BOOKS & DATA DISCS
By James Wyllie and Michael McKinley
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