Saturday, 2 January 2016

Before Enigma: The Room 40 Codebreakers of the First World War by David Boyle Review

Following the success of his last nonfiction Kindle Single on Alan Turing and the Enigma machine, David Boyle returns to the field of wartime codebreaking with Before Enigma. This time the focus is on World War One and how the Bletchley Park in World War Two that Turing was part of came to be. 

The difficulty here is that there is very little information on Room 40. The unit’s spymaster, “Blinker” Hall (so-called because of a traumatic and malnourished childhood), wrote very little down and what records there were got burned after the war. As a result, we’re told broadly who the players are without really knowing them. Boyle tries to make Hall as compelling a figure as Turing was but can’t because of the scarcity of information. 

For a book purportedly about Room 40, Boyle spends a majority of the pages on naval warfare, ie. the consequences of the codebreaking rather than the codebreaking and the team behind it. It’s a fair choice though as Room 40 didn’t seem to have problems decoding the Germans’ codes anyway as both sides undervalued this side of the war effort. As a result there wouldn’t be much to write about anyway, but that just makes a book on this subject feel all the more unnecessary. 

What the book is really about is establishing how World War One led to a more sophisticated 20th century military. Blinker Hall paved the way for modern espionage practices, even giving a young Ian Fleming the experiences he would later use to create the ultimate fictional spy, James Bond. Both sides eventually realised the importance of codebreaking with the British ensuring the hierarchy/departmental structures didn’t get in the way of passing on useful information to the right people while the Germans set about creating Enigma. 

Some of the young men who worked in Room 40 would go on to found Bletchley Park and hire the codebreakers that would play a major part in the Allied fight against the Nazis in World War Two, among them Alan Turing. But Turing and his story is far more compelling than the one presented in this short book. Warfare was more advanced in WW2 leading to the necessity of creating computers and the modern age which is a helluva story. Here, it’s the same story of the trenches where an outdated and staggeringly inept British leadership made one massive cock-up after another! 

David Boyle’s Before Enigma is about informative as it can be on Room 40 which is to say not very - but then that’s due to a lack of material rather than effort on Boyle’s part. It’s a somewhat beguiling book at times if on the whole unmemorable. If you’re after a short read on WW1 espionage and the war’s major naval conflicts, Before Enigma provides a fine summary on the topic.

Before Enigma: The Room 40 Codebreakers of the First World War

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