I have a long standing interest in Bletchley Park that dates back to long before Gordon Brown apologised to Alan Turing, or the Telegraph published articles calling on him to do so. I have visited the Park several times, and it was one of the main influences on my designing a computer (I still have the circuit diagrams.) And that’s something that not many eleven year olds do. I have a defunct valve from the reconstructed Colossus. So The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is a book of great interest to me. I’ve been there, seen it, met the volunteer veterans.
If you haven’t been avidly following any of those Telegraph articles, Bletchley Park was the centre of the UK’s code breaking endeavours. It was there that some of the brightest and most intelligent people were mustered from all backgrounds, from Mathematics students to expert crossword solvers to Oxbridge Classic dons. It was a mammoth task that required a peak workforce of 10 000, all working in total secrecy. The code breakers made amazing technological leaps and designed amazing machines to break the increasingly complex codes the axis powers deployed. The name of Alan Turing has become synonymous with that of Bletchley Park, particularly in connection with his effective been ‘tried for being gay,’* although this was seven years after the war ended. He would go on to do many relatively unknown work in mathematics, computing and electronics, but his work at Bletchley Park stands as a monument to his genius.
In this book, McKay tries to cover every aspect of Bletchley Park, although that doesn’t really work. It becomes less about the work that Bletchley park did and more about the people who worked there. For those unacquainted with it’s history, the book is far too disjointed to make much sense. But if you have even a slight understanding of the codes broken, the book is repetitive and too untechnical.
It is pleasant to read a book on Bletchley Park that is not entirely focused on the genius that was Alan Turing. He was an amazing character, but he was one of many amazing code breakers who worked at the Park. In fact, portraying the contrast between the Mathematicians shows him to be even more amazing that a biography could. But in a way, although Turing’s work at Bletchley Park was a rare feat of intelligence, it only play a very small role in the work of Bletchley Park before the creation of the Colossus. For the earlier years of the war, his main work was cracking the more difficult codes, which although useful, only represent a small volume of traffic. They were not unimportant though, cracking the U-boat codes saved millions of tons of shipping and countless lives. His story deserves to be told, everywhere.
McKay builds the book mainly based on the recollections and memoirs of a few veterans. This gives the book an almost documentary tone. Another technique almost borrowed from the screen is the links between the chapters which merge together unnoticed. McKay also interspaces chapters on the history of Bletchley with chapters on the Park, the social life, and the context of WWII. All this makes the book feel like a documentary script with the camera directions removed. Not that this in anyway diminishes from its interest or quality, instead it makes the book a gripping read. But McKay’s writing is occasionally dull or forced, and his turn of phrase limited. Also, the majority of the test comes from a fairly small set of memoirs, forcing him to frequently repeat himself.
Although occasionally too informal or non academic for a history book, McKay writes evocatively, describing musical soirées to country walks to varying billets, portraying the intensive and crucial importance of the work, the intense intelligence, and the frustrations of a prudish homophobic era. But McKay’s triumph is in describing the intense demob emotions. Unlike any other military operation, this stretched out into the ‘70s and ‘80s before the silence of the official secrets act was broken.
Overall, the book is commendable, it has been received well by critics are readers, and has sold fantastically. However, as a more informed reader I felt the book too general, insufficiently scholarly and completely missing out the main academic achievements of Bletchley Park. That aside, I did find many details interesting, such as the organisation and management of the operation interesting, and the chronological approach is revealing: McKay is careful to link each technical breakthrough to the assistance that it provided in the field. I am unlikely to reread it, but for the interested nongeek it is worthy reading.
The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is published by Aurum History
* Gordon Brown, 2009