Touchstone Books
(Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 0-7432-1734-9
It is unfortunate that stories of technological success are often told as the cold triumphs of circuits and transistors. In a word of science and numbers, where to speak of creativity is akin to heresy, where are the human hands that craft mechanical minds?
         In pre-World War II Washington and London, two countries preparing for war found themselves without the means to answer such a fundamental question. Today, scientists and engineers build smaller microchips and faster computers. Then, the men and women chosen for super-secret and largely undefined government positions held not the future of a word processor in their hands, but that of an entire way of life.
         Stephen Budiansky's Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II is a thorough retelling of the Allied military machine's movement from a culture that disdained intelligence gathering to one whose most crucial decisions depended upon the reliability of intercepted and decrypted correspondence. Cryptography, once viewed an improper game for gentlemen, had by the end of WWII become an art, a science, and a tactic whose significance cannot be overemphasized.
         Battle of Wits focuses on the Allied Force's continuing efforts to break and re-break Enigma codes used by the Axis powers preceding and throughout WWII. The Enigma machine was first shown at the International Postal Union Congress in 1923 as a device useful for encoding business correspondence. In 1932, the German military's improved Enigma rotors were acquired by Polish scientists, who by 1940 had used them to develop a means to decrypt intercepted military traffic. Wisely presaging Germany's invasion into Poland, the cryptographers turned their findings over to Britain. Thus, the challenge was not to capture the machine, as is wrongly depicted in pop-culture WWII films and books, but to analyze the ever-changing sequence of rotors and steckers that controlled the device’s output. Each branch of service had its own species of Enigma, which also changed independently throughout the war. It was, as the author puts it, like searching for a straw in a pile of straw.
         America was similarly unprepared for the analytic and technological challenges that a war on two fronts would present. Battle of Wits details the growth of America's security offices, the breaking (or, at least, comprehension) of Japanese codes and ciphers, and the use of early and divergent computing platforms.
         Though not as complete as its title would suggest (It almost entirely ignores German and Japanese attempts to crack Allied codes, there is no mention of cryptography in Russia, and only scant explanation of Allied offensive ciphers.), coupled with detailed appendices and an exhaustive bibliography, Battle of Wits is ultimately an intriguing and well-researched account of codebreaking in WWII. The mathematician in Stephen Budiansky has succeeded at rendering complex problems easy to understand, while his inherent storytelling abilities neatly allow him to detail eccentric personalities as they search for improbable but necessary abstractions and insights.
         Despite its mechanical foundation, Battle of Wits is chiefly the tale of human intuition and innovation, and of the flashes of genius that so populate historical texts from all ages. It will delight students of military history, early computing, mathematics and number theory, and the unpredictable human mind.