Showing posts with label Bletchley Park. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bletchley Park. Show all posts

08 June 2016

The Weight of Silence


David Edgerley Gates


An obituary for an Englishwoman named Jane Fawcett, who died recently at 95. She was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the war, and deciphered the message that led to the sinking of the Bismarck. I've talked about Bletchley before, and Alan Turing, and breaking the Enigma, but I bring it up in this context to note that a lot of our witnesses to history are taking their curtain calls. This is the natural order, and marks the passage of time. It also means that we're losing an immediate living connection to a common, remembered past.

Yesterday (as I write this) was June 6th, the anniversary of the Normandy landings. D-Day was a big deal. The largest air-sea amphibious combat operation ever mounted, I think I'm safe in saying, it cracked open Festung Europa and marked the beginning of the end for Hitler and the Third Reich. Every year, there are fewer surviving vets who visit the battlefields and the cemeteries. The event itself recedes, and pretty soon there won't be anybody left that was actually there.

On a more domestic scale, my cousin Jono has a fairly exhaustive collection of his parents' personal effects. They've been dead more than a few years, and he's in effect the keeper of the flame. My sister and I have run a similar course, with our own parents' stuff, but we've divested ourselves of an enormous amount. The lesson here is that simply because an object or an artifact meant something to them doesn't require us to be their proxies. You can make a counter-argument here, though, and I think Jono's entitled to make it. Whether our own families were walk-ons or center stage, they were part of collective memory. They may have been present at historically significant turning points. Or not. But if they're not in the record books,. then as each of us in our own generation die off, our memories of that previous generation disappear with us, and those people disappear.

History is surprisingly empty, in this sense. Kings and generals crowd the canvas, but the background, the foot soldiers and camp followers, don't leave much more than a shadow. We intuit or interpolate, but the raw detail isn't always that sharp. A lot of them couldn't read or write anyway, and for a long time they just got squeezed out of the story, except as spear-carriers, literally. So losing our first-hand storytellers drops a stitch in the fabric. And all too often, these people will say, Jeez, kid, what I did wasn't all that interesting or important.

Well, yes and no. One of the more fascinating histories I've ever read was based on the accounts of a merchant family, trading out of Brest or the Hague or someplace - I've forgotten - and it was so many bolts of cloth or barrels of salt, but it was an amazingly vivid picture of daily life, in the commonplace. We forget that it isn't necessarily the sword fights, much of the time it's just making the car payments or shoeing the horse. 

So, here's to Jane Fawcett - or Miss Jane Hughes, her maiden name in 1940 - who may have fallen off the radar in the meanwhile, but I'm glad she was manning her desk at the time. And here's to all those guys who struggled ashore, or who didn't, or who never made it off the beaches, I wish I could hear your stories. We bear witness to the times we live in. We don't always sort the wheat from the chaff, or spin gold out of straw. The silence, though, is heavy.

28 January 2015

The Imitation Game


by David Edgerley Gates

I wrote a post about Alan Turing and breaking the wartime ENIGMA codes awhile back — 22-May-2013 — and knowing the story, or pieces of it, I wanted to see THE IMITATION GAME, a big-ticket movie version of what happened.

The picture's taken some static, in certain quarters, for fudging the details. But any screenplay based on the historical record is going to take liberties, and compress the narrative. I'm not as interested in what they left out as I am in what they got right.


For openers, the mechanics of code-breaking. The process is over-simplified, and dumbed down a little (and Turing himself is credited with the breakthrough that was a team effort), but the basic elements are coherent, the odds against success, how they did it, and most importantly, why it was so vital to the war effort. All you really need to know are the lineaments of the Enigma machine, the rotors ticking over with each character typed in, and how the Bletchley team defeated it. (Spoiler alert - Turing and his guys do crack the ENIGMA cipher.) Over and above, the nuts and bolts might be compelling to somebody like me, with my technical background, but they're unnecessary for a general audience. What counts are the reasons behind it, the unsustainable loss of life and tonnage in the North Atlantic, and the all too real danger that Britain could be beaten by Hitler.

There is, of course, exaggeration for dramatic effect. I somehow doubt that the Charles Dance character would be so obstructive, for instance. It's a false conflict. And the counterintelligence effort,
personalized by Sir Stewart Menzies of MI6, is, if not contrived, kind of a blunt instrument. Menzies was an old hand at both spy-running and spy-catching. (Mark Strong, who plays Menzies, walks away with Best Suit.) I'm not sure, either, that I buy into the way John Cairncross is characterized. Cairncross, later in life, was exposed as the Fifth Man in the Cambridge Ring - Kim Philby's network - but at Bletchley, so far as anybody knows, he flew under the radar. Taken as a whole, though, none of these things hurt the movie.


There's only one incident in the picture I have issues with. After the U-boat codes are broken, there's a scene in Hut 3 where they've mapped out the German naval deployments in the Atlantic, and one of the wolfpacks is on an intercept course for a Brit convoy. But they can't be warned, Turing argues. It would give us away. If the convoy changes course, to get away from the submarines, the Germans will know we're reading their encrypted traffic. Fair enough, as a theatrical device, but this is pure invention. It's based on the discredited urban legend that Churchill, reading the ENIGMA decrypts, knew in advance that the Luftwaffe had targeted Coventry for a bombing raid, but couldn't allow the city to be evacuated, because he had to protect the intelligence source. (This is second cousin to the claim that Franklin Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor attack ahead of time, and allowed it to happen to get America into the war.)

Easy to find fault. Some of the specifics in THE IMITATION GAME aren't entirely accurate, and some of the characters are composites. Any story is a leap of faith, the willing suspension of disbelief. I think, at bottom, the movie's true to itself in a larger sense, that it hits the right notes, the rapture of discovery, the
burden of concealment, the collision of accident, a fated meeting, a glancing blow, something seen imperfectly in our peripheral vision. It's about secrets, hidden, suffocatingly claustrophobic. An interior world, closeted and protective. Authentic enough, for my money. Does it matter whether it's all true to the facts? Not if it convinces us.

DavidEdgerleyGates.com

22 May 2013

Breaking the Code


by David Edgerley Gates

If you asked my uncle Charlie what he did in the Second World War, you got some evasive boilerplate about working for Army Intelligence. He'd tell you that during the Bulge, say, his unit searched abandoned German command posts for compromising material, and sometimes it was touch and go, because the battle lines shifted back and forth, but he was generally close-mouthed about it, and made his service out to be pretty much routine duty. He did in fact have an old Third Army sleeve insignia, a pin with the white A on a blue field, circled in red, so there might have been some truth to that Battle of the Bulge story. If there was, it was a very small part of the truth, because he was actually in on one of the biggest secrets of the war.

It was called ENIGMA, and the product was code-named ULTRA.

Enigma machine
ENIGMA was an encipherment system, used by the German military and diplomatic services. Polish intelligence did the initial heavy lifting, reverse-engineering captured German equipment, and passed their results on to the Brits in 1939. British code-breakers set up shop at Bletchley Park, north of London, and began reading Luftwaffe and Army traffic.

To simplify enormously, the Enigma machine was a transposition cipher device with a typewriter keyboard. There were three rotors inside, each with twenty-six characters. When you struck a key, the first rotor advanced one position, until it reached twenty-six, and then the next rotor advanced, like an odometer. In other words, any given letter was substituted with another, but the possible combinations were twenty-six to the power of three. The rotor settings were predetermined, but they changed every day, in theory. One weakness Bletchley Park exploited was that the German operators didn't always change the settings daily. Another was that messages were sometime sent in plaintext, for redundancy, and you could compare the coded transmission to the uncoded one. If not for German security breaches, the coded traffic might well have proved unreadable.

Rotors
Then they hit a bottleneck. German naval security had always been more rigorous than that of the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht, and the Kriegsmarine introduced a machine with four rotors. The number of possible character substitutions multiplied, and the traffic went dark.

In the North Atlantic, the convoys that were Britain's lifeline had no effective air cover or escorts, in 1940 and '41, and crossed two thousand nautical miles of unpatrolled open ocean.  Here the wolfpacks hunted. The loss of Allied tonnage was crippling. Bletchley Park needed to break the U-boat codes or the resupply would founder.


Alan Turing
The guy who probably deserves the most credit was an eccentric mathematics done from Cambridge named Alan Turing, who'd been recruited by the Government Code and Cypher School even before the war began. Turing designed an analytical machine, a numb-cruncher, in effect one of the earliest computers, a bombe, so-called.  With it, they "unbuttoned," Turing's word, the German naval ciphers, and shortened the Battle of the Atlantic. It's no exaggeration to suggest they shortened the war.


Model of the Bombe
At its peak, Bletchley Park was reading 4,000 messages a day. The decrypts tipped the balance in every campaign from North Africa to D-Day. (They were never shared with the Russians, however. Churchill's mistrust ran deep.) The people who worked there didn't talk about it, then or later. They maintained their habit of silence, and the whole story didn't break until thirty years afterwards. It was a better-kept secret than the Manhattan Project.

Alan Turing died in 1954. He was queer, and MI-5 hounded him, as a security risk. He underwent chemical castration, and was eventually driven to suicide, his contribution to the war effort unrecognized at the time of his death. Some thirty years later, Hugh Whitemore's play "Breaking the Code" opened in the West End, with the astonishing Derek Jacobi as Turing. Sodomy hasn't been criminally prosecuted in Great Britain since the repeal of the gross indecency acts in the late '60's. A legislative motion was introduced in Parliament to grant Turing a statutory pardon, just this past year.

I don't want to wade into the question of gay civil rights, although it seems to me obvious that without legal protection, homosexuals are still fair game. Turing was blackmailed by the law. His reputation doesn't deserve just rehabilitation. This has already happened. The computer library at King's College, Cambridge, for example, is now named after him, and he's widely accepted as a pioneer in Artificial Intelligence (the Turing test), and secure speech, the Delilah program. I'm saying that he deserves a posthumous knighthood, or an Order of Chivalry, at the least. This odd, cranky-pantsed fairy did as much to beat Hitler as any divisions in the field.

Churchill was later to say: "ULTRA won the war."



Editor's note: Software developer Terry Long has created a free Enigma Simulator. If you happen to use a Macintosh, download it and try it out.

Enigma