Australian writer David Dufty’s just-released (2017) “The Secret Code-Breakers of Central Bureau” attempts to be two things at once: a hard-nosed revisionist cryptologic history of the Second World War in the Pacific, and a disarmingly charming series of Australian vignettes glimpsing behind the Ultra curtain.

Central Bureau

Central Bureau was the (deliberately anonymous-sounding) name given to a large part of Australia’s WW2 code-breaking apparatus: yet as the war dragged on, the politicking and turf wars caused an enormous amount of fragmentation.

Dufty tries to treat this deftly, but the networks of internal intrigue and alliances read too much like subtly broken org charts to make sense as mere words on a page. (Some diagrams would be a helpful addition for the paperback release, in my opinion.)

Japanese Navy codes, Army codes, Water Transport codes, ground-to-air codes, sea-to-air codes: all of these were tackled and defeated. Yet even though the theoretical structure and nature of some were worked out early on (e.g. JN-25 by John Tiltman), the codes themselves and the additive tables used to scramble them were subject to change. So the practical cryptologic work never ended, right up to the end of the War.

What is clear throughout Dufty’s book is that historians (OK, mostly American historians) have to date failed to present a balanced picture including Australian cryptological contributions to the war in the Pacific. Sadly, this imbalance was further hindered by the hostile attitude of many Australians (particularly politicians) to non-operational veterans in the post-war period.

I’m pleased to say that Dufty’s historical research and grasp of the realpolitik going on (particularly between the USA and Australia) rings much truer than other accounts I have read: the tricky balance between being aware of Ultra information and acting upon that same information is a leitmotif that runs through his narrative.

Star Rating

As an historical account of practical code-breaking under fire, then, the book gets a 4-star Cipher Mysteries rating: had it not got caught in the shifting sands of the multiple code-breaking organizations and agendas in the first half of the book, it might even have got to 4.5 stars.

But if your interests aren’t as, well, “code-breakery” as mine, and you’re happy to skim the chapters where the narrative gets a little bogged down in the details, there’s a lot of human interest – and yes, even cryptological love-stories in the margins of TypeX messages – to be had.

In short, it’s also a pretty good summer read (in Kindle format, because the hardback is too pricey for most budgets, and there is no softback edition as yet), though perhaps only for those who already know their substitution from their transposition. :-/

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