Codebreaking in World War II. (Review Essay)

By Winn, Arthur C. | Parameters, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Codebreaking in World War II. (Review Essay)


Winn, Arthur C., Parameters


The three books reviewed here cannot be readjust once--not if the reader wants to gain the most complete picture of American and British activities (independent, competitive, and cooperative) with regard to World War II codebreaking. Nor if the reader desires an understanding of the interrelationships, and at times lack thereof, among the military services and the various American and British government agencies which were, or wanted to be, directly involved in codebreaking. As the authors clearly show, the interrelationships were at times cooperative, at times marked by bureaucratic internecine warfare.

Stephen Budiansky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He received a master's degree in applied mathematics from Harvard and has worked on classified military studies as a Congressional Fellow. The theme in his Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II is in the subtitle of his book. This work is comprehensive and thorough. Only time will tell if his story is "complete" in the absolute sense of the word.

David Alvarez is a professor of politics at Saint Mary's College of California. His research for his book Secret Messages: Codebreaking and American Diplomacy, 1930-1945 was completed while he held an appointment as a scholar-in-residence at the National Security Agency's Center for Cryptologic History. The principal theme is an appraisal of the role of codebreaking in the formulation of diplomatic policy. As the author notes, the opening date coincides with the creation of the US Army's Signal Intelligence Service (SIS), so his book is also an operational history of SIS. He does not address codebreaking in the military or naval spheres.

Maurice Freedman served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command No. 100 (Special Signals) Group during World War II. After the war he pursued a career in public administration, teaching, and journalism. He has been a regular lecturer on Ultra (Enigma-based intelligence) and related issues. The theme in his Unravelling Enigma is the codebreaking carried out at Bletchley Park, the wartime home of Britain's Government Code and Cypher School. Freedman refers to it as "Britain's greatest twentieth-century achievement," the essence of which was decoding and intelligence processing on an industrial scale.

All three authors emphasize that people were the key factor in the codebreaking efforts in Britain and the United States. They identify key personnel and provide examples of their contributions. Freedman notes that the results achieved were founded on "previous experience, mathematics, language, and psychology, as well as some bright ideas, and were nothing if not shrewd, well-informed, and intelligent." The people "were drawn from a section of society loosely called 'intellectuals,' not a group particularly favoured by the military." At times he refers to them as "boffins," an essentially British term probably best defined as a government scientific technician who appears unconventional or absent-minded.

Most of those involved had little or no prior experience with cryptology. Alvarez mentions a 24-year-old math teacher who accepted a position as a junior mathematician with the US Army Signal Intelligence Service. He had no idea of what a junior cryptanalyst did, but he knew what a crypt was and guessed that the job had something to do with military cemeteries: The young man, Frank Rowlett, was later to head the General Cryptanalytic Branch at Arlington Hall.

Although Alvarez's focus is the period from 1930 through the end of World War II, he does highlight some earlier episodes--as early as the American Revolution. These episodes suggest an amateur and unsystematic approach to codebreaking that characterized American activities in the field well into the 20th century. He writes, "No one in Washington thought that the interception and decryption of secret messages was sufficiently useful to the United States government to require some system and organization. …

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