Book review: Secret Days by Asa Briggs

Author: Asa Briggs
Publisher: Frontline Books
Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Price (RRP): £19.99

From being Britain’s best kept wartime secret barely a generation ago, the story of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park is now a well-established part of our national narrative of the Second World War.

Of the numerous books now devoted to the subject, however, only a few are penned by those who worked in the country house once designated Station X; fewer still can claim to be the work of one of the country’s foremost historians.

Secret Days is perhaps unique in ticking both of those boxes. Its author, Asa Briggs, forged an enviable postwar career as an academic historian and has produced major works on the history of the BBC and the Victorian era. Yet, as a young man and Cambridge graduate in 1943, Briggs was called up to serve as a code-breaker at Bletchley – unusually, as he was a historian rather than a mathematician.

He would spend the following two years working in the famed Hut 6, where Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe Enigma messages were painstakingly deciphered.

Briggs is an engaging and amiable guide through the mysteries of wartime cryptography. He opens his account with a quite brilliant discussion of the many books that have been devoted to the subject of Bletchley Park, ever since the story broke in the mid-1970s. He then goes on to recount how he came to be at Bletchley, what life was like there, and how the breaking of the German codes progressed.

The tone of Secret Days is very much that of a genteel fireside chat. Briggs is charmingly modest – describing himself at one point as “a humble code-breaker” – and tells his story with numerous gossipy asides and enlightening digressions.

Consequently, he is just as interesting when discussing the fascinating characters that he came to know and the tenor of everyday life at Bletchley Park, as he is when outlining the technological and cryptographical details of the vital work that was done there.

This chatty tone might prove a little frustrating for the more hard-headed readers, especially perhaps those more interested in the technology involved in code-breaking or the precise methods employed. The book is certainly more of an affectionate memoir than a straight work of history, but it is nonetheless a fascinating account of an outstanding young man and his time at a quite remarkable institution.

Secret Days is an important addition to the growing body of literature related to the work of Bletchley Park.

For many years Asa Briggs remained true to the strictures of wartime and never breathed a word about his work at Station X, even to his nearest and dearest. The fact that he has finally broken that silence is to be heartily welcomed.

Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital, 1939–45 (Vintage, 2011)