Not enough to save you from castration

Not enough to save you from castration

I’ve been reading Anthony Beevor’s The Second World War, and I have been very disappointed by its handling of cryptography. Overall the book is an interesting and fun read, not as engrossing or powerful as Stalingrad or Berlin but retaining his trademark narrative flow, mix of military and personal history, and leavened with analysis of the broader political currents flowing through the war. It also doesn’t ignore colonial history the way earlier generations’ stories did, and  it is willing to present a relatively unvarnished view of Allied commanders and atrocities. The book has many small flaws, and I don’t think it’s as good as previous work. In particular the writing style is not as polished and the tone slightly breathless, occasionally a little adolescent. I’m suspicious that his grasp of the Pacific war is not as great as of Europe, and that he may fall back on national stereotypes in place of detailed scholarship, though I have seen no evidence of that yet. But the main problem the book has is just that the war is too big to fit into one person’s scholarship or one book, and so he glosses over in a couple of sentences what might otherwise have formed a whole chapter. This was particularly striking with the Nanking Massacre, which gets a paragraph or less in this book. That, for those who aren’t sure of it, is about the same amount of coverage it gets in a Japanese middle school history textbook – which also has to cover the whole of World War 2. Interesting coincidence that …

Anyway, as a result of this a great many things that might be important are given very little description. For example, the famous technology of the war – the Spitfire, the Messerschmitt, the Zero – are introduced without explanation or elucidation, and though constantly referred to by their proper names we don’t know what their strong or weak points are – it’s as if Beevor assumed we were going to check it ourselves on wikipedia. I was a little disappointed when I realized that Beevor had decided to treat the decryption/encryption technologies of the war – and the resulting intelligence race – in this way. So at some point early in the Battle of the Atlantic he starts referring to “Ultra Decrypts,” as if they were simply another technology.

This is disappointing because Ultra decrypts aren’t just another technology. There was an ongoing battle between mathematicians and engineers of both sides of the war to produce updated technologies and to decrypt them, and the capture and utilization of intelligence related to encryption methods was essential to this effort. The people who participated in this battle were heroes in their own right, though they didn’t have to ever face a bullet, and their efforts were hugely important. Basically every description of every major engagement in the African campaign includes the phrase “fortunately, due to Ultra decrypts, the Allies knew that …”[1]; the battle of Midway was won entirely because of the use of decryption; and much of the battle of the Atlantic depended on it too. These men, though they never fired a shot in anger, saved hundreds of thousands of tons of allied materiel, tens of thousands of lives, and huge tracts of land and ocean from conquest. Yet they aren’t even mentioned by name, let alone given even a couple of sentences to describe what they did and how they worked. This is particularly disappointing given that Alan Turing, who was hugely important to this effort, was cruelly mistreated by the British government after the war and ended up committing suicide. It’s also disappointing because cryptography was an area where many unnamed women contributed to the war effort in a way that was hugely important. In one earlier sentence during the Battle of Britain Beevor refers to “Land Girls,” the famous women who farmed England while the men were at war. It would be nice to also see a reference to “the Calculators,” young women who crunched numbers before computers were invented.

I find this aspect of Beevor’s book disappointing, and I’m sure that there are similar oversights in reporting the contribution of other “back office” types. Maybe it’s reflective of the modern idea that only “frontline workers” count, and only their stories are important. Or maybe it’s a reflection of a culture in which the contribution of nerds and scientists is always devalued relative to the contribution of adventurers, sportspeople and soldiers. It’s a very disappointing missed opportunity to tell an important and often under-reported story about the huge contribution that science makes to advancing human freedom.

fn1: And usually also includes the phrase “Unfortunately, [insert British leader] was too [timid/stupid/slow/arrogant] to respond and thus …”