Geniuses at war Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the dawn of the digital age

David A. Price, 1961-

Book - 2021

"Geniuses at War is the dramatic, untold story of the brilliant team who built the world's first digital electronic computer at Bletchley Park, during a critical time in World War II. Decoding the communication of the Nazi high command was imperative for the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy. The Nazi missives were encrypted by the "Tunny" cipher, a code that was orders of magnitude more difficult to crack than the infamous Enigma code. But Tommy Flowers, a maverick English working-class engineer, devised the ingenious, daring, and controversial plan to build a machine that could think at breathtaking speed and break the code in nearly real time. Together with the pioneering mathematician Max Newman and Enigma c...ode-breaker Alan Turing, Flowers and his team produced--against the odds, the clock, and a resistant leadership--Colossus, the world's first digital electronic computer, the machine that would help bring the war to an end. With fascinating detail and illuminating insight, David A. Price's Geniuses at War tells, for the first time, the mesmerizing story of the great minds behind Colossus, and chronicles their remarkable feats of engineering genius which ushered in the dawn of the digital age"--

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New York : Alfred A. Knopf 2021.
Main Author
David A. Price, 1961- (author)
First edition
Item Description
"A Borzoi book."--Title page verso.
Physical Description
243 pages ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Prologue
  • The right type of recruit
  • The palace coup
  • Breaking Tunny
  • The soul of a new machine
  • Decrypting for D-Day
  • After the war
  • Epilogue: Turing's child machine, 1968.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Price (The Pixar Touch) delivers a solid history of how Allied codebreakers at Bletchley Park developed "the first operational digital computers" to defeat Germany's vaunted Lorenz SZ cipher machines. Crediting Bletchley Park's successes to a "strain of meritocracy existed, even if only on the margins, within a powerful system of social class," Price notes that the British signals intelligence agency initially thought the "right type of recruit" for cryptography were academics who had experience with art history, law, German, and the classics. However, it was mathematician Alan Turing who cracked the Enigma codes, and mathematician Max Newman and telephone engineer Tommy Flowers (a self-taught specialist in "large-scale digital electronics") who designed and built Colossus, a programmable computer that allowed British codebreakers "to read the Third Reich's highest-level military communications system, including messages from Hitler himself." Price briskly relates the technical aspects of the story and includes plenty of gossip and droll anecdotes, noting, for instance, that the Germans refused to believe the British had broken the Enigma codes because they were so bad at encrypting their own messages. Much of this will be familiar to WWII history buffs, but those looking for an entertaining introduction to Bletchley Park and the era's technological innovations would do well to start here. (June)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Price (The Pixar Touch) puts his expertise in history and technology to excellent use in his latest book. Following the exploits of the motley collection of geniuses installed at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, he weaves a superb narrative, at once compelling and relatable, about the technological innovations used to break the Nazis' many military and police codes and ciphers. In this book, the code breakers come to life as people grappling with personal conflicts and politics while working together (and sometimes against each other) in the relatively egalitarian environment at Bletchley. Many of the group's innovations receive notice in Price's work, but he focuses mainly on the events and people involved in the invention of Colossus--the first programmable, electronic, digital computer, which was designed to break the German army's Lorenz cipher. Readers will encounter familiar names, such as Winston Churchill, along with less prominent figures, like the British mathematician Max Newman. VERDICT Incredibly well-written and well-researched, this fast-paced book reads like a novel. Highly recommended to readers with an interest in World War II and 20th-century history, as well as anyone looking for an exciting story of code breaking and intrigue.--Crystal Goldman, Univ. of California, San Diego Lib.

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A fresh account of "the greatest decryption achievements of [World War II] and the launch of the digital age." The satisfying revelations about Allied code-breaking have produced numerous books. The best is probably Stephen Budiansky's Battle of Wits (2000), but it's a field with an endless supply of intriguing material. Historical accounts of Bletchley Park emphasize the iconic Enigma machine, which enciphered messages from Germany's military. In fact, Britain's massive code-breaking dealt with many traditional codes from Germany, Italy, and Japan as well as other machines. In this page-turning study, Price focuses on a particularly difficult project called "Tunny." Deployed by Germany in 1942, it used a machine vastly more complex than Enigma to send high-level messages between Berlin and army commands throughout Europe. By 1943, Bletchley had cracked its code, but decrypting a single message took days using the latest calculators, which were mechanical. It was then that Price's titular geniuses went to work. Recruited by Alan Turing, then a relatively unknown mathematics professor, Max Newman devised a new kind of machine. He worked on it with electrical engineer Tommy Flowers, another Turing protégé, who proposed using electronics, an idea greeted with skepticism because it required vacuum tubes, which were considered unreliable. Despite a lack of enthusiasm, work began, and Price delivers a fascinating account of the problems Flowers and his team overcame before the massive machine called Colossus arrived in January 1944. The first electronic digital computer, it flabbergasted observers by churning out decryptions 500 times faster than before. Soon Bletchley was reading Hitler's mail. Before the Normandy landings, Allied leaders knew that their deceptions had convinced Hitler that the invasion would occur elsewhere. After victory, all the Colossus machines were destroyed, and their designers returned to civilian life, sworn to secrecy. When the story became public in the 1970s, a few modest honors came their way but not the fame they deserved. Price's account is unlikely to change this, but he tells a terrific story. An entertaining history of brilliant minds at work against the Nazi behemoth. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter 1 The Right Type of Recruit In the years after the Great War, as it was called at the time, and continuing through World War II, the United States maintained two agencies for decoding intercepted communications: one in the army and one in the navy. This arrangement may have had the merit of making the maximum number of bureaucrats happy, but it sometimes led to counterproductive results. For instance, in September 1940, after the army's codebreakers solved Japan's most secure diplomatic code, known to the Americans as Purple, the question arose as to how to do the voluminous work of actually reading each day's messages. Each service felt an imperative to keep not only the Empire of Japan, but also the other service, in its place. After protracted negotiations, the two sides agreed that the navy's outfit, OP-­20-­G, would handle the messages received on odd-­numbered days while the army's Signal Intelligence Service would handle those received on even-­numbered days. The fruits of their labors would be given to the president by his army aide in odd-­numbered months, by his naval aide in even-­numbered months. The scheme was internally logical but ludicrous. In another instance when the rivalry showed itself, after the war with Hitler was under way, a British representative to the U.S. codebreaking units found himself forbidden by the U.S. Army from sharing details of their conversations with the U.S. Navy. The British had endured similar rivalries between their own services during World War I. Unlike the American government, however, the British sought to avert such issues in the future by fusing their army and navy codebreaking services into a single unit following the end of the war. In October 1919, eleven months after the armistice, Prime Minister David Lloyd George's war cabinet ordered the creation of a new organization, the Government Code & Cypher School, to be located in the Watergate House in central London. Its publicly revealed mission was defensive--­"to advise as to the security of codes and cyphers used by all Government departments" and to help in setting them up. Codebreaking was to be an additional, highly secret one. The Admiralty had acceded to the change on one condition: that the head of the new organization would be one of its own, namely Alexander G. Denniston, known as Alastair or simply AGD. His education at Bonn University, and the German fluency that had come with it, led to his being one of the first four staff recruited to Room 40, the Admiralty's small codebreaking office, in 1914. The extent of his continental education--­he had also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris--­was unusual for a British naval officer of the time. He was an athletic Scotsman with bright blue eyes; as a younger man, he had played for Scotland's field hockey team in the 1908 Olympics. His stature, small and slight, resembled that of a jockey or a rowers' coxswain. He was accustomed to going without; his father had died when he was eleven, after which his mother struggled financially to raise him and his two younger siblings. Outwardly, his manner tended to be stiff and correct, concealing a humane interest in those with whom he worked and a tolerance of eccentricity. The latter quality could prove invaluable. Cryptanalysts, one observer noted at the time, were "somewhat kittle-­cattle to deal with and all of them, if they are any good, have somewhat peculiar temperaments." Thus the Admiralty made its stand. "We should only consent to pool our staff with that of the War Office [army] on condition that Commander A. G. Denniston is placed in charge of the new Department," the head of naval intelligence declared. He added, "Denniston is not only the best man we have had, but he is the only one we have left with special genius for this work. We shall not be able to retain him in a subordinate capacity, and no advantage of concentration or co-­operation with the War Office would compensate us for the loss of his services." But in the end, what seems to have been decisive in Denniston's selection, in addition to the Admiralty's support, was his attitude. The War Office's pick, a Maj. Malcolm Hay, was asked whether he was willing to be second in command under Denniston; Hay gave a flat no. Denniston, asked whether he would work under Hay, said yes without ­hesitation--­he would serve wherever he was needed. Denniston received the nod. Denniston had never run anything before. (The wartime head of Room 40 had retired in January.) He disliked anything to do with bureaucracy and administration. Inevitably, some of his peers were skeptical of his elevation, one of them carping that he was "possibly fit to manage a small sweet shop in the East End." He would prove them wrong--­although not wrong enough. On November 1, 1919, the Government Code & Cypher School opened with Denniston as its operational head and a small staff of two dozen former Room 40 and War Office workers. He found in short order that, in fact, there was little demand any longer for military codebreaking. After all, the Treaty of Versailles had permanently stripped Germany of its ability to wage war. The treaty banned Germany from having tanks, submarines, or an air force. Its army and navy were shrunk to shadows of their former selves. The German Army, now limited to 100,000 men--­down from 3.8 million at the start of the war--­was to be "devoted exclusively to the maintenance of order within the territory and to the control of the frontiers [borders]." Germany was a beaten country, its military to give trouble nevermore. There was, however, demand for intelligence on the contents of secret diplomatic messages. Denniston turned the attention of GC&CS to these. The organization's principal targets were France (whose codes Britain had ignored during the war), Japan (relevant in light of Britain's colonial outposts and dealings in Asia), the young Soviet Union, and the United States, with the U.S. section having the strongest codebreakers. For the first two and a half years of its existence, GC&CS was lodged within the Admiralty--­illogically, since the whole idea had been to create an organization that wasn't beholden to one service. But the navy ran most of the interception stations, and no one outside the armed services was interested. There matters stood until March 1922, when the foreign secretary, George Curzon, made a private comment to the French ambassador in London, an indiscreet remark--­its contents are no longer known--­that would have been embarrassing to Curzon if it ever came to light. The ambassador dutifully conveyed the remark to his government in Paris via telegraph, at which point it was intercepted by a British station, decoded at GC&CS, and distributed to the usual recipients in the government. Whether Curzon belatedly realized the value of GC&CS or simply wished to avoid such episodes in the future, he asked for and got control of the organization. The following year, Denniston had a new boss, the chief of the Foreign Office's Secret Intelligence Service, or SIS, more familiar today as MI6. The man was an anonymous figure, known to all but a few simply as "C"; for the sake of secrecy, his code name alone was used even in the agency's phone directory. His actual name was Hugh Sinclair. Four years earlier, in his former role as director of naval intelligence, it was he who had backed Denniston to become GC&CS's first chief. Sinclair had been born into a wealthy family, his naval service having been a form of noblesse oblige. (His father's occupation was "gentleman.") Although anonymous, he was anything but reticent: the Dictionary of National Biography records that the upward path of his career was aided by his "immense clubbability." On his unofficial time, he boomed around London in an Italian-­made Lancia convertible and was never without his crocodile-­skin suitcase filled with expensive cigars. His friends had bestowed on him the nickname "Quex," inspired by the play and film The Gay Lord Quex; in it, Lord Quex, debonair and crafty, was "the wickedest man in London." Nominally, Quex was director of GC&CS while Denniston was deputy director, but as a practical matter, Denniston was in charge from day to day and left largely to his own devices. Under his management, the specialists on the staff cracked the codes of all four of the main targeted countries, along with other codes that came and went on the priority list as the political situation evolved, such as those of Budapest, Rome, and various South American capitals. He took a founder's pride in the organization having accomplished as much as it did with meager numbers, "the poor relation of the SIS," as he put it, "whose peacetime activities left little cash to spare." But within Germany, schemes were being drawn up and carried out, invisibly at first to the outside world. Beginning in the early 1920s, a decade before Hitler would take power, the disarmament provisions of the Treaty of Versailles were already becoming dead letters one by one. Circumventing the Inter-­Allied Military Commission of Control that the victorious powers had installed in Germany after the war to enforce the treaty, the German military built up its army beyond the 100,000-­man limit with "black," or illegal, soldiers. Officers studied the previous war and doctrines for fighting a future large conflict. Germany built U-­boats in secret and sent their officers and crews abroad for training. A system of gliding clubs was established to serve as a source of future air force pilots. Starting in 1927, German pilots received military training in the Soviet Union. When forty-­three-­year-­old Adolf Hitler, née Schicklgruber, became Reich chancellor on January 30, 1933, all that remained was to accelerate the developments that were already under way; this would take place partly underground, partly in the open as Hitler correctly sized up the Allies' readiness to acquiesce. The following year, in May, Hitler struck a deal for the armed services' support. His part would be the purge of their distasteful rivals for power, the leadership of the SA, the Sturmabteilung--­the Storm Troopers, also known as the Brownshirts. The top echelon of the SA was pushing for the consolidation of the armed services with the SA into a single organization, under their command, a notion that was beyond appalling to the German officer corps. The SA was Hitler's army of street toughs who had served as his enforcers since 1921, intimidating his opponents and breaking up their political speeches and meetings. But that was then: Hitler had no further need of them, while he calculated that he did need the backing of the generals. The Brownshirts' time came in the early morning hours of June 30, 1934, when officers of Heinrich Himmler's SS began executing SA leaders and others deemed suspect. Hitler would state a couple of weeks later in the Reichstag that seventy-­four had been killed, but unofficial estimates were much higher, ranging from 401 to over a thousand. (The numbers were high enough, at any rate, to lead to sloppiness: one man, a Willi Schmid, was abruptly taken from his wife and children at home on the thirtieth by four SS men, and then, equally mysteriously, returned to his family several days afterward in a coffin. It turned out that the wanted man was Willi Schmidt, with a t, a minor SA leader. The unfortunate Mr. Schmid had been a music critic.) Hitler having fulfilled his part of the bargain, the military supported his taking over the powers of the presidency without the formality of an election, in addition to the chancellorship he already held, following the death on August 2 of President Hindenburg. Further, all soldiers, sailors, and officers would take an oath--­vowing loyalty neither to a constitution nor to a set of ideals nor to a country but rather to a man: "I swear by God this sacred oath, that I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and people, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and will be ready as a brave soldier to risk my life at any time for this oath." The union of the master-­race theorist and the German officer corps was now complete. For the next five years, Hitler led successive British prime ministers, Stanley Baldwin and Neville ­Chamberlain, to believe his territorial aims were modest. He merely wished, he averred, to bring a few bordering regions of German-­speaking people under Germany's protection: first the Rhineland, which he invaded in 1936, then Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland the same year. With each advance, he vowed that this territorial claim was to be his last--­assurances that the British government gratefully believed. It was a foolish self-­deception on Chamberlain's part, but it was also a hard one to avoid. The Great War, and the memory of more than 722,000 Britons dead--­around the same number as the total losses on both sides of the ­American Civil War--­was less than two decades in the past. In September 1938, Chamberlain and Hitler met privately for three hours at the Berghof, the Führer's country retreat in the Alps, to discuss peace. "For the most part H. spoke quietly and in low tones," Chamberlain wrote to one of his sisters afterward. "I did not see any trace of insanity." Excerpted from Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age by David A. Price All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.