Book review: ‘Lorenz: Breaking Hitler’s Top Secret Code at Bletchley Park’ by Captain Jerry Roberts

The story of how Alan Turing and his Second World War team of mathematicians at Bletchley Park developed a machine to break the Nazi Enigma codes is well known today, along with its importance in contributing to Allied victory. However, Turing and his colleagues were not the only ones at work at the government’s codebreaking headquarters.

Huddled in offices in the grounds of the Victorian mansion were multiple other brilliant men and women who are no less important in the tale of triumph against the Axis powers.

‘Lorenz: Breaking Hitler’s Top Secret Code at Bletchley Park’ strives to demystify the story behind one of the other, lesser known, feats of codebreaking work which occurred during the Second World War. Lorenz was a vastly complex and much more significant cipher system than Enigma, carrying only the highest grade of intelligence, with messages signed by just a handful of the German high commanders including Adolf Hitler himself. The Lorenz mission was only made public knowledge at the turn of the century, and as such much of its history has been ignored.

During the last six years of his life, author Captain Jerry Roberts campaigned tirelessly to raise public awareness of the importance of the Lorenz story.

It starts with a mysterious interview, in which Roberts was asked about his feelings towards chess and crosswords, and hurries through to the first assignment which cemented his fate as a codebreaker. The ‘relatively simple’ puzzle, was a difficult feat for the young decoder, who powered on until he says, ‘the penny dropped’ and he was able to decode one message in just 21 minutes – much faster than anyone else.

For the cryptically minded, Roberts delves into the systems used to break the coded messages. From 1942-43 all decoding was carried out by hand, a laborious seven-step process in which various stages of translation were passed through the hands of support staff to cryptographers and back again. Later, the team enlisted help from code-breaking machines, including the Colossus Mk 1. Colossus had a much greater capacity than previous machines, was much more reliable, and, because it was electric, worked at a much higher speed. It is now recognised as the world’s first programmable electronic computer.

More than anything, though, Roberts seems to remember the people, the team he worked with and admired and who all helped to make the codebreaking a success. There was little time for socialising, but the team did pause to chat occasionally during short breaks in which Roberts remembers with fondness Peter Hilton’s tales of his landlady the “splendid Mrs Butler” and her many malapropisms.

‘Lorenz: Breaking Hitler’s Top Secret Code at Bletchley Park’ is as inspirational as it is humbling. The remarkable story is made all the more rare by the fact that it has remained unknown for so long. This is not just a book about codebreaking, though; it is a story about people. In a work that is all at once fascinating, liberating and somewhat heart-breaking, Roberts has finally achieved recognition for those behind the breaking of Lorenz code.

‘Lorenz: Breaking Hitler’s Top Secret Code at Bletchley Park’ by Captain Jerry Roberts is published by The History Press (£20, ISBN 9780750978859)

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