Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Bletchley Park Codebreakers

The fourth donation from his Night shelf, Stephen Town unravels the mystery behind the Bletchley Park Codebreakers.

Erskine, R. & Smith, M. (Eds), The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, in the University Library at Q 40.548 ERS
Image courtesy of Erskine, S & Smith M,
The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, 2011
ISBN: 9781849540780

Cryptography and classical cyphers feature in both computer science and maths courses in the University, with reference to the breaking of the German Enigma code during the Second World War. The part played by Alan Turing in this story is the subject of the current film ‘The Imitation Game’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and has been documented in a number of books over the past 30 years.

My copy of this book was purchased on a recent visit to Bletchley Park, which is now open to the public. The grounds and estate provide a fascinating experience, steeped in history and displaying reconstructions of the machines that laid the foundations of modern computing.

Whilst the technical feat of this code breaking effort is extraordinary enough, what is perhaps even more astonishing is the long-held secrecy of the work at Bletchley Park for so many years after the event. Many of those working at Bletchley kept their wartime secret from everyone, including close family members, for over thirty years, until it was declassified in the mid 1970s as a result of the first book publication.

There are now many books in print on the history of these events, and although the Library currently provides a range of academic treatises on the technicalities of cryptograhpy during the time of the war, these don’t cover the personal experiences of the workers or give context as to what it was like being a part of the Bletchley Park project.

Photo: Code room at Bletchley Park heritage site.
This book presents a collection of chapters by different authors, woven together to illuminate the bigger picture in this enigmatic project. Of particular interest to me is the way in which the application of intellect to complex problems was undertaken, in a context of frequent bureaucratic nonsenses, inter-service rivalry and turf wars. What’s more, there was a distinct lack of appreciation of the real value of the investment by many senior officials. Despite all of this, those involved found ways to achieve what they believed in, and the growth and sophistication of the organisation of concentrated effort over a short timeframe was itself a triumph of management.

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