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Authors: Michael Smith

The Secrets of Station X

BOOK: The Secrets of Station X
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Praise for Michael Smith from former Bletchley Park codebreakers:


‘I’m delighted and astonished by
Station X
. Michael Smith has caught so well the mixture of nuttiness, angst, hard slog, irritation and euphoria.’ Susan Wenham, Hut 6 cryptographer, breaking German army and Luftwaffe Enigma.


‘Gives a more comprehensive picture of the wartime activities of myself and my colleagues than any other book on Bletchley Park.’ Jimmy Thirsk, Sixta Log Reader analysing German radio
for Hut 6.


‘A thoroughly enjoyable read and a wonderful reminiscence of times gone by. It brought it all back.’ Pat Wright (née Bing) Hut 8 Type-X Operator, deciphering naval Enigma messages.


‘Michael Smith has made a brilliant job of drawing together an
amount of first-hand evidence to produce the first connected account of BP.’ John Herivel, Hut 6 cryptographer and originator of the Herivel Tip, which broke the main Enigma cypher.


‘Wonderfully enjoyable.
Station X
is very well researched and one of the best books around on Bletchley Park.’ Barbara Eachus (am Abernethy), former secretary to Alistair Denniston, Head of GC&CS, and one of the few surviving members of Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party.

must thank a number of people for their assistance in the
of this book, most notably Simon Greenish, Kelsey Griffin and the staff and volunteers of the Bletchley Park Trust, who work so hard to keep the memory of the codebreakers alive. I am particularly grateful to the late Keith Batey, and to Mavis Batey, Bill Bonsall, Frank Carter and Brian Oakley for their assistance on technical matters, although I would like to stress that any errors that appear in this book are mine alone. I would also like to thank all the former codebreakers I have interviewed over the past fourteen years and whose memories appear in this book. The work of Bletchley Park codebreakers undoubtedly did much to assist the Allies in winning the war. This book is an unashamed tribute to them and the astonishing organisation that Bletchley Park was.

I thank the Bletchley Park Trust for providing most of the photographs used in this book, Iain Dale and James Stephens at Biteback for their support and their work on this project, Hollie Teague for a superlative piece of editing and Namkwan Cho for a brilliant cover. Thanks are also due to my agent Robert Kirby and to my wife Hayley who, as ever, suffered far more than the author while this book was being written.


Michael Smith, July 2011

he sudden increase in activity up at the old Leon estate led to a great deal of excitement in the sleepy Buckinghamshire town of Bletchley in the last few months of 1938. Amid the
situation in Europe, where war with Hitler and Nazi Germany seemed unavoidable, there was no shortage of
as to why workmen might be so busy laying concrete, installing a new water main, digging in power cables and laying telephone lines to connect the old mansion house at Bletchley Park to Whitehall's corridors of power.

Then there was that rather odd-looking group of people, mainly middle-aged ‘professor types' accompanied by
young women, who arrived at the Park in August 1938. They stayed in local hotels and called themselves ‘Captain Ridley's Shooting Party', as if they were there for a weekend in the country. No one in Bletchley was fooled by such a fancy name. Something very odd and very ‘hush-hush' was going on up at the Park.

The small town of Bletchley had been a tiny hamlet until the arrival of the locomotive turned it into a major railway junction in the mid-nineteenth century. The estate itself had been owned by the Leon family since 1883, when the wealthy city financier Herbert Leon bought it as a country estate. He built a mansion house and used his money and influence to turn himself into a pillar of the local community, first as Liberal Member of Parliament for Buckingham and later as a minor member of the aristocracy. But when he and his wife Fanny died the estate was sold off to a builder who wanted to demolish the mansion
and build on the land. The removal of the mansion would certainly have been no loss to Britain's architectural heritage. It was an ugly mix of mock-Tudor and Gothic styles, built in red brick and dominated on one side by a large copper dome turned green by exposure to the elements. The grounds around the mansion were more pleasant. It looked out over a small lake, rose gardens, a ha-ha and even a maze, all put in place by the Leon family.

As war loomed and Members of Parliament worried over the country's lack of air defences in the face of increasingly warlike noises from Germany, the mansion was rescued from the demolition ball. A mysterious government official paid the then enormous sum of
6,000 to buy the entire estate and an army of workmen moved in. The story was put about that the mysterious new owner had bought Bletchley Park on behalf of the government to turn it into an air defence training school. The
Bletchley District Gazette
told its readers that this story had been dismissed out of hand by its sources in Whitehall, but whenever the subject was broached with any of the new arrivals they insisted they were working on Britain's air defences. Who knew what the truth was? Whatever it might be, it was clearly related to the threat of war, and very, very ‘hush-hush'.

It was in fact far more secret than anyone then living in Bletchley was ever likely to imagine. In June 1938, Bletchley Park had been bought by Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, the head of the Secret Intelligence Service – now known as MI6 – to be used as a ‘war station' for various parts of his organisation, which were scheduled to be evacuated from London in the event of war to remove them from the threat of German
. ‘Sinclair bought Bletchley Park out of his own pocket,' said a former MI6 officer who later worked as the service's archivist. ‘He could not get any joy out of the War Office or anyone else to provide him with a site so he went and bought it. We know he paid for it, we're not even sure if he was ever repaid. He died soon afterwards, so he probably wasn't.' Sinclair left the estate
to his sister Evelyn, which suggests that he had not been paid back, since he could scarcely have left her something he did not own. But he was a wealthy man and he and his sister were extremely close. She shared in the family fortune and had no more need of the money than he did. She had in fact joined the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) before the war began and was one of those sent to Bletchley Park. There is no doubt that she would have been aware of what Sinclair wanted to happen to the estate and she swiftly signed it over to the chief administrative and financial officers of MI6, Captain William Ridley RN and Paymaster-Commander Percy Sykes.

Sinclair certainly planned for Bletchley Park to be the wartime home of the vast bulk of MI6, to keep them safe from German bombs and spies. One group destined to move to the Park at the start of the war mirrored the work of James Bond's ‘Q', designing special explosive gadgets for British secret service officers tasked with sabotaging the German war effort. Another included the communications experts who had equipped Britain's spies abroad with wireless sets to cut the time it took to obtain their intelligence reports and ran the wireless network, together with the ‘decoders' who unravelled the messages the British secret agents sent back to London. By far the most secretive of the people Sinclair intended to send to Bletchley were the government's top secret codebreakers, whose
was virtually unknown to all bar the most senior officials in Whitehall.

The British had been renowned as expert codebreakers since the fourteenth century when King Edward II ordered the seizure of ‘all letters coming from or going to parts beyond the seas'. A royal writ dated 18 December 1324 reminded ports officials that it was part of their duties to ‘make diligent scrutiny of all persons passing from parts beyond the seas to England to stop all letters concerning which sinister suspicions might arise'. By the sixteenth century, the British were infamous for their interception of diplomatic correspondence, with the
Venetian Ambassador to Britain complaining that ‘the letters received by me had been taken out of the hands of the courier at Canterbury by the royal officials and opened and read'. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster, set up a decyphering department in his London home under the
of John Dee, the Queen's astrologer, to detect Spanish intrigues. Walsingham's codebreakers foiled the Babington plot, which aimed to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots and was the main cause of the latter's execution.

John Thurloe, who was Oliver Cromwell's spymaster, placed a ‘Secret Man' in the Post Office to intercept suspicious mail, a process authorised by Parliament ‘to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs'. During the eighteenth century, the Foreign Office had a ‘Secret Department' which monitored the correspondence of foreign diplomats based in London and had its own ‘Secret Decyphering Branch', run by the Reverend Edward Willes, an Oxford don who later became the Bishop of Bath and Wells and who was succeeded by other members of his family. The vast majority of the secret messages they read were Russian, Swedish or French, reflecting Britain's main enemies at the time, but the branch was closed down in 1847 to save cash with one official complaining that the then incumbent, the bishop's grandson Francis Willes, had cracked ‘scarcely any' codes and was merely ‘a fraudulent trickster who leads a life of pleasure and relaxation at his home in Hanger Hill out of sight of the office.'

The First World War and the military use of the new
of the wireless led to an inevitable resumption of British interception of other countries' messages. The War Office used the excuse of ‘censorship' to obtain the diplomatic
transmitted by relay stations of international telegraph companies based in British territory, setting up a codebreaking operation to decypher the secret messages. The British Army intercepted German military wireless communications with a great deal of success. E. W. B. Gill, one of the Army officers
involved in decoding the messages, recalled that ‘the orderly Teutonic mind was especially suited for devising schemes which any child could unravel'. One of the most notable successes for the British cryptanalysts came in December 1916 when the commander of the German Middle East signals operation sent a drunken message to all his operators wishing them a Merry Christmas. With little other activity taking place over the Christmas period, the same isolated and clearly identical message was sent out in six different codes, only one of which, up until that point, the British had managed to break.

The Army codebreaking operation became known as MI1b and was commanded by Major Malcolm Hay, a noted historian and eminent academic. It enjoyed a somewhat fractious
with its junior counterpart in the Admiralty, formally the Naval Intelligence Department 25 (NID25) but much better known as Room 40, after the office in the Old Admiralty Buildings in Whitehall that it occupied. Room 40 was set up shortly after the start of the war on the orders of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill directed that Sir Alfred Ewing, the Navy's Director of Education, who had dabbled in codes and cyphers as a hobby before the war, should lead the codebreakers:

An officer should be selected to study all the decoded intercepts, not only current but past, and to compare them continually with what actually took place in order to penetrate the German mind and movements and make reports. The officer selected is for the present to do no other work. I shall be obliged if Sir Alfred Ewing will associate himself continuously with this work.

Ewing set up a series of listening stations around the
, all manned by the Post Office. He also recruited a small number of language experts, firstly from the Naval colleges at Dartmouth and Osborne and then from the universities. One
of the first of these naval instructors turned codebreakers was Alastair Denniston, a diminutive Scot known to his colleagues as A.G.D. and by close friends as Liza, who would become the first head of Bletchley Park. But by far the most
source of codebreakers was the universities. Ewing went back to his old college, King's, Cambridge, to bring in two Old Etonians: Dillwyn ‘Dilly' Knox, one of the most brilliant and most eccentric of the codebreakers, and Frank Birch, a talented comic and famous actor, who would later appear in
at the London Palladium as Widow Twanky in
. Other eminent recruits, almost entirely Old Etonians, included William ‘Nobby' Clarke, a lawyer whose father had been Solicitor-General and had represented Oscar Wilde during his 1885 trial for gross indecency, and Nigel de Grey, a publisher whose diminutive stature and unassuming nature led the more extrovert Birch to dub him ‘the Dormouse'. It was de Grey who is credited with giving Room 40 its greatest First World War triumph: the decyphering of the so-called Zimmermann Telegram (although it was in fact Knox who initially broke into the cypher). The telegram showed that Germany had asked Mexico to join an alliance against the United States,
Mexico's ‘lost territory' in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in return, and brought the United States into the war.

There was little or no cooperation between the Army and navy codebreaking departments, with Denniston, who ran Room 40 at the end of the First World War, lamenting the turf war between the two organisations: ‘Looking back over the work of those years, the loss of efficiency to both departments caused originally by mere official jealousy is the most regrettable fact in the development of intelligence based on cryptography.' The Army and Navy codebreakers did eventually begin to exchange results in 1917, but there remained little love lost.

At the end of the First World War, there were a number of people within Whitehall who were keen to axe the codebreakers as part of a peace dividend. But they were far outnumbered by
those anxious not to lose the intelligence that the
had been producing. The Army and Navy codebreaking operations were amalgamated into a single organisation in 1919. Denniston was given charge of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), as it was to be known, with a staff of just over fifty employees, around half of whom were actual codebreakers.

‘The public function was “to advise as to the security of codes and cyphers used by all government departments and to assist in their provision”,' Denniston later recalled. ‘The secret directive was “to study the methods of cypher communications used by foreign powers”.'

The main source of those communications was the
cable companies, who were told to continue to pass over diplomatic telegrams to GC&CS which copied them and returned them within twenty-four hours. ‘Secrecy is essential,' noted Lord Curzon, the then Foreign Secretary. ‘It must be remembered that the companies who still supply the original messages to us regard the intervention of the government with much suspicion and some ill-will. It is important to leave this part of our activity to the deepest possible obscurity.' Amid concern that the process could fall apart if any of the telegraph companies chose to object, a clause was inserted into the 1920 Official Secrets Act allowing the Home Secretary to order the companies to hand over the cables to the codebreakers. Two Royal Navy intercept sites at Pembroke in South Wales and Scarborough, Yorkshire, also provided GC&CS with coded wireless messages.

GC&CS came under the control of the Director of Naval Intelligence Admiral Hugh Sinclair, a noted bon-viveur who installed it in London's fashionable Strand, close to the Savoy Grill, his favourite restaurant. It worked almost entirely on the diplomatic telegrams handed over by the commercial cable companies. The main target countries for the codebreakers were America, France, Japan and Russia, with the last providing
what Denniston said was ‘the only real operational intelligence'. When Sinclair was transferred to another post, in 1921, the Admiralty handed GC&CS over to the Foreign Office. The codebreakers moved to Queen's Gate, Knightsbridge, and were told to forget about military and naval communications and concentrate on decyphering the diplomatic cables, not just of Britain's enemies, but also of some of its friends. ‘It was a very small organisation for the Treasury had, throughout the
, been insistent on cutting down the expense,' recalled Nobby Clarke.

BOOK: The Secrets of Station X
12.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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