Code breakers at Bletchley Park

Book reviews: Bletchley Park

Fictional versions of the Bletchley Park story have sparked interest in an aspect of wartime codebreaking that’s often overlooked.

Credit for the women who helped break Enigma

Benedict Cumberbatch may have grabbed most of the plaudits for his portrayal of Alan Turing in ‘The Imitation Game’, but the biopic has reminded audiences that Second World War codebreaking was about more than just a few eccentric boffins in tweed jackets.

Keira Knightley’s role as Turing’s one-time fiancée Joan Clarke highlighted the part that women played in the work at Bletchley Park. In fact, Knightley is just the latest - Kate Winslet starred in 2001 movie ‘Enigma’, while the cast of the more recent TV series ‘The Bletchley Circle’ saw former female codebreakers join forces to investigate crimes in the 1950s.

These stories reflect the fact that breaking German codes took the efforts of many more people than the key figures we’re familiar with, and that even if men were overwhelmingly responsible for the more cerebral parts of the task, they were very much in a minority.

By 1944, around three-quarters of the 8,000 or so people at Bletchley Park and its various outstations were civilian or service women, most carrying out tasks that although routine were dramatically different from those they would have been involved in had there not been a war.

Most accounts of the vital work that went on at ‘Station X’ acknowledge their contribution. Now, hot on the heels of ‘The Imitation Game’ and in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of VE Day, we have a pair of books that tell their specific story in different ways, while both giving an insight into the significant influence the experience had on their lives and on society.

Michael Smith, author of ‘The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories’ (Aurum Press, £20, ISBN 9781781313879), is an award-winning journalist who served in the British Army’s Intelligence Corps and has written histories of the same period of the war. His style is pacey and easy to read, interspersing the personal stories of the women who were plunged into the world of Bletchley Park with information about the technology and how they felt about it.

Don’t be put off by the reference to ‘debs’ in the title; this isn’t just about a bunch of posh girls seeing off the Germans but a fascinating account of how the war changed life for women in all strata of society.

Smith is involved in keeping the story alive with the Bletchley Park Trust, an organisation acknowledged in ‘The Bletchley Girls: War, Secrecy, Love and Loss’ by broadcaster and historian Tessa Dunlop (Hodder & Stoughton, £20, ISBN 9781444795714).

The emphasis on personal stories highlights the diversity of backgrounds from which women were recruited. Dunlop believes that their contribution has been undervalued, and her passion for telling their stories comes through in what is more of an oral history.

The stories of how Dunlop tracked down the women, now in their 80s and 90s, is given plenty of space and does much to illuminate how their lives were changed by their time at Bletchley.

Almost as fascinating as their recollections of how they felt about working in this unusual environment are their memories of the difficulty they had returning to a much more mundane civilian life, having been sworn to secrecy about their vital war work. Many found it hard to adjust to the expectations of their families and society.

Whichever of these long-overdue books you choose, both are worthwhile attempts to record an aspect of British history that, although finally getting the recognition it deserves, probably still has stories to be told.

Dominic Lenton

New Forest Electronics

Britain’s First Space Rocket: The Story of the Skylark

By Robin H Brand, £29.50, ISBN 9780992989606

These days, with massive rockets launching rovers to Mars and crews to the International Space Station, it’s hard to remember that, half a century ago, launching payloads into space was in its infancy, especially for smaller nations such as the UK.

This is the story of the Skylark, the first British rocket to reach space in November 1957. Those familiar with the early history of the Space Age will note that this is only a month after the Soviet Union orbited Sputnik 1, the first manmade satellite. Skylark was a suborbital vehicle, known as a sounding rocket, which reached a maximum altitude of 128km, thus breaking the nominal 100km boundary with space.

The rocket itself was not large, measuring less than 8m in height and just 45cm in diameter, but it was significant for the UK, which undertook a programme of 441 missions over 47 years, the final flight being in 2005.

The significance of its history is reflected in the substantial nature of this book, which is almost 700 pages long. The author wrote the book because “virtually nothing had been published” and decided to “concentrate on the technology as evolved by the scientists, engineers and technicians directly involved”.

It really is an ‘all about’ book on Skylark: the design and development of the rocket; the launch base at Woomera, Australia; the experiments; and the testimonials of some of those involved. In fact, some parts read like autobiographies, while other, quoted, sections resemble the narrative of a novel: “Looks like a pretty good launching,” says Mr Bruce. “If we give it about seven more minutes we’ll hear it hit.” But Mr Hawkins is scratching his chin... “I don’t know,” he says. “It was moving...just enough to the north to put it down over this’d better get under the Land Rover after all and leave room for the rest of us.”

The book is well illustrated with colour and monochrome photos, diagrams and tables (some key text items are even coloured pink or blue). The final hundred or so pages comprise appendices covering Skylark launch data, museum artefacts, a substantial reference section and a comprehensive index. In other words, the full package.

As the author states, some may find this book a “curious mixture of popular and academic”, but he is pragmatic about his potential readers, who are “invited to sample what they will and leave the rest”. This is excellent advice. Some readers might wish to know how this early rocket came about or what its payloads discovered; others might dip into the history and browse the pictures (I like the one of a guy standing in a crater captioned “Where’s my rocket?”). Above all, the book - like Skylark and the UK space programme itself - is quintessentially British: modest, understated but punching above its weight.

Mark Williamson

Zenith Press

New Space Frontiers: Venturing into Earth Orbit and Beyond

By Piers Bizony, £23, ISBN 9780760346662

Many moons ago, when formative engineers like myself were in short trousers, there was a palpable excitement about space travel; well, men were walking on the Moon, you know! Since those heady days, the human race has been stuck in low-Earth orbit at best - while the International Space Station is a marvel of engineering construction, it’s not exactly the final frontier we were promised.

This book attempts to rekindle the passion for space exploration by filing the contributions of Nasa and other government- funded space agencies in the ‘done that’ category and looking forward to the new promise of commercial human spaceflight. It does this by concentrating on space-proven technology and by filling its pages with some of the most stunning illustrations of space exploration available. Indeed, the photo reproduction quality of this book is top notch.

The author begins with a look at existing systems such as the Soyuz crew transporter and Dragon supply capsule, but there is equal space devoted to budding suborbital tourism vehicles like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and XCOR’s Lynx spaceplane. Others including the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle and Skylon rocket plane are there too, but the author clearly wants to get out of orbit to cover the Moon, Mars and interplanetary space.

It would be easy to dismiss the later, speculative missions as wishful science-fiction, but what saves the book from the typical descent into PowerPoint territory is its grounding in technology achievable today. The Moon chapter, for example, includes pressurised lunar rovers based on existing prototype hardware, a skin-tight ‘biosuit’ designed by MIT’s Dava Newman (Nasa’s deputy administrator) and a base constructed using 3D-printing techniques. Although somewhat short on analysis, this book is big on vision and that’s exactly what the space community needs to get out of its comfort zone and off towards the stars.

Mark Williamson


The Peripheral

By William Gibson, £18.99, ISBN 9780399158445

This book is not an easy read. I found it absorbing and heavy-going in equal measure. Absorbing in the intricacies of the plot, focused on the apocalyptic future, new technologies and time travel. Heavy going in its dark cyber-punk realism, overladen with swear words and modern geek-style vernacular.

The plot is set in two different time layers - a dark and depressing ‘near-future’, and a prosperous, yet somehow even more depressing, distant one. These two epochs, separated by 70 years, can be connected by means of virtual-reality (or quasi) time travelling, when one can only do it as an avatar.

Flynne Fisher lives in America of around 2050 with her war veteran brother Burton. She volunteers to beta-test a virtual-reality game for him and finds herself in early-22nd-century London where she witnesses a murder. She then travels to the future as a ‘peripheral’, a flesh and blood analogue of a digital robot, in an attempt to solve that murder in the post-apocalyptic dystopian London, dominated by nanotechnology and ruled by the the corrupt elite known as ‘klept’. She meets Wilf Netherton - a hapless PR agent - and their meeting helps to unleash a terrifying new dimension in which real life and virtual reality mix and become inseparable.

Against the background of countless dystopian and apocalyptic fiction books of recent years, ‘The Peripheral’ stands out in its carefully shaped thriller-like plot and its literary style - with razor-sharp dialogues, subtle characterisation and a clever, if not always well-balanced, mixture of technological neologisms and conversational colloquialisms.

The book is definitely worth a read but requires serious concentration, so don’t take it on holiday with you. 

Vitali Vitaliev

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