The Third Reich Is Listening

As Bletchley Park's "Enigma Man*" I was often asked the question "... but what were the other side doing?" The museum doesn't cover this side of the story other than very fleetingly and in passing so it was always tricky to answer, but it is nevertheless a very pertinent - and thoroughly interesting - question.

This is my copy of The Third Reich is Listening and you can't have it (but you're welcome to buy your own, or borrow it from a library, of course)
This post is, essentially, a review of Christian Jennings' The Third Reich is Listening.

Its subtitle "Inside German Codebreaking 1939 - 1945" tells you the main focus of the book, but the story does start earlier than that, summarising work done by key characters in World War I and the inter-war years.

BP's story is utterly fascinating whether you have the briefest of overviews or a more in-depth understanding. As you wade deeper you find that every part of it is much more complicated and involved, from a historical perspective, than you had ever thought possible. Every aspect of allied operations in World War II has the site's work somewhere in its background and the story has an almost fractal nature to it: pick any part you like, zoom in, and you'll see it explode into so much detail you'll wonder why nobody has started a museum dedicated to just that bit.

You'll also notice, as you learn more and more, that almost every aspect of the story is steeped in myth and misconception. So many things that are common knowledge, routinely-told anecdotes when scratching the surface turn out to be simplifications, half-truths, or downright incorrect as you pick apart the evidence.

One such myth is that the codebreakers were working to reverse-engineer an almost completely unbreakable cipher. This, when dipping your toe into the story, is not incorrect: Enigma** is a tough nut to crack. But as you wade into deeper waters you find there's an unspoken caveat: if it's used properly. Bletchley's codebreakers had a helping hand, and not just from the Polish mathematicians who figured so much of it out before the war even started: Germany itself proves very helpful in the fight against Enigma. At the lowest level, mistakes were made by Enigma operators that were of great aid to their counterparts in the brick blocks and wooden huts of Bletchley Park; as were many features of the procedures put in place at much higher levels.

One key theme in favour of allied codebreaking was Germany's disbelief that its ciphers had been (or could be) broken. As Jennings puts it, "the Third Reich might have been listening but increasingly it had its fingers in its ears."

All this is just a very brief, very anglocentric view of what was going on in Germany.

Whilst there are still many and varied parts of allied codebreaking in World War II still to be uncovered, clarified or corrected in the public mind, the mirror within which we may see Germany's point of view is cloudy and smudged, and hasn't been dusted in a long time. Jennings' book takes a damp rag to it and does a surprisingly good job of clearing away some of the grime.

And what we can see is just as fascinating as the story we already know. There are parallel figures in that world, characters even more forgotten than the codebreakers of Bletchley Park, such as Wilhelm Tranow, and internal fights against an oppressive and militaristic regime to rival those depicted in The Imitation Game. There are revelations of mistakes made by British encryption procedures and communications staff that equal those made by Germany, and which similarly aided German cryptanalytical victories. There are disastrous decisions that reduced its effectiveness and eroded the viability of what could have been a genuinely effective rival to Bletchley Park.

If you're interested in secret messaging during World War II and, so far, you have only read about Bletchley Park you have restricted yourself to less than half of the story. The Third Reich is Listening is a surprisingly comprehensive introduction to the parallel world that is German codebreaking in World War II. It takes us out of the narrative that they're just the Bad Guys in the Bletchley Park story and shows us the human ingenuity, struggles, victories and defeats of a whole new, largely unexplored dimension of the history of cryptography and cryptanalysis.

* I used to visit schools (and other places) with an Enigma machine on behalf of the Bletchley Park Trust. I would often introduce myself at reception, with the response "oh, you're the Enigma man!"

** Of course, another myth is that Enigma was the only, or toughest, cipher being broken at BP.

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