Archive for November, 2014

How Churchill gave us tanks, radar, DNA…and a velvet green air-raid suit

November 30th, 2014

Churchill was the first Prime Minister to insist on a scientific advisor, and under his leadership, scientists were given unprecedented access to the government and funding.

“Which other Prime Minister had a scientist continually at his elbow?” said Andrew Nahum, lead curator of Churchill’s Scientists.

“During the war the question was never how much will it cost? It was can we do it and how soon can we have it? This left a heritage of extreme ambition and a lot of talented people who were keen to see what it could provide.

“And a lot of people had gained huge skills and competence through radar work and munitions and nuclear projects in the war, which formed a new science which was ambitious and proactive. There was a huge store of practical talent at that time.

“It’s why in post-war Britain we suddenly have the discovery of DNA and proteins, x-ray crystallography and how nerves signal. There is a very obvious trajectory from war time science to major breakthroughs in peacetime.”

Churchill owed much of his vision to science fiction rather than science. He was a close friend of the author HG Wells, and said that The Time Machine was ‘one of the books I would like to take with me to Purgatory.’

He wrote articles entitled “Death Rays” and “Are there Men on the Moon?” while also coming up with elaborate battlefield contraptions which he dubbed ‘funnies.’

Most of his ‘funnies’ never made it, literally, off the ground. A project to design ‘aerial mines’ had to be abandoned as did his rocket propelled wheel dubbed ‘The Great Panjandrum’ which was scrapped after regularly running amok. Likewise Project Habbakuk aimed to build a floating air-craft from an ice-berg and scientists were established at Smithfield meat market in London to test out different combinations of sawdust and ice. The scheme was eventually deemed ‘impractical because of the enormous production resources required and technical difficulties involved.’

Churchill even invented a green velvet ‘siren suit’ – a one-piece outfit devised by him and designed to be put on in a hurry during air raids.

But he was also responsible for many revolutionary ideas. It is likely that Wells showed Churchill the possibility of tanks, which the author described in the title of his 1903 short story ‘The Land IronClads.’ Churchill became the ‘godfather’ of tanks, and as First Lord of the Admiralty saw their benefits long before the Army caught up. It is why the first examples were known as ‘Her Majesty’s land ships.’

He also saw the importance of keeping Britain soldiers and civilians healthy during the war and set in motion projects to determine the best diets and exercise regimes for peak physical performance.

Food scientists Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson tested the austere war diet on themselves, and journeyed to the Lake District to determine the beneficial effect of fell-walking. They recorded their findings in The Compostition of Foods – a book that remains the standard work on nutrition and exercise.

Churchill had little science education but was fascinated with the subject, particularly how it might be harnessed to benefit society. While serving in India he ordered numerous scientific works, including Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, which he studied in detail.

“His schooling was patchy and when he got to India he began to feel his lack of education so he had huge crates of books shipped over,” added Mr Nahum, “He described himself as having an empty and hungry mind with a fierce set of jaws.”

He was fascinated by radioactivity, believing that the way in which atoms degenerated suggested ‘the breakup of empires and independent states.’

And he was also the first British prime minister to foresee the potential of the nuclear age.

As early as 1914, Wells had spoken of a future reality of “atomic bombs” and writing in The Strand Magazine in 1931, Churchill , expressed confidence that scientists would one day be able to harness nuclear energy and pondered the challenges its “tremendous and awful” powers would present to mankind.

He was instrumental in setting up Britain’s nuclear project alongside his scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann whom Churchill dubbed ‘The Prof’. However the US would eventually win the atomic race with the Manhattan Project.

In later years Churchill went on to found Churchill College at Cambridge to further science and technology in Britain.

Churchill’s Scientists opens at The Science Museum on January 23rd to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

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Painting by Adolf Hitler expected to sell for £40,000

November 25th, 2014

Though Hitler’s paintings surface fairly regularly, Weidler said this 28×22 cm (11×8.5 inch) scene, unimaginatively called “The Old City Hall,” also includes the original bill of sale and a signed letter from Hitler’s adjutant, Albert Bormann, brother of Hitler’s private secretary Martin Bormann.

From the text of the undated Bormann letter, it appears the Nazi-era owner sent a photo of the painting to Hitler’s office asking about its provenance.

Bormann wrote back that it appears to be “one of the works of the Fuehrer.”

The starting price is 4,500 euros, and Weidler, whose auction house has sold several Hitlers over the past decade, said she expects it will go for 50,000 – but wouldn’t be surprised if sold for double that.

If it does, however, it will be because of the name in the corner alone, as its artistic value is fairly minimal, she added.

Another auctioneer, Anja Doebritz said it was legally legitimate to sell Hitler’s work but she wouldn’t do it.

“What to me is a shame is that money is being made with an affection for this regime. I personally would not do it but every auctioneer has to decide for himself.”

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The World War Two Spitfire hero finally remembered

November 24th, 2014

And so, Ernest Russell Lyon lay. His body was never officially identified, instead he became one of 20,456 men and women from the air forces of the British Empire who died during World War Two and are recorded as having no known grave. Their names are carved into the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial in Surrey.

But the week before Remembrance Day in 2006, Lyon’s nephew decided to renew the search for his body. Richard Lyon, a Cambridge architect then in his late 50s, had never met his uncle, but grew up looking at his photograph which his father Stanley always kept on his desk. With no military contacts, he decided to appeal for information on a Scottish family history website.

Flight squadron 234

He typed his name, rank, the date he was shot down, and the town, Plomeur, which was closest to the crash site. Five months later, an email arrived in rudimentary English sent by the chairman of a local history group in Brittany who, in 2001, had discovered the crash site of Lyon’s Spitfire and were attempting to trace relatives of the airman.

What has followed has been a decade-long battle by Richard Lyon and the French which has gone to the very top of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to officially acknowledge the grave. They have trawled public archives from Kew to Washington DC, interviewed surviving witnesses and compiled various exhaustive reports. Now, they have secured a remarkable victory.

Not just is Ernest Russell Lyon’s name soon to finally be added to his grave, but the MoD has been persuaded to overhaul the burden of proof required by the families of those who have died serving their country to have their identities officially recognised.

It has taken, so says My Lyon, a lot of serendipity, perseverance and “being a bloody nuisance”. But the decision could have a major impact, with the MoD currently considering 45 similar cases to identify unknown graves. Not bad for a man whose only prior military experience was in the CCF at Pocklington School in North Yorkshire where he grew up.

“A lot of feathers have been ruffled,” he says. “There were a lot of people in the traditional bit of the MoD who didn’t want these changes. Now I hope other names will be recognised.”

Mr Lyon, who is married with four children, has pieced together his late uncle’s life in precise detail. When we meet, the living room table in his family home in Cambridge is covered in files and old photographs. At times, he says, Anne, his wife of 42 years, has worried about his sanity.

Ernest Russell Lyon volunteered to join the RAF on March 1, 1941, after he had turned 18. Following training, he was posted to the USA as a pilot instructor. By 1943, he had grown weary of his surroundings, and requested an operational posting.

“That,” says Lyon, “was his big mistake”.

He was sent to 234 Squadron, whose insignia bears a dragon rampant, flames spewing from the mouth. Its motto, Ignem mortemque despuimus, translates as “We spit fire and death”. Lyon found himself in the thick of it, flying near constant missions in the run up to D Day. On the day itself, he provided aerial support over Gold and Omaha beaches.

After that, the squadron was relocated to Cornwall, to extend their range across France. Missions such as the fateful one of July 27, 1944, were to support the allied forces in the ascendancy. The Luftwaffe was no longer a presence to be feared in the skies. Instead, the threat came from the German anti-aircraft guns.

Grave 33 in the CWGC section of the Guidel Cemetery

Various witness statements obtained by the French researchers describe Lyon’s Spitfire crashing that evening. One was Joseph le Corroller, on whose land the plane hit. The farmer (who died two years ago) was the first on the scene and recalls Lyon’s body being thrown some eight metres from the fuselage. After taking out an advert in the local papers, three more witnesses stepped forward. One woman recalled a flying boot being found by her brother close to the crash site containing half a dismembered leg.

Yet despite these gory details, as well as parts of the Spitfire being dug up including the guns, propeller hub, and the exhaust from its Rolls Royce Merlin engine (which Lyon now keeps at home), the authorities insisted there was still not enough evidence. The French tried, and failed, in 2004, to appeal to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Despite the snub, they still named a mini roundabout after the fallen airman. Then, Richard Lyon decided to approach the MoD.

In 2009, after being passed between various departments, he received his final refusal from the RAF Air Historical Branch because the required burden of proof – “beyond reasonable doubt” – had not been met. “It is the same as if somebody who committed a crime and is being sent to the electric chair,” he says. “But my uncle didn’t commit a crime; he gave his life for his country.”

He was told the body in plot 33 could have been an airman who had washed up on Brittany’s beaches and was given the names of eight or nine potential casualties. Lyon then compiled a report on each individual case, ranking the probability out of 100, as well as proving from the local town hall records that no bodies had washed up nearby in the two weeks leading up to Lyon’s death.

Then, the following year, he learnt his appeal was being taken up by a senior RAF official as a test case. Such was the strength of his argument that the burden of proof has now changed from “beyond reasonable doubt” to “clear and convincing evidence”. He says he was told an appeals process for relatives of lost soldiers to have their name recognised has also now been put in place, although the MoD insist this was possible before.

Then, last October, Lyon was called to the seventh floor of the MoD building in Whitehall to present his case personally to the top military brass. “I was looking out the window and Downing Street was below. I knew this was our last chance and I wouldn’t get another in my lifetime.”

The evidence he gave worked and the announcement that his uncle’s grave was to finally be recognised came in August. Even if the MoD still refuse to say he is actually in plot 33, only “buried near this spot” in the cemetery, Lyon is hailing the result a huge success. For in the next few months, a dedication ceremony will take place at his graveside and a new headstone put in place.

Underneath his name, the family are allowed a four line dedication. It will read: “Always known unto God. Now resting here. Ex Corde Caritas (the old motto of his school George Watson’s College)”. And finally, “remembered forever”.

It has taken 70 years, but that is now what Ernest Russell Lyon will be.

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Wartime spy finally accepts she is a French heroine

November 22nd, 2014

Mrs Doyle was one of a handful of female agents working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), set up to spy upon and sabotage Nazi-occupied Europe. She had joined the RAF to train as a flight mechanic in 1941 but the secret services spotted her potential. Although her mother was English, her father was a French doctor and Mrs Doyle was fluent in the language. Instead of working on fixing aircraft, she was whisked away for training in espionage.

“It wasn’t until after my first round of training that they told me they wanted me to become a member of the SOE,” she said in a rare interview five years ago, “They said I could have three days to think about it. I told them I didn’t need three days to make a decision; I’d take the job now.”

A close family friend – her godmother’s father – had been shot by the Germans and her godmother had committed suicide after being taken prisoner by the Nazis. “I did it for revenge,” Mrs Doyle told the New Zealand Army News magazine in 2009.

In Britain, the SOE operatives were trained by a cat burglar, released from jail especially. “We learnt how to get in a high window, and down drain pipes, how to climb over roofs without being caught,” she recalled.

Given three separate code names – Genevieve, Plus Fours and Lampooner – she was first deployed in Aquitaine in Vichy France from 1942.

She was dropped behind enemy lines under a new code name, Paulette, into the Calvados region of Normandy on May 1 1944.

Although then aged 23, she assumed the identity of a poor 14-year-old French girl to make the Germans less suspicious. She used bicycles to tour the area, passing information through coded messages.

The messages would take half an hour to send and the Germans an hour and a half to trace the signal. She would have just enough time to send her message and move on before being discovered.

She would sleep rough in forests, forced to forage for food, or stay with Allied sympathisers. “One family I stayed with told me we were eating squirrel,” she told the Army News, “I found out later it was rat. I was half starved so I didn’t care.”

But the war – and the horrors she witnessed – took its toll. She has disclosed how she sent a message requesting a German listening post be taken out by bombers but a German woman and two children died.

“I heard I was responsible for their deaths. It was a horrible feeling,” she said, “I later attended the funeral of a grandmother, her daughter and her two grandchildren, knowing I had indirectly caused their deaths.”

After the war, Mrs Doyle returned to Kenya, where she had gone to school, for her wedding to an Australian engineer. The couple had four children and moved to Fiji and then on to Australia, where they settled.

Eventually, she moved with her children to a suburb of Auckland, New Zealand, divorcing her husband in the mid 1970s.

Her bridesmaid, Barbara Blake, 91, who lives in north London, said her friend had never wanted publicity for her deeds. The French government, however, had wanted to make its award public to highlight Mrs Doyle’s remarkable achievements.

It wasn’t until the last 15 years or so – and her children now grown up – that Mrs Doyle confided in them about her career as a spy. “My eldest son found out by reading something on the internet, and my children insisted I send off for my medals,” she said.

“I was asked if I wanted them to be formally presented to me, and I said no, I didn’t, it was my family who wanted them.”

Laurent Contini, the French ambassador to New Zealand, said: “I have deep admiration for her bravery and it will be with great honour that I will present her with the award of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest decoration.”

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British soldier: ‘Field Marshall Rommel gave me beer and cigarettes’

November 20th, 2014

Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, asked the Briton if there was anything he needed, to which Capt Wooldridge cheekily replied “a good meal, a pint of beer and a packet of cigarettes”.

To his astonishment, his wish was granted when he was ushered into Rommel’s mess where all three items were waiting for him.

Capt Wooldridge ate the food, drank the stein of lager and smoked the German cigarettes, but kept the empty packet as a souvenir. Thanks to Rommel, he survived and was sent on to a prisoner of war camp.

Now aged 95, Capt Wooldridge is to appear on BBC1′s Antiques Roadshow on Sunday, where he will tell expert Graham Lay his story.

He will also show off the cigarette packet along with his Military Cross and Bar, which he was awarded for a death-defying mission to clear a path through a minefield in Alamein while under mortar fire.

He will also include a photo of him being presented with a ribbon to his MC by British army chief Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.

Left: Roy Wooldridge in 2014. Right: the cigarettes Rommel gave him (BNPS.CO.UK)

Capt Wooldridge was one of the very few soldiers who came face to face with both Field Marshall Montgomery and his great adversary, Field Marshall Rommel, during World War Two.

Capt Wooldridge, from Hendy, Glamorgan, said: “I was on my honeymoon in London and when we returned to our hotel from the theatre there was a telegram asking me to report to my unit immediately and that Mrs Wooldridge was not to travel with me.

“I went to Dover straight away. Reconnaissance photos had spotted these obstacles just below the waterline and they couldn’t determine from the pictures what they were.

“They suspected they were some form of mine just under high tide so that a landing craft coming in, lowering its door, would get blown up.

“I was assigned to X Troop commando and four of us were taken by motor torpdeo boat across the Channel and anchored one mile off shore. We took two dingies to the shore.”

Under the cover of darkness, Capt Wooldridge shinned up a post at Onival beach, Picardy, and found a German tank mine on top.

The group returned for the next four nights to carry out further inspections, but on the last mission they were caputred by the Germans.

Capt Wooldridge said: “We were taken to a house and interrogated for two weeks – they wanted to know what we had been doing but I didn’t say anything.

“After that I was taken to a chateaux and in the guard room I was given a cup of tea and some cake. I was told to have a wash and smarten up because I was going to see someone very important.

Wooldridge’s medals (BNPS.CO.UK)

“I was marched into a room and there stood behind a desk was Rommel. I recognised him immediately because I had studied photographs of him while in the Western Desert.

“His boss, Field Marshall von Rundstedt was also there – two of the most powerful men in the German army. Rommel asked me what I was doing in France but I didn’t say anything.

“He then asked me if there was anything I required. I just said I could do with a pint of beer, a packet of cigarettes and a good meal. Then I was dismissed.

“I was taken to his mess and served by his waiter and on the table was a stein of beer, cigarettes and a plate of food. I could’t understand it.

“I was told that Rommel always wanted to meet men who had been doing something unusual when they were captured.

“I was meant to have been shot. I was told on several occasions during my interrogation that is what would happen unless I talked.

“Hitler had issued orders that commandos were to be shot but Rommel declined to obey that instruction. Rommel saved my life. He was a very fine German and a clean fighter.”

Capt Wooldridge was taken to a PoW camp in northern Germany where he remained for the rest of the war.

He returned to Britain where he become the principal of Derby College of Art and Technology.

His wife Phyllis died 25 years ago. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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Brief encounter

November 14th, 2014

The world has gone Alan Turing mad with the release of The Imitation Game – a biopic of the troubled mathematician and war hero. He is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor known to many but not necessarily to all. In her review of the film, Baroness Trumpington, 92, described Mr Cumberbatch as “the chap” in the lead role, adding that he was “fantastic”.

Baroness Trumpington also served at Bletchley Park, although her memories of the man himself are small: “I only met the famous and wonderful Turing once, when I was asked to take a piece of paper to him. I think I just said: ‘Here’s this piece of paper that you need’.” Millions of modern admirers of the codebreaking hero would weep at such a lost opportunity to ask so many questions. Never meet your heroes: you’ll only disappoint yourself.

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The Imitation Game: who were the real Bletchley Park codebreakers?

November 14th, 2014

As the war progressed, Station X became a hidden city of 10,000 people working in hastily constructed “huts”. Many of the codebreakers were tweedy, pipe-smoking Cambridge mathematicians, both dons and recent graduates, but some were recruited because of their linguistic skills, knowledge of hieroglyphics, or brilliance at chess. All were expected to be able to solve the Telegraph crossword in less than six minutes. Many were eccentric. One boffin would pace around the lake drinking coffee as he pondered, and when he had finished his cup he would look at it in surprise, as if unsure how it had got into his hand. He would then toss it over his shoulder in to the lake.

At the end of the war, Churchill ordered that all records of the place be destroyed in a huge bonfire. Had one former employee not written a book in 1974 about his work there, we might have remained in the dark about Bletchley to this day. As it was, the world was astonished.

Indignant too, because Alan Turing, the genius who did most to crack the German Enigma codes and shorten the war by at least two years, was treated appallingly after the war, on account of his homosexuality. He was prosecuted for “gross indecency” in 1952 and given hormone treatment – “chemical castration” – which led to his suicide two years later. He was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013.

The Bletchley story is told in new film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing

A critically acclaimed new film, The Imitation Game, celebrates his work at Bletchley Park. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch (in what is being tipped as an Oscar-winning performance), Turing is revealed as an insensitive narcissist who found eye contact difficult, but who was very much the right man at the right time. Apart from saving millions of lives, he also had a hand in the invention of the world’s first programmable computer at Bletchley, a giant machine called Colossus that enabled him to crack codes quickly, by a process of elimination.

Everyone has heard of Turing now, and rightly so, but, as this film reminds us, he was part of an extraordinary team, some brilliant, others unprofessional, one treacherous. So who were they? Well, the second most important person at Bletchley was Hugh Alexander.

Hugh Alexander (played by Matthew Goode) – British chess champion

Hugh Alexander; Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander in The Imitation Game

Like many of the codebreakers, he had a first in mathematics from Cambridge, but he found himself in Hut 6 in 1940 thanks to his brilliance at chess. Twice British chess champion, and an International Master, he made important contributions to two classic chess strategies: “the Dutch defence” and the “Petroff defence”. Had he been allowed to compete in the Soviet Union during the Cold War – the authorities here thought the contents of his brain too valuable to allow him to go anywhere near there – he may even have become a world champion.

He was known in print at Bletchley as C.H.O’D – his full name was Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander – which sounds like a cryptic crossword clue. Perhaps not quite as dashing as the actor Matthew Goode who plays him in The Imitation Game, Alexander nevertheless had a reputation for urbanity and charm. In 1941, he was transferred to Hut 8 and became Turing’s deputy.

The great man would tease Alexander for being almost, but not quite, his intellectual equal.

According to a memoir written by one of his colleagues: “We all thought Hugh was crazy. Tall, blond, huge blue eyes, never stopped talking, a terrible energy.” And in the words of another: “We worked [at Hut 8] through the war on a continuous three-shift basis. The night shift was not generally popular because everybody quickly became tired through lack of proper sleep in the day; but Hugh had a strange passion for working at night and used to put himself on nights for weeks on end. This did not prevent him working much of the day as well – he seemed to thrive on this strange regime.” Alexander’s admiration for Turing was conditional – he found him annoying most of the time – and he eventually engineered a friendly coup against him to become the head of Hut 8. He did this because he rightly saw that Turing’s gifts were being wasted on the admin side of running things: he needed thinking space. It was Alexander, more than anyone else, who recognised Turing’s genius for what it was.

Station X was run in quite an amateurish way by MI6. Such was the lack of professionalism, in fact, Alexander and Turing broke with protocol and went over the heads of their MI6 superiors to make a direct appeal to the Prime Minister, requesting more equipment and personnel. Churchill responded instantly, agreeing to the requests and notifying his Chief of Staff. His memo was stamped with that memorable phrase of his: “Action This Day.” When the Germans introduced a “super enciphered” method of transmitting the day’s settings to their Enigma operators (using bigram tables), Alexander helped Turing develop a technique for breaking them called Banburismus, because it involved “punched holes on long sheets of paper printed in Banbury”.

Alexander also introduced a pneumatic tube system for transferring files and documents between huts. He had borrowed the idea from his pre-war job, working as the chief scientist with the John Lewis chain.

After the war he became head of cryptanalysis at GCHQ. He died at the age of 64 in 1974 and there has been speculation that the stresses caused by the mental demands of his career led to his early death.

The Colossus computer at Bletchley, used to decode Nazi messages. Photo: Alamy

Joan Clarke (played by Keira Knightley) – female codebreaker who became engaged to Turing

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke in The Imitation Game

Joan Clarke, by contrast, was a much calmer, less intense character, which is perhaps why she lived until 1996, long after she retired from GCHQ. Like Alexander, she had a first in maths from Cambridge; unlike him, when she was recruited to Bletchley Park she was told that her work there wouldn’t really require mathematics.

This turned out not to be the case. After a period of clerical work with “the girls”, her mathematical gifts led to her becoming the only woman among a team of nine Banburists. And according to her boss, Alexander, she was “one of the best Banburists in the section”. Clarke wasn’t as glamorous as Keira Knightley, who plays her in the film, but her character is captured well by the actress. Records describe her as “congenial but shy, gentle and kind, non-aggressive and always subordinate to the men in her life”. Her enthusiasm and energy were legendary. She would often be reluctant to hand over her workings at the end of her shift and instead continue to see if a few more calculations would produce a result.

A pay rise was arranged to recognise her contributions to the team and she was promoted to “Linguist” even though she spoke no other language. She delighted in answering a questionnaire with “Grade: Linguist. Languages: none”.

In the spring of 1941, she developed a close friendship with her Hut 8 colleague Turing. For a time, they became inseparable, with Turing arranging their shifts so they could work together. One day, in his awkward way, he proposed marriage to her and when Clarke accepted he added, “But don’t count on it working out as I have homosexual tendencies.” The romance continued regardless, unconsummated, until they called it off by mutual consent a year later.

Clarke became deputy head of Hut 8 in early 1944 and, after the war, she married an Army officer she had met when working at GCHQ.

Decoder Wrens working in Huts 6 and 8 at Bletchley Park during the Second World War

Stewart Menzies (played by Mark Strong)

Stewart Menzies (Photo: Getty); Mark Strong as Stewart Menzies in The Imitation Game

Arguably, the next most important figure at Bletchley was Stewart Menzies. His grandfather was a wealthy whisky distiller and his parents were friends of Edward VII, who was rumoured to be Menzies’s real father. At Eton he was sporty but never academic, and he didn’t go to university afterwards but joined the Life Guards instead.

At the start of the war he became “C”, the head of MI6. Churchill was initially sceptical about whether Menzies was up to the job, but he eventually made him part of his inner circle and Menzies would report to him daily.

Though not a codebreaker himself, it was Menzies who was in overall charge at Bletchley, and it was he who introduced what was called Ultra. If too many of the intercepts from Bletchley were acted upon, the Germans would get suspicious that the Enigma codes had been cracked. Menzies therefore introduced a system that meant only a certain percentage of the intelligence gleaned from decoding would be passed on to the British Army, Navy and RAF.

In addition to being married three times, he had a long-term affair with his secretary. He retired with the rank of major general.

John Cairncross (played by Allen Leech) – loner later revealed to be part of the Cambridge spy ring

John Cairncross; Allen Leech as John Cairncross in The Imitation Game

It is implied in the film that Menzies knew exactly what the spy John Cairncross was up to at Station X. An intelligent, spiky man, Cairncross was described by his colleagues at Bletchley Park as “a bit of a loner”.

This was an understatement given that he was the Fifth Man in the Cambridge spy ring. He knew Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, but didn’t like them much.

He admitted to spying in 1951 when Guy Burgess fled to Moscow and MI5 found a handwritten note from him in Burgess’s flat.

Cairncross arrived at Bletchley Park in 1942 and went to work in Hut 3 on Germany Army group communications. Unusually for a codebreaker, he read languages at Cambridge, rather than mathematics.

Throughout the war, Cairncross passed documents through secret channels to his KGB handlers, who gave him the code name Liszt, because of his love of music. He smuggled the decrypts out of the hut in his trousers, transferring them to his bag at the railway station.

But the truth is probably more ambiguous than this summary of his treachery allows. The Allies wanted the Soviets to know about certain German battle plans, just not where the intelligence came from. They were our wartime allies, after all.

Given the tight security at Bletchley, there is speculation that Menzies arranged things so that Cairncross was fed with documents that he wanted the Soviets to see. It seems the only explanation for why only the most relevant decrypts were left conveniently lying around, and why Cairncross was never searched as he left Bletchley.

Peter Hilton (played by Matthew Beard) – maths genius and inventor of one of the world’s longest palindromes

Peter Hilton; Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton in The Imitation Game

Our next notable Bletchley figure could not have been more different from prickly Cairncross. Unusually for a Bletchley Park mathematician, the precocious, sweet-natured Peter Hilton had studied at Oxford rather than Cambridge. He was recruited in 1942 at the tender age of 18 because he also knew German (a language he had taught himself in a year). He worked alongside Turing in Hut 8 on Naval Enigma and, thanks to his extraordinary powers of visualisation, he was able to unpick in his mind’s eye streams of characters from two separate teleprinters – a feat of mental gymnastics that proved vital when the Germans introduced a new system of teleprinter ciphers produced by a much larger and more complex machine than Enigma.

Many years after the war, this was revealed to be a Lorenz SZ40 encoder, but, at the time, staff at Bletchley Park called it “Tunny”.

In his off-duty hours, Hilton (played by Matthew Beard in the film) earned a reputation as a convivial companion.

He was a regular in the bar of the Bletchley pub that was subsequently renamed The Enigma, and often attended dances at nearby Woburn Abbey, where Wrens were billeted. He also became a renowned exponent both of bawdy songs and dirty jokes and once spent a sleepless night composing one of the world’s longest palindromes: DOC, NOTE: I DISSENT. A FAST NEVER PREVENTS A FATNESS. I DIET ON COD.

After the war, Hilton became a professor of mathematics at Cornell University and helped create a new discipline, homology theory. Once the Official Secrets Act was lifted in the Eighties, his lectures about the years at Bletchley Park became highly popular at venues all over the world.

“For me,” he recalled in one of them, “the real excitement was this business of getting two texts out of one sequence of gibberish. I never met anything quite so exciting, especially since you knew that these were vital messages.”

Jack Good (played by James Northcote) – once cracked a code in his sleep

Jack Good, right, once cracked a code in his sleep. Photo: Des Good

And so we come to our final unsung Bletchley hero. Jack Good was a slender, good-humoured, bushy-moustached mathematician (Cambridge) who worked closely with Turing in Hut 8 and was prone to having catnaps on the floor of the hut, especially after a long shift. This was just as well because he broke one vital code in his sleep, with the solution coming to him in a dream. In it he wondered whether the dummy letters German telegraphists had to add to their messages in order to transmit them were random, or whether there was a bias towards particular letters. After inspecting some messages that had been broken, he discovered that there was a tendency to use some letters more than others. This being the case, all the codebreakers had to do was work back from the indicators given at the beginning of each message, and apply each bigram table in turn. The bigram table that produced one of the popular dummy letters was probably the correct one.

When Good (played by James Northcote in the film) mentioned his discovery to Turing, the genius felt embarrassed, and said, “I could have sworn that I tried that already.” It quickly became an important part of the Banburismus procedure.

After the war, Good became a professor and worked as a consultant to Stanley Kubrick on the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He never guessed Turing’s sexual orientation in all the time they worked together, and neither did the Bletchley Park authorities. “Otherwise,” as Good noted matter-of-factly, “Turing may have been driven to kill himself earlier, and we might have lost the war.”

The Imitation Game is on release now

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Bletchley Park codebreakers 'dried their knickers on Hitler's Enigma machine'

November 13th, 2014

“It used to be festooned with bras and pants all through our night duty. Back then it must have looked a real sight.”

Mrs Balfour’s father had to give his permission for her join the Wrens in 1944 because she was under 18.

She spent six weeks training in London before being assigned to “Special Duties X” and posted to the secret facility near Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire.

She spent up to 10 hours a day sifting through reams of code and said they were never told where their work had actually succeeded.

The women were even forbidden from talking to each other about their individuals parts of the puzzle.

Mrs Balfour said: “We were given long strips of paper tape made by the Enigma machine and told to divide everything into fives.

“We used to get codes for the day, one I can remember is YO-SE-RO, a Japanese code for man.

“There were so many of them I can’t remember, but I’ve always remembered that one.

Wrens operating the world’s first electronic programmable computer, the Colossus (Bletchley Park Trust)

“None of us knew everything that we were working on. We each knew a bit, our own part of the puzzle, so if you were caught, you couldn’t tell them everything, even if they tortured you.

“We were told never to discuss with anyone else what we were doing.

“We never knew anything. We never knew what we had done, or if we had helped to actually crack the codes.

“I never even told my parents because we signed the Official Secrets Act, so they died without ever finding out what I was doing.”

Mrs Balfour, from Helensburgh, Scotland, said she and her fellow Wrens would see Turing walking about the grounds – often backwards as he read a book.

She said: “We used to see Alan Turing from time to time, and back then we used to giggle and laugh.

“We used to watch him walk backwards sometimes while reading a book, and we couldn’t help but giggle at him for how he acted.

“We thought he was queer for how he behaved.

“But I feel the government should formally recognise him for his work during the war. He did so much and his name has not yet appeared anywhere really.

“It’s too late for him now, but people should know what he did.

“I think because he was queer, he was pushed into the background, but all these people with these brilliant minds were a bit different in their own way.”

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Ex-Royal Marine in military dress attacked after Remembrance Sunday service

November 12th, 2014

Members of his family are with him, including his wife Margaret, and three children.

Labour councillors and friends have spoken of their shock and upset.

Bradford Council leader David Green, who has visited Mr Niland in hospital, said: “He is clearly not in good physical shape. His face is badly cut and bruised and there was some concern about possible internal bleeding.

“But he was still typically Tony and keen to get out of hospital. He said he had been walking to get a cab when he was attacked by three young men.

“I was told by his family he was found unconscious on the ground. He was wearing the suit and tie he had worn to the Remembrance service, a poppy and war medals.”

Councillor Green added: “There are many people in Bradford who will know Tony and who Tony has assisted over the years, either in his political role or as a member of the community.

“He has always had time for everybody and anybody, and anyone who has information that will help police catch the people who carried out this cowardly attack, I urge to come forward, or contact me and I will make sure it gets passed on to the police.”

Imran Khan, another councillor, visited Mr Niland in hospital on Tuesday afternoon and said: “He’s in quite a bad way, but he was surprisingly upbeat and taking what has happened in his stride.

“He is a very courageous man and anybody else wouldn’t have dealt with it as well as he has.”

Councillor Khan added: “He told me he was set upon by three people as he walked with his stick, innocently minding his own business. It is a disgraceful and cowardly act.

“I can’t believe someone would do that but Tony said he didn’t want anyone to take retribution for what happened to him. He wants the police to deal with it in the usual way.”

Councillor Ruth Billheimer said she had spoken to Mr Niland’s wife, Margaret, who said her husband had been attacked.

She said: “He is an ill man to begin with. You wouldn’t want that to happen to anybody, but he was the worst person in the world for it to happen to because it has triggered these reactions. It’s really sad he has this underlying condition which means it’s far more serious for him.

“It was a shock when I heard about it. People who know him are very upset.”

Mr Niland served for 10 years as a Labour councillor in the Wyke and Bowling wards on Bradford Council, and was the party’s deputy chief whip and deputy chairman of West Yorkshire Fire Authority.

He lost his seat in 2006, but remained active within the Labour group.

Before his political career, he served with the Royal Marines and had several spells of duty in Northern Ireland.

He is a staunch attender of the Remembrance Sunday service. He also worked at the Sunblest bakery in Bradford and was a shop steward and union convenor.

Acting Sergeant Vikki Tyrell, from West Yorkshire Police, said: “We are investigating a report of an alleged assault in Piccadilly, which is believed to have occurred around 9pm on Sunday, November 9.”

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Gang rips medals from army veteran on his way to Remembrance Sunday service

November 11th, 2014

Mr Gill had been walking through Lund Park, Keighley, as he has done for years, at 9.15am on Sunday when the attack happened.

He was wearing his khaki beret, navy blue blazer, maroon and grey striped tie – all three of which bore the regimental badge and the motto ‘Victory Favours the Brave’, with a poppy pinned to his chest and the United Nations Cyprus and Northern Ireland medals on his right lapel.

Mr Gill only recently returned home from hospital following an operation to fit stents in his heart and he is currently on 13 tablets a day for his condition.

He said: “I was walking to the cenotaph in the centre of town for Remembrance Sunday, the same route I have taken every year for as long as I can recall.

“I’d stopped in Lund Park to look at the embers of a fire which had been lit near a sign when out of nowhere I was grabbed or hit from behind.

“My beret was knocked off my head and I stumbled to the ground. I tried to stay on my feet because I didn’t know what would happen if I went to ground.

“I had not seen the gang of about six to eight Asian lads before this and I think they had been hiding in bushes.

“I had not seen or heard them or done anything to intimidate them. They were laughing and joking and speaking in a foreign language, not in English, so I don’t know what they were saying.

“I was shaken and couldn’t understand what was happening. They had taken my beret as a trophy and they were tearing it at like a pack of dogs with a piece of meat. They thought it was funny.”

Mr Gill said that the gang “ran off laughing and joking” out of the park near the bowling green, before he realised his medals were also missing.

“My poppy had been ragged at but they had not managed to steal that,” he said.

“My lip was cut and I was shaken. I can only think I was targeted because of what I was wearing because it was not a mugging or robbery, because I had £200 in cash on me and they didn’t take that or ask for money.”

Mr Gill, who lives alone about 200 yards from the Lund Park gates, said the gang were aged 16-17 years old and he did not recognise any of them.

He dusted himself down and continued his walk to the cenotaph for the 11am act of remembrance.

“There I met my nephew and I told him what had happened and he told me to report it to the police. I didn’t want to make a big fuss about it, but I thought I should report it to prevent anybody else being harmed,” said Mr Gill, who attends monthly regimental meetings at the local Territorial Army Centre.

“After the Remembrance Sunday service I got home at noon and went straight to bed, I was that upset.”

Mr Gill joined up in 1966 and rose from Private to Sergeant until he left following 18 years’ service.

He then got a job in security. He served in Cyprus, Hong Kong, Japan, Gibraltar, Malaysia, and Northern Ireland, where he lost comrades.

He has lived near Lund Park for 60 years and has seen its gradual decline.

“It really has deteriorated. It used to have tennis courts and people played football there, the duck pond has gone and fires are being lit. The bowling green and pavilion have high security fencing to protect them from vandalism,” said Mr Gill.

“I used to have no fears about walking through the park, but I am now reluctant to use it – but if I don’t continue to go in they have won, haven’t they?”

Mr Gill said some of the gang were wearing hoodies, but because of the suddenness and shock of the attack he could not describe them in any better detail.

“I want my medals back, I was proud to earn them and wear them. I also want my beret back, but I think that has probably been torn to bits,” he said.

Inspector Sue Sanderson, who leads the Keighley Area Neighbourhood Team, said: “We would appeal to anyone who saw a group of Asian youths acting suspiciously in the park at around the time of this incident, or anyone who may have seen them leaving the park afterwards.

“We believe there would have been other people around at the time, perhaps also making their way to the Remembrance Day service.”

The police are treating the crime as a robbery, and Insp Sanderson added that although Mr Gill was not injured, “the victim is understandably shaken by the loss of his beret and his medals”.

Edited by Melanie Hall.

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