Wartime codebreaking—the professorial connection

This article in the January 1986 issue of Cryptologia by leading expert  Ralph Erskine reveals how code-breakers were recruited just before WW2 broke out. In the summer of 1939, due to the fact that throughout the 1930s the Government Code & Cypher School (GCCS) had been starved of funds, there were hardly any cryptologists who could rise to the challenge of deciphering the German codes. So when, in early September 1939, war was looming, the Director of the GCCS, Commander Alastair Denniston, was forced to recruit an emergency team of supposedly large brained cryptologists. Denniston wanted 'men of the Professor type' , which in 1939,  social and intellectual snobbery being what it was, meant academics likely to possess degrees in German, mathematics or classics from Oxford or Cambridge.

It made sense, sort of. Academics with a specialised knowledge of the German language would have been especially valued, as would mathematicians, and, one might suppose, classicists -- though I’ve never been able to accept that a person skilled in interpreting a short passage in Latin or ancient Greek should be regarded as having more brain power than someone who has wrestled over Anglo-Saxon, Sanskrit, Chinese, Japanese or indeed Elizabethan court hand, and many branches of physics, but there you are. Classicists were and still are, it would seem, officially ‘brainy’.

For some reason too, past or present Fellows of King’s College, Cambridge, were  especially favoured by the selection committee. Six of the men chosen had attended the college. These were Alan Turing, an 'eccentric and genius', according to Erskine, Frank Adcock, an historian,  Frank Birch, a 'colourful historian and man of the theatre’ and the classicist Patrick Wilkinson, who was Dean of the College. Other Cambridge Fellows included Leonard W. Forster, a lecturer in German at Selwyn , James Passant, an historian at Sidney Sussex, John Jeffreys, a research fellow at Downing, who was instrumental in ascertaining the Enigma key setting, Eric Vincent, a professor of Italian at Corpus Christi, and Gordon Welchman, a mathematician at Sidney Sussex.

In comparison, Oxford men figured only very slightly. One was the historian T. S. R. Boase, a graduate of Magdalen College, who had, in 1937, been controversially elected Director of the Courtauld Institute and subsequently  Professor of History of Art at London University, despite his lack of formal qualifications in art history. Interestingly, Boase shared Courtauld living accommodation with his junior, Anthony Blunt, who, strangely enough, was to succeed him as Director. Both men were gay.

Oxbridge academics in other arguably relevant disclipines—including English Literature, Philosophy, Economics, and the various branches of Science—were overlooked. Obviously, they were not professorial enough. One recruit wasn’t a professor at all. Nigel de Grey was in fact a director of the Medici Society, which reproduced paintings and prints. He was chosen, presumably because he had been part of a team that had decoded the famous Zimmerman Telegram that led to the entry of the Americans into World War One.

In all this do we detect an ever so teeny bit of Oxbridge croneyism? One could argue, however, that the plan worked. Valuable minds were recruited, codes were broken and we won the war. But might the objectives have been achieved earlier and more effectively if the team chosen had been recruited by a committee with fewer prejudices? [RR]

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