The French edition of X, Y and Z – the real story of how Enigma was broken was launched last month. Things are different in France: the weather is better, the bread is wonderful, and the story of Enigma is far less well-known than in Britain or Poland. While the Poles rightly treat the role of the Polish mathematicians and cryptanalysts as occupying centre-stage in the drama of unravelling the secret of the Wehrmacht Enigma machine, in France few know of the contribution made by code-breaking to the outcome of World War Two. Those who are aware have, like as not, got their information from watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s blockbusting performance in The Imitation Game.
So, the book has a different name in French – Enigma – comment les Alliés ont réussi à casser le code nazi – and it was always going to be interesting to see how the story played before a French audience. No doubt the poor souls coming to observe a British guy giving his first speech in French were expecting some form of Pythonesque entertainment; I hope I did not disappoint. What was very gratifying to me was that the event at the huge Rendez-vous de l’histoire festival at Blois was over-subscribed – moving to a bigger venue so that people could actually sit down. I also have no doubt that many in the audience were rather gratified to learn how crucial the role of the French intelligence services was in the story. Without their decisive interventions at key moments the ability of Bletchley Park to get ahead of the German armed forces, and even the war’s outcome, could have been very different.
On top of this was a delightful welcome, and a chance to renew friendships with those who have helped the project along from the French side. Regrettably absent were the British, who, I understand, had to work on something called Brexit. The message about the value of international cooperation in challenging times might need reinforcing in some circles.