December 2016
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Review: The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, Sinclair McKay

the secret life of bletchley parkBletchley Park is now widely known as the center of British codebreaking during the Second World War, leading to huge advances in intelligence and in computing by some of the geniuses who were recruited to work there. But during and for years after the war, Bletchley Park was treated as a complete secret by the government and the many people who held jobs there during those years. McKay interviewed a number of the Bletchley Park veterans once the information was finally available to the public and has compiled his book in large part from their stories as well as archives held in the Bletchley Park museum.

This book received a lot of coverage towards the beginning of the year and, curious sort that I am, I decided that I should read it for myself and find out exactly what happened at this well-known place. It hasn’t always been well known; the secret was kept for over thirty years after the war and many who worked there went to their deaths without breathing a word of its purpose. More recently, though, the achievements of those who worked within the park have been acknowledged and celebrated, with many of these intelligent people decorated for their efforts.

McKay covers the period right from the start of Bletchley Park, with its purchase and first use, until its eventual abandonment and resurrection as a museum. In between, of course, we meet several of the enigmatic people who worked there. Alan Turing, for example, is given a prominent place within this book, as he is one of the most well-known people who worked on the code-breaking machines which were the forerunners of today’s computers. He interviews a number of people who worked there, including some couples who met and fell in love while working there, and emphasizes mainly what life was like for them, from the conditions of their billets to the meals they ate and the truly grueling work that many of them performed.

For quite a few of them, who were brilliant young people recruited into the service without knowing much about what they were doing, Bletchley Park was something of a continuation of school and university, full of like-minded people who worked hard but enjoyed themselves in the little bit of downtime that they got. But their work was of critical importance to the war, and McKay never dodges around the simple fact that their hard work resulted in a massive amount of intelligence and huge steps taken in the war. He explains how they cracked the codes and the intelligence that resulted, which adds an interesting layer to the history I already know about World War II.

Despite the book’s discussion of computing systems there, I don’t think this is quite the book for those who are more interested in technology, but there are aspects of it involved here. I didn’t really feel like I grasped what was going on in this respect, other than some machines decoded encrypted messages in brilliant ways. Overall the writing in the book is relatively basic; the focus is much more on what happened than literary eloquence.

Very recommended to those who are interested in the history of World War II, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park is an engaging read that delves into the lifestyle behind the scenes in every way.

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