By James Wyl­lie and Michael McKin­ley

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Phil To­maselli is a mil­i­tary fam­ily his­tory ex­pert

This month’s fam­ily his­tory in­spi­ra­tion

(Ebury Pub­lish­ing, 352 pages, £20) Though highly se­cret for decades, we now know a lot about, and cor­rectly cel­e­brate, the Bletch­ley Park codebreakers of the Se­cond World War. This book, though, looks at their First World War pre­de­ces­sors who took on the twin chal­lenges of Ger­man codes and new ra­dio tech­nol­ogy, which was be­ing used in war on a large scale for the first time.

With the Mar­coni Com­pany’s help, the Royal Navy be­gan in­ter­cept­ing Ger­man ra­dio sig­nals early on in the con­flict. Some for­tu­nate cap­tures of Ger­man code­books helped a small group of am­a­teur codebreakers, re­cruited by Naval In­tel­li­gence, to read the mes­sages and they grad­u­ally de­ci­phered those sent to Ger­man sub­marines, di­plo­mats and spies world­wide.

As­sisted by the Army’s MI1(b) bureau, which gets rare cov­er­age here, the codebreakers played a vi­tal role in as­sist­ing Amer­i­can au­thor­i­ties to com­bat Ger­man sabo­teurs, warn­ing the Navy of Ger­man fleet move­ments and help­ing to save Bri­tain from the U-boat men­ace in 1918. It took time to get things right – early er­rors meant the men at sea didn’t al­ways trust the in­tel­li­gence they were given, but sys­tems were re­fined and con­fi­dence in them grew. The ac­tion is ev­ery­where – in South Amer­ica, Ger­man agents try to in­fect horses with an­thrax; in Mex­ico, a Ger­man ra­dio trans­mit­ter is sab­o­taged; in Egypt, a re­ceiver is built on the Great Pyra­mid; while in the Pa­cific, the Royal Navy chase con­sign­ments of guns des­tined for In­dia. The codebreakers’ great­est suc­cess was in break­ing the in­fa­mous Zim­mer­mann tele­gram, which tried to con­vince Mex­ico to at­tack the United States if it de­clared war on Germ many, and its care­fully con­trived rev­e­la­tion, which ac­tu­ally caused the US to en­ter the war.

An en­ter­tain­ing book, this steers clear of too much tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion and con­cen­trates on the ef­fect the gath­ered in­tel­li­gence had on the course of events. De­spite one or two er­rors, this makes for a good in­tro­duc­tion to the sub­ject.

The Ad­mi­ralty in White­hall, Lon­don, where codebreakers worked in Room 40 in the north sec­tion of the first floor

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