Book review: The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


You have to set your expectations when reading this book. First and foremost, the author is British, so, not surprisingly, Bletchley Park and the contributions by the British codebreakers in the European theatre is what he focuses on. Second, did I mention the author is British? So the extraordinary contributions of the Polish mathematicians and codebreakers to the Bletchley Park effort is limited to 7(!) pages. And, third, I don’t know if you know this, but the author is British, so he explores in detail the differences of British social classes and the effect that it may or may not have had on Bletchley Park’s successes.
In all seriousness, this is a well-researched book that uses anecdotes from many Bletchley Park veterans to describe how life was there. There is little discussion on codebreaking techniques (unlike, say, the book “Code Girls”) but, rather, the book mainly covers life at Bletchley Park and some of the squabbles between Bletchley Park and Whitehall.
There are some interesting peculiarities beyond what I mention above. For instance, Alan Turing’s death is referred to as a “premature tragedy” throughout the book. It is not until near the end that you discover that the author is unconvinced that he died by suicide. And the author firmly believes that the Turing machine would not have been built if it had not been for the efforts of a brilliant engineer named Tommy Flowers, who is unappreciated for his efforts.
Overall, it is an interesting read. The tone is chatty and informal, and the book reads easily. I would have given it 3.5 stars had Goodreads allowed for such a thing. If you’re interested in the period, it’s a nice add to your collection.



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Book review: Madame Fourcade’s Secret War by Lynne Olson

Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Madame Fourcade’s Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France’s Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Marie-Madeleine Fourcade was the the leader of a intelligence gathering group, the Alliance, in France during World War II that was instrumental in providing the Allies with key intelligence, including plans of Germany’s rocket program and coastal defenses in preparation for D-Day. The author explains the relative anonymity of her accomplishments as representative of the social mores and expectations of women, especially in France (although certainly true of the time as a whole).
The account of Marie-Madeleine’s life is fascinating–her victories and success are impressive and her failures heartbreaking. The toll of lives lost working for the Alliance network was high (the Nazis executed dozens of Alliance members when it became clear they were going to lose the war), and time and again, networks had to be rebuilt after the Nazis swept in and destroyed them.
This book is a fascinating glimpse into the difference one woman can make, against all odds, against the prejudices of her time, and against a brutal enemy that took no quarter. I highly recommend it!



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Book review: Code Girls: The Untold Story of American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II

Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liza Mundy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of my (achievable) New Year’s resolutions is to read more non-fiction. “Code Girls” was a wonderful place to start. The author paints a detailed and knowledgeable picture of the role women played in World War II breaking both the Japanese and German codes. Despite their obvious intelligence and substantive contributions to the war effort, these women often faced discrimination during their service. And, yet, the vast majority of them persevered, wanting to do their part to support the war effort. Their patriotism and their contributions in breaking the codes of the enemy are an untold and underappreciated part of World War II history.
I found the descriptions of the code-breaking effort and what it entailed fascinating. But even more fascinating was reading about the backgrounds of the various women. Certainly, there were women from elite colleges such as Barnard and Smith that contributed. But many of the most brilliant code-breakers came from less exalted schools or were from rural areas or were schoolteachers or just looking for adventure. And while discrimination certainly existed, there were also senior (male) officers who were supportive and gave credit where credit was due.
Another factor that struck me was what happened to many of the women once the war was over. A few of them stayed in what ultimately became the NSA, but most of the women left government service and started families. They rarely talked about their wartime activities and while many found their lives fulfilling, the excitement and the feeling of making a difference was something that was missing from their subsequent lives.
I highly recommend this book as an excellent resource of a little-known part of the United States war effort.



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Book Review: The Last Lion, Volume 3 by William Manchester & Paul Reid

The Last Lion 3: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-65The Last Lion 3: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-65 by William R. Manchester

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

William Manchester wrote the first two volumes of his planned Winston Churchill biography (The Last Lion: Visions of Glory and The Last Lion: Alone) before suffering several strokes that resulted in his inability to continue writing. This third volume was written by Paul Reid based on Manchester’s notes and research and covers Churchill’s life starting with his return from political exile during World War II to his death.
In some ways, Paul Reid had an impossible task. William Manchester was a lyrical writer, a master of prose, who managed the near impossible feat of making non-fiction as much of a pleasure and as easy to read as fiction. Fans of the first two volumes were eagerly awaiting the final volume, which cover the events of World War II that made Churchill’s reputation.
While this final volume is not as beautifully written as the first two, the exhaustive research and the compelling world events make this volume almost as readable as its predecessors. While I may have some quibbles with the author’s interpretation of events (I think, for example, that he is unnecessarily harsh in his characterization of Clementine, Winston’s wife), the judgments are always based on factual evidence, and reasonable minds can differ over interpretation.
For some reason, Americans have always held Winston Churchill in higher esteem than the British. This biography does not flinch away from some of Churchill’s less endearing characteristics nor does it plunge into hero worship. It manages to walk the fine line of recognizing the subject’s faults while also acknowledging the debt that is owed to him.
I highly recommend this trilogy for anyone who wants to learn more about Winston Churchill and his role during a pivotal time in world history.

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