Secrets of the Enemy

No force has transformed the post-Cold War U.S. military more dramatically than information technology. The Secret in Building 26: The Untold Story of America's Ultra War Against the U-Boat Enigma Codes (Random House, $26.95), by Jim DeBrosse and Colin Burke, is about one crucial facet of that technology: code breaking. Deciphering the Japanese codes during World War II was decisive in the victorious Battle of Midway -- a turning point in the war in the Pacific achieved only six months after Pearl Harbor. Similar successful decoding efforts in the European theater permitted the Allies to confirm that Fortitude, the deception campaign to conceal the Normandy destination of the D-Day invasion, was truly misleading the Germans.

This book is a well-documented, objective account of how engineers at National Cash Register Company in Dayton, Ohio, used their mathematical, engineering and computing skills to decipher German submarine Enigma codes and save British supply lines during World War II. The company's Building 26 housed the U.S. Naval Computing Machine Laboratory, where NCR chief engineer Joseph Desch built numerous computers, called Bombes. These were transported in greatest secrecy to Washington in late 1943 to help decode German orders to submarines.

Because the British did not produce nearly enough food and had few raw materials needed to produce modern tools of war, they depended heavily on imports, almost all of which were ship-borne. The Battle of the Atlantic (which defeated German attempts to starve Britain) was won partly through production -- the United States during many months of the war turned out cargo ships faster than Adolf Hitler could sink them -- and partly through attack: From mid-1943 through the end, the Allies often sank German submarines faster than Hitler could produce them.

American ability to break the German codes was central to Allied success in sinking German submarines. Once cracked, the codes supplied American and British long range bombers, destroyers and small convoy-escorting aircraft carriers with the necessary information to annihilate the U-boats. Deciphering Enigma enabled the Allies to kill about 90 percent of German submariners during the war, with most of these deaths occurring during the final two years. The authors show what a critical role arrogance played in this aspect of the conflict. The Germans had such confidence in their codes that they relied -- fatally -- on Enigma throughout the war. (American and Japanese code builders were just as arrogant, and wrong -- some of their codes were also broken.) DeBrosse and Burke credit the Poles with supplying the British with an Enigma machine, and they also acknowledge British spies and sailors who risked (and sometimes lost) their lives obtaining German code-books and encoded messages. But this book is mainly about Desch and his nearly superhuman efforts to build capable computers, the forerunner of today's mainframes.

The Secret in Building 26 is not easy going -- it could not be simple and still be faithful to its subject. It needs to be read, however, by those who want to understand the indispensable role of information technology in modern warfare.

They Served With Valor

Breaking all the enemy's codes will not matter, however, if those in uniform do not fight to the best of their ability. Fighting spirit is the subject of Robin Neilland's Eighth Army: The Triumphant Desert Army That Held the Axis at Bay From North Africa to the Alps, 1939-45 (Overlook, $32.50). Neillands offers a history of a tenacious United Kingdom fighting organization made up of many nationalities -- Britons, Canadians, Australians (until early 1942), New Zealanders, Poles, South Africans, Greeks, French Foreign Legionnaires and others -- that lost some battles but never gave up and won many more. The Eighth fought first in North Africa beginning in 1940, then in Sicily and later Italy. It won a crucial battle with Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps at El Alamein and chased Rommel across North Africa and into the hands of other Allied forces. Although the Eighth was stalled from time to time in Italy, it persevered, fighting the length of the Apennines in deadly mountainous terrain. With other Allied units, it forced the surrender of German forces shortly before Hitler's army in his home country submitted to Dwight Eisenhower.

Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery was the Eighth's commander when it defeated Rommel, and he stayed with it through Sicily and into southern Italy. When Montgomery left the Eighth in late 1943 to take command of the ground forces for Operation Overlord, the press gave the Eighth much less coverage. Its record in Italy was just as valorous, persistent and worthy, but most histories of World War II give the Eighth's Italian campaigns relatively short shrift. Reading Robin Neilland's engaging book will fill in the gaps.

Wonder Women

While most books discussed here focus on men, Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II (Free Press, $26) addresses the countless roles that women played during that conflict. Emily Yellin, an experienced journalist, provides an exceptionally well-written, soundly researched description of the numerous and vitally important contributions of American women. We meet Rosie the Riveter in aircraft and other factories, helping produce airplanes -- 1.6 times as many as the entire Axis alliance combined -- and ships, again, in numbers unmatched by America's enemies. We encounter war brides coping with separation, anxiety and rationing. We are introduced to the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), brave and adventurous patriots who demonstrated the flyability of dangerous aircraft to men who called such airplanes "widow makers." The WASPs also ferried all types of aircraft overseas. We read about Betty Grable and other female entertainers, who were responsible for improving morale of fighting men in all theaters. Yellin also covers the experiences of women who served in uniform as nurses, clerks, analysts, drivers and in other capacities. The positions women filled at home and at the front in World War II are habitually overlooked or marginalized. Our Mothers' War should help to correct that.

In Enemy Hands

The Flame Keepers: The True Story of an American Soldier's Survival Inside Stalag 17 (Hyperion, $25.95) is a plain-spoken memoir of Ned Handy's captivity in the notorious prisoner-of-war camp operated by the German Luftwaffe. Handy was an enlisted man and B-24 crew-member who bailed out of a badly damaged bomber and spent the last year of the war in German hands. According to Handy, survival in a prison camp depended upon inmate cohesion (tight in his barracks, not as firm in others) and never losing hope. To avoid despair, the prisoners considered it almost a duty to plan escape. Early in his captivity Handy helped lead a successful effort to dig a tunnel underneath the barracks to a point outside the camp perimeter. Several soldiers escaped through the tunnel, including prisoners who were wanted by the Gestapo and had assumed false identities to avoid sure execution. Co-written with Kemp Battle, this memoir bears little resemblance to the movie "Stalag 17," but it offers a more rewarding experience.

Storming the Beach

In The Americans at D-Day: The American Experience at the Normandy Invasion (Forge, $26.95), military historian John C. McManus contributes a bottom-up account of that epic battle. He vividly portrays the brutality of the conflict and, while focusing on the infantry, tells enough about the functions of other services to show that the invasion was both a joint (multi-service) and combined (numerous allies) operation.

McManus briefly explains the Fortitude deception plan and discusses the part the air forces played in sealing the battlefield before June 6. As a result of their efforts, the Germans were never able to supplement their 14 divisions along the 50-mile Normandy front after the invasion began. He reports on the close air crew support behind the beaches that also eliminated German resistance. In addition, McManus pays due attention to the indispensable naval gunfire support from dozens of destroyers, cruisers and battleships, which demolished many of the fortifications Germany had built to deny an Allied foothold.

But for all that, this book is about Snuffy -- the military's nickname for the Army infantryman who was severely outnumbered on D-Day, and yet prevailed. When Adm. Bertram Ramsay ordered his troops to "land the landing force," it all came down to Snuffy. It was Snuffy with a 60-pound pack on his back who jumped into turbulent water with the Germans, storming bunkers, firing weapons with lethal force. It was Snuffy who saw the ocean turn red with the blood of his comrades and still charged the beaches and moved inland against withering fire. Whatever the contribution of air forces and navies, D-Day is Snuffy's day. The Americans at D-Day is his story. *

Alan L. Gropman is an historian and the distinguished professor of national security policy at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University.

The Women's Airforce Service Pilots flew more than 60 million miles.