Written for History 102 at the University of Waterloo. Node your homework, they said...
Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets was written by Micheal Smith and was based on the BBC documentary of the same name. The author, a former member of Britain’s Intelligence Corps, is now a senior journalist for the Daily Telegraph where he writes on espionage. The book deals with the code breaking efforts of Bletchley Park, known during the war as “Station X”. From the outbreak of war in 1939 to the close of war in Europe, the book tells us of the role of Bletchley Park, and the drastic effect the information it revealed had on Allied operations. While it is difficult to predict events that have never happened, it is said that without Station X, the war for Europe would have ended three long years later, in 1948.
The book opens with the humble beginning of Bletchley Park and its odd collection of code breakers and linguists. This was the start of a new era of code breaking, where mathematical analysis and statistics played a far more prevalent role than the code breaking of old, working alone with pencil and paper. The first indication that mathematics was the new backbone of code breaking was in the work of several Polish mathematicians beginning in 1932. Through laborious analysis of Enigma messages, the cipher system of the Germans, they managed to completely construct an Enigma machine from scratch, using only intercepted messages and key settings for the machine stolen by a German double agent. Their contribution to the efforts of Station X was invaluable.
Armed with this knowledge of the Enigma machines, some of the brightest minds in the world went to work on critical German ciphers. From beginnings of crude hole-punched sheets used to analyze letter frequency, the code breakers quickly became a hub of leading edge technology and thought. With the extensive funding given to them by Churchill after several early decodes proved invaluable to the war effort, they soon began to construct devices whose effect would be felt to this day. Starting with the “bombes”, machines designed to try many different key settings faster than any man could, they then progressed to the aptly named Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer.
Bletchley is portrayed as the end all and be all of cryptography, which is one of the few problems with the book. Station X was inarguably an incredible source of code breaking expertise, but a former member of the British Intelligence Corps may not be the greatest source of unbiased information on British code cracking. This has little effect on the book however, as Bletchley was nearly as pervasive as Smith reports in cracking Enigma. The potential bias problem of Smith’s background is also offset by the credibility gained by his authoring of the book. We receive a personal account of the code breaking efforts through many first-hand quotes, and the many eccentric characters of Bletchley are illustrated quite well. From Dilly Knox, who had a tendency to forget what he was doing and stuff his pipe with sandwich fragments instead of tobacco, to the code breakers hired during a recruiting drive that used a speed crossword contest as an entrance exam, all are illustrated equally well. They show us what led to Churchill saying “I know I told you to leave no stone unturned to get staff, but I didn’t expect you to take me literally.”
This human element is the strongest part of the book, as without it the book has a tendency to run into rather dreary dictation of a war told many times before; only this time with a code breaking slant. The author’s argument that Bletchley cut three years off the war seems a bit of haphazard analysis, as it is incredibly hard to put a numerical value on events that have never occurred. It seems almost an afterthought, as the argument appears only on the flaps of the book and the last two pages. When Smith sticks to tales of genius mathematicians working from scraps of near-random letters and the construction of the first computers in the world, the book is at its strongest. Discussions of petty politics and funding struggles detract from the overall experience and merely slow the book down rather than add to it. This is oddly appropriate however, in a story about minds who knew little about the actual decrypts and would often only decode the first twenty letters of a critical intercept to make sure the key was correct, then pass it along to others. They cared little for war and even less for politics, choosing rather to work among mounds of paper and vacuum tubes.
Station X : Decoding Nazi Secrets is ultimately a satisfying read however. What minor imperfections it has, it more than makes up for them with a satisfying read of almost pulp-fiction-like intellectual triumph. Despite minor flaws, it is an absorbing story. Sit down, don’t overanalyze, and enjoy a tale of men at the bleeding edge of thought.