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The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WWII Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There Paperback – August 25, 2011
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"A truly breathtaking, eye-opening book" Reader's Digest
"An eloquent tribute to a quite remarkable group of men and women" Mail on Sunday
About the Author
Sinclair McKay writes for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail. His other works include The Man With the Golden Touch: How the Bond Films Conquered the World and A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films.
- Publisher : Aurum Press; Reprint edition (August 25, 2011)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 368 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1845136330
- ISBN-13 : 978-1845136338
- Item Weight : 9.3 ounces
- Dimensions : 5 x 0.75 x 7.75 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #134,756 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Top reviews from the United States
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I found this so interesting and purposely ordered from a bookstore in London..great read!
An enjoyable read from an historical and documentary point and anyone who is interested in this valuable part played in the history of WW II secret warfare will find it a great addition to their library.
I visited Bletchley Park in early 2011 and I found that helped me with this book in bringing the place and key characters alive.
Certainly recommended reading as it's a pleasant non dry read that informs you.
Top reviews from other countries
Sinclair McKay has been severely criticized in reviews here for producing a work that is based on material elsewhere. Is that bad, if it is successfully presented differently? That is part of professional scholarship if it succeeds.
He wanted to highlight material as remembered by a handful of surviving witnesses who had never previously been consulted. Unfortunately, sixty years after the events these were only able to add limited ideas solely on I the cultural and social events -tea parties, dances, music appreciation, and amateur dramatics; II the food they consumed; III the type of accommodation and hosts; IV the growing disappointments and anxieties, of missed chances and boring careers after the adventurous days of BP, and, most of all, that V each Hut and its personnel were daily sealed off from all others - the author reports that even the 14 year old messenger Mimi Galilee delivering the post on site had to knock and wait for the each hut to be opened to outsiders, so it was rare with different working shifts and isolated procedures that members of one hut might meet up with colleagues from elsewhere at the Park. Indeed, if they went out on nature rambles, picnics or to the cinema in town with others, they would never talk shop, not solely because of the Secrets Act they had signed, but because they firmly and unquestionably believed that “careless talk” did cost lives, and if that was insufficient to prevent friendly but curious small talk, there were rumours circulating, real or invented, of individuals who uttered “Bletchley” away would face consequences – which for them signified being black balled: legally and socially becoming unmentionable non-persons, and possibly landed with a conviction.
In certain of these chapters they were able to confirm known evidence, sometimes adding a new treasured anecdotes representing the atmosphere of a past age, but were the ideas and feelings those they held then, or those they had learnt since 1975? Nostalgia does make people see events through clouded tinted lenses.
The aim of the book was essentially valid; sadly not all the themes – the technical aspects, and on spying, could be tested with the new witnesses, and so other resources had to be used. The volume now should be viewed less as a single bible in 320 pages, but a recent primer on the latest claims and ideas about Bletchley, which means that certain other primary and secondary sources first used previously, such as Professor FH Hinsley’s edited multi-volume official series on British Intelligence in the Second World War (1979-93), though not cited in the very scarce-looking bibliography, should be considered introductions to the subsequent much-quoted Codebreakers by Hinsley & Stripp (1993).
As a primer, however, with greater interest by a younger generation in cinema, with different objectives - intended to entertain, not to inform, there is a risk that audiences will be brought up with new myths and falsehoods, or becoming dis- or even misinformed, which in future could risk causing gross misunderstandings about the protagonists and the historical events.
McKay succeeds in giving (a) credit to Polish scientists Rejewski, Rozycki and Zygalski of the Polish Cipher Bureau in codebreaking the German military since 1932; observing (b) Alan Turing was not necessarily the only homosexual; stressing that (c) despite the incident of the apple in the Snow White fable the certainty of Turing’s intended suicide and it occurred by accident is still debatable; (d) that the dangers of a Soviet spy in John Cairncross (and even Kim Philby had he come) at BP was perhaps not as evident at the time as that of the presence of the SOE agent and CP member in Cairo (later official historian of the CPGB) James Klugman, who passed on or held back decrypts to the right bodies and individuals who best would help the Soviet war effort and the advance of Stalin’s Communism across the globe; and that (e) Dr Tommy Flowers, the brilliant GPO electrical engineer, who co-built the Lorenz cipher, codenamed “Tunny”, was allowed to run two of the ten Colossus machines for another decade until 1960 at the GCHQ, in Cheltenham, before being ordered in an act of wanton cultural barbarity to dismantle equipment and burn all the drawings and plans.
What the author instead does not underline – which is important, is that contrary to the novel by Robert Harris (1995) and the film adaptation Enigma in 2001, and The Imitation Game (2014), based on Andrew Hodges biography of Alan Turing (1983), but released after McKay’s book, Turing never worked with Cairncross, so there no possibility of his being blackmailed for his homosexuality, something that was obviously felt by his fiancée Joan Clarke, even before Turing decided to be inform her of his hidden tendencies. Was that another additional by the writer and film director just to spice up the story?
Churchill, and through him, Sir Robert Menzies, Director of MI6, was known to have ordered everything on codebreaking at Bletchley to be destroyed at the end of the war, in 1945 – a bonfire scene seen in The Imitation Game, not because they did not want the Soviets or the rest of the world to know of its existence, but not to permit likely moles and fellow travelers to steal vital technical data of the post-war Allies in the divided world. This means they feared they were harbouring spies.
The first unanswered question, however, - not even hinted by the author, is who decided to land the killer blow later in 1960, and why, when such a decision was definitely detrimental to the future of the nascent British computer industry and to the economy? Harold Macmillan was Premier, and through marriage to his wife, Lady Dorothy Cavendish, he was related by to John F Kennedy, then US President. Was it a case of an earlier Westland affair with greater and better links with the USA after the Suez debacle rather than going it alone? Was that decided exclusively by the Prime minister alone or in consultation with past leaders?
Secondly, why did the author mention so much about Flowers at the end when he was called upon to destroy Britain’s past and future. Besides, codebreaking he had been personally involved in 1944 in tracing V1 buzz bombs and V2 rockets at home and on the continent with artillery surveyors (Mangilli-Climpson, 2007). McKay hints personal jealousies with other scientists, but those facts merely cloud, rather than strengthen the possible causes, and one can’t disregard young scientists eager to switch loyalties and work across the Atlantic if the chance was right and the money was good when the alternatives seemed grim and less promising at home.
Thirdly, why was Winterbotham allowed to lift the lid to wartime codebreaking in 1975 when the Cold War was still in progress? It is he who provided the Bletchley Park industry and Turing with a new bill of health, and allowed all to reveal a part of their lives previously hidden, imagined by others as such as dark, bad and illegal. Is the answer again found in the archives in Washington / Moscow, or a sign Britain was trying to stand aside again from its Special Western partner and trying to brace itself up, promoting all its past greatness and values to its new European Community friends in Brussels and Strasbourg, being told that they were now working not just with Britain, then described as the “Sick man of Europe”, but Great Britain, still one of the greats at the UN, and a useful additional member to the European family of nations.
With the tools Sinclair McKay used, his goal proved unattainable, and so the result looks old-hat, miserable, and insignificant. He needed to think again, ask new questions to unlock unimagined secrets. Even with one breakthrough he might supply tentative plausible explanations. Instead, he preferred the old set format, and so The Secret Life still remains as secret as before, as perhaps he wished. This book is a primer with faults, which some, no doubt, will enjoy criticizing to explain their own incomplete secret vision of Bletchley. It is worth a look to spot the new bits – full of unthought of secrets!
Because of certain laws contained within the Official Secrets Act, and because countries around the world continued to use similar coding techniques after the war, the decoders were not allowed to speak about their experiences at Bletchley until the 1970s.
During the war, Bletchley became a nerve centre of secret information. It was the home of a mix of people drawn from many areas of society whose job was to decode messages collected from a range of listening posts across Britain and the world. The most famous of these was the Enigma coding technology, used by the German military forces.
This book reveals the lives of ordinary men and women who worked alongside pioneers like Alan Turing as they cracked codes and created decoding machines to help them with their work. Afterwards, the blanket of silence meant many missed recognition for their efforts, the comradeship of reunions and often the opportunity to tell their family about the part they played in the war.
I’ve always been interested in these coding secrets. There was plenty to keep me reading, without going into too much technical detail. This book is just one of many memoirs written by both men and women who were involved in the workings of Bletchley Park. One day I would like to visit the museum which now preserves some of their work.
I read it a few days ago and I can't get some of the content out of my head. The story behind Bletchley Park is as remarkable as any fiction you might have read.
What's so incredible is that the events inside all the various huts that grew up in the grounds, were such a well kept secret that no one had any idea what was really going on, nor how the painstaking work of these people had such an impact on bringing the war to an early end.
It wasn't until the mid 1970s that the truth was revealed. Up until then, the thousands who worked there were prevented from telling anyone about what they did there. No one was allowed to know - spouses, parents, children. This meant that some brilliant people never received the recognition they deserved.
I've given the book 4* because the writing was a little clunky but it doesn't detract from the meticulously gathered material it contains.
Read it and be amazed!