Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

Having ended my last post with a reference to The Provincial Lady in Wartime (which probably only those very careful readers of mine who happen to know the book will have noticed), this post ties in quite neatly with the Second World War theme. I am aware that a post on the First World War would be more appropriate, considering the ongoing commemoration of the outbreak a century ago, but I have not recently read any great books on the Great War – other than the already written-about book about the Scotting Women’s Hospitals. So, for now, to the Second World War.

I actually read this book last year, and blogged about it too, but I came across it again the other day and, amid the recent re-opening of part of Bletchley Park to the public, renewed my interest in the subject. Before I read this book, I did not know that Bletchley even existed. I’d heard of Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox, but only because I’ve studied his brother Ronald Knox’s work. I’d never heard of Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman or Tom Flowers before. And yet those four were part of the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park where they broke into Enigma and its Japanese equivalent during the Second World War. I’d certainly heard of Enigma.

II didn’t understand much of the code-breaking technique – cribs and hints because you recognize names etc. But having never seen anything written in code I think I am excused. This fact also made me admire the men and women even more, because they came into the whole job having about as much of a clue as I do now. And they shortened the war by two years without being able to tell anyone that they did it. One of the saddest things I read in the book was that one of the young men could not even tell his father on the latter’s deathbed how vital his work had been – and his father had died thinking that his son had shirked his duty. Little did he know that his son’s sense of duty was so acute that, even 10 years after the war had ended, he couldn’t divulge the secret work. This young man was not alone. All of the young people working at Bletchley felt that they couldn’t tell their nearest and dearest. However, nobody asked and that was what astonished me most. Although I did like one girl’s way of making people lose interest: she said she was a typist. Which was true but no one was to know what she was typing up.

What I liked especially was the balance between the war and civilian life. Every other chapter or so was dedicated to the culture and day-to-day life of Bletchley Park. It reflected the general British sentiment of “carry on as if there wasn’t a war on”. Despite the bombs (and Bletchley was lucky to receive only two direct hits – another reason for the intense secrecy!) and despite rationing there were stories of dances, plays and pantomimes, love stories, stories about the stealing and disappearance of tea mugs – stories that lightened up an otherwise grim story.

The book unites the familiar tales of the Battle of Atlantic, the Blitz and D-Day but the backdrop of Bletchley Park (or BP as the code-breakers referred to it in code) gave the world a whole new dimension as well as giving rise to even more conspiracy theories. However, the author does a very good job of remaining objective and academic and lets the story speak for itself.

In addition to this book I would recommend Mavis Batey’s biography of Dilly Knox. He was a character and her memoirs of this great scholar, historian and friend are touching and fascinating at the same time. Batey herself is part of McKay’s book. She worked with Dilly breaking the code and it was interesting to read an insider’s view of the whole period. Not that, when you read closely, much is revealed. The secret of Bletchley still holds somehow, even if the basic facts are known.

Rethinking my reading has also made me want to revisit Das Boot, a German classic about a U-boat during the war in the Atlantic. It’s a fascinating account of a cat-and-mouse game but the roles of cat and mouse are constantly interchanged. I am a bit tired of World War Two – as a young woman who went through the German school system, we spent much time on what is called ‘Aufarbeitung’ – making sense and learning about that black period of German history. However, books such as McKay’s and Batey’s show that, even for one weary of the topic there are always different aspects to learn about.