Review: Seizing the Enigma by David Kahn

Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boats Codes, 1939-1943

From page 2: This was the battle of the Atlantic, the only battle in World War II that lasted from the first day of that war to the last.

David Kahn’s Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes 1939-1943 is pretty much the go-to book about the enigma machine and the battle to break it’s codes during the U-boat wars of WWII, more commonly known as the Battle of the Atlantic.  Kahn himself is, as it says right on the cover of my copy of the book, “undoubtedly the world’s most respected historian of cryptography.”  This book definitely showcases his knowledge, not only of the enigma coding device and how it worked, but of it’s history, and the history of cryptography (aka secret codes) in general.  This book was filled to the brim with information about the enigma, the war, and how the Allied and the Axis powers fought in secret on their homefronts (and often at battle, too) to try and outsmart each other, improve the enigma, or break the ever-changing U-boat codes.

So pretty much, I’m a U-boat nerd.  I love submarines in general, but I LOVE U-boats.  They are sleek, their history is so interesting, and well, I read whatever I can on the subject.  Add in to that the enigma, and I will basically start drooling.  Yeah.  It’s kind of bad.  And it all started in 6th grade in 2001 with a little (and AWESOME) movie called U-571.  My ALL-TIME.  FAVORITE.  MOVIE.  Say what you will about “historical innacuracies”.  It’s just a movie so they’re allowed a bit of leeway.  The movie should get more credit because it does hit on some points that are not in a lot of war movies, things like codes and the enigma machine.  And, the movie introduced me to the enigma for the first time.  And I heart it.

Enough with the fangirl stuff though (sorry about my tendency to ramble on about non-book related stuff.  Though there is a U-571 BOOK that came out after the movie which I own and have read like many times…..).  This book has so much information about different things relating to the enigma and codebreaking that I think it would appeal to a very large audience.  Like technical details about how the machine (and the machines the Brits used to break the codes)?  There’s a ton of that.  Want a general history of codebreaking in war time (even pre WWI)?  This is for you.  Want a general overview of the war and why codebreaking became so important?  Yeah, there’s that too.  And also great info about certain raids, etc. that happened out in the oceans to try and capture enigma code books.  Oh, and real spies who gave secret information in exchange for money.  I really loved how Kahn interviewed SO many people before writing the book.

But don’t think that the whole book is super technical.  It’s also in a way an homage to all the people who contributed to the Allies’ codebreaking successes in WWII.  From the civilian women and men who Kahn interviewed, to the true stories of men who risked death or accepted death because they knew the fate of the war depended on what they were doing, Kahn pays tribute throughout the book by telling their stories.  There’s the couple who met in the English countryside and the codebreaking headquaters, fell in love, and married.  And the young man who drowned as he tried to retrieve enigma code books from a sinking U-boat.

All in all, I highly recommend Seizing the Enigma.  I’m super into everything it discusses, so I could barely put it down.  But don’t be discouraged if, say, you aren’t into the enigma’s technicalities.  Kahn never stays solely on one subject for too long and intertwines things like how the enigma works with how the Brits were trying to solve the code that you’ll quickly get back into the history.  I’m so glad I happened to see this while waiting in an extremely long line at my school’s bookstore and decided to buy it on impulse.

Title: Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes
Author: David Kahn
Date of Publication: 1991
Number of Pages: 416
Genre: Non-Fiction, WWII. Submarines
Source: Personal Copy

About Kelly

Hi! My name’s Kelly. I’m a twenty-something gal from Buffalo, NY. Mom to a little dog named Peabody and a slightly evil cat named Archie. Engaged to the best dude ever. I love books and craft beer! I also love all things France and francophone and have a degree in French Language and Literature from Buffalo State College. My blog used to be called Kelly’s France Blog, but I finally decided it needed a change because I wasn’t posting about French things nearly as often as I used to! You can still see all my imported posts on A Book and a Beer, or you can visit my original blog at
This entry was posted in nonfiction, submarine, wwii. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Review: Seizing the Enigma by David Kahn

  1. John says:

    Sounds interesting, I'll have to add it to my TBR list. I'm kind of a sucker for WWII stories of the Navy in the Pacific, so I know what you mean.

  2. Heather says:

    Kelly – you know I will be reading this. I'm a little surprised, by the way, that you wrote filled to the brim instead of filled to the bilge…. disapointed….

    Does the one story about the sailor remind you of Trigger?

  3. Heather says:

    As you can see, I have figured out how to post again!!

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