Review of Codebreaker: The untold story of Richard Hayes, the Dublin librarian who helped turn the tide of World War II

Codebreaker: The untold story of Richard Hayes, the Dublin librarian who helped turn the tide of World War II

This is an odd book.
It’s well written, engaging, and comprehensive look at German espionage efforts in Ireland during the emergency. As such I would suggest that it would be better entitled to the more broad offering that it is.
It is not a biography of Dr Richard Hayes despite the title and if that’s why you picked up you will be disappointed. Not disappointed in the book, but simply in how absent Hayes is from this narrative. He is mentioned and clearly, the results of his deciphering/codebreaking are an aspect of this book, but they are quite subordinate to the overall treatment.
McMenamin has delivered a superb first work, and comprehensive survey of the principal actors in German espionage efforts – both axis, allies and neutrals. He does a superb job of defining the very fine line that was pursued by the ‘neutral’; Irish state during WWII as well as the strange politics that pitted IRA activists on the side of their enemies enemy – Germany.
The story is told largely in a chronological fashion, with some deviations to allow for the fuller story arcs of individuals. There’s limited use of pictures and maps which would indeed have enlivened the relating of the tales. More importantly and I am being critical in this, it is a story of codebreaking and potentially of the codebreaker.
The codebreaker is identified and lightly covered. He (Hayes) pops into the more colourful tales of specific operatives but remains a very two-dimensional character. It is only when the book is being concluded that his life following 1945 is related. His pre-wartime and wartime lives are largely left undivulged. I am left with a sense that he is a unique person and well worth a biographical exploration and in that one may feel deprived.
Moreover, given the attention to breaking of codes, it would greatly benefit the less mathematically inclined to use graphic illustration or examples of the means by which encoded messages were turned from gibberish to value. In this, I clearly recall reading the biography of Leo Marks ‘Between Silk and Cyanide‘ or even more well covered and explained in Codebreakers by David Kahn, where the authors do a notable job of explaining the techniques and methods of the codebreaker and of the particular means of encoding a text. In this volume, the author seems to presume a pre-existing knowledge of the same and refers to the technique and presumes the reader will either be aware or go off and do their own homework.
Nonetheless, I don’t mean to come of hugely critical of unrealised potential or promises unfulfilled, although it is clearly a case of the latter. I would highly recommend this read to appreciate the perception that the various German espionage services held of the neutral state of Ireland and of the attempts to exploit this neutrality during the Second World War. In this, the author writes a compelling work and demonstrates superior scholarship. If only I hadn’t been led to expect something entirely different by the title. Unfortunately, the ‘untold story’ remains largely untold.

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