“Overrated” : Historic fact and fiction in the age of social media

The sensational title of a BBC News article about the role of Bletchley Park’s codebreakers has taken social media by storm. What’s that all about?

The headline ‘Bletchley Park’s contribution to WW2 ‘over-rated’ flashed across my screen earlier today, bringing a large part of my understanding of WW2 down like a house of cards. For all the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve watched, the fabulous TV series, the visits to my beloved Bletchley Park – has the story the Enigma Codebreakers been nothing but an overrated fluke, after all?? ??!!

Beware of clickbait

This is an imaginary reaction, by the way. But it could have been anyone’s reaction to today’s BBC News article . As I write this post, I witness an army of anonymous and eponymous trolls attacking the work of Professor John Ferris, who in his recent book, Behind the Enigma, challenges the established assumption that Bletchley Park’s codebreaking shortened the war by 2 to 4 years :

Overrated. What’s in a word? this is a rather unfortunate, even misleading title from BBC News. To begin with, Ferris was invited by the GCHQ to write the new, authoritative history of Britain’s foremost intelligence agency. He is a well regarded author and historian with the University of Calgary, and was given unparalleled access to GCHQ resources, working closely with them along the way. So what gives?

Sir Harry Hinsley OBE

In the heart of the matter lies the origin of the widely popularised conclusion that Ferris challenges : the legend of Bletchley Park’s codebreakers shortening the course of the War by 2 to 4 years comes straight from the mouth of Sir Harry Hinsley, a cryptanalyst who worked at Station X, and author of the previous Official History of British Intelligence. However, Hinsley’s account of the breaking of the Enigma code has come under scrutiny for its lapses & inaccuracies, most notably by Marian Rejewski and Gordon Welchman, two mathematicians and cryptologists that worked with him at Bletchley Park. It appears that it was Hinsley who first proclaimed the “2 to 4 years” conclusion in a 1993 lecture :

Now the question remains how much did it shorten the war, leaving aside the contribution made to the campaigns in the Far East on which the necessary work hasn’t been done yet. My own conclusion is that it shortened the war by not less that two years and probably by four years – that is the war in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Europe.

Sir Harry Hinsley (1993, amended in 1996)

Hinsley does go on to explain how he came to that conclusion, albeit with a great deal of what I call authoritative conjecture – the fallacy of authors who despite (or perhaps because of) their immense knowledge on a subject, forget due process, and enter the minefield of careless speculation. In other words, this claim was probably just his personal view, rather than a carefully researched conclusion. Arguably, Hinsley’s wanting performance as the authoritative historian on British Intelligence coupled with the mystique of the branch and sensitive character of the data pertaining to the subject matter, are the factors that gradually led to gross misinterpretations of the intelligence work that took place at Bletchley Park. This includes popular films such as U-571 (2000) in which various Enigma fables are presented to the general public as facts – even prompting a response from Parliament – or Enigma (2001), where Hinsley’s fable is again perpetuated. And the rest is, well, ‘history’

A more rounded opinion on the ‘over-rated’ codebreaking controversy

To put this into perspective, we have to accept that we live in an age of internet-fuelled fallacy, where likes often matter more facts, and where fake news and outlandish conspiracies beset us at every turn. But for those who can see beyond BBC News’ sensational headline (tut tut), will realise that Professor Ferris did what he was actually hired to do : provide us with a meticulously researched, scholarly historic account, which is no less than what Britain’s foremost intelligence agency deserves.

Professor John R. Ferris (©2020 Laura Johnston/Laura Grace Photography)

Those who will read his revision will surely realise that Ferris never set out to diminish GCHQ’s contribution to the war effort – he does, however, set out to establish its true proportion. Isn’t the pursuit of facts, after all, the mantra of every intelligence agency? I have no doubt that John Ferris’ revised history of the GCHQ will be truer to the agency’s core values. And it will also honour the legacy of the Bletchley Park codebreakers, whose degree of accuracy was often the only difference between life or death for the millions of servicemen fighting the war on land, at sea and in the air.

The Enigma memorial at the former RAF Eastcote

(I am writing this article as a mental note to self. Even an amateur history researcher has a moral obligation to support their conclusions with credible sources and evidence and avoid presenting hypotheses as facts)

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