Thinking about buying Bletchley Park books for someone this Christmas? Here are my five recommendations:
1.The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park codebreakers helped win the war
This is the 2011 edition of The Secrets of Station X: How the Bletchley Park codebreakers helped win the war, by Michael Smith which has the best-informed overview of Bletchley Park that you’ll ever come across.
Starting from 1938 when Bletchley Park’s fascinating journey as a codebreaking centre began, the book takes the reader through the growth and successes of the nearly 10,000 personnel recruited to help the Allied war effort. Using the stories of the codebreakers who worked there and original documents held at the National Archives, Michael Smith constructs a detailed story about the personal experiences and operational challenges faced by those at Bletchley Park faced until 1945.
It is both readable and thought-provoking. Its target audience are those who want a good introduction to the subject as well as some of the technical details of how machine and hand cyphers were broken, the introduction of first programmable computer, Colossus and the codebreakers who wrote directly to Churchill to ask for more resources.
Michael Smith’s writing prowess and passion for the subject means constructs an engaging and digestible history of Bletchley Park during World War 2, which is tricky for such a complex and technical subject. It contains detailed notes on sources and references as well as a comprehensive index.
This is definitely the book for someone who wants an introduction to the meat on the bones of the Bletchley Park story and wants to understand it as a human story as well as an operational and technical journey. Does this sound like the person you are buying for?
2. The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There
The second Bletchley Park book recommendation I have is by Sinclair McKay’s The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The History of the Wartime Codebreaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There, which has spent most of its publishing history on the bestseller list and has propelled Bletchley Park firmly into the mainstream.
The success of this book is because it is firmly pitched at the general reader. It is a social history mostly drawing on the information contained in other books on the subject. Sinclair McKay weaves the story together to build a visual world in the reader’s mind of what Bletchley Park could have been like during World War 2.
It is less technical than Michael Smith’s book but then again, it is not designed as a technical history. The clear focus is the people – the fun, the atmosphere, the boffins, the débutantes, the challenges and hard graft. This focus on personal reminiscences is told within the overall journey of Bletchley Park from 1939 to 1945.
The style of this book is journalistic, pacy and easy to read. It is a great read for the uninitiated and will inspire the reader to read more about the work that was undertaken. Its target market it clearly defined as the general reader and as such has a mediocre bibliography.
In summary, this is a great starting point for a general reader who wants to hear about what life was like at Bletchley Park. It has a light tone and will appeal to those who love learning more about the experiences of those who worked at Bletchley Park.
3. Britain’s Secret War 1939-1945: How Espionage, Codebreaking and Covert Operations Helped Win The War
Britain’s Secret War is another Michael Smith book. I mention it here because it makes an impressive Christmas present. It’s a large case bound book brimming with fascinating information, photographs and copies of original documents.
It’s not just about Bletchley Park but codebreaking and espionage in general during World War 2.
This visually masterful book is heavily laden with photographs of key players and key events around the short and informative written sections that work together and independently of each other. The sections also include brief biographies of some of the most distinguished men and women in the field. A sample of the internal page layout can be found on the Amazon page. Use the link for the book title above to see it.
I hate to call it a ‘coffee table’ book but it’s absolutely perfect to leave on the table to pick up and read snippets here and there. You don’t need any prior knowledge to read this book, just an interest in the subject.
Even though this is full of well written, fact-filled text, the photographs alone make this book worth buying.
4. Dilly – The Man who broke Enigmas
If you want to read a biography of one of Bletchley Park’s key Codebreakers as written by another codebreaker (who worked with him during World War 2) then I highly recommend Dilly: The Man Who Broke Enigmas by Mavis Batey.
In fact, I recommend this book as a general overview of Bletchley Park as well as a sensitive and honest portrait of this eccentric genius.
The book deals with the subject chronologically, starting with Dilly’s childhood and education, the beginnings of his career in the Admiralty’s Room 40 during World War 1. The story continues with Dilly’s meeting in Warsaw with the Polish codebreakers before life at the Bletchley Park war station gets into full swing.
The book also covers the now famous success Mavis had as a codebreaker in her own right. A feat that resulted in the Battle of Matapan in 1941 – the first naval success of World War 2, which kept the Italian fleet out of the remainder of the war. Of course, the story would not be complete without Dilly’s work on the Abwehr (German Armed Forces intelligence services) Enigma machine, probably the most significant success of wartime codebreaking.
Mavis Batey has an engaging writing style and tells a fascinating story of Dilly’s recruitment as a codebreaker up to his untimely death in 1943. It covers his eccentricities and his successes against the Enigma. Mavis keeps the subject light throughout the book, so it is a fascinating read for the general reader and those with a specific interest. She keeps the technical details to the appendices, which explains more about breaking the enigma cyphers and techniques such as ‘rodding’ and ‘buttoning up’.
This book is a great introduction to a man synonymous with codebreaking and provides a great introduction to codebreaking leading up to and during World War 2. It surprises me that this book isn’t higher up on the Amazon charts: it’s a real gem.
5. Double Cross – The True Stories of the D-Day Spies
You can’t beat a good book about spies. There is something enticing, daring and fascinating about those leading double lives and get away with it (sometimes). Double Cross: The True Story of The D-Day Spies has a broad appeal to Bletchley Park fans as well as anyone interesting in a bit of true-life espionage.
This is an astonishing account of the team of double agents that convinced the Germans that Normandy was not the target for the D-Day landings.
The information contained in this book is so secret I can’t tell you more about Bronx, Brutus, Treasure, Tricycle and Garbo or I’ll have to kill you..
Read the book, it’s safer.
All the above Bletchley Park books are available in paperback. With the exception of Britain’s Secret War, they are also available on the Kindle. Why not splash out on one of the new Kindles (yum) and treat your loved one this Christmas.
My Kindle was bought for me last Christmas and has transformed my reading habits. It has been the best present ever.
What’s in my Christmas Stocking?
My son is of an age where I get to buy my presents from him. I decided my stocking filler this year will be a book I’ve coveted for a while; certainly since I watched the Cambridge Spies and downloaded the recently declassified Guy Liddell post war diaries. That book is:
My Silent War (Modern Library Classics (Paperback) by Kim Philby, who was the ringleader of the infamous Cambridge spies. A man clearly with nerves of steel, he joined the Secret Intelligence Service in 1940, rose to the head of Soviet counter-intelligence, and, as MI6’s liaison with the CIA and the FBI.
Philby was also privy to information about Bletchley Park, which suggests that although the Germans never knew about the Allied efforts to break the German Enigma cipher, there is a good chance that the Russians did!
According to Michael Smith, Philby mentions Dilly Knox and the Government Code & Cypher School and particularly, Dilly’s success against the Abwehr enigma cypher. I am officially intrigued, especially as this biography was written in 1967 – many years before the enigma secret was officially revealed.
Do you have any recommendations for good Bletchley Park Books this Christmas? Get in touch and let me know.
[I recommend these Bletchley Park books because I love them but I have created links to Amazon in a way that will earn Bletchley Park Research a small affiliate commission if a purchase is made through an Amazon link. All goes towards telling more untold stories about Bletchley Park.]