Review: Before Bletchley Park – The Codebreakers of The First World War – by Paul Gannon

I have previously read a lot of material on World War 2 codebreakers and the likes of Alan Turing and their critical work against Enigma and the invention of modern computing during that period. Of course, codebreaking and cryptography is not a new science and has been a critical part of both war and diplomacy since ancient times and has only increased in significance as time progresses. World War 1 is the second biggest conflagration to have occurred on this planet. It is no surprise that codebreaking was a key element to Allied success in this war. The first World War saw the invention of devastating new military tech such as the tank, the machine gun and the use of aircraft. In cryptography and codebreaking there were new technologies and new methods and on both sides a hard fought war was fought in these areas that really tilted the balance in the end on who became victors and who lost the war.

There was a lot of new technology in the period leading up to the war, in particular in the field of communications. Submarine cables for telegraph were still a relatively new phenomenon. Britain’s position as the bridge between Europe and America in the Atlantic, gave it disproportionate power when it came to cross-ocean cable communications. The British could cut off Germany from contacting the Americas and this they did. The Germans were forced to tactically avoid this blockade. They sent ciphered traffic across the British cables where possible. They tried setting up their own systems but achieved little success. They used neutral Madrid to route most of their telegraph traffic. The British allowed some of this as they were tapping all this traffic anyway. Often the Germans were trying to get the Latin American nations involved on their side in the war, the infamous Zimmerman telegram passed through this route where he openly tried to get the Mexican government enrolled in a border conflict with the USA.

German frustrations with British control of communications boiled over into full-scale hostilities. The Royal Navy were another dominant area where the German Navy faced an uphill struggle. The British were in effect starving the Germans into submission and denying them critical supplies, both military and civilian. In addition to communication control there was a full British Navy embargo in operation. What was the Germans’ answer to this? One of the most unpleasant aspects of the war, that did indeed provide the undoing of the German war effort was their submarine war in the Atlantic. They didn’t have the battleships or cruisers to defeat the Royal Navy but their submarine technology was more advanced and they sent U-Boats to attack not just military naval targets but also commercial vessels, of all countries, including neutral nations conducting merchant navy business across the Atlantic. The Kaiser’s hand was forced really and his people demanded action. He quivered throughout, stopping and starting the U-boat programme, bit ultimately public opinion did go in the Germans’ favour and the sinki9ng of the Lusitania was a turning point as it led to America entering the war proper.

It is interesting to note that British dominance in cable technology and communications was in a large part due to a public / private sector link up – The Italian businessman, Marconi, really embedded his business future with the British, providing the Allies with state of the art disruptive cutting edge technology that was the result of his pioneering inventiveness in the area of communication technology.

The office of Room 40, which is what the predecessor to Bletchley Park and GCHQ was known as, started very much as an informal amateur driven organisation and, by the end of World War 1, had suitably ‘professionalized’ and expanded and would later provide the core for many of the essential employees of Bletchley Park during World War 2. It was set up not far from Horseguards Parade in central London. Room 40 was the hub which controlled all the intercepted traffic and where the codebreaking, cryptanalysis and hard graft was done.

A talented bunch of people inhabited Room 40, many amateurs, a lot of women. Specialisation in certain niche areas was the norm. The new technology offered new challenges and I suppose the modern art and science of cryptography was developed in Room 40. Ancient cipher techniques such as the Caesar cipher were still in use. The German naval codebooks and traffic were encrypted using a hybrid mix of substitution and transposition ciphering. It wasn’t all that difficult to work out the German codebooks for seasoned Room 40 staff. Room 40 saw the first modern computer systems introduced. They were pretty rudimentary, based on punch cards but they did cut labour time when it came to data analysis, allowing skilled staff to utilise their time more efficiently.

I am at present a full-time cybersecurity student at Masterschool in Tel Aviv, Israel. We are studying cryptography which has an important role in internet communications – we were playing around on a virtual Enigma machine from World War 2 a few months ago. I have set up as a cybersecurity business. What I particularly found intriguing in this book was that it took a detailed investigation into some example codes, seized or intercepted from the Germans and also looks direct at some of the code books. When you run though some examples as laid out by the authors it really helps to understand the exact process that is taking place. I found it pretty amazing understanding how an entire dictionary of a codebook could be constructed from just deciphering or working out a handful of words. Linguistic knowledge and skills were an important asset but fundamentally the whole process of decryption is basically like doing a crossword. In Room 40, as the war progressed these often larger-than-life cryptography eccentrics became better and better at handling German military and diplomatic systems. They were probably killing more German soldiers than any trench warfare and the efforts of Room 40 ultimately brought victory to the United Kingdom and her allies in a terrible conflict. Peace came sooner and the wisdom and knowledge gained from Room 40 was applied directly to the foundations of Bletchley Park and GCHQ, often these organisations being staffed by Room 40 veterans.

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