being outnumbered in the air, Bletchley Park's role gave the Brits a certain edge. We learn the story of how, despite working in bleak conditions and a lack of resources, the workers petitioned to Churchill, and the results of that. We have the battle of the Atlantic, North Africa and the inevitable American involvement. 

The book comes to an ending with the Invasion of Europe and the end of Bletchley Park. 

This is a fascinating book and it would be too easy in a review like this too give too much away about it. It is the story of the silent heroes of the British War Effort, many of whom took the secret of Bletchley Park to the Grave with them. Thousands were involved, and how the Nazis never found out is a wonder.

Summary: A great read at any level!

Get a copy here

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