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on what he had learned to his masters in Tokyo. Duly read at Bletchley Park, his messages included crucial information about German defences in Normandy as well as significant insights into German strategic intentions.
Yet long before the breaking of ‘Purple’, British codebreakers working at the Far East Combined Bureau (FECB) in Hong Kong had begun to penetrate the secrets of Japanese naval codes, and were using machines to do so. In 1939, the British codebreaking genius John Tiltman, an infantry officer who had won the Military Cross in the trenches of the First World War, made the first vital break into JN25, the main Japanese naval code. Another outstanding protagonist in the story was Er ic Nave, an Australian naval officer and Japanese linguist who was lent to the British in the 1920s. Sadly, his reputation was later tarnished when the coauthor of his 1991 memoirs Betrayal at Pearl Harbor, James Rusbridger, distorted the text to make it conform to Rusbridger’s own now discredited conspiracy theories.
Unfortunately, after Japan’s onslaught on British possessions in the region, the FECB was forced to move to a succession of safer locations and its work was seriously disrupted. Gradually, and inevitably, the Americans took over the lead in attacking the emperor’s codes. As Smith graphically shows, however, the campaign was always a combined effort that brought together British, American, Australian and Dutch codebreakers. The Japanese were extremely skilled in guarding their secrets. So, too, were the US naval codebreakers, and at times bitter inter-allied turf wars caused serious crises. But in the end, the needs of war knocked heads sensibly together.
Smith provides plenty of technical information, including three appendices, to satisfy even the most ardent lover of cryptography. But less numerate readers are far from short-changed. Some of the book’s most fascinating reading lies in the personal testimonies of the many veterans that Smith has interviewed. ‘Anything’, confesses one, ‘was better than learning to march and salute.’ While some were frontline codebreakers, others formed part of the massive army of intercept operators and translators whose work made the whole operation both possible and useful. Suddenly shipped overseas to far-flung outposts in Asia, they found themselves working intensely with others in close encounters, leaving indelible memories that now spring fresh from the page. Many were Wrens. One, quoted extensively by Smith, recalls an off-duty l i fe in Colombo where glamorous boyfriends, invariably junior naval officers, would take them to dinner dances where the lights were low, the food was gorgeous, and their dresses were garlanded with fresh flowers. ‘It was heady stuff for girls of our age,’ she recalls, ‘and there was usually the knowledge that the boyfriend would be leaving for India or Burma soon, perhaps never to return.’ Michael Smith is to be thanked for reminding us so vividly of the human side of what, indeed, was a legendary achievement. To order this book for £7.99, see LR Bookshop on page 10
LITERARY REVIEW February 2011