cover image Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II

Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II

Stephen Budiansky, Author, Budiansky Stephen, Author, Stephen Budiansky, Author Free Press $27.5 (448p) ISBN 978-0-684-85932-3

In February of 1926, German codes, long intercepted and analyzed by Polish cryptanalysts, abruptly became impenetrable. As BudianskyDan Atlantic Monthly correspondent, applied math degree-holder and former congressional fellowDnotes in this penetrating, edgy study, the wary Poles suspected that these new, seemingly unbreakable codes had been generated by a machine. How the Allies' mathematicians and cryptanalysts later deciphered nearly every top-level code produced by that machine, called EnigmaDwhose internal rotors could be wired in 10 to the 80th power (1 followed by 80 zeroes) waysDand by other machines in Axis use is a story already covered by David Kahn's classic The Codebreakers and many other books. Budiansky's bibliography reflects a reliance on those sources, deploying them along with a wealth of archival material; unlike Codebreakers, this book foregrounds the role of cryptanalysis in fighting the war, rather than treating the war as background to cryptanalysis. Readers of a technical bent will be particularly drawn to the meticulous explanations and diagrams depicting trial-and-error code breaking at work. Doling out a consistent measure of beautifully turned observations (""No matter how elaborate a scheme was used to scramble and disguise the original text, its ghost always shone through""), Budiansky is a master at interweaving the science of code breaking within its cultural and historical contexts. He depicts with clarity how the World War II-era code breakers struggled to halt German aggression at a time when the role of signals intelligence in heightening the impact of force was little understood, and delineates the remarkable achievement of those who recognized that the minutiae of enemy communications are well worth knowing. This book gives a fascinating impression of just how crucial these efforts were. (Oct.)