altStation X: Decoding Nazi Secrets by Michael Smith (TV Books, 1999)

Writers like Michael Pollan, John McPhee, and Rowan Jacobsen can take the oddest subjects and weave them into a riveting story.  Would that any of them had written Station X!  Michael Smith has a riveting story:  the long-kept secret of the codebreakers that revealed so much of Axis strategy and tactics during World War II.  The facts themselves kept me reading the book, but I'd have finished it in a day if it had been written as I'm sure it could be.  Without a doubt it's a story worth knowing, and you can get a taste of it from Wikipedia.

I had heard, of course, that the British had cracked the Germans' supposedly uncrackable Enigma Machine in WWII, a fact that only became known much later—the techniques were still being used in the Cold War—leaving participants from the lowest level to Winston Churchill unable to talk about what they did during the war.  Here are a few things I didn't know:

  • The success was not due to a "big break" that solved the problem once for all, but to many little breaks that added up and to much tedious work—work and breaks that needed to be repeated and achieved every day.  In addition to serious mathematics, cracking the codes required intuition, imagination, guesswork, and persistence.  Old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood spying played a significant role, and good ol' human mistakes (such as starting a message with the very recognizable "Heil Hitler!") were essential.

Success depended very largely on German operators ignoring the rules.  "We could usually break things when we identified the human error and that was what it was all about," said Mavis Lever.  "If the Germans had kept to the rule book and done it properly, as they were instructed to do, then of course we wouldn't have been able to get it out."

Among his many achievements, Tiltman had helped to crack the cipher used by the Japanese naval attaché in Berlin, assisted by the latter's tendency to begin each of his reports with the phrase:  "I have the honor to report to your excellency that..."

  • Cracking the codes began during World War I.
  • The Poles made the first critical break, providing both irony and concern later, during the Cold War.
  • Bletchley Park workers were a motley crew of brilliant and eccentric folks.  The initial group consisted mainly of liberal arts professors, on the grounds that codebreaking primarily required language skills.  When mathematicians were brought in they and their work were viewed with suspicion:  what could they possibly contribute?
  • Many of the Bletchley Park appointments were made by word of mouth, someone knowing someone else who might be helpful.  But some recruitment strategies cast a wider net:  They arranged for the Daily Telegraph to hold a timed crossword puzzle contest for any reader who was interested.  Those who solved the puzzle in under 12 minutes were then secretly invited for an interview for Bletchley Park.
  • The Bletchley Park group was largely non-military, and functioned best (or functioned at all) because they were not treated as military personnel.  There's an important place for military discipline, structure, drill, and authority, but not when the most essential element of your efforts is creativity.  The military was at first suspicious of these peculiar civilians, and did not think their work could have any value.

There was also to be a number of custom-built brick blocks to house the necessary expansion.  But there was still no sign of the manpower needed to fill them.  The armed forces refused to let fit, young recruits join intelligence.  They were needed to fight the war.

At the beginning of April 1940, shortly before the invasion of Normandy, the OIC [Operational Intelligence Center] ignored Hinsley's report, derived purely from [decoded] traffic analysis, of an unusual build-up of German naval activity in the Baltic.  As a result, the British were caught completely unawares by the German occupation of Norway.

Two months later, Hinsley reported that a number of German warships were about to break out of the Baltic.  Again he was ignored.  It was to lead to one of the Royal Navy's worst disasters of the Second World War, the sinking of the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious.

"For about a fortnight beforehand,  I pretty well rang the OIC once or twice a day and said:  'Look you ought surely to pass a signal out on this.  Can you possibly pass a signal out?,'" Hinsley said. ""They showed some interest.  But were not sufficiently convinced to send a warning to the Home Fleet."

On June 7, 1940, the Glorious and her two escort destroyers were spotted by a German flotilla....

On that day more than ever, I was saying to the duty officer: "For goodness sakes, can't you just persuade them to send an alert or even 'It may be the case'?" He said:  "I can't because first of all my traffic analysis group doesn't agree with your interpretation.  It doesn't see the point, doesn't see there's any evidence, and secondly my boss, the chief of the OIC, will not go to the operational chaps and say send this kind of signal out on your kind of information."

The next day HMS Glorious and her two escort destroyers ... were sunk with the loss of 1500 men.

American Bill Bundy, a law student from Harvard, recalled:

I don't expect ever to work in a group of people that was more thoroughly dedicated and with a range of skills, insight, and imagination that the Bletchley people had....  There were to mathematicians.  There were those very competent people who ran the mechanics of the thing.  It was an extraordinary group, and that was true right across the board in [Bletchley Park], whatever system of selection they used, and I've heard lots of narratives and lots of colorful stories about it, the result was an extraordinary group of people in an extraordinary organization.

Their whole structure was one where you might readily find a major working under a lieutenant or under a civilian, somewhat younger.  Whoever was in charge was the person who had been judged to be more effective at doing it.  It was meritocracy in spades and without regard to where you came from or whether you were a man or a woman, although I think we had a very large majority of men in the senior positions.  But we had absolutely superb women in a lot of key roles.  It was very much integrated in that sense and every other, and it was the only way to do it really.  The old remark attributed to Churchill, "I told you to leave no stone unturned, but I didn't expect you to take me literally," certainly did describe the varied and in some cases rather raffish British civilian contingent.

  • Given the enormous value of Bletchley Park to the war effort, it is appropriate to note that much credit for Hitler's defeat goes to the "inferior, defective" people he was trying to eliminate:  not only were a number of Jews on team, but Alan Turing, father of artificial intelligence and a crucial part of the BP code-breaking efforts, was a homosexual who was later stripped of his security clearance and subjected to "chemical castration."
  • Another member of the team (of no particular concern to Hitler that I know of) was Peter Hilton, the math professor who was at the University of Central Florida when Janet was, and whose classes never fit into her schedule, despite efforts to make that happen.
  • Colossus, one of the machines developed for the code-breaking work, was the world's first programmable electronic computer.  "It was not a universal computer, the universal machine having been spec-ed out in mathematical terms by Turing after the war," [Donald Michie] said.  "But it was semi-programmable, it had some of the properties of a universal computer, and it was a first in terms of high-speed electronics by a very wide margin."
  • The British managed to turn every German spy they caught in Britain into a double agent.  I find that remarkable.
  • Eventually, the military began to respect and profit from the information provided by the code crackers.  D-Day would have gone quite differently without the Bletchley Park work.  (emphasis mine)

There were gaps in the information provided by Ultra [for D-Day].  The codebreakers had been unable to provide a precise location for 32nd Panzerdivision which was defending the vital British objective of Caen and held up Montgomery's advance for more than a month. l They had also missed the presence of a German infantry division defending Omaha Beach.  But these were the only blank spaces in an otherwise complete and detailed picture of the German order of battle.

  • Unfortunately, they then got careless, believing the German cause to be lost long before Hitler thought so.

The evidence about what turned out to be the Battle of the Bulge began in September 1944 and went on until December 16 when the attack happened.  If anybody had ever thought of putting all the bits of information together they would surely have come to the conclusion that there was going to be an attack.

  • The codebreakers did better work once they knew that their puzzle-solving was saving lives and making a difference in the war effort.  But there was a downside, too.

Years later, Mavis Lever took her son to see the film Sink the Bismarck.

I saw it go down and suddenly I really did feel quite sick.  I put my head down and my son said to me after a while:  "It's all right, Mummy, it's gone down." He didn't know.  But I was thinking how awful it was that one's breaking of a message could send so many people to the bottom.  But that was war and that was the way we had to play it.  If we thought about it too much we should never have been able to cope.

  • Winston Churchill took a lot of heat over his supposed decision to allow the horrific bombing of the town of Coventry rather than let the Germans guess their codes had been broken.  While it's true they did go to extraordinary lengths to keep the codebreaking success a secret, such as never using the information directly unless they could engineer a way to make it plausibly obtained through other means, the problem at Coventry was of a different nature.

In their communications, the Germans used code names (covernames) that began with the same letters as the British towns they were supposed to represent.

[T]he failure to recognize one of these covernames was to embroil the Bletchley Park codebreakers in the controversy as to whether or not Churchill allowed the devastating bombing raid on Coventry in mid-November 1940 to go ahead rather than risk letting the Germans know that Enigma had been broken.

However, it was believed by the Air Ministry that the actual target was elsewhere.

It was only later that anyone realized that the use of the previously unknown codeword Korn, the German word for corn ... was in fact the covername for Coventry, which the Germans spelt with a K.  While with hindsight the Air Ministry's dismissal of Coventry as a potential target is evidence of the poor coordination of intelligence within Whitehall at the time, it was certainly not ignored to protect the codebreakers' secret.

Because the techniques were still an active part of the Cold War, the Official Secrets Act kept the truth hidden for years, despite the damage to Churchill's reputation.

  • Some of the consequences of the post-war secrecy were more amusing:

The extent of the British codebreakers' wartime capabilities was so fantastic, that although the Germans were warned by their own experts that it was possible, they refused to believe it.

After the war, Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers travelled to Germany to find out if there was anything that the victorious Allies could learn from the Nazi technological research programs.  When one of the Germans they met showed them a Lorenz cipher machine, they had to pretend they did not know what it was, Flowers recalled.

"This chap then explained how it worked and said didn't we think it was a marvelous machine and we all said yes.  'But nevertheless,' he told us in an incredulous voice, 'Our codes people said the enemy could break these messages in two years." I asked him if he had changed the machine after two years.  'Oh no,' he said.  'Our factories were so disorganized by the bombing that we weren't able to make anmother machine.  But it was safe, absolutely safe.'  That was quite a moment," Flowers said,  "It was a great temptation to turn to Turing and wink."

Station X may not be the riveting book it could have been, but the story is too good to miss.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, February 21, 2014 at 6:49 am | Edit
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