16 February 1999. Thanks to AJ.
Financial Times, February 16, 1999
STATION X: Enigma variations
By John Munch
STATION X: The Codebreakers of Bletchley
by Michael Smith
Channel 4 Books £14.99, 184 pages
It was almost 30 years after the end of the second world war before the wartime
codebreakers of Bletchley Park were allowed to break their cover and recount
what is now recognised as the greatest single British contribution to the
The first to go into the public domain was a Group Captain F.W. Winterbotham,
who disclosed the extraordinary achievement of the codebreakers in providing
a stream of so-called "Ultra" intelligence, the British cover-name for all
high-grade signals intelligence derived from cracking the German Enigma
Winterbotham's slim volume of wartime memoirs, which appeared in 1974, came
in for some heavy criticism. This was in part because it contained apparent
inaccuracies, but also because some of his colleagues felt he should never
have gone into print at all.
One of these Bletchley colleagues many years later recorded his dismay over
Winterbotham's decision to publish. "I was shocked to the point of refusing
to read the book. . . and to this day I feel inhibited if by chance the subject
comes up; my wife said she found difficulty in marrying a man who would not
tell her what he did in the war."
It was the obsessive and instinctive guardedness of this kind that allowed
the almost miraculous preservation of Bletchley's secret source of information
throughout the war - and well into the cold war, too, when the cyrptanalytical
techniques developed there were directed towards a new enemy, Soviet
They were helped by the unshakeable German conviction that the Enigma codes
- several variants were used by each of the three armed services - were
impossible to break.
Ultra's contribution did not begin until the spring of 1941, as the Enigma
cipher was progressively decoded. The effect was powerful, if not always
decisive, in the fluctuating north African campaign.
By the time of the battle of Alamein, Ultra's influence was less powerful
than the decisive superiority - 5 to 1 - in tanks and airpower enjoyed by
the Allies. The disappointment felt at Bletchley was that, given the constant
stream of intelligence being supplied to Montgomery at the time, he was not
able cut off Rommel's retreat before he reached Tunisia.
Its influence in the war against the U-boats - where the naval Enigma was
broken from the second half of 1941 - helped provide the information about
U-boat locations to re-route convoys to safety. It has been calculated that
about 1.5m tons of shipping were saved and valuable time was bought to build
new ships and develop more effective anti-submarine defences.
Michael Smith's book accompanies a four-part Channel 4 series on the wartime
codebreaking centre, and it has some of the faults that inevitably beset
the "book of the film" genre. Its anecdotal and generalist style will suit
those coming to the subject for the first time. But quotations on a printed
page from the codebreakers cannot rival the pathos and potency of seeing
spry Bletchley Park veterans, speaking to camera, reliving the exhilaration
of breaking Enigma. Nonetheless, if Station X can point a new generation
in the direction of the Bletchley Park literature, it will have served a
The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park by Michael Smith, Channel 4 Books, £14.99, 184 pages