How a handful of Jewish codebreakers helped win the Great Wars
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How a handful of Jewish codebreakers helped win the Great Wars

A new exhibition in England's pastoral Bletchley Park examines the seminal roles WWI cryptologists played in paving the road for Allied victory in WWII

A reproduction of a Marconi wireless machine is viewed at the opening of 'The Road to Bletchley Park' on July 29, 2015. (Shaun Armstrong)
A reproduction of a Marconi wireless machine is viewed at the opening of 'The Road to Bletchley Park' on July 29, 2015. (Shaun Armstrong)

BUCKINGHAMSHIRE, England — Back in 1929, United States Secretary of State Henry Stimson coined the immortal phrase “Gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail.” So saying, Stimson closed down the State Department’s cryptanalytic office, the legendary Black Chamber.

Fortunately for the outcome of World War II, in which cryptanalysis — code-breaking — played a major role, Stimson, who served under president Herbert Hoover until 1933, later reversed this view.

In a fascinating new exhibition, “The Road to Bletchley Park,” opened last week by Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, at Britain’s codebreaking headquarters, the route to Allied victory in WWII is clearly shown to be a result of work done in Britain and America in the 1914-18 conflict in which Jews played a seminal part.

Bletchley Park, seen in the height of summer, is a beautiful, rolling set of green lawns and a mansion, sited in Buckinghamshire, just 50 miles north of London. The 581-acre estate was bought by the Jewish baronet Sir Herbert Samuel Leon, in 1883. Leon, a part of the Montefiore family, was a Liberal Party politician who lived at Bletchley with his family until his death in 1926. Wife Fanny stayed on until 1938, when part of the site was bought by the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS).

Bletchley became the wartime codebreaking HQ, and current estimates say the work done there shortened WWII by at least two years.

Thanks to an £8 million ($12,498,400) heritage lottery grant, an enormous restora-tion project is underway at Bletchley and it is possible for visitors to walk around some of the revamped huts where coding and codebreaking took place, reliving the sights and sounds of the 1940s’ inhabitants.

Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent (second from left) officially opens 'The Road to Bletchley Park,' escorted by former intelligence officer Sir John Scarlett (far left), chairman of the Bletchley Park Trust, on July 29, 2015. Seen here, the bath in which one codebreaker came up with his best ideas. (courtesy)
Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent (second from left) officially opens ‘The Road to Bletchley Park,’ escorted by former intelligence officer Sir John Scarlett (far left), chairman of the Bletchley Park Trust, on July 29, 2015. Seen here, the bath in which one codebreaker came up with his best ideas. (courtesy)

An imaginative soundscape has been installed: crossing one of the lawns there are the cheers and hits of a wartime baseball match — Britons against Americans — played when an American contingent arrived at Bletchley as the US entered the war in 1941. “Come on, Yank!” calls one of the hidden voices from the trees.

On display in Hut 12, once the personal fiefdom of the most famous of Bletchley’s 1940s codebreakers, Alan Turing, are some extremely rare “Banbury Sheets.” They are a sort of stencil on cards which Hut 8 used to help break German naval messages enciphered on Enigma machines. When two cards were overlaid and the light shone through pre-punched holes, the codebreakers knew there was a repeated letter. The restoration team, working in 2013 and 2014, found the Banbury Sheets — named after the Oxford town where they were printed — stuffed in the roof of the hut, probably as insulation once the codes had been broken.

Commander Alastair Denniston in 1918 (Bletchley Park Trust)
Commander Alastair Denniston in 1918 (Bletchley Park Trust)

As Dr. Joel Greenberg, the biographer of two of Bletchley’s seminal figures, Gordon Welchman and Alastair Denniston, explained that WWII codebreaking would not have been possible without the work done in two separate sites in London in the first global conflict. Welchman is described as the architect of “Ultra Intelligence,” while Denniston was the commander of Bletchley Park from 1940 to 1942. Ultra is the designation given to information received through breaking high-level encrypted enemy radio and teleprinter communications.

“Codebreaking had begun in the 17th century, but the real change came before the First World War with the use of radio to transmit messages,” said Greenberg.

In the early days of WWI, Britain cut all undersea cables viable for use by the Germans. Instead, both sides turned to wireless radio — and encryption of coded messages.

“At first,” said Greenberg, “everyone used codebooks. Machines [such as the world-renowned Enigma] only came later.”

Codebreaking in London was split into two separate ventures, one backed by the army in what became known as MI1(b), set up by the War Office, and Room 40, established by the navy.

William Friedman (National Cryptology Museum US)
William Friedman (National Cryptology Museum US)

Two of the central WWI codebreakers were Jews: American William Friedman and Russian Ernst Fetterlein. Friedman has become famous as the doyen of American cryptology in WWII, but he began his work in the first conflict.

Friedman, born Wolf Friedman in Kishinev, began working on codebreaking in 1915 and became the personal cryptographer for General John Joseph Pershing in France after America entered the war in 1917.

Between the wars Friedman was the go-to man for codebreaking. He assembled a four-man cryptanalysis team (three of whom were Jewish) within the US Signals Intelligence Service, consisting of Abraham Sinkov, Solomon Kullback, Leo Rosen and Frank Rowlett. In April 1943 Friedman spent time at Bletchley Park and his work is acknowledged as crucial to the war effort.

Ernst Fetterlein, who was once Tsar Nicholas of Russia’s cryptologist, fled the country during the 1917 Russian Revolution and ended up working in codebreaking in Britain. Only months before the end of WWI, Fetterlein was one of the handful who worked in Room 40, the Navy’s codebreaking set-up.

Although he retired in 1938, Ernst came out of retirement during WWII to work with the Bletchley Park codebreakers, including his brother, Paul.

“Ernst Fetterlein was working in London intercepting traffic including what was coming from Russia,” said biographer Greenberg. “This section was supposed to have been shut down — but actually they went on working, in secret.”

Sir John Scarlett, former chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), is presently chairman of the Bletchley Park Trust. He escorted the Duke of Kent at the exhibition’s opening.

Two veterans attend the July 29, 2015 opening of World War 1 exhibit, 'The Road to Bletchley Park.' (Shaun Armstrong)
Two veterans attend the July 29, 2015 opening of World War 1 exhibit, ‘The Road to Bletchley Park.’ (Shaun Armstrong)

“This exhibition tells an essential part of the Bletchley Park story. The Great War took place at a time of rapid technological change and innovation. Cable, wireless, codes and codebreaking were central to this revolution. The work of British interception and codebreakers achieved outstanding success. As in World War Two, our country was at the cutting edge of technology, where it always needs to be. In the Great War the foundations were laid, and the leadership prepared, for the triumphs of Bletchley Park,” said Scarlett.

Perhaps the most astonishing part of exhibition is just how few people there were working on breaking codes — not just from Germany but on the other fronts in which Britain was fighting, including the Middle East. On the navy’s Room 40 list there are about 12 “lady translators,” with the whole group amounting to around 30 people. The parallel army group numbered about 50.

A significant number of the WWII codebreakers were Jews — enough to have set up a wartime Zionist Society

In contrast there are thought to have been some 8,000 men and women working at Bletchley Park in WWII, and many have still not been identified.

A significant number of the WWII codebreakers were Jews — enough to have set up a wartime Zionist Society — which was launched by Walter Ettinghausen, who eventually became, as Walter Eytan, director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry between 1948 and 1959, and later Israel’s ambassador to France. Other alumni include Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, and Dame Miriam Rothschild, the internationally renowned botanist.

In walking through Bletchley Park, visitors can be clearly divided into two types: enthusiastic aging veterans, and a huge number of young people, often accompanying grandparents, trying out the interactive codebreaking for themselves.

Twenty-first century gadgets are laid aside as young visitors put themselves in the shoes of the Bletchley Park desk warriors like William Friedman, who helped to win the war with old-fashioned deduction, intuition and intelligence.

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