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George Point: Book Talk! The Enigma Girls


“You are to report to Station X at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, in four days time....That is all you need to know.” By the time World War II ended, hundreds of young women throughout Great Britain would receive a telegram like this one, summoning them to Bletchley Park, code name Station X, to play a vital, yet, until many years later, unsung role in defeating Nazi Germany.

Drawn from virtually all strata of the British class structure, and chosen for their facility in language, mathematics and sheer determination, they worked alongside the top analytical minds of the day — affectionately dubbed “boffins” — to put in long hours operating exotic, cumbersome machinery, listening ceaselessly to enemy radio frequencies, and transcribing and indexing a mind-numbing volume of intercepted code.

Prevented from knowing the exact nature (or success) of their individual efforts, they were constantly aware that the lives of British troops, in fact the freedom of their homeland from Nazi oppression, depended on the round-the-clock goings on within the top secret, heavily guarded, barbed-wire enclosed crumbling mansion and its ever-growing complex of purpose-built huts.

I have always been drawn to authors who paint the big picture from the perspective of the individual, and in The Enigma Girls: How Ten Teenagers Broke Ciphers, Kept Secrets, and Helped Win World War II (Scholastic Focus), Candace Fleming, award-winning author of acclaimed nonfiction books for young readers, including Crash from Outer Space and The Curse of the Mummy, accomplishes just that.

The Enigma Girls leads readers through a year-by-year chronicle of the war, as experienced by 10 young unsung citizen-heroes who toiled relentlessly to help crack the ciphers created by Hitler’s vaunted Enigma enciphering machines, believed by the Nazis to be unbreakable.

It’s 1939 and, at the outset, Fleming sets the stage for young readers who have never experienced the horrors of war; the relentless advance of 1.5 million German soldiers, a sky-darkening swarm of Nazi war planes, blackouts, rationing, hastily erected air defenses in cities and towns, wrought iron fences melted down for munitions.

Part of the response to war’s onset was the relocation of key government agencies to the English countryside, including the Government Code and Cipher School (GC&CS). Its mission nwas to break enemy codes.

Secret listening stations to monitor enemy radio traffic are set up as well, including one at St. Leonard’s Hotel in the coastal town of Withnersea. Its occupants include a dozen women in their teens and 20s, who have been sworn to keep their mission secret or face the severe consequences for violating the Official Secrets Act.

It’s here we meet Patricia, an 18-year-old who had joined the Women’s Royal Navy Service (“Wrens”). Her task? To monitor Nazi radio traffic in the Baltic and North seas. Eventually we follow Patricia when she’s transferred to Bletchley Park, aka “Station X” where her knowledge of Morse code is put to further use in helping unravel the workings of the Nazis’ Enigma cipher machine.

It’s here that readers meet Jane, Elizabeth, Ann and the other “girls” drawn from all walks of British life deemed “trustworthy” and “suitable” for the myriad of highly specialized tasks. When their discoveries are pieced together by the powers that be, they form a picture of Nazi (and Italian) military plans that put Allied forces in a position to gain strategic advantage, eventually leading to VE Day.

Along the way, author Fleming takes the reader on deeper dives that drive home the daunting tasks facing them; the workings of the Enigma machine, five how-to clues for breaking a cipher, and a hands-on step-by-step exercise for deciphering a message.

Never talking down to her young readers, Fleming’s clearly drawn narrative of this true-life tale of ordinary people toiling away in extraordinary circumstances makes for a revealing read.

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