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Battle Of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II Hardcover – October 10, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

On December 3, 1941, officers of the U.S. Army Signal Intelligence Unit decoded a message sent from Tokyo to the Japanese embassy in Washington, ordering embassy staff to destroy its code books and other sensitive material. This, the officers determined, meant that Japan was preparing to break off diplomatic relations with the United States and go to war. When, they could not say; to gain a precise date, they would have had to break the Japanese naval codes. Therein, writes Stephen Budiansky in Battle of Wits, lay the rub: "Since mid-1939, America had not read a single message in the main Japanese naval code on the same day it had been sent. For most of the period from June 1, 1939, to December 7, 1941, the [U.S.] Navy was working on naval messages that were months, or even over a year old."

For all their lack of preparedness and occasional inefficiencies, and for all the disdain with which some Allied ground commanders held the work of military intelligence, writes Budiansky, Allied cryptographers were of critical importance in determining the outcome of World War II. The decoding of Japanese and German encryption engines, for instance, helped the Allied navies gain victory in the battles of the Atlantic and Midway, while the translation of secret German railroad schedules allowed Winston Churchill to warn Josef Stalin that the German army was about to invade the Soviet Union--though Stalin refused to take the warning seriously. The codebreakers, in short, "averted disasters that would have been terrible setbacks to the Allied cause," and they almost certainly saved a considerable number of lives as they labored to crack such profound puzzles as Enigma and Purple.

Budiansky's narrative is strong on the science of cryptography--so much so that readers without a background in mathematics and logic may have trouble following the arcana of key squares, bigrams, and all the other trade secrets of cryptanalysis. Readers willing to brave matters technical, however, will find Budiansky's comprehensive account to be the best single book on the subject, and one well worth their attention. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

In February of 1926, German codes, long intercepted and analyzed by Polish cryptanalysts, abruptly became impenetrable. As BudianskyDan Atlantic Monthly correspondent, applied math degree-holder and former congressional fellowDnotes in this penetrating, edgy study, the wary Poles suspected that these new, seemingly unbreakable codes had been generated by a machine. How the Allies' mathematicians and cryptanalysts later deciphered nearly every top-level code produced by that machine, called EnigmaDwhose internal rotors could be wired in 10 to the 80th power (1 followed by 80 zeroes) waysDand by other machines in Axis use is a story already covered by David Kahn's classic The Codebreakers and many other books. Budiansky's bibliography reflects a reliance on those sources, deploying them along with a wealth of archival material; unlike Codebreakers, this book foregrounds the role of cryptanalysis in fighting the war, rather than treating the war as background to cryptanalysis. Readers of a technical bent will be particularly drawn to the meticulous explanations and diagrams depicting trial-and-error code breaking at work. Doling out a consistent measure of beautifully turned observations ("No matter how elaborate a scheme was used to scramble and disguise the original text, its ghost always shone through"), Budiansky is a master at interweaving the science of code breaking within its cultural and historical contexts. He depicts with clarity how the World War II-era code breakers struggled to halt German aggression at a time when the role of signals intelligence in heightening the impact of force was little understood, and delineates the remarkable achievement of those who recognized that the minutiae of enemy communications are well worth knowing. This book gives a fascinating impression of just how crucial these efforts were. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (October 10, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684859327
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684859323
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #740,960 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Stephen Budiansky is a writer, historian, and journalist, the author of 14 books about military and intelligence history, science, and the natural world. He is a former editor and writer at U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic and the former Washington Editor of the scientific journal Nature. He lives on a small farm in northern Virginia.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

92 of 97 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 18, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book deserves more than five stars, and the massive British and American government information releases that made it possible also deserve credit for making the book possible.
This book pays the reader the compliment of assuming both intelligence and sincere interest in the subject. Although much of the book is a repeat of what has been written before, the book also contains much new information (especially about breaking the Japanese codes) and important insights. As the most complete examination of the code side of World War II, the book is essential reading for anyone who is interested in that conflict.
Although this book is about World War II, it contains much interesting material about earlier code-breaking, especially during World War I and the disarmament conference in the 1920s.
Basically, codes and codebreaking were in a transition period during the 1930s and 1940s between the primitive historical codes and the modern encryption techniques. The weakness of this transition period was that computer-like devices could use brute force calculations to spot patterns that the code designers were unaware of.
Clues came from many places. For example, "eins" showed up very frequently in German communications, so by looking for four word groups of great frequency, you could guess that they meant "eins" and work from there. This could unmask the daily code key much faster. Luftwaffe code operators were sloppy about the codes they used, and those bad habits provided clues as well. The British were brilliant in targeting German naval and weather vessels, and sinking them in ways so that codes and code machine parts could be saved. In some cases, Japanese embassies were broken into and codes directly stolen.
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39 of 41 people found the following review helpful By D. C. Carrad on October 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book is well-written in a clear, flowing and lucid style. Lots of details and human interest liven up a subject that is always on the edge of putting some readers to sleep. This book surveys code-breaking in both the European and Pacific theaters of war and even-handedly deals with the contributions of both the Brits and the Yanks (all too few books on this topic do so). The author wisely puts the most arcane bits of math in appendices.
Very well done and hightly recommended to both those who have never read a book on this subject and those who have read several.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Metallurgist TOP 1000 REVIEWER on February 15, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I have for many years wondered exactly how the supposedly unbreakable German Enigma machine and the Japanese diplomatic and Naval codes were broken. Stephen Budiansky does a great job at explaining how this was done. This was no easy task, requiring the ability to explain complex mathematical and mechanical concepts in a political and military context. Budiansky is uniquely suited to this task and I for one am grateful for his successful effort. He has a master's degree in applied mathematics, along with work in military studies as a Congressional Fellow. To this one must add that he is a good writer, as attested to by the fact that he is a correspondent for The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Economist among other prestigious publications.

This is no dry academic text, but is a story of great excitement, of great internal rivalries and intrigues. It is also fortunately much more, as it also goes into detail about the design and operation of the code machines and ciphers, as well as the novel approaches that were used to overcome them. It goes into considerable detail about these approaches, without becoming overly pedantic. This book covers the Japanese Diplomatic and Naval codes as well as the German Enigma machine. As such, it covers both code machines and ciphers, with a very good discussion of the history of both and the distinction between them. This book is more than a dry discussion of mathematics, but also delves into the personalities of the people involved and the internal rivalries between the US Army and Navy and between the civilian and military branches of the governments involved. It touches on espionage and the application of the knowledge of what was learned from the code breaking.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Herschel R. Atkinson on June 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover
What is hidden will be revealed. This is the concept of this book. After a brief history of pre-war cryptographic work, it outlines the Allied cryptologists' breaking Axis codes and ciphers, discreetly mentioning the early lack of candor of "our British cousins". There is a decent explanation of the precursors of modern computers used by the eclectic, and sometimes eccentric, people at Bletchley Park, England (a story in themselves) and the USA developments that often built on the British work. The appendices have some useful information for the technically challenged. Misuse of the decrypts is not glossed over, particularly the alleged security looseness by MacArthur's headquarters and the tendancy of some commanders to ignore intelligence estimates or to color them by the commander's preconceptions. Budiansky cites Montgomery's cautious lack of pursuit of Afrika Korps in North Africa after the victory at El Alemain in October 1942 and the surprise of the 1944 German offensive in the Ardennes as examples. However, I have some doubts that there was enough information available from any source to predict accurately the 1944 offensive's location. Budiansky only somewhat indicates agreement. (Tactical intelligence deals primarily with capabilities and secondarily with intentions). An exception to this rule is the well-described Navy coup at Midway, including the in house fighting between the Hawaii station and the US Navy headquarters. I would have liked more information on Axis decryption, though it may have caused the book to be the size of Webster's unabridged. I do recommend it to those interested in the general history of World War II decryption.
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