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Monday, 23 January 2012

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park, Reviewed.

Turing at the time of his election to Fellowsh...
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A Christmas present, this was a book I was unlikely to pick up for myself. However, I'm very pleased I was given the gift. WWII is long gone, of course, and for many of the younger generation probably holds little interest. I was born some years after its end and my parents were involved, of course, so it has some personal resonance for me.

I had, of course, heard of Bletchley Park; the place has shed its cloak of secrecy over the past few years. Several books, TV documentaries and other items have opened up the world that had previously dwelt only within the walls of the establishment and the minds of those thousands who had worked there. I suspect that most people now are at least aware of the invaluable work that was done in this otherwise rather nondescript property. There is, after all, a museum there now displaying the secrets of the code breakers.

What is not generally known is the way of life in the place during the crucial years of the war and it is this aspect that is covered by the bulk of this book. Written in an accessible style dotted with bits of humour, the book details the daily lives, the trials and most poignantly, the pervading requirement for absolute secrecy that prevented even those closest to the workers knowing what they were up to. These brave, talented and diligent men and women were unable to even hint at the nature of the work they did day in and day out. Many were ostracised by those who assumed they had a cushy job for the duration, many were unable to tell their relatives how they really spent the war and had to allow their parents to die without ever being given the chance to feel the very well deserved pride they would otherwise have known.

Full of detail and crammed with fascinating facts and descriptions of the various characters and personalities who made up the workforce of this extraordinary establishment, the book gives a real insight into the relationships, friendships and disputes that occurred. It also points the finger of blame at those senior military men and politicians without a clear understanding of the nature of the work done at Bletchley Park. That Churchill understood the vital significance of the operation is possibly the only reason it managed to continue with the task that shortened the war by two years and saved countless lives as a result.

On these pages you will find the petty squabbles, the passionate devotion to the task, the daily courage of people working against the odds and under dreadful conditions, the strokes of genius and the dedicated pure slog of perseverance when all seemed to be against them.

One other aspect of the book must be mentioned: contrary to Dan Brown's assertion that the modern computer was developed as the result of work in Harvard in 1944, this account makes it clear that Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers were working on the original idea of such a device and had built such machines at Bletchley during 1943. The problem was that all their work, both written and practical, was destroyed on the orders of a government obsessed with the possibility that the Russians might somehow gain from the knowledge. Thus, GB's computer industry never really got off the ground.

If you're interested in real people, tales of courage, accounts of social interaction between all classes for a common cause, if you want to read a true account that will amuse, inform and move you, I suggest you give this book a read. I've enjoyed the journey and can recommend it to all those who have an interest in the human condition.

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