« Previous | Main | Next »

Codebreakers, spies and double lives: World War II's secret stories

Post categories:

Martin Davidson Martin Davidson | 12:00 UK time, Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Despite our fascination with World War II it never fails to surprise me how many unusual, forgotten or relatively untold stories there still are.

An upcoming series of programmes on BBC Two takes a fascinating look at some of these lesser known tales, focusing on some of the ordinary heroes and debunking some of the myths that still surround famous events.

The series starts with one of the unsung heroes of Bletchley Park.

Although many people are familiar with the story of Alan Turing and Enigma, Codebreakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes reveals the unsung genius of mathematician Bill Tutte.

In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions

A preview of Codebreakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes

Restrictions imposed by the Official Secrets Act mean that experts are only starting to get to grips with how much his codebreaking efforts contributed to Britain's military success at the time, starting with his work cracking the Lorenz code, used by the Nazis and even more sophisticated than the Enigma code.

One of the things I find fascinating about this story is how much of his life Bill must have kept hidden.

Although he is now thought to have been one of the finest intellectual minds of his time, the secrecy of his position meant that he received very little public recognition for his efforts.

Following the war he worked as a university teacher in Waterloo, Canada (teaching the team that created the Blackberry encryption code) but it's almost certain that he continued to live a double life, using his unique number-crunching skills to benefit the British government.

It's an unusual story and one we're excited about.

Over the coming weeks there will be a series of Timewatch specials that look at similarly interesting stories.

In The Most Courageous Raid Of WWII (BBC Two at 9pm on Tuesday, 1 November) Lord Paddy Ashdown (an ex-SBS commando) talks about the 10 commandos who led one of the most daring raids of WWII.

The men canoed almost 70 miles behind enemy lines to blow up enemy ships but only two men survived; the others died of hypothermia or were executed by the Nazis.

Lord Ashdown was particularly keen not to just tell this story but to bring alive the extraordinary lengths that the men had to physically go to in order to achieve their goal.

Working with the Ministry of Defence Lord Ashdown takes part in a reconstruction of events, following the route the men would have taken and explaining the dangers they would have faced on the way.

It's a really moving film and hopefully one that honours all of the brave men that devised and carried out the raid.

Next we take an exclusive look at Operation Zigzag (in Double Agent: The Eddie Chapman Story on BBC Two at 9pm on Tuesday, 15 November), which is one of those 'you couldn't make it up' tales about double agent, self-made conman Eddie Chapman, aka Agent Zigzag.

He was a working class crook who - after a spell in prison having blown up bank safes in the UK - was recruited by the Nazis to put his skills to use destroying British assets.

On his first mission he became a double agent and spent years at the heart of the German military, passing information back to MI5, whilst also living as a German war hero.

Presented by Ben Macintyre (Operation Mincemeat), the programme uses previously classified MI5 files to tell the staggering story of how an average man became one of Britain's most valuable assets.

The final programme, Dam Busters: The Race To Smash The German Dams looks at the story of Dam Busters and tries to overturn some of the most common myths of what has become a legendary event.

All four programmes should give a unique glimpse into some of the lives of men in WWII.

Hope you enjoy them. Do let us know what you think.

Editor's note: The order in which these documentaries were broadcast changed after Martin wrote this post. For times and information for all four programmes, please see the Timewatch episode guide.

Martin Davidson is the commissioning editor for BBC History and Business.

You can listen to Ben Macintyre's story of Agent Zigzag narrated by Damian Lewis on Radio Four Extra - available until Friday, 4 November.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    What a FABULOUS programme - I can only imagine that as time passes and more records are released we will discover more of the incredible work that these men and women did ... really really enjoyed this and am looking forward to the rest of the series ... two thumbs up BBC :)

  • Comment number 2.

    What a beautifully elegant program that was. I am really looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Comment number 3.

    An excellent programme on the unsung heroes of Bletchley Park, but, please, can you dial down the music on these programmes? More often than not it intrudes.

    Background music should be just that - in the background; not in your face as it so often seems to be these days.

  • Comment number 4.

    Just wonder if the programme mentioned real forgotten heroes of Enigma: Marian Adam Rejewski, Jerzy Różycki and Henryk Zygalski. 3 Polish mathematicians that just in 1932 jump-started British reading of Enigma in World War II. Rejewski and his two colleagues developed an assortment of techniques for the regular decryption of Enigma messages. Rejewski's contributions included devising the cryptologic "card catalog," derived using his "cyclometer," and the "cryptologic bomb." Five weeks before the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Rejewski and his colleagues presented their results on Enigma decryption to French and British intelligence representatives.
    As (not particularly patriotic) Pole I find it very sad that in the movie “Enigma” Michael Apted showed the fictitious traitor as Polish, whilst only slight mention is made of the contributions of above forgotten heroes…


  • Comment number 5.

    An amazing programme. My nan was a codebreaker stationed at bletchley and some of the photographs at the beginning of the programme showed her at work-and were also recently featured in history magazine. As a family we only found out what she was doing as late as the late seventies and still do not know the details so this programme was especially exciting for us. My nan is still with us and we have lots of formal and relaxed photos from her tine in bletchley if there is any use for them.

  • Comment number 6.

    An excellent programme that got across the difficult concept of the Lorenz machine. I liked the clever graphics and the clear explanations of the encoding. You also got some of the most recent authors on the subject talking to camera which was also excellent especially the veteran code breaker, I hope I'll be as lucid if I ever reach 90! I also enjoyed the professor who'd spoken to Flowers and the movie footage of Flowers and Tutte of which it would be great to see more. My only quibble is the use of background music at the same time that commentary or speech is happening, personally I find that very distracting, the story of Tunny is pretty dramatic in its own right and doesn't need this such a distraction. When you see achievements of the Bletchley Park organisation you can only wonder at the intellectual power that defeated such a amazingly complex task!
    Kevin Malone Durham.

  • Comment number 7.

    Now this is what the BBC is for.... Great programme

  • Comment number 8.

    I'm with Alexandra81 on this matter. Without input from Polish Cipher Bureau would take absolutely ages to decrypt Enigma units in Bletchley Park.
    Everybody thanked Bletchley Park for helping. Simply mind that simple historical fact and then produce 'heroes' documentaries:

    "In January 1940, the British cryptanalyst Alan Turing spent several days at PC Bruno conferring with his Polish colleagues. He had brought the Poles a full set of Zygalski sheets that had been produced at Bletchley Park by John Jeffreys using Polish-supplied information. On 17 January 1940, the Poles made the first break into wartime Enigma traffic—that from 28 October 1939.

    During this period, until the collapse of France in June 1940, ultimately 83 percent of the Enigma keys that were found, were solved at Bletchley Park, the remaining 17 percent at PC Bruno. Rejewski commented:
    How could it be otherwise, when there were three of us [Polish cryptologists] and [there were] at least several hundred British cryptologists, since about 10,000 people worked in Bletchley... Besides, recovery of keys also depended on the amount of intercepted cipher material, and that amount was far greater on the British side than on the French side. Finally, in France (by contrast with the work in Poland) we ourselves not only sought for the daily keys, but after finding the key also read the messages.... One can only be surprised that the Poles had as many as 17 percent of the keys to their credit."

  • Comment number 9.

    Great to see coverage again for Bletchley Park. My uncle has been doing talks about Morse Code there.

    But more important you mention the upcoming programme about Zig Zag. I would love the BBC to focus a history programme on my godfather. CODE NAME: TATE (Harry Williamson).
    He was parachuted into England at midnight on 19th September and landed a couple of mins into 20th September, injured. Spoke many languages fluently and was a photographer , excellent horseman .
    Tiny, quiet man. Was captured in the pub by home guard and went on to become a very famous double agent, getting 2 iron crosses I understand. HIs German family still do not believe he became a British Agent. He was famous for sending cheeky messages to Hitler and his instrumental part in giving false info. Best part of the story , for me. He was my adored godfather and my parents chose him without a single person in GB knowing his secret past...the date I was born (and no wonder he never forgot my birthday). 20th SEptember....the day (not the year I hasten to add) that his parachute landed. Talk about co-incidence. Forget REilly ace of spies, this story has it all !

  • Comment number 10.

    The new material revealed in this programme was fascinating and the dialogue excellent. However the background music never seemed to stop, suffered from a lack of coherence and was generally poorly chosen. This feature really ruined the programme for me by creating a major distraction and obscuring the complex story. Whatever happened to the "less is more" principle?

  • Comment number 11.

    Great programme. I was introduced to Tommy Flowers back sometime round 1970 when he visited our research labs in Harlow. At the time I was told it was a great honour to meet him, but that no-one was allowed to tell me why. He seemed a modest kindly man. Good to hear the story now it can be told.

  • Comment number 12.

    I really enjoyed this programme, and in fact was so enraptured I didn't notice the background music some other posts refer to as imposing. My mother, Minnie Dobbs Watt. later "Ovington", (my father a Naval officer), was a wren, and during those years worked at Bletchley, although I don't know in what capacity, or specific dates. My older sister told me in the new millenium, that she had been told by my mother in the 80's just before she died, of her involvement, but little else. Official secrets acts were taken, of course, very seriously by all involved it seems. I have contacted the Bletchley park organisation and it was confirmed that indeed there was a telephone line attributed to my mothers name. I understand I can enquire further and intend to do so. But Gosh, didn't the whole operation cost such emotion and frustration to so many after the war was over. Tommy Flowers having to hear that the Americans announcing to the world well after the Bletchley work, that they had built Eniac, the first of it's kind!
    Recognition to the key members being suppressed, and hidden for a long time. I do however can understand the reasons why, and I'm pretty sure they all did as well.

    I must say, Thanks to you all, indeed many, many thanks, to the persistent, commited people who made a contribution at Bletchley. Without your skills and courage, the outcome of WW2 would have been very different.

  • Comment number 13.

    A really enjoyable programme - more of this calibre needed please!
    Also, i find it incomprehensible that a Nazi scientiest such as Von Brown could become a celebrated hero of post war America, when our own heroes of World War II went unnoticed and unrewarded (and even hounded to death ie, Alan Turin) by our own kind.

  • Comment number 14.

    On a personal note about Bill Tutte.My mother and Bill's mother were friends who met because my father used to lodge with the Tutte family in Cheveley ( Cambs) when he came into the area to work in the studs.I have a vague memory of Bill visiting us probably with his mother at a later date when he might have been at Cambridge before he left for Canada.I was a young boy at the time and never spoke to him. My memory of him is sitting in the garden reading quietly.
    I have always been fascinated by his life and being the only time I was in the presence of such a gifted man.

  • Comment number 15.

    I forgot to add that I was to follow Bill Tutte to Bletchley Park but unlike Bill I followed a more humble role as a Post Office Counter Clerk Trainee.I was to return to additional Post Office training courses

  • Comment number 16.

    Reply to Totallyfoxed comment:
    Someone I know has a collection of WWII radio sets - one German - found in a house clearance in Wales. Is this any connection to your God father?

  • Comment number 17.

    An awesome programme and a better-late-than-never tribute to geniuses like Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers.
    In the best traditions of the useless British establishment, you can guarantee that the paper-clip counters of this era would have been lauded, decorated and dined while true heroes like Tutte and Flowers were overlooked and unrewarded.

  • Comment number 18.

    I live quite near to Bletchley Park (Northampton). Have been once some years ago. A great day out. Time to pay another visit!
    BTW, Collossus would be classified as an 'Expert system' nowadays i.e. built to carry out a special task. I think it is still reasonable regard the American machine as the first system that was the true equivalent of modern computers.
    Tommy Flowers, Bill Tutte and others deserve credit for something far more important. The many lives they saved! We all owe them a great debt.

  • Comment number 19.

    Fantastic program , nearly ruined by the extremely distracting visual eye candy and the intrusive, less than background, music and a noise that I imagine must be pretty similar to tinnitus

  • Comment number 20.

    Makes me really ashamed that young people now do things like Big Brother or TOWIE when you saw what these people were doing with their lives! Thanks goodness for them. Really interesting show - the music that everyone is complaining about - one was a song from a commercial that I now can't stop humming - does anyone know what the songs were?

  • Comment number 21.

    I'd like to separate the content from the presentation before commenting in depth. The content was fine, some of it had been covered before by Jeremy Clarkson in 2004 in The Computer, part of Inventions That Changed The World on BBC2 in which he talked at length about Tommy Flowers, Dollis Hill and Bletchley Park. The narration by Keeley Hawes, of which more later, implies that this programme is the first to reveal these facts but it is not. Clarkson did not talk about Bill Tutte or Cpt Jerry Roberts but he did talk about Tommy Flowers and his work.
    The comment above by nirupamab which mentions "extremely distracting visual eye candy" ties in exactly with my own criticism of what might otherwise have been a good documentary. I am under the impression that were this padding to be removed the programme might have been shortened by a good ten minutes without sacrificing content.
    The other thing I found distracting was the constant use of visual reinforcements interrupting the speakers. If a man says there was a leaking radiator I do not need to be shown a leaking radiator, I understand the words. There was a lot of that.
    The story of the code breaking, of Bill Tutte, Tommy Flowers and others was fascinating as others have said above, and I really would like to agree with those sentiments. But as a documentary I thought that Keeley Hawes was the wrong choice as narrator, that the script she had to read was poor, inaccurate in places and often patronising, and that the documentary could be remade to a much higher standard without losing any of the historical content.
    In summary great content poor delivery.

  • Comment number 22.

    Music too loud. Great programme but the music spoiled it for me. The choice was ok but it was much too loud.

  • Comment number 23.

    Fascinating story, but as other people have said, the background music spoiled it. I guess there would have been a lot of elderly people, perhaps with hearing difficulties, who wouldn't have had a hope of been able to follow some of what was being said. I am in my twenties and found bits of it tiring to follow.

  • Comment number 24.

    Operation Frankton, tonight's programme, is one of those bits of real history which has inspired stories that I've written. A very different world, but I hope my invented characters display some of the skill and determination which these real people showed. And if you want your invented characters to be larger than life, turning the dial up to 11 just isn't enough.

  • Comment number 25.

    A superb programme - I was enthralled throughout.

    However, there is a problem with the maths at 13:30 which undersells the achievement of the code-breakers.

    The programme describes the number of wheel combinations as being:
    23 * 26 * 29 * 31 * 37 * 41 * 43 * 47 * 51 * 53 * 59 * 61
    = 1,600,000,000,000,000 (1.6 million billion)

    In fact, if you multiply this out, the result is:
    = 16,033,955,073,056,318,658 (16 billion billion)

    about ten thousand times greater than claimed in the programme.

  • Comment number 26.

    Cockleshell was an excellent programme but sad it did not show that Marine David Moffatt was living in Halifax, only that he was born in Belfast

  • Comment number 27.

    Managed to just catch the first half of Code-Breakers: Bletchley Park's Lost Heroes on iPlayer (I've been away) and the episode "timed-out" at midnight, so I'm unable to watch the remainder today. I don't suppose anyone knows if/when this will be re-shown or if the series is likely to be made available for purchase on DVD?

  • Comment number 28.

    Hi, Martin Davidson, commissioning editor here; I am really thrilled so many of you managed to catch this film, and that the majority seemed to have both enjoyed it and found there was a lot that was new to you in the story of Tutte and Flowers.

    It was certainly new to me! I was both enthralled by the detail of the code-breaking, but also moved by the fact their names -- and their achievements -- might now be more familiar than they were before the film went out. I appreciate that there are many people who are deeply ensconced in the Bletchley story, and way ahead of the rest of us on the detail, and the personalities.

    YESTWINS – thank you so much too for volunteering the example of your nan – and the information about the photographs featuring her at work! I will talk to my Online colleagues and see if we cant find somewhere to digitise and make them available (should you want that).

    To ALEKSANDRA81, and ECHO4 who drew attention to the amazing role played by Polish cryptologists – many thanks. You are quite right of course, and the next time we address the Enigma story, we will be sure to reiterate this point.

    But sometimes Television's job is to play 'catch-up' for the two million people or so who have only the sketchiest of knowledge about episodes like this. That is why, inevitably, there are those who find the level of commentary to be too basic. It's not intended to be! We are concerned only to offer the broadest invitation to as many of our viewers as possible -- and that is why we try to make the film as attractive and compelling as possible. Which brings me to the issue of "eye-candy" and "music".

    To Nirumapab,and Piecesofeight, sorry the visuals annoyed you. Ironically, the use of cut-away shots (leaking radiators etc) is actually there to make the film SHORTER, not longer (it allows us to cover cuts in the interviews). I realise that sometimes that can appear a bit literal, but I am a great believer in seeing the thing itself -- be it location, or in this case, code-making (and breaking) machines -- and far prefer this to endless shots of talking heads.

    As for background music – clearly an issue for a lot of people, (Geoff Coupe, M81Group, and others); we have to strike a balance, and we always do our best to try and achieve this. You can find some more information about the BBC's work around audibility here http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2011/03/is-the-background-music-too-loud.shtml

    I feel background music contributes hugely to atmosphere and pace - which is why music has been an ingredient in films for as long as films have existed. However, it is clear that a number of you found the background music a little distracting. I have therefore asked the producers of the remaining films to do their best to lower music levels, especially when they coincide with the spoken voice – (anyone who saw Paddy Ashdown on Operation Frankton, aka, Cockleshell Heroes, will, I hope, have found the dialogue much easier to hear, as we deliberately kept the music much lower). I think that the new generation of flat-screen televisions make the problem much worse – they are very thin which makes their loudspeakers much less effective than was the case with the older cathode ray tvs.

    TOTALLYFOXED – wow, your godfather’s story sounds astonishing!

    Agent Sabrina – I couldn’t agree more! To see von Braun so lionised – or even how armaments minister Albert Speer cooked up a life of fame and fortune for himself after release from prison, playing the wise penitent – is particularly galling when compared to the silence imposed on Tutte, Flowers, and thousands like them. But, it was their capacity to keep that silence that made them such good operatives in the first place. But it is scant consolation, I realise.

    Thanks for all your comments and I look forward to hearing what you have to say about the remaining films in the run.

  • Comment number 29.

    Hi Martin
    Thanks for your reply. It has been an excellent series – will it be out on DVD in the near future? Also, will you be doing further World War II series? If so I have some suggestions: The German Admiral Canaris and the Schwarze Kapelle that involved the German plot to assassinate Hitler; also Field Marshal Erwin Rommel another fascinating character. I find the German and British intelligence services fascinating in their involvement with each other.
    Thanks and all the best, Agent Sabrina


More from this blog...

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.