by Joel Greenberg, editor
Barnsley, Eng.: Greenhill Books / Philadelphia: Pen & Sword, 2022. Pp. xviii, 334.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1784388114
Corresponding about Codebreaking
The breaking of German codes that took place at Bletchley Park, an estate outside of London, during the Second World War, is now famous—but its historiography is unusual. Until 1974, almost thirty years after the end of the war, BP and codebreaking was not even mentioned in English-language histories. The thousands of men and women who had broken both the famous Enigma machine cipher and the more sophisticated teletype codes used by the Germans for strategic communications kept their mouths shut about their work. The combination of the Official Secrets Act and the diligent policing of publishing in the UK by the government kept The Ultra Secret a secret until Frederick Winterbotham published his book of that name. The last five decades have seen both the veterans and the historians making up for lost time, and we now have dozens of books on BP, ranging from the multiple biographies of Alan Turing to romance novels centered around the thousands of “girls” who did the tedious work of running the machines that did much of the codebreaking.
Now Joel Greenberg, who has written three books on BP, has edited The Bletchley Park Codebreakers in Their Own Words, a collection of the letters written by BP veterans during and long after the war. For readers, this book raises several questions: Who should read it? What information does it add to the existing material on BP? How does it change the story of either the men and women, or what they accomplished? Greenberg structures his book thematically, beginning with his first chapter, "Between the Wars," then moving on through "The Early Years", "The Intelligence Factory", "The Technical Challenge", "American/Canadian Liaison", and "Post-War: Telling the Real Story". He ends the book with a selection of Letters to the Editor, all from the 1970s, which were written by his Main Contributors to the Times and Guardian after Winterbotham’s book and other early revelations came out. The letters in this volume fall into three main categories. The first were sent just before or early in the war, and they are mostly on official business. Then there are letters between BP veterans in the 1970s and 80s reflecting on what they did, often responding to the first books—Winterbotham’s Ultra Secret and Gordon Welchman’s The Hut Six Story—that broke the “secret” in print. Finally, there are letters from the last forty years, as the last veterans age and die. The book is well organized, nicely printed, and each of Main Contributors gets an introduction before their first appearance. It also has sixteen pages of well chosen photos, endnotes and a bibliography. My main problem with Codebreakers is its audience. Much of the material—such as the early letters, and the famous letter to Prime Minister Churchill by Turing, Welchman, Alexander and Milner-Barry—will be familiar to those who have read any of the several overview histories of BP. Some letters, such as one from BP veteran Keith Batey to historian Ralph Erskine, are so detailed, full of cryptological minutiae, that only those steeped in Enigma history could follow it. Many of the letters from the last fifty years are chatty, with talk of spouses, travel and invitations to dinner. Future historians of BP may benefit from this book, since it brings together a great deal of disparate material, but general readers interested in codebreaking and the BP story would be better off with one of Dermot Turing’s books, such as his 2020 The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park.
Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book the owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for the Michigan War Studies Review. His previous reviews for StrategyPage and NYMAS include Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians' First Battles in the Revolution, The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944, Prevail Until the Bitter End: Germans in the Waning Days of World War II, Enemies Among Us, Battle of the Bulge, Then and Now, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy From Triumph to Collapse, and Engineering in the Confederate Heartland.
Note: The Bletchley Park Codebreakers is also available in e-editions.
StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium