Thursday 12 November 2015

You can't understand Enigma without understanding what went before

Imagine the scene. It is wartime, and the stakes are high in the Atlantic and the North Sea. At the British fleet anchorage in the Orkneys, known to history as Scapa Flow, the signal lamps flash messages across the dank mist, unaware that they possess the most extraordinary weapon, utterly secret and also unprecedented in modern naval warfare.

Unlike the wartime sailors of other previous generations, they can listen in to the hour-by-hour thoughts and orders of the other side and act accordingly. Not in the ships, perhaps, battling against the salt spray in the moment of battle, but via their own signals to the Admiralty.

They can do so because of the invention of wireless telegraphy, but also because of the efforts of a handful of disparate amateurs who have forged themselves into the most successful team of cryptographers the world had ever known.

It sounds like Bletchley Park in its heyday, during the war of national survival, as Alan Turing, Peter Twinn and their colleagues, wrestled with the complexities of the Nazi’s naval Enigma code – but it isn’t. It is what came before Bletchley, Turing or Enigma, and what made them all possible.

It was the peculiar assortment of people operating together to crack the German naval codes during the First World War, and known collectively as Room 40.

The scale was smaller, of course. Bletchley Park eventually employed tens of thousands. The techniques were less sophisticated – they used logic and literary comparisons rather than mathematics and early computing. But even so, the people who launched Bletchley Park and shaped it, and who managed Turing and Twinn in the first two years of the Second World War, had learned their trade in Room 40 of the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall, and absorbed their lessons about how codes could be cracked and then used from a man who was, in his own way, a genius of Turing proportions: Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall.

In that respect Room 40 was the forerunner of Bletchley Park. It involved a series of near-fatal mistakes about how you should use decrypted information – about the best use of information in complex organisations – which were not made again as a result when the same team formed again on a wartime footing in 1939.

They were not made partly because Blinker Hall gave detailed advice to Captain John Godfrey, who occupied his chair as Director of Naval Intelligence in 1939. They were also not made because so many people who were key to Room 40 were there to kickstart a similar operation, in much more difficult circumstances, at Bletchley Park.

I want to set the record straight by writing a short ebook called Before Enigma. So I am crowdfunding the book through the website Byline, and would be enormously grateful for any help – either by donating directly or maybe by copying this article to anyone you know who might be interested.

Thank you so much. We now have two weeks to go, so any help you can give would be very gratefully received!

AND! My ebook Jerusalem: England's National Anthem  is on special offer for 99p this week. There is also a conventional print version here

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