Secrets and Lies

The two greatest secrets of World War II – the Manhattan Project and the breaking of the German ENIGMA cypher. This how the “Secret of the Century” saved Britain from defeat in World War II.

In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”   Winston Churchill .

Now read the little known story describing how 12,000 code-breakers at BLETCHLEY PARK systematically revealed the ENIGMA labyrinth,the principle means of communication for the entire German military in the Second World War.


In an uncharacteristically revealing admission, the legendary Prime Minister said what all wartime leaders practice – deception.  Defeat the enemy with all means possible, with the safeguarding of secrets and the spread of lies mere companion goals to that objective. 

In World War Two, the Twentieth Century’s defining event, no greater need for deception existed than during the years when Western civilization’s very survival was at risk.  The perils were everywhere.The toothless League of Nations functioned as would an amnesiac.  On September 4 1939, the day after Great Britain declared war on Germany, its agenda included a debate on the standardization of gauges on Europe’s railroads. Democratic institutions and their principles and forms of government had been in steady decline and under ideological attack in the early decades of the century.  By 1940, led by the United States and to a lesser degree by Great Britain, in the entire world there were fewer than a dozen democracies.  Fascism, Communism, Nazism.  It was their turn and their time.

Resulting from government neglect, on the eve of war the British army trained with only 259 tanks and even fewer antitank guns and artillery pieces – all obsolete.  Only 620 aircraft were combat ready.  The Home Guard, equivalent to the U.S. National Guard, trained with broomsticks or sporting rifles.  In mid -1940 Britain had yet to win a significant victory on land.  The Britannia that once ruled the seas now sailed a fleet of mostly ancient dreadnoughts. 

 On the continent, an out-maneuvered and archaic French army – the largest in Europe – after only a few days of desultory fighting submitted in June 1940 to inglorious defeat.  With the war less than one year old, already most of Europe lay under the Nazi jackboot.World disintegration had also narrowed the distance across America’s protective oceans, exposing its near fatal military and moral weaknesses.  When war began in September 1939, the United States Army ranked 18th in the world, behind even tiny Holland.  There was barely an American munitions industry, few trucks and even fewer tanks.  When the peacetime draft finally but reluctantly began in 1940, a miserly Congress allowed the conscripts to train for only one year, and then sent them home.

The isolationist dominated U.S. Congress even prohibited service outside the United States.  The rifles the draftees shouldered – when there were any – dated from the first war.  Worst still, the draconian Neutrality Act banned aid or armaments to combatants, although it failed to distinguish friend from foe.  A signaling pistol was the most lethal weapon allowed on American freighters.  And measuring the public’s sour mood, George Gallup and Elmo Roper’s new polling techniques said that up to 80% of Americans were resolutely opposed to declaring war against the Axis. Clearly, the American public had little taste for another European intervention a mere generation after the inconclusive end of the “war to end all wars.”  Powerful press barons such as William Randolph Hearst, reproached the President daily from the front page to the editorial pages of his newspaper empire.

Col. Robert R. Mc McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, almost incandescent in its Roosevelt loathing, daily attacked FDR as both warmonger and dilettante.  During the debate over the passage of  Lend-Lease, a resolution to give economic and military aid to nations fighting the Axis, the Tribune warned readers: “this is a bill for destruction of the American republic.”  After bitter isolationist objections, the bill passed in March 1941. Objections to the Vietnam War and both Persian Gulf wars fade to insignificance compared to the rancorous clashes before America’s entry into World War Two.  More than 700 isolationist organizations, the majority of them virulently Anglo-phobic, anti-Semitic and transparently Fascist, held millions under their influence.  The well-financed America First Committee, led by Charles Lindbergh and Sears-Roebuck Chairman, Robert Wood, had by itself the allegiance of fifteen million members  The Committee’s block ads ran remorselessly in small town and big city newspapers.  “Don’t let a small group of war-mongering interventionists drag us into war.  Demand that the people be allowed to vote on it.”  How could America  aid her British cultural cousin when she could barely protect American shores, or control her own people?

Despite, or perhaps because of the rancor in America, Britain’s survival depended even more on sustaining and expanding the slender North Atlantic pipeline of permitted supplies.  Almost from the start Britain had been overwhelmingly losing the Battle of the Atlantic.  By mid 1941 rapidly expanding U-boat flotillas had already sunk more than 1,500 British flagged freighters.  Fully 25% of all British merchant shipping already lay on the ocean floor.  So precarious was her plight that in principle the global empire had already been reduced to the tiny island where it all began centuries earlier.  Only a miracle could save Britain from defeat.

The miracle was called Top Secret ULTRA.  Resulting from a combined scientific and accidental process that revealed the secret cipher communication of the German armed forces, ULTRA averted disaster for the British as it gave the United States additional time to rearm.  It was the most closely guarded and enduring secret of the war.  Even decades after the war’s end, thousands of books, articles and reminiscences written by the generals, admirals and civilian leadership remained mysteriously silent on the subject.  The normally voluble Winston Churchill said nothing in his six volume History of the Second World War.  The 12,000 men and women at Bletchley Park, the Victorian mansion and its crude outlying “huts” where Ultra originated, had sworn a great oath to king and country.  Under pain of imprisonment or even death under the Official Secrets Act, the code-breakers neither wrote nor spoke for three decades after the war.  It was a secret held even more closely than the Manhattan Project, America’s plan to develop the Atomic Bomb.

And what was top-secret ULTRA?  Simply stated, ULTRA assembled and disseminated the hIghest-grade intelligence produced by Enigma, the principle German enciphering device.  Enigma had been systematically penetrated and picked clean like a dog with a meaty bone, by linguists, mathematicians, specialist teams, and other odd-bodies and boffins.  In ways known best by totalitarian regimes, from the day the war began in 1939 until the day it ended in 1945, the German high command confidently assured itself again and again of Enigma’s impenetrability.  They boasted that Enigma  was a riddle within a puzzle, cloaked by a mystery that neither man nor machine would ever solve.  But Enigma had been broken and avidly read like an open book by code-breaker teams in ghostly huts scattered across the once refined lawns of a country estate.  Prince Otto von Bismarck must have shifted uneasily in his grave upon learning that the quarrelsome country he unified only seventy years before had placed its future on the expected security of a single machine.

The normally paranoid Germans had thrown caution and restraints to the winds by manufacturing at least 100,000 Enigma devices during the war.  From the OKw high command to the lowest units, virtually every army group, division, regiment and brigade, every Luftwaffe base, naval port, Gestapo branch, warship, every u-boat and most of the civilian leadership had at least one device. Even the reliable railway system had numerous machines.


Unimpressive in appearance, Enigma had the look of a plump portable typewriter encased in a varnished wooden box.  But appearances were definitely deceiving.  The three and four rotor, twenty-six key mystery mechanism, contained within its intricate interior a Machiavellian wiring scheme so complex that a single enciphered message would not be repeated for an almost immeasurable number of permutations.  For example, a sequence entered on only one of the keys would repeat itself only after 17,000 entries. 

By changing the starting position of the keys and further complicated by a built-in 26 socket electric plug board, up to 159 million million million starting positions were possible. The almost impossible solution to the task awaiting the code breakers existed at the center of a simple fact.  Solving the riddle of the Enigma variations – if it occurred at all – would flow from understanding WHY the messages emerged in disordered form, and not HOW they originated.   In late 1938 the first thirty members of the British government’s cipher school began modest radio eavesdropping operations in the castellated tower of the hulking, red-brick Victorian mansion known as ‘Station X.’  The mansion had been built in the 1880s by Sir Hubert Leon, a financier and member of the London Stock Exchange. 

Like a many-chambered nautilus, the existing residence had been intermittently appended throughout the years.  Here a servants wing and ice house, there a new entrance hall and an addition to the drawing and dining rooms.  A library, ballroom and more bedrooms were tacked-on, all contributing to an irregular, bulky appearance, almost completely lacking in elegance and harmony. Although drab in appearance, the mansion enjoyed an ideal location directly across the road from the mainline Midland and Scottish Railway.  An easy forty-two mile commute connected Bletchley with London and the vital Whitehall and Downing Street nerve centers.  And it was midway between Oxford and Cambridge, fertile soil for code-breaker candidates, many of whom perfectly fit the rather droll academic standards of the time.  In the generation between the wars, the art of code-breaking had been revolutionized. 

In World War One humans cracked codes based on words, but in World War Two machines generated a puzzlement of ever-changing gibberish in five letter combinations.  The rigidly organized occupations of the new code- breakers were, therefore, highly appropriate to the task. Arriving daily were crossword-puzzle experts, university mathematicians, literature dons, classicists and librarians.  Tapped from newspaper advertisements were musicians, language instructors, historians, accountant, bankers, and university and publishing executives.  Adding to the odd aggregation, even philosophers and pedagogues from museums and rare bookstore owners applied and were eagerly accepted.  Supporting the thinkers and savants in concentric layers within the crude temporary buildings called “huts,” were masses of cryptanalysts, cryptographers, administrators, machine operators and technicians.

In other huts, hundreds of thousands of intercepts written in longhand on 5X7 inch file cards were scrupulously cataloged and then filed into stacks of shoe-box size cartons.  In mess halls, canteens and tents, cooks daily prepared thousands of meals.  Troops, anti-aircraft batteries and five RAF bases formed a protective cordon around the complex.  In the event of invasion, a train with engine under constant steam waited at the Bletchley Park station to transfer the vital code-breaking equipment to Liverpool and passage to America.  No place in Britain, not even Churchill’s own Cabinet War Rooms in London, had greater security. Thousands of radio intercept operators staffed the outer ring of the Ultra complex at various coastal stations, such as Knockholt in Kent or Kedelston in Derbyshire.  There the raw intelligence originated as Morse coded German radio transmissions, and intercepted often under appalling conditions.

Enemy messages alternated among 226 radio frequencies, each one with its own monitoring team.  Enigma communications averaged only ten seconds, with successful detection needing to overcome constant frequency changes, enemy jamming, static and drifting from storms, plus other natural phenomena, such as whistles and squeals and ordinary sounds of music and dialogue.  Intercepted messages then went from the coastal intercept stations to Bletchley for cataloguing and analysis, at first by motorcycle dispatch riders, and later in the war by secure teleprinter. Facing each other in the dark, drafty, and poorly lighted buildings, the combined military and civilian staff neither  knew nor cared about colleague’s duties in other huts or even across the same table or desk.  The military wore uniforms without  badges or unit markings.  Civilians dressed in tweed or corduroy.  Everyone worked feverishly eight hours on and eight hours off, and no more than four persons out of 12,000 ever knew the full details of the Ultra secret. Many of the staff lived in stately homes vacated for the duration, such as Steeple Clayden and Beaumanor; others in lonely cells above crossroads pubs.

Betty Warwick Boyd, a friend of the author, and other Royal Navy WREN personnel were billeted at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, home of the Duke of Bedford.  “Secrecy was so great that at the end of a watch we never spoke about what we did, nor did we talk to those in other huts or know what they did.  We would sometimes spend an off duty day in Oxford or Cambridge, or just walking the beautiful grounds at Woburn and enjoying the fresh air.”  She never saw the numerous Canelettos, sumptuous Sevres dinner service, or the chinoiserie, tapestries and stunning porcelain collection, all locked away in the Abbey’s vast rooms. Of all the oddities and ordinary minds gathered at Station X, Allan Turing, the man who solved the Enigma riddle, easily qualified as the most unconventional, peculiar, and, yes, enigmatic of the code-breakers.

1946 photoHis manners were sometimes gross, his appearance verging on the disreputable.  In trying to force out the visionary ideas crammed into his giant intellect, he usually lapsed into incomprehensible stammering.  Yet, in a life that ended tragically after only forty-two years, his discoveries and inventions saved thousands of lives.  He was unknown in life and virtually ignored in death.  In only the past ten years historians finally accorded to Allan Turing the respect earned seven decades ago.  Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most important people of the Twentieth Century, praising his seminal work on computing as “one of the key crossroads in the advancement of science and technology.”  In the last years of the Twentieth Century, the fundamental logic of his “Universal Turing Machine,”  central to the science of computing, finally conferred on him the long-delayed credit as “intellectual father” of the modern computer.

Peculiar practices clung to Allan Turing like layers of moor fog.  His Bletchley Park conferees called him “the prof,” and often watched him distractedly hurrying to or from the mansion and Hut 6, the section vainly trying to break the U-boat code.  His neighbors at nearby Shenley village saw another person – the strange one on the bicycle wearing the gas mask.  It was sovereign for relief of chronic allergies, he believed.  His trousers were often supported by string, and he sometimes wore pajamas under a sport coat.  Fearing that Britain would lose the war, he converted his funds into silver ingots, and then forgot where they were.  Although the more discerning of his Hut 6 brethren saw deeper personality layers of subtlety and erudition, others repeated and no doubt enlarged on the anecdotes describing the Prof’s peccadilloes, including the one about attaching his tea mug to a radiator pipe with a combination lock.  His churning mind, occupied with constant calculation, determined that a loose bicycle chain would come off after fourteen turns.  It, therefore, seemed perfectly reasonable to stop and adjust the chain after each thirteen revolutions.  To him this was merely a practical application of the same logical deduction needed to solve the Enigma riddle – observe and conclude.

Born in London to English civil service parents, he and brother John passed through a series of  foster homes, while their parents worked and lived in Madras, India.  Awarded a major scholarship to Kings College, Cambridge in 1931, Alan read theoretical mathematics, and presented his first paper in 1936 to  the London Mathematical Society.  His proposal proved by way of a theoretical and abstract “universal computing machine,” that some mathematical problems  were incapable of solution by applying fixed, formal processes.  Turing’s original but unconventional “machine” had a head and moveable paper tape divided into frames, such as on a roll of film.  The head acted as a scanner and could be pre-programmed with instructions.  Each frame had a symbol such as 0 or 1, or could be  left blank.  Every square could be separately read, the paper could be moved right or left, and the symbols changed, rewritten or erased. Resulting from its function of program input and output, memory, and the implication of information processing, Turing’s automatic problem-solving theory defined in every way – except by actually giving it a name – the identical operating system of a modern digital computer.  At age twenty-four he had enormously advanced – although quite unintentionally – the principles of the “analytical engine” proposed by Charles Babbage in 1833.

After earning a PhD at Princeton, as war butts gathered he returned from America to Cambridge in July 1938.  On September 4 1939, the day after the declaration of war by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Turing reported for duty at Bletchley Park.  It could not have been a darker time for British intelligence.  Not a single Enigma coded message had been solved in almost ten months.  Assisted by Gordon Welchman, Turing used mathematical principles to devise a mechanized approach to seeking out the probable words common to all secret messages.  Almost immediately the “bombes,” the noisy but effective electro-mechanical code-breaking machines he invented, went from decoding a weekly trickle of 50 Enigma messages in 1940 to 3,000 per day in 1943.  The sprocket – driven machines were soon overwhelmed by a torrent of messages, persuading Turing and engineer Tommy Flowers to co-invent a revolutionary, digital, programmable, electronic computer.  Called Colossus, the 2,500 tube mainframe even read the personal messages sent by Hitler to his top battlefield commanders.  Churchill often perused deciphered messages over brandy at lunch in London, hours before Hitler read the same messages after dinner in Berlin.  Colossus beat the American ENIAC computer by three years, but stayed secret until 1989. For the British and Americans, possessing the Ultra advantage changed the lives of millions who fought, and saved the lives of both friend and foe.

With the names of enemy units, their strength, exact location, orders of battle, fuel status, and ammunition supply, entire divisions were neutralized with minimal manpower effect.  Knowing wolf-pack locations enabled convoys to be re-routed, resulting in the eventual elimination of the U-boat menace.  In planning the invasion of Europe in June 1944, strategists knew from Ultra intercepts that Germany expected invasion at the Pas de Calais and not Normandy.  By using the ruse of a fictitious army led by a very real Gen. George Patton, nineteen German divisions never entered the Battle of Normandy.  And there were many similar achievements.

After the war Alan Turing slipped back into the academic obscurity from which he had emerged.  He resumed the Kings College fellowship in 1947, began research into computer development, and in 1950 developed the “Turing Test,” the game that would forever link him with the origins of artificial intelligence.  At the dawn of the computer age the mysterious misfit had become accepted.  Then, on February 11,1952, in Manchester, he  was arrested for “gross indecency with a nineteen-year-old male person.” The same harsh ordinance used to imprison Oscar Wilde in 1895 had brought Alan Turing’s long-closeted private life into full public view. In lieu of prison he accepted a course of “organo-therapy,” chemical castration with female hormones.  With his government security clearance removed and unlikely to obtain another teaching position, the final disintegration of his life was almost complete. On June 7, 1954, the housekeeper found him dead at home in Wilmslow near Manchester.  A partially- eaten cyanide-laced apple lay next to the bed.  Loyal to the end, his mother insisted that it was an accident.  The national press took little notice.  No monuments were erected, and no plaques to honor his memory were commissioned.  Misunderstood in life and neglected in death, Alan Turing left a legacy that included the Ultra secret, unfinished works on plant life and artificial intelligence, physics and computer theory. AUTHOR’S NOTE: One of the best biographies about Alan Turing is “Enigma” by Andrew Hodges.  An exhibit at Bletchley Park features a restored, functioning “bombe,” as well as a rebuilt, operating “Colossus” computer.   

About Jerome O'Connor

Jerome M. O’Connor, a Chicago area author, journalist, historian and college educator, produces and lectures with original programs describing the little-known, overlooked, or under-reported people, places and great events of modern history. To qualify, all locations must exist and and be accessible. Deeply researched and dynamically presented multi-media programs result in numerous return invitations. Currently available are personally conducted tours to view and enter facilities depicted in his Chicago Tribune features, ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY and MOTOR ROW MEMORIES. Updated is the photographic result of a return visit to Bletchley Park in England, where 12,000 code-breakers revealed the 'secret of the century,' the breaking of the Nazi Enigma cypher machine. O'Connor was the first journalist to reveal its existence in a widely viewed 1997 cover feature in Naval History magazine and in British Heritage magazine in 1998. The "Author of the Year" award from the U.S. Naval Institute was given to O'Connor in a U.S.Naval Academy banquet. His critically praised first book, THE HIDDEN PLACES OF WORLD WAR II, enters the existing locales that were essential to victory in WW II but overlooked by generations of historians. Published by Lyons Press, an imprint of the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, it honors the sacrifice of 16 million men and women who saved civilization in its darkest hour. Portions of the book are on this site. A quality paperback released in February 2022 is on Amazon and at selected booksellers, for a total of 3 versions now available.