Beyond Silence: Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 3.39.12 PMMcKay, Sinclair. The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park [The Secret Life of Bletchley Park. London: Aurum 2010] New York: Penguin-Plume, 2012.

Now, if one says the word “Bletchley,” most people are aware of the role played by the code-breakers at Bletchley Park in contributing to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany. In the first decades after the end of the war, Bletchley and those who worked there were not talked of much. The reach of The Official Secrets Act remained wide and strong rendering it almost impossible for those who had worked at Bletchley to explain their war years because they were committed to silence. Other people had souvenirs of their war service. As a child, I was familiar with my father’s photo albums recording the ships he’d served on, photographs of the ships’ companies. There were pictures of uncles and aunts in various uniforms. When our parents gathered, there would be tales told recalling often not so much the horrors of the war but of the camaraderie of the war, of the jokes played on each other.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 3.39.12 PMThose who worked at Bletchley were not able to talk about their lives there. Some died before their children ever knew their parents were key in the effort to defeat Hitler. McKay makes this silence and its effects clear in his last chapter: “Whereas for everyone else of their generation, the war was understood as the most fundamental of formative experiences, Bletchley veterans instead had a hole where acknowledged [my emphasis] experience should have been” (319).

IScreen Shot 2016-05-31 at 3.39.12 PMn many ways, the book focuses on how Bletchley provided “formative experiences” for those who worked there. While The Secret Lives of Codebreakers doesn’t ignore the chronology of how the German codes were broken or the role played by senior staff such as Alan Turing or Dilly Knox, it focuses, as its title suggests, on the “lives” of those who worked there. What was it like to work at Bletchley Park? What were the working conditions? Where did workers live? What did they do with their leisure time?

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 3.39.12 PMReading now about the long-working hours and the uncomfortable billets that those working at Bletchley, the majority of them young, had to endure makes the whole endeavour sound Spartan in the extreme. However, the whole experience of living in Britain during the war and after was extremely Spartan for everyone. As McKay comments somewhat wryly, “Since the war, it has been proved time and again that whatever the privations, and no matter how irksome the shortages of butter, sugar, and meat were, the wartime diet was possibly the healthiest that the British have ever consumed” (147). A somewhat sobering thought.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 3.39.12 PMOverstewed tea, powdered milk, freezing billets with no inside bathrooms, and hard often highly repetitive work aside, what else did Bletchley offer apart from the knowledge that the work done there was of vital national importance? A merging of civilian and military life perhaps unusual elsewhere during the conflict, a sense of unity of purpose, and “an unexpected and unusual further education . . .which they would never have had in any other circumstances” (301). McKay asserts that a “sense of intellectual openness and curiosity was strong” and that “there had been a new sense of culture in the air” (301). There were dances, amateur theatricals, concerts, cinema clubs, and, despite as McKay describes it “the middle years of the twentieth century . . . [being] more censorious than the famously repressed Victoria era” (200), love and marriage.

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 3.39.12 PMFor me, the book raises interesting questions: just how able would we today be capable in our highly connected, self-advertising world be able to live quite so secretly? Certainly, my own generation and those that followed us were not prepared to put up with many of the social restrictions that the young people at Bletchley Park would have taken as the norm. Do we have a similar work ethic? Mckay asks the same questions in his conclusion, commenting how “it is daunting to consider now not merely the sheer intellect required but also the powers of concentration and absolute unsnappable patience that the work involved. And, as ever with these things, one always finds oneself asking: could this generation rise to a similar challenge?” (321). He goes on to suggest that it’s unlikely in the future that “intelligence and code experts” will be drawn “from a pool of untrained amateurs” (322).

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 3.39.12 PMThe Secret Lives of Codebreakers allows us glimpses into the work of those “untrained amateurs.” Readable, well-organized in short focused chapters, the book also includes useful notes on McKay’s sources. A fellow reader commented to me that he found it a little fragmented. I responded that it is a journalist’s rather than an academic’s book. In fact, I found it a very enjoyable book to read while I convalesce from surgery. Its organization allowed me to pick it up and put it down again at useful points. So if you are interested in the continuing enigma surrounding Engima (sorry, I couldn’t resist), and in the social history of mid-twentieth century and war-time Britain, you will find this book worthwhile.

As you probably know Bletchley Park is now a museum. https://www.bletchleypark.org.uk/

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