Review of Jerry Roberts' Lorenz

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Review of Jerry Roberts' Lorenz
Philip Le Grand

Lorenz: Breaking Hitler’s Top Secret Code at Bletchley Park by Captain Jerry Roberts, The History Press, 240 pages, £20 (hardback), ISBN-13: 978-0750978859*

Read about the Lorenz book launch in TNMOC's Tunny Gallery

Captain Jerry Roberts MBE spent the last six years of his life devoted to raising awareness of the significantly important work performed by the Testery at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Most people are probably aware of the Enigma cipher system that was regularly broken at the Park during that period, but Jerry and his colleagues worked on the much more complex cipher system called Lorenz (called Tunny by the code breakers). Lorenz was used to encipher and communicate the German High Command’s strategic plans between Berlin and the battle fronts around the world. This book is Jerry Roberts’ own account of his work and of those within his section who successfully broke into these messages on a regular basis.

In this autobiography, Jerry recalls his background, early life experiences and education that led to him becoming a code breaker. From an early age, he recalls, he had a keen interest in languages at school, and prior to starting a University City of London (UCL) course in German, his mother arranged for him to stay in Germany for several weeks to help his development and understanding of the language. This was to be a fortuitous move, just before the outbreak of the war that set the beginning of his journey to becoming a code breaker.

Jerry amusingly describes the various characters he encountered during his stay in Germany and fellow students who were relocated to Aberystwyth because of the outbreak of war. On completion of the course he decided he wanted to do his bit for the country like so many others and joined the Army. However, in a short space of time he was invited to an interview for a mysterious job. This transpired to be for Bletchley Park. Jerry had been put forward for the role by his university professor, Leonard Willoughby who was a codebreaker during the First World War and thought Jerry might be just what Bletchley Park was looking for. He was, and soon found himself working on simpler codes such as Double Playfair. Soon, a new section was being set up to tackle a machine-generated code that had just been detected.

Jerry was one of the first four cryptographers and linguists who set up the Testery. He describes the struggle one young mathematician, Bill Tutte, had in trying to break the Lorenz cypher. Tutte did eventually succeed even though he had not seen the device that created the cipher.

The Testery went on to break the cipher routinely, supported by another section, the Newmanry, that designed machines to help in breaking the messages and went on to create Colossus. A rebuild of the Colossus MK2 can be seen today at The National Museum of Computing on Bletchley Park, built by Tony Sale and a dedicated team (which in itself is another fascinating story that will have to wait for another time).

The breaking of the Lorenz cipher had widespread and important consequences for the outcome of the war. However, despite their successes, the work was shrouded in secrecy and none of the brilliant code breakers received any recognition for their work. The machines and evidence of their work were destroyed and the code breakers were disbanded at the end of the war. Jerry describes his feelings in the aftermath of Bletchley as being ‘like a leaf on a stream’, not knowing what to do for a career.

Following two years in the War Crimes Investigation unit, Jerry describes how a chance meeting with an old Bletchley Park colleague led to a fruitful career in market analysis. His new life began abroad developing new skills and techniques in this emerging market. Through various twists of fate and personal relationships, Jerry recalls how he grew the marketing and opinion poll techniques, the influential characters he encountered leading eventually to him setting up his own successful companies.

The book tells poignantly how he found his soul mate in Mei, with whom he had so many common interests. It wasn’t long before they married and enjoyed 25 years of life together.

Jerry continued to remember the days of his Bletchley Park work and his colleagues' achievements. Around the year 2000 the story of Lorenz (Tunny) and Colossus was being declassified and he decided it was time to raise the public understanding of and to gain recognition for the importance of their work.

Jerry describes his tenacious attempts to raise the profile of the Testery‘s work. He describes the talks on the subject and meetings with media representatives. A chance meeting with a young producer, Julian Carey, inspired the making of the award-winning BBC Timewatch programme Code-breakers, Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes. Jerry’s efforts also led him to meet Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth on two occasions, on the second to receive his MBE.

A lot of books on wartime code breaking focus on the machines such as Colossus, but Jerry’s book redresses the balance in favour of the immense work performed by the Testery team aided by the machines.

While the subject of code breaking is by its nature technical, Jerry has eloquently explained the human side of the story, honed by the experience of providing so many public talks on the subject. The book also illustrates the personal life and impact the war and the work had on Jerry. This book appeals because of the real-life account of Jerry’s personal experience of code breaking, and the human aspect of how he picked up his career following the turmoil of war. Jerry finally achieved his ambition to get the story more widely known thanks to several of his close friends who persuaded him to write his autobiography and to his devoted and loving wife, Mei, who had the tenacity to see the book published.

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