Alan Turing and Bletchley Park 'did NOT win WWII'

Alan Turing and Bletchley Park ‘did NOT win WWII’: New official history of GCHQ claims Britain has ‘overstated’ role of secret code-cracking unit that even turned down JRR Tolkien for job

  • New book challenges ‘myth’ of Bletchley Park and codebreaking achievements 
  • GCHQ had a 30-year ban on hiring staff who were not white, new book claims
  • Author John Ferris has provided ‘warts and all’ account of Government agency
  • New book Behind the Enigma tells tales about GCHQ’s WW1 and WW2 operations

Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing and Bletchley Park  ‘did not save Britain’ single-handedly, a new official history of GCHQ has claimed today by insisting ‘other people mattered just as much to the success as they did’.

Turing and the cypher-cracking unit have been widely credited for saving millions of lives after his machine translated Germany’s coded messages throughout the war.

But a new ‘warts-and-all’ official history of GCHQ has challenged the ‘Myth is of eccentrics overcoming the odds’.

Professor John Ferris’s Behind the Enigma book was written after he poured through the spy service’s archived 16 million files.

In the publication he suggests the ‘cult’ of Bletchley has led to the public accepting and supporting the work of GCHQ.

And for the first time, it is revealed the spy and code organisation turned Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien down for a job – contradicting the previously thought belief the writer had snubbed them for a role.


John Ferris’s Behind the Enigma book says Alan Turing and Bletchley have become myth

Professor Ferris writes ‘Subtly invoked archetypes’ made ‘Bletchley Park into myth’. 

He adds the idea of the unit – complete with its eccentrics – fall into the romantic ideal that ‘victories that stem from character rather than system’. 

Prof Ferris continues: ‘Bletchley has become associated with Britain’s salvation, absorbing parts of the older myth of Fighter Command, especially the roles of wizard boffins and of immediate action based on certain intelligence.

‘The myth is of eccentrics overcoming the odds, the enemy, and the establishment – and above all of Alan Turing: a mind martyred by his country. Yet Bletchley did not save Britain, though it did help to defeat Germany.’

He goes on to say while geniuses were important to the Bletchley’s success it was ‘not just dons and debs dancing on the lawn’.

Prof Ferris said it was right Turing’s work was honoured and respected but adds ‘several other people mattered as much to this success as he’

The book also reveals GCHQ had a ‘colour bar’ on employees for nearly three decades.

Established on November 1, 1919 as a peacetime ‘cryptanalytic’ unit made up from staff from the Admiralty’s Room 40 and the War Office’s MI1(b), GCHQ personnel moved to Bletchley Park during World War Two where they decrypted German messages (pictured)

Its ban on hiring non-white staff was in place from the 1950s until as late as 1980.

Later it also tells how ‘major mistakes’ made in the 1930s left the country wide open to enemy codebreakers at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The book also tells how failures in British signals security in World War One contributed to tens of thousands of UK deaths at the Battle of the Somme, due to German interception of British military messages on field telephones. 

The intelligence service commissioned the first ever authorised history as part of its efforts to open up more to the public as it marked its centenary year. 

Mr Ferris, a professor of history at the University of Calgary, was given ‘unprecedented access’ to GCHQ’s archive and policy files, examining around 16 million artefacts, many of which were previously classified and have never before been made public.  

Speaking to the PA news agency, he revealed that he was not allowed to view any information on diplomatic communications or intelligence after 1945, and also information on technical issues which could be relevant still today.


John Ferris has provided a ‘warts and all account’ of the security agency’s 100-year past, outlining its secret successes and failings, when he was selected to write the book

Bletchley Park branded ‘overated’ by expert 

Bletchley Park’s role in World War II is ‘overated’ and promoted by a ‘cult’ Behind The Enigma’s author said today.

The book, which is a history of GCHQ, is based on painstaking research of top secret files.

Its author Professor John Ferris of the University of Calgary said while Bletchley played an important role, it was not the ‘war winner’ many thought.

He told the BBC: ‘GCHQ is probably Britain’s most important strategic asset at the moment and will probably remain that way for generations

‘I think that Britain gains from keeping it strong and world class, but at the same time, you need to put in proportion what it is you can and cannot get from intelligence.

‘Bletchley is not the war winner that a lot of Brits think it is.

‘Intelligence never wins a war on its own.’

GCHQ was set up in 1919 but was moved to Bletchley Park where it famously cracked the Enigma code.

 Mr Ferris said: ‘I think it is essential that I did a warts and all account and GCHQ, to its credit, was willing to let me do that.

‘So if you look at the things I’ve found which they wish hadn’t happened. For example, there is a ‘colour bar’ in employment in GCHQ in the 1950s and 1960s.

‘In other words if you’re not Caucasian, they don’t want you in. And they take active measures to avoid hiring you.

‘And, by the way, that’s what all British security and intelligence organisations do at the time.’ 

He described a ‘mixed’ picture on job opportunities for women and people from BAME backgrounds.

But explained by contemporary British standards, among white men of all classes, GCHQ’s personnel was diverse, especially for managerial positions.

He said his research showed GCHQ was ‘surprisingly diverse’ for working class men and, ‘in many ways astonishingly open to working class men’, compared to other Government departments and agencies who would typically hire university graduates.

According to the book, while it was possible, few non-white staff would have applied at the time as ‘racism would likely have constrained the chances of any who did apply’. The rule was in place until around 1980, and eventually abolished. 

Mr Ferris said there were ‘many things that GCHQ does that they’ve not done well, or in hindsight they would be unhappy about’.

‘In the 1930s, the British make major mistakes in their coding systems, which means that when the war breaks out actually they are very vulnerable to German and Italian code breakers,’ he said.

The book also sets out how GCHQ’s work influenced some of the major international incidents of the last century, including the Cold and Falklands wars (pictured, a Sea Harrier being refuelled and rearmed on the flight deck of the carrier HMS Hermes)

‘And they suffer some losses as a result. It takes the British a couple of painful years to overcome those weaknesses.’  

The book also sets out how GCHQ’s work influenced some of the major international incidents of the last century, including the Cold and Falklands wars.

Mr Ferris told how GCHQ did ‘extremely well’ in its Cold War efforts on ‘very limited budgets’ and described the Falklands as an example of where GCHQ ‘most affected British policy’.

He added: ‘In the Falklands conflict of 1982 I’d say that GCHQ was fundamental to British victory. 

‘Without GCHQ I don’t think the conflict could have been won. Really it was one of the necessary things for victory.’

Established on November 1, 1919 as a peacetime ‘cryptanalytic’ unit made up from staff from the Admiralty’s Room 40 and the War Office’s MI1(b), GCHQ personnel moved to Bletchley Park during World War Two where they decrypted German messages, most famously by breaking the Enigma code.

The agency’s best-known former member of staff was Turing, the wartime code-breaker and pioneer of computer science who had a ‘fearless approach to daunting problems’.

The organisation rarely speaks publicly about its work and its existence was not publicly acknowledged until 1983, although it has tried to be less secretive in recent years.

In 2016, it became the first of the country’s spy agencies on Twitter and has since joined Instagram.

Last year, to mark its centenary, it revealed the locations of five formerly secret sites it had been working from during the Second World War and the Cold War. 

The book also reveals how failures in British signals security in World War One contributed to tens of thousands of UK deaths at the Battle of the Somme, due to German interception of British military messages on field telephones

The book talks of how a GCHQ employee in 1945 discovered through Sigint – intelligence gathering by interception of signals – that his son had been killed in action, but he was not allowed to discuss his son’s death with his wife.

Mr Ferris described how his research showed staff were bound to a life of secrecy, but were used to it.

He said: ‘They all internalise this idea that they should not talk about what it is they do. And not even tell members of their family and they simply get used to it.

‘You have mathematicians who make a discovery which is five or 10 years ahead of what any civilian mathematician does and yet they can’t publish it.

‘Now for most mathematicians that would be very frightening, horrifying, but they are used to the idea.

‘They see themselves really as being given the opportunity sometimes to use leading-edge kit to do fascinating work. They are willing to live without getting the personal credit.’

He also described the GCHQ’s union ban in 1984 as ‘tragic’ because it affected a third of the organisation which worked in intercepting foreign communications.

A promotion in such roles was ‘virtually impossible’ and there were strikes in a bid for better conditions, but GCHQ decided a union ban was needed over fears walkouts could affect national security and to ensure they could maintain long-term co-operation with the Americans.

The staff had no choice as they could otherwise be faced with job losses.

In a foreword to the book, GCHQ director Jeremy Fleming said the Mr Ferris’ narrative ‘shows us as an organisation set up to collect and analyse intelligence and with an amazing track record of shortening wars, countering hostile states, thwarting terrorist attacks and disrupting serious criminals’.

He added that the agency’s future success will be ‘assured if we retain and recruit a diverse mix of minds. This history shows that when we do, anything is possible.’

Behind the Enigma was published today by Bloomsbury, priced £30.   

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