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Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II
By Stephen Budiansky Free Press, 448 pages, $41 Enigma: The Battle for the Code
By Hugh Sebag-Montefiore Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 403 pages, $39.95

Looking back, we can see that codebreaking, an art that stretches back at least to the days of the Roman Empire, had its greatest triumph during the Second World War. These were the heady days of Ultra and Magic, the Allied codebreaking efforts against the Germans, Italians and Japanese. Although the Second World War ended a half-century ago, the codebreaking saga came to light only more recently.

Twenty years ago, in a pathbreaking lecture at the Royal United Services Institute in London, distinguished military historian Ronald Lewin outlined a forbidding catalogue of skills that any writer tackling the story of codebreaking in the war would require. Lewin called this his "Ultra tool kit." A new breed of historian was required: polymaths equipped with mighty research abilities and much patience, military knowledge, technical and scientific skills, a detective's nose, a novelist's insight into human nature and a poker-player's instinct for patterns. And because this was all about secrets and espionage, an inkling of how the twilight world of intelligence worked was also necessary.

Lewin appeared gaunt and stern, and somehow exhausted by his own struggles to comprehend the last great secret of the Second World War. His message about the formidable complexities of the story was utterly convincing. Few in the audience that evening made any rush for the Public Record office, where the Ultra documents now rested after 30-plus years of secrecy.

Yet since 1980, there has been a small flood of books -- good, bad and indifferent -- on Ultra and on codebreaking. The best have been written by writers who somehow put together the toolbag of skills Lewin outlined on that London night. Both Stephen Budiansky and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore at least partially fit the Lewin bill, though in different ways. What they have in common is storytelling ability. Both understand that codebreaking is a tale not just of machines and organizations, but of people; that it is also a story in which luck flies in and out the window with disconcerting rapidity. Both understand that the history of codebreaking matters, because it altered the course of the war and contributed greatly to victory, but both know better than to try to distill the contribution of Ultra into any pat formula.

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore's account is the more limited. He restricts his story to two aspects of Ultra. One is the role that code-breaking played in the vicious encounter between German U-boats and allied merchant ships in the Battle of the Atlantic. A second string is his account of the efforts of Polish and French cryptographic bureaus in their early struggles against German communications and the Enigma cipher machine, before both countries were defeated.

While these stories are well known, Sebag-Montefiore brings vigour to the tales, a dash of detection and an instinct for human drama. He is less interested in the backroom struggles that pitted minds and proto-computers against the cipher dervish that was the Enigma machine, with its whirling rotors, plugboards and electric circuitry. Instead, he focuses on some unsung heroes -- such as the German Hans Thilo Schmidt, who provided the French and their Polish allies with the first crucial intelligence on the Enigma machine. The author has followed the trail of Schmidt further than anyone else, unearthing the story of his betrayal during the war and execution by the Gestapo.

Sebag-Montefiore highlights the astounding work of a small unit of young Polish mathematicians, who cracked the supposedly unbreakable Enigma and then took their precious secrets into exile in France or Britain, if they were lucky, or German concentration camps, if not.

Above all, Sebag-Montefiore is surprisingly good at telling the story of the sharp end of Ultra, the desperate and sometimes fatal efforts by the Allies to get their hands on vital Enigma evidence, the hard stuff of captured machines, cipher wheels, codebooks, key-setting tables and manuals. Sometimes, these efforts involved hare-brained schemes, such as the proposal dreamed up by Commander Ian Fleming (later to dream up James Bond), who wanted to lure a German warship into harm's way by ditching a captured German bomber in the channel and having its British crew hijack any ship sent to the scene. More often, the scene was a roiling sea, a crippled U-boat and a frantic effort to strip it of cipher material before it could be scuttled or otherwise sink.

U.S. journalist Budiansky, too, is drawn to these stories. Both authors tell of what was probably the most critical capture of all -- the recovery of a weather-reporting codebook from U-559 in the Mediterranean on Oct. 29, 1942. The material helped turn the tide of the codebreakers' war against the U-boat cipher, grimly named Shark. Two of the three British sailors who scrambled down the conning tower of the sinking U-boat perished; the third, Tommy Brown, was a 16-year-old canteen assistant on board the British destroyer Petard, who had impetuously stripped off his clothes and swum over to the U-boat. The British Admiralty awarded him a minor medal for this stupendous act of heroism, and sent him home for enlisting under-age. Hollywood bastardized the story in the recent blockbuster U-571.

But Budiansky has a much broader story to tell, embracing both the British effort in Europe and the U.S. codebreaking war in the Pacific. He has more of Lewin's tool kit to work with, more comprehensive research, more historical understanding and more knowledge of the complexity of cryptographic problems than Sebag-Montefiore. His coverage of the development of British and U.S. codebreaking outfits, from peripheral agencies at war's outset to gargantuan enterprises at war's end, is exemplary. So is his account of the unlocking of the German Enigma machine and its Japanese counterparts, and the contribution by Allied codebreakers to the major battles of the war.

Battle of Wits is, for my money, the best single-volume account of codebreaking in the Second World War. But it is not the "Complete Story." Lewin forbid. There is more to Ultra than meets the eye here, more to be said on the politics of Ultra, especially in regard to Anglo-American relations; more that needs to be uncovered on Ultra's revelations about the Holocaust, which Budiansky down- plays; more on the role Ultra played in determining the Americans on the use of the atom bomb against Japan; and more on the legacy of Ultra as the Anglo-American partnership prayed for a repeat Ultra miracle in their Cold War against the Soviet Union.

Why are we drawn to these codebreaking stories? A spate of popular books on a subject as arcane as codebreaking seems improbable. The answer may be that the story of Ultra is history's antidote to the fictional spy story. It shares the same formula: Human agents struggle against outlandish odds to save civilization from impending doom. But it is somehow comforting to know that the agents were sea-drenched sailors, Polish mathematicians on the run, crossword puzzle aficionados mysteriously drafted into a secret section of the War Office, chess players, gifted undergraduates, draft-board rejects, the brass band from a battleship sunk at Pearl Harbor, stockbrokers, young women in uniform struggling to prove themselves -- humanity's accidental cross-section.

In the aggregate, on shipboard, in an ugly mansion near Oxford called Bletchley Park; in a confiscated girl's school outside Washington, D.C., called Arlington Hall -- they read the enemy's mind and cocked a secret ear to the harsh voices of war. Wesley K. Wark is a historian at the University of Toronto, specializing in intelligence services.