By Michael Smith
Mr. Smith’s new book, Station X: The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park (Channel 4 Books) is available for £14.99 post free in UK, from Telegraph Books Direct, 24 Seward St, London EC1V 3GB, tel. (0541) 557222 quoting ref PA557.
The ability to solve The Daily Telegraph crossword in under 12 minutes was used as a recruitment test for wartime code-breakers. Good chess players and those skilled at crossword puzzles were viewed as having the potential to turn their abilities to cracking codes. The Daily Telegraph was asked to organise a crossword competition to help identify potential recruits. After the competition, each of the participants was contacted and asked to undertake “a particular type of work as a contribution to the war effort.” Those who agreed found themselves sent to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, the home of Britain’s wartime code-breakers.
Bletchley Park had employed several hundred eccentric academics to break the Nazi Enigma codes early in the war, but by the end of 1941 it was desperately trying to expand its operations. The need for fighting men was so great that no one in Whitehall was prepared to release people to work at an obscure Foreign Office department that could not tell anyone what it was doing. Four of the senior code-breakers, Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Stuart Milner-Barry and Hugh Alexander, wrote to Winston Churchill, who was obsessed with the code-breakers and had recently visited them, describing them as “the geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled.”
The letter warned Churchill, “We despair of any early improvement without your intervention.” No one seemed to understand “the importance of what is done here or the urgent necessity of dealing promptly with our requests.” Churchill minuted to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want extreme priority and report to me that this has been done,” he wrote, scrawling across it the warning: “Action this day.”
Shortly afterwards, clever young men and women from the universities began arriving at Bletchley. But they were not enough and, spurred on by Churchill’s minute, military intelligence chiefs looked for new ways of finding recruits. When the publication of the 5,000th Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle led to a spate of correspondence on the paper’s letters pages, military intelligence spotted a useful source of talent.
Stanley Sedgewick, a Telegraph crossword fan, entered a competition to solve the daily puzzle in less than 12 minutes. The first to complete the crossword was a Mr. Chance from Orpington, Kent, who handed it in after 6 minutes, 3.5 seconds, but unfortunately he had spelt a word wrong and was disqualified. Four other people completed the puzzle within 12 minutes, the fastest being F. H.W. Hawes of Dagenham, Essex (7:58). They included Vera Telfer of Maida Vale, north London (10:39). Sedgewick was one word short when the 12-minute bell rang, “which was disappointing as I had completed that day’s puzzle in the train to Waterloo in under 12 minutes.
“Imagine my surprise when several weeks later, I received a letter marked ‘Confidential’ inviting me to see Col. Nichols of the General Staff ‘on a matter of national importance.'” (Nichols was the head of MI8, the military intelligence department concerned with Bletchley Park, which was referred to by those in the know as BP or Station X.) “I was told, though not so primitively, that chaps with twisted brains like mine might be suitable for a particular type of work as a contribution to the war effort.”
After passing the interview, Sedgewick was sent to Bletchley Park’s training base in Bedford, known locally as “the Spy School,” and then appointed “Temporary Junior Assistant” at the “Government Communications Centre.” He worked in the Air Section, on German weather codes which were used to provide weather forecasts for Bomber Command. He was unaware until shortly after the end of the war that their most important use was as a means of breaking into the Enigma system used by the German Navy. The work made a crucial contribution to winning the Battle of the Atlantic and ensuring that vital sea lines with the U.S.A. were protected.
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.