Review of The Enigma Girls: How Ten Teenagers Broke Ciphers, Kept Secrets, and Helped Win World War II

The Enigma Girls: How Ten Teenagers Broke Ciphers, Kept Secrets, and Helped Win World War II The Enigma Girls: How Ten Teenagers Broke Ciphers, Kept Secrets, and Helped Win World War II
by Candace Fleming
Middle School, High School    Focus/Scholastic    384 pp.
3/24    9781338749571    $19.99
e-book ed.  9781338749588    $19.99

Bletchley Park, a World War II cryptology center, operated in the English countryside where an extensive and complicated code-breaking operation allowed the Allies to decipher secret messages sent through German Enigma machines. Those transmissions included enemy plans for naval attacks, ship locations, ground positions, and bombing targets, and Fleming (Crash from Outer Space, rev. 11/22, among many others) reveals that the feat of decoding the thousands of pieces of information every day was largely executed by teenage girls and young women. Recruited with little or no knowledge of what their jobs would be, the code breakers were sworn to secrecy—an oath that would remain unbroken for over thirty years. Fleming’s account focuses on ten such young women (one of whom is an offsite radio operator) but, in a masterful presentation of related subject matter, seamlessly intersperses segments on larger historical events, beginning with the Battle of Britain and concluding with V-J Day; clear and thorough explanations of codes and ciphers; and technical advances that led to the use of computers. The girls’ personal experiences, from coping with housing shortages, to falling in love, to discovering their future life’s work, adds another dimension. Amid the often-tedious work of breaking the ciphers, moments of humanity appear: the joy of pinpointing an enemy bombing target on British soil; the recognition that a freshly bloodstained Nazi cipher book meant “somewhere this German airman was still bleeding, dying maybe…That really did bring the war close.” Appended with an author’s note, a bibliography of both primary and secondary sources, source notes, and an (unseen) index.

From the May/June 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Betty Carter
Betty Carter, an independent consultant, is professor emerita of children’s and young adult literature at Texas Woman’s University.

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