Friday, August 10, 2018

Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets

Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets (1998) by Michael Smith

Publisher's Synopsis: When Captain Ridley's shooting partyA" arrived at Bletchley Park in 1939 no-one would have guessed that by 1945 the guests would number nearly 10,000 and that collectively they would have contributed decisively to the Allied war effort. Their role? To decode the Enigma cypher used by the Germans for high-level communications. It is an astonishing story. A melting pot of Oxbridge dons maverick oddballs and more regular citizens worked night and day at Station X, as Bletchley Park was known, to derive intelligence information from German coded messages. Bear in mind that an Enigma machine had a possible 159 million million million different settings and the magnitude of the challenge becomes apparent. That they succeeded, despite military scepticism, supplying information that led to the sinking of the Bismarck, Montgomery's victory in North Africa and the D-Day landings, is testament to an indomitable spirit that wrenched British intelligence into the modern age, as the Second World War segued into the Cold War. Michael Smith constructs his absorbing narrative around the reminiscences of those who worked and played at Bletchley Park, and their stories add a very human colour to their cerebral activity. The code breakers of Station X did not win the war but they undoubtedly shortened it, and the lives saved on both sides stand as their greatest achievement. 

I'm going to be honest and tell you upfront that the primary reason I read this book was that the title had an "X" in it and I needed that badly for one of my challenges. There just aren't that many titles available from my library that have an X as a word or at the beginning of a word and that sound interesting to me. X-Men and X-Factor graphic novels just don't do that much for me. So, when a search of the library catalog produced this non-fiction account of the code breakers at Bletchley Park, I was thrilled. Especially since the synopsis sounded so interesting. 

I just wish it had lived up to the synopsis. Not that the workings of Bletchley Park aren't interesting in and of themselves (they are), but Smith tells the story of Station X in such a dry-as-dust way that "their stories [didn't] add a very human colour to their cerebral activity." Smith provides a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of detailed explanations on how the Enigma wheels worked and how intricate the codes were and exactly what happened when the code breakers worked on breaking the codes and how rivalries between the various branches of service slowed things down. So much detail reeled off in a "just the facts, ma'am" manner doesn't exactly produce riveting prose. He also tells us just how eccentric and downright weird a lot of these brilliant people were--but he doesn't really give interesting examples to prove it. There just isn't much human color in this story at all--and the quoted bits of stories from those who worked there are such tiny bits that they don't liven the prose up either. This has a very text book feel to it rather than engrossing history. ★★ and 3/4.

[Finished 8/10/18--I'm finally caught up on my reviews!]

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