Victory from the airwaves: A coded history of World War I (Book Review)

Title: Codebreakers – The Secret Intelligence Unit that Changed the Course of the First World War; Author: James Wyllie & Michael McKinley; Publisher: Ebury Press/Random House India; Pages: 352; Price: Rs 499

Most of them were not even in the armed forces, but their contribution to the Allied victory in the First World War – tracking movements of the German fleet and its lethal submarines, detecting German saboteurs and Indian and Irish revolutionaries in North America, and facilitating the huge intelligence coup that brought US into the war on their side, and much more – was immense but not that known.

Their achievements have largely been overshadowed by the prominence earned by the activities of Bletchley Park in the Second World War, due to novels like Robert Harris’ “Enigma” and films like its 2001 screen adaptation starring Kate Winslet, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s “The Imitation Game” (2014) about the tragic life of Alan Turing,l the father of modern computer science. But those leading these activities had themselves earned their spurs in the Great War.

And it is this group of some British men – and later women – of singular talents but united with a penchant for problem-solving that finally receive their long-deserved place in the spotlight here. They were a diverse and “eccentric bunch”, says authors Wyllie and McKinley, “recruited mostly from academia – linguists and classicists were highly prized – but they also included writers, artists, theatre folk, crossword fanatics, retired military men..”

It was the early dawn of the Age of Information that ensured that their services would be required – a revolution in communication technology had been seen with advent of the telegraph and wireless, which ensured nearly instant communication over huge distances, but was not secure against interception. Thus the requirement of coding transmissions, which in turn, required those who could break these codes.

The British were not the only ones in the game. As Wyllie and McKinley note, “over the course of the war, all the combatants set up codebreaking organisations and they all achieved notable successes. The French were extremely effective on the Western Front; the Germans cracked Allied naval and army codes; the Austro-Hungarians broke the Russian codes and vice versa; even the Americans, latecomers to the conflict, established their own ‘Black Chamber’ of cryptanalysts”.

But, as the authors argue and demonstrate, “none of them matched the sheer scale, scope and diversity” of the British codebreakers who “achieved the most significant and wide-ranging results, ultimately changing the course of the war”.

For this, they not only sketch the genesis, composition and activities of the British Navy’s “Room 40” and the Army’s “MI Ib” sections, but also how their actions played in the real world, and the escapades of some field agents, like Compton Mackenzie and A.E.W. Mason, both who would go on to become successful novelists.

And then there are the codebreakers themselves – and not even the most lurid imagination could conceive them – the gifted Alfred Dillwyn ‘Dilly’ Knox, who was also known for developing an unreadable style of spin bowling, an unorthodox way of playing bridge and driving his motorcycle fast and dangerously, or MI I b’s boss, repatriated soldier Malcolm Hay, who had been shot in the head but nursed himself back to full health, and despite no experience, was a natural codebreaker.

Then there was Oliver Stratchey, who once serving in a jury which was ready to convict a thief caught red-handed, decided out of “sheer devilry” to see if he could change their minds by logic – and succeeded, with the unexpected verdict not only surprising the judge but the defendant himself, and many others of such moulds.

But the book, which spans service headquarters in London to the deserts of Iraq, the trenches of France to the cold waters of the Atlantic, and the New York docks to the Mediterranean, is not only about codes and their cracking, but the difficult task of using the knowledge without letting the enemy become aware that you know, and the equally difficult task of convincing your own side to trust your information.

And in the process, many incidents of the First World War, including the peripheral – the Indian revolutionaries trial in the US, take on different contours that what we know. This is what makes this book irresistible.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at



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