Cover image for Station X : decoding Nazi secrets
Station X : decoding Nazi secrets
Smith, Michael, 1952 May 1-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : TV Books, [1999]

Physical Description:
247 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
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D810.C88 S66 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
D810.C88 S66 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
D810.C88 S66 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
D810.C88 S66 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In 1939, the first of several hundred people -- students, professors, chess players, military officers, actresses, and debutantes -- quietly reported to a Victorian mansion outside London. This became "Station X", the Allies' top-secret center for deciphering enemy codes.

Their task was to break the ingenious Enigma cipher, used by the Nazis for their high-level communications. The settings for the Enigma machine changed continually. The Nazi operators had 159 quintillion (159 followed by 18 zeroes) possibilities from which to choose.

This gifted group achieved the impossible. Not only did these people shorten the war by years -- they were essential to the victories in the Atlantic and North Africa and to the planning of the D-Day landings -- Station X was also the birthplace of the world's first programmable computer and the successful Anglo-American intelligence partnership.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Allied with a documentary film recently broadcast on PBS's Nova series, this is an account of Britain's defeat of the German Enigma ciphers. Bletchley Park, the site of the code-breaking operation and synonymous with it, has developed into a cottage publishing industry since its secrecy was lifted in the 1970s. Historians had to reassess military campaigns and key personnel (e.g., mathematician Alan Turing), and spy novelists welcomed the discovery for World War II thrillers (e.g., Robert Harris' Enigma, 1995). By now, the last unknowns about Bletchley Park are the recollections of its still-living veterans, no longer squelched by secrecy. Smith gives their reminiscences generous verbatim ventilating, as they recall the place's room and board, its self-organized entertainments, and the quirky habits of its resident crossword puzzlers and university dons who broke the German intercepts. Smith's linking narrative of deciphering techniques and the subsequent battlefield victories should take with viewers of the documentary and perhaps instill curiosity in the weightier histories of British code breaking. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

A bestseller in the U.K., this gripping account of British intelligence's cracking of the Nazi Enigma machine code during WWII is the basis of a PBS Nova documentary. Billed as the first book on the subject to incorporate interviews with the code-breakers since the declassification of official files, the volume is packed with revelations and the voices of these largely unsung heroes. While most histories of Enigma focus on the top brains such as mathematician Alan Turing, Smith (New Cloak, Old Dagger, etc.), a reporter for London's Daily Telegraph, portrays the top-secret code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park ("Station X"), a quaint Victorian mansion outside London, as a vast collaborative effort involving several thousand people, the great majority of them women. An odd mix of Cambridge mathematicians, seasoned and novice code-busters, eccentrics, spies, bureaucrats, German-language students, patriotic volunteers and clerical assistants, they tell their stories with a refreshing modesty that makes their saga all the more inspiring. Without getting bogged down in technical complexities, Smith illuminates how the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts' ingenuity, obsessive persistence and "Alice in Wonderland-type thought processes" enabled them to decipher the Germans' chameleon code. The intelligence obtained from Enigma decrypts shortened the war and saved countless lives by furnishing information vital to the Allies' D-Day invasion, the British sinking of U-boats and campaigns in Italy, North Africa and the Balkans. On one level, this page-turner is a deeply satisfying parable of the power of humane intellect to defeat evil; it's also a stunning re-creation of one of the most important chapters in the war. Photos. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

World War II espionage and codebreaking are popular book subjects these days, and Station X adds to the growing stack of cloak-and-dagger histories published recently. Written by a former intelligence officer, now a senior journalist for the London Daily Telegraph, this book focuses on the history of the famous top-secret British codebreaking organization located in a Victorian mansion just outside London. From 1939 to 1945, the eccentrics of Station X broke the "unbreakable" German Enigma codes and allowed the Allied leadership to read all the secret, encrypted messages of the German army, navy, and Luftwaffe. Smith provides fascinating anecdotes of how codebreaking played an important role during the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, and the North African and Normandy operations and in countering the German invasions of Norway and the Balkans. Best are Smith's tales of how the British prevented the Germans from ever finding out that their secret codes had been compromised. Although a bit technical, this is a useful addition for World War II buffs. Recommended for larger public and academic libraries.--Col. William D. Bushnell, USMC (ret.), Brunswick, ME (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One The Arrival Throughout the summer of 1939, as Europe prepared for war, Bletchley Park swarmed with workmen. The roads around the mansion in the center of the grounds were relaid with concrete. A new water main was put down and electricity cables installed. Post Office telephone engineers were everywhere, laying landlines into the house from the main GPO cable connecting London with the north which ran through Fenny Stratford, a few miles away.     The house itself was a curious mixture of mock-Tudor and Gothic styles, built in red brick and dominated on one side by a large copper dome that had been turned green by exposure to the elements. It looked out over a small lake, rose gardens, even a maze, and reflected the rather odd tastes of Sir Herbert Leon, a London stockbroker who in the late nineteenth century had chosen to build his country home in Bletchley, a small Buckinghamshire town about fifty miles north of London.     Sir Herbert's widow had died a couple of years earlier and the estate had been sold to a syndicate led by Captain Hubert Faulkner, a local builder, who intended to demolish the mansion and build houses on the park. In the spring of 1938, however, it was bought by someone who claimed that it was to be converted into an air defense training school. The Bletchley District Gazette told its readers that this story had been dismissed out of hand by its sources in Whitehall. Whatever was going on up at the Park was clearly very hush-hush.     The interest of the locals only increased when "Captain Ridley's shooting party" arrived. Throughout August 1939, groups of rather odd, mainly middle-aged men, accompanied by a number of young women, began arriving at the Park. They were put up in local hotels, and every morning drove off before returning in the evening, causing something of a scandal among the hotel staff who assumed the men must be up to no good with their "fancy women." A chambermaid made her feelings clear. "It is all right for you," she told one of the men, "but some of us have work to do."     That neither the chambermaid nor anyone else who didn't work at Bletchley Park would discover the true identity of "Captain Ridley's shooting party" during the war, or indeed right up until the mid-1970s, was a remarkable tribute to the professionalism and dedication of the "odd people" who began working there that August and the thousands who would later join them to break Germany's supposedly unbreakable Enigma cipher, thereby saving thousands of lives and cutting up to three years off the length of the war.     Bletchley Park had been bought as the War Station for MI6 and its sister organization the Government Code and Cypher School, the then covername for Britain's codebreakers. The Captain Ridley of the fictitious "shooting party" was a naval officer in MI6 who had been put in charge of the move.     For several months members of GC&CS had been told to keep a suitcase ready packed until further orders. Malcolm Kennedy, a member of the section dealing with diplomatic codes noted in his diary: "no one outside the office is to know this except, where necessary, one's wife." They were ordered to keep a ten-shilling note in their pockets at all times and, on receipt of a telephone message to the effect that "Auntie Flo is not so well," to proceed across country to Station X.     On August 15, 1939, the main bulk of the codebreakers were sent to Bletchley "in order to test communications." They made their way in a mixture of official Ford Utility station wagons and private cars. Diana Russell Clarke was one of a number of members of the staff recruited through family connections. She had no need of the official transport: "I simply went in my car. I had a Bentley. It belonged to a friend. He said it was better for it to be driven than stuck up on blocks. So I had this beautiful car all through the war."     Barbara Abernethy, the Naval Section's most recent recruit, was one of those who had to be given a lift to Station X. I should think there weren't more than a hundred people in what we called the first wave. Most of us were then billeted in Bedford, I was in the Bridge Hotel, and none of us quite knew what would happen next. War had not been declared and most people thought and hoped that nothing would happen and we would go back to London. Phoebe Senyard, a middle-aged member of the naval section, had returned to work from her summer holidays to be told she was being sent to Bletchley the next day to work on the German Navy's radio networks. "Since I knew very little indeed about German naval traffic, with the exception of naval Enigma, I must confess that it was with fear and trembling that I went. Indeed I did try to protest but I was told that it was only for a fortnight so I gave in."     The house, its carriage sweep, and backyards had been fenced off to mark the narrow confines of the area that had been bought for the MI6 War Station. A few prefabricated wooden huts were being erected inside this compound but initially the entire "shooting party" was crowded into the existing house, its stables, and cottages. The top floor of the house was allotted to MI6. The main body of GC&CS, including its Naval, Military, and Air Sections were on the ground floor, together with a telephone exchange, a teleprinter room, a kitchen, and a dining room for all the staff.     Josh Cooper, a clever but eccentric man in his thirties with wild mannerisms, was head of the Air Section, which had been allocated a large paneled room on the immediate right as one entered the front door. "Tables and chairs had been provided but there were no cupboards and I remember coming in to a scene of chaos with a great mound of books and papers piled on the floor," Cooper recalled. "In the midst of all this I noticed the newly joined Leonard Hooper quietly studying an Italian dictionary while waiting for somebody to give him some work to do."     There were similar scenes of disorder in the Naval Section, part of which had been put in the loggia to the left of the house with other subsections in the library. "Chaos is a mild term to describe our condition at the outset," recalled Edward Green, the office manager. "We had very few plans, nowhere to lay our heads, no furniture, books for reference, maps, atlases, dictionaries, or any tools with which we might be expected to finish the job."     The German Section, which was to play a crucial role in the naval war, occupied a small corner of the library, said Phoebe Senvard. "Our equipment was: two small tables, two chairs, a steel box containing the registers for entering intercepted German code messages, a steel filing cabinet, a direct telephone to the Admiralty, and a small card index. I was given very little information as to what our function really was. I did not like the work and would have willingly seized any opportunity to press for my return to London."     There were just four people working on the Enigma cipher. They were led by Dilly Knox, the son of a bishop and so wildly eccentric that he put Cooper in the shade. A fellow of King's College, Cambridge, he walked with a limp, the result of a motorcycle accident, and wore horn-rimmed glasses without which he could see nothing. He and his assistant Peter Twinn were housed in one of the cottages. They at least did not suffer from a shortage of equipment. "Bearing in mind that in those days we were really doing a pen and ink job, there wasn't much in the way of technical assistance we could ask for," Twinn said. "We knew so little of what lay ahead that we could hardly have been expected to tell the powers-that-be before the war had even broken out."     It was very soon clear that the house and its adjoining buildings were too small to accommodate the number of people for whom office space was needed. Elmers School, a neighboring boys' school, was acquired and the Commercial and Diplomatic Sections were moved there with such speed that the owner had no time to move his furniture out. The dons had little more time to come to terms with their new home, recalled Nigel de Grey, one of the codebreakers. "The sight of a professor of some erudition struggling with the unfamiliar task of the blankets on a boy's bedstead in the dormitory is one not easily forgotten."     For a while, even the fact that the "odd people" at Bletchley Park were working for the government was to be kept secret. Service personnel wore civilian clothes and staff were instructed not to tell friends and relations where they were. If pushed they were to fall back on the somewhat discredited story about an Air Raid Precautions training school. "Ostensibly we are now engaged in Civil Air Defence," noted Kennedy in his diary, "but this camouflage seems a bit thin and why we can't admit that we are a branch of the Foreign Office, heaven alone knows."     Their mail was addressed to a post office box number in London and forwarded to Bletchley by MI6 courier. "The system broke down when large parcels were addressed to the box number," Josh Cooper recalled. "In one case a grand piano was consigned in this way."     Barbara Abernethy was barely eighteen and concerned that she could not even let her mother know where she was. There was nothing I could tell her at all really, but there was this man in the Naval Section called A.J. Alan. He was a BBC commentator, his real name was Leslie Lambert. He had a half-hour wireless program, like nothing today, and he told funny stories in a very sort of blasé accent. Just funny things about life in London. There was nothing I was able to tell my mother. But I said: "You'll never guess who I work with, A.J. Alan." From then on my stock went up.     Admiral Hugh Sinclair, the head of both MI6 and GC&CS, had waged a continuous struggle with the Treasury for cash for both organizations. A man of considerable private means and a bon viveur of some repute, he was not above dipping into his own resources to fund intelligence operations. Sinclair brought in a top chef from London to look after the codebreakers; and the meals, laid out on long tables in one of the downstairs rooms of the house and with full waitress service, were memorable.     "What I remember very well were the wonderful lunches with which we were served," said Phoebe Senyard. "Bowls of fruit, sherry trifles, jellies, and cream were on the tables and we had chicken, ham, and wonderful beefsteak puddings, etc. We certainly could not grumble about our food."     For most of the university dons recruited as codebreakers since the First World War this was the life to which they had become accustomed, a mixture of Oxbridge high table and Foreign Office gentility. But to many of the more junior staff it was a world they had never seen before. "It was beautiful," said Barbara Abernethy. "Lovely rose gardens, mazes, a sunk fence, lovely old building, wonderful food." For a brief moment, Bletchley Park had the relaxed air of a weekend party at an English country mansion.     "There is no moment in time more beautiful than the early days of a fine English autumn such as were the last days of August 1939 and the last days of peace," wrote Nigel de Grey. "In such richly romantic atmospheric conditions, even the architectural vagaries of Bletchley Park were wrapt in a false mellowness and almost but never quite achieved the appearance of a stately home."     Most of the staff still believed that they would soon be back in London and were highly sceptical about the likelihood of Britain becoming involved in war. "As one cynic put it: `The Poles are going to be sold down the same river the Czechs were sold down last year,'" said Henry Dryden, a member of the Military Section. "There was something of a rude awakening a week later when the Soviet--German Non-aggression Pact was signed and war in Europe suddenly appeared imminent."     The codebreakers began mounting a "sleeping watch" with duty officers staying overnight in the few bedrooms that had not been taken over as offices, or simply putting up a cot in their own offices. "The news in the papers was grave enough but there was still nothing in our material to indicate that Germany was on the brink of war," recalled Cooper. "Early in the morning of the 1st of September 1939, I met the admiral's deputy, Colonel Menzies, over breakfast in the old dining room in the house. I must have made some fatuous remark about `another quiet night,' to which he replied tersely `heavy fighting all along the Polish frontier.'"     In the early hours of the morning, the German army had swept into Poland. The Polish infantry divisions were unable to hold back the blitzkrieg launched by the highly mechanized Wehrmacht . When the British told Hitler to withdraw, he responded by accusing the Poles of being the aggressors. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, then gave him an ultimatum. If he did not withdraw his troops from Poland, Britain would declare war on Germany. At 11:00 A.M. on September 3, 1939, the deadline set in the ultimatum expired without any response and the two countries were at war. Bletchley Park was now faced with a race against time to break the German Enigma cipher. Copyright (c) 1999 Michael Smith. All rights reserved.