Timing is all but even Hugh Sebag-Montefiore could hardly have dreamed when he started researching this book four years ago that its publication would coincide with the release of the Hollywood blockbuster U-571. The film claims that it was the Americans "wot won the war" through the bravery of two of its sailors who climbed aboard the crippled sub and made off with an Enigma machine and assorted codebooks before it sank. But then Hollywood has never let the facts get in the way of a good profit. As Sebag-Montefiore points out it was a British officer, Francis Fasson, together with Able Seaman, Colin Grazier, who climbed down the turret of U-559 to retrieve the codebooks and, furthermore, their capture was only a small, if important, part of the Enigma story. However, this book is neither an exercise in point scoring nor full of dramatic new revelations. Its purpose is to chart the entire Enigma history from 1931, when a cipher officer, named Hans Thilo Schmidt, working in the German Defence Ministry, first passed secrets of the code to the French to the end of the War. As such it is extremely welcome. There have been a fair number of books on various parts of the Enigma story--not least the work of Alan Turing and the Bletchley Park boffins--but there have been few that have so thoroughly charted the early years of the 1930s when Polish cryptographers battled to read Enigma messages. Thus Enigma becomes part of an ongoing story, not something just bolted on to a dramatic narrative of the Second World War. Sebag-Montefiore has unearthed a few new primary sources, who add colour and insight rather than anything new, but he does have an engagingly easy style not found among many historians and the book is an extremely accessible read. For all its thoroughness, though, there are some things that the author cannot explain. Why did the Germans not realise the code was broken when all the evidence pointed that way? And how did Enigma work? Sebag-Montefiore devotes a lengthy appendix to a simplified explanation of the latter--but this reader is still none the wiser. Maybe some things will always remain a mystery. --John Crace
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In a crowd of books dealing with the Allied breaking of the World War II German cipher machine Enigma, Hugh Sebag-Montifiore has scored a scoop.
The original 1931 solution to Enigma depended on information sold by a German cryptographic employee. In the course of my own researches on code-breaking, I had learned his name (Hans Thilo Schmidt), his Nazi Party number (738,736) and that he was the brother of a renowned panzer general (Rudolf Schmidt). But neither I nor later authors had gone beyond this point. Gestapo records of his arrest had vanished, files of the People's Court which would have tried him, had been destroyed, the name was common, and the events were well over half a century old. It seemed impossible to learn any more about the World War II era's most important spy-more important than Richard Sorge, more important than Cicero, more important to that conflict than even the atomic spies.
Sebag-Montifiore drove beyond the obstacles to find Schmidt's daughter. She depicted an affectionate father whose sife's family business had failed in the great inflation of 1924, who seduced one housemaid after another, who always needed money. She told of seeing him after his arrest by the Gestapo, of giving him cyanide pills, of identifying his body, of his burial in an unmarked grave next to his parents'. Sebag-Montifiore has fleshed out a name, and we historians of the intelligence world are grateful.
The bulk of the book recounts British naval actions mounted to seize the documents that permitted them to set about solving the more complicated Kriegsmarine version of the Enigma. Some of these sagas have been sung before. But not all have. Many new British and American documents have been declassified in recent years, and Sebag-Montifiore, a British journalist, has a remarkable talent in finding survivors. He has used both sources to tell new tales and to add to the old.
Take, for example, the tale of HMS Petard. Its captain wanted desperately to capture a U-boat and seize its Enigma-not realizing that its associated keying papers were more important than the machine itself, whose innards the Allies had long since reconstructed. The destroyer forced U-559 to the surface off Haifa. Its crew abandoned her, and a Royal Navy officer and two seamen swam to enter her and rescue the Enigma and any papers. They managed to send up valuable papers before the submarine sank suddenly, taking them with her. The papers were sent to the British code-breaking establishment at Bletchley Park, a country mansion northwest of London. There British cryptanalysts, who had not been able to crack U-boat Enigma messages for most of 1942, started reading them again.
Such details have already been told. Sebag-Montifiore adds what was happening in U559 while Petard was depth charging it-carbon monoxide made the crew lightheaded, two members panicked-though unfortunately he does not cite any sources for this. He provides more details on the heroism of the British sailors and tells about King George VI decorating a survivor. So although he does not alter our knowledge of the events in any significant way, he does humanize them more.
He also enlarges the story by telling what was happening on the spy front, how the Germans were led to Schmidt, how they failed to learn of early Polish and French solutions to the Enigma, how a U.S. task force also captured a submarine-the U505, now at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. He rightly asserts that Sublieutenant David Balme, whose entering the surfaced U-110 to grab and Enigma perhaps inspired the recent movie "U-571," should have been awarded the George Cross. Six appendixes give technical details.
The books content exceeds its form. It is adequately but not elegantly written. Too many errors of detail and grammar pock it, and the author is prone to clich?. The book's chief merit lies in its new information, though it lacks a summary of the vlaue of the cryptanalysts' work. In addition, a paragraph or two fitting the code battle of the Atlantic into the Allies' great crypologic victory of World War II, which shortened that conflict, would have helped. But the book is superior to the others on its subject. An in a way Sebag-Montifiore is the right man to have written it. His great-great-grandfather once owned Bletchley Park.
--The Washington Post