Secret Days - Code Breaking in Bletchley Park, Asa Briggs

Secret Days - Code Breaking in Bletchley Park, Asa Briggs

Lord Asa Briggs was one of Britain's most distinguished post-war historians (I've got at least one of his books on my shelves), but his career began with two years working at Bletchley Park, where he served in Hut Six, playing a part in decoding Enigma messages. He was motivated to write this book by the thought that there were more books describing the atmosphere at Bletchley written by people who hadn't been there than by people who actually had, and wanted to do something to alter the balance. As a result this isn't a history of Bletchley or a history of codebreaking, but instead focuses on Briggs' own experiences at Bletchley, how he got to work there, his colleagues, how the connections to Oxford and Cambridge worked and a more general account of life for someone working at Bletchley. The author arrived at Bletchley Park in 1943, by which time many of the famous wooden huts had largely been replaced with centrally heated brick buildings - again something that isn't always clear in other accounts of Bletchley, especially as the departments involved kept their Hut names.

Although this isn't a history of code breaking, Lord Briggs did answer one key question I hadn't seen addressed so clearly before - just how did the bombe machine, which worked through thousands of possible settings for the Enigma machine, know when it might have reached the correct settings. The answer is that Briggs and his colleagues came up with 'cribs' - bits of texts that they thought might be in a message. These would be programmed into the Bombe, which would then run through all possible combinations until the key works appeared. The code breakers were thus greatly assisted by the tendency of some German operators to end their messages with 'Heil Hitler' or their own name. Some combinations would be 'false positives' - just by chance Heil Hitler would emerge, but the rest of the message would be garbage, but it still produced an impressive number of successes. There is also a mention of other areas of code breaking (I didn’t realise that the famous Colossus computer wasn't built to deal with the Enigma code).

This is a valuable contribution to the ever expanding literature on Bletchley, partly because it was written by someone who was both a member of the team and a very high quality historian, and partly because it is a very readable account of life at and around Bletchley from the point of view of one individual, but with extra material to explain the importance of the key figures that Briggs worked with. It also benefits from having been written after the period of 'revelations', so has a rather calmer tone than many works on code breaking.

1 - BP: An Introduction
2 - Cambridge
3 - Getting Inside BP
4 - The Huts - and Hut Six in Particular
5 - Two Camps - and More
6 - Ways of Escape
7 - The End of the War
8 - Getting Outside BP
9 - Oxford
10 - The Bletchley Trust
Appendix: Selective Chronology

Author: Asa Briggs
Edition: Paperback
Publisher: Frontline
Year: 2011

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