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

Tuesday 25 October 2011, 13:00

Martin Davidson Martin Davidson Commissioning Editor, History

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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.

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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.

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  • rate this

    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 :)

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    Comment number 2.

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

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    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.

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    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…

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    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.

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    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.

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    Comment number 7.

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

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    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."

  • rate this

    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 !

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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

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    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?

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    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.

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    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.

  • rate this

    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

  • rate this

    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?


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