Book Review: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

Growing up barely 20 miles south of Bletchley, I was entirely ignorant of the work done there until it really came to fame in the late 90s, shortly before I left home. Despite my mathematical education, cryptography was never very high up my list of interests. I dabbled a little bit in my mid-teens, coming up with some difficult codes, though no one could ever decipher them. As an example, I’ve included one at the end of the blog post. If you can crack it, drop the decoded message in a comment. I lost interest codes as I became more and more enthralled with theoretical physics and non-Euclidean geometry.

However, now that Bletchley has been turned into a tourist attraction, my parents paid a visit which is where they bought this book before gifting it to me as a Christmas present. It was unusual as it was not on my extensive wishlist of books, though it was much to my parents’ relief that I hadn’t previously read it. The only thing that made me hesitate slightly was the endorsements, coming as they did from the Daily Mail and A.N. Wilson.

The book is very well researched, with McKay referencing many original sources, although for most things referring to Alan Turing, he defers to Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing. In trying to give a coherent narrative of the affairs of the park, McKay was left with a bit of a quandary, but he manages to structure the book very well. He gives us an approximate timeline though some chapters focus on aspects of Bletchley life that spanned the war. The writing style could be described as entertaining, though he doesn’t really venture into sensationalism.

Among the most interesting passages are the darker rumours about the work at Bletchley, such as the idea that the bombing of Coventry was known about in advance but the population wasn’t evacuated in case this warned the Germans that the Enigma had been cracked. There was a similar rumour that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was known about, but that the intelligence wasn’t passed onto the Americans. McKay noticeably tiptoes round these areas, suggesting that they are credible theories, though there’s insufficient evidence to confirm or deny them. But they are not lingered over in the overall narrative.

If any criticism could be made, it is that McKay is slightly fawning at times, describing Churchill as “this near-mythic leader made flesh.” For a slightly more critical look at Churchill, I would highly recommend Churchill’s Empire by Richard Toye. For those who were hoping for an explanation of how Enigma worked, this will be a disappointment as there is scant all detail with regards to the cryptography itself. At times, it comes close to being a collective hagiography, but it is nonetheless a hugely interesting book, simply written and not a bad way to spend a few sunny afternoons.

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