BATTLE OF WITS
BY STEPHEN BUDIANSKY
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?
(Simon & Schuster)
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.
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 devices 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