Book Review: The Enigma Traitors: Spy and Counterspy in World War II


by Desmond Turing

Cheltenham, Eng.: The History Press / Chicago: Trafalgar Square, 2024. Pp. 320. Illus., gloss., personae, append., sources, notes. $39.95 / £25.00. ISBN: 1803991690

British and German Failures in Communications Security

Dermot Turing, who has written several books about Bletchley Park and its code-breakers—including his uncle Alan—has now written about the other side of communications security. Why did both the Allies and the Germans use codes and cipher machines that they either knew, or should have known, could be broken by the enemy? Why did both sides devote far more resources to breaking enemy messages, and then making use of this intelligence, than they did to protecting their own communications? Turing provides an excellent example of this phenomenon in a chapter on British concerns about their Typex cipher machine. Typex was, like the German Enigma machine, based on rotors, but it was considerably more secure. During the war, it was improved by adding a plugboard, providing an additional layer of security. Even so, the British were worried that the Germans might be able to break Typex messages sent by their army in North Africa. So they decided that the army should immediately upgrade their equipment—only to find out that dozens of the scarce improved Typex machines were in England, at Bletchley Park, where the code-breakers were using them in their work. Turing provides many additional examples of failures, by both sides, to take communications security (comsec) seriously. Some of this history—the multiple investigations of Enigma ordered by Admiral Doenitz, the commander of Germany’s U-boats—is well known, and has been mentioned in older histories of the World War II intelligence war. The same is true for the sad tale of Naval Cypher No. 3, the British code used to manage the vital Atlantic convoys; it was broken early in the war by the German B-Dienst, and only replaced after the evidence of its failure was too blatant to ignore. For both the British and the Germans, two factors were at work: they had invested money and years of hard work designing and making the codes and machines; it would be embarrassing to admit that the enemy had cracked their systems. Neither side was willing to put their systems to the ultimate test by giving their code-breakers access to their own secret messages and daring them to decipher them.

Unfortunately, Enigma Traitors is marred by Turing’s strange choices in language. Most readers of this book will know at least a little about the World War II era, and know some of the German terms involved. This makes it jarring to come upon this sentence, “The role of the other German armed forces has also been neglected. Enigma was a 15-year-old technology when the Third Empire started its war of conquest.” (p. 14)

Although “Third Empire” is a reasonable translation, every book I have seen on Hitler’s Germany calls it “The Third Reich.” Another choice to translate a term into English is even odder. There was a leftist spy ring operating in Nazi Germany during the war; its members were eventually rounded up and executed. Germany’s counter-intelligence agency, the Abwehr, named the loosely organized network of spies and anti-Nazis Die Rote Kapelle, which is the name about half of the several books on the group use—the other half call it “the Red Orchestra,” because it was seen by the Abwehr as a group of people “playing together.” Turing, for some reason, refers to it as the “Red Chapel.” A gain, a valid translation, but a name I have never seen before. The decision to use a novel name seems all the stranger when you check Turing’s excellent endnotes: the books cited for this section all use the familiar German or English terms.

These issues of nomenclature might be overlooked, but the main audience for Enigma Traitors will be readers familiar with the military history of World War II.

What will they make of this paragraph?

Operation Rheinübung was to be a deadly attack on British shipping in the North Atlantic. Bismarck, a vast battleship displacing over 41,000 tonnes, was supposed to wreak havoc, and managed to sink HMS Hood. After the encounter, Bismarck steamed off invisibly into the measureless greyness of the Atlantic Ocean. Her course and destination were a tightly kept secret. Nonetheless, she was intercepted and sunk in a torpedo attack carried out by tiny planes flown off another British ship.

(The Bismarck was, in fact, crippled by a torpedo attack, but in no danger of sinking until it was battered by shells from two British battleships. It was finally scuttled by its crew. The famous Fairey Swordfish torpedo planes, while obsolescent, were not tiny.)

Or of this one?

“During the Christmas period of 1944, the enemy did the wrong thing. As in 1940, the Ardennes became the scene of an unexpected attack. The Americans, British and Free French were flung back miles into France, creating the so-called ‘Bulge’ in the German line.”

(The Battle of the Bulge was fought in Belgium and Luxembourg, and never reached France. No French units were involved.)

These odd translations and errors in military history are unfortunate, because Enigma Traitors has much that make it a useful addition to the literature of cryptology in World War II. Not only does it focus on why codes failed, rather than the triumphs of code-breakers, it also has a great deal of information gleaned from the TICOM (Target Intelligence Committee) documents. As the Reich disintegrated and the war in Europe was ending, the Allies sent special teams into Germany to collect documents, equipment, and people. This book devotes several chapters to what TICOM teams found when they tracked down German cryptologists, their offices and their files. There is almost no literature on TICOM, in part because much of the program’s documentation remained classified for many decades. Turing also adds material on what the German code-makers and code-breakers did during the Cold War. These virtues, and the detailed treatment of about a dozen key figures in the German cryptology community who are seldom mentioned in English-language sources, make this an important addition to the literature on the code wars.


Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book the owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for the Michigan War Studies Review. His previous reviews include Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians' First Battles in the Revolution, The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944, Prevail Until the Bitter End: Germans in the Waning Days of World War II, Enemies Among Us, Battle of the Bulge, Then and Now, Mussolini’s War: Fascist Italy From Triumph to Collapse, Engineering in the Confederate Heartland, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, Armada, Allied Air Attacks and Civilian Harm in Italy, and The Collaborators.




Note: The Enigma Traitors is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Jonathan Beard   

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