Captain Jerry Roberts
“Without him – we would have lost the war”
As thousands of people sign a petition calling for a posthumous pardon for Alan Turing, one of his colleagues tells us just how important he was.
Thousands of people have now signed a petition on the Downing Street Website, initiated by computer scientist John Graham-Cumming, calling for a posthumous pardon for World War II codebreaker Alan Turing, one of Bletchley Park's top cryptographers, and the man who cracked the supposedly impregnable codes created on the German Enigma and Lorenz machines.
Captain Jerry Roberts: 1941-45
This work, and indeed the work of all the codebreakers at Bletchley, both changed the course of the war and probably also shortened it by at least a year. In addition, you can also thank Turing for the fact that you are reading this on a computer screen, because the work he did in the 1930s laid the groundwork for computer science.
However, in 1952 he was prosecuted for being gay. His “treatment” was experimental chemical castration and his security privileges were removed, meaning he could not continue work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters. Two years later he killed himself by eating an apple coated in cyanide.
Captain Jerry Roberts was one of his code cracking colleagues at Bletchley Park. The German linguist was one of three original cryptographers and a founding member and linguist of the Testery, a department set up in July 1942 under Major Ralph Tester to break messages enciphered on the ‘Tunny’ cypher system used by the top levels of the German army.
Captain Roberts is passionate about how Alan Turing and the other codebreakers were poorly treated after the war. He told BBC Three Counties Helen Legh more about the legacy of Turing and his work during the war:
You feel strongly about how Alan Turing was treated after the war don’t you?
Captain Jerry Roberts: I think it was terrible. You have to understand the measure of what Turing did. Early in the war, in 1939, he had broken the Enigma used by the Luftwaffe and the German army but he’d been unable to break the naval Enigma.
In 1940/41 the German U-boats were sinking our food ships and our ships bringing in armaments left right and centre, and there was nothing to stop this until Turing managed to break naval Enigma, as used by the U-boats. We then knew where the U-boats were positioned in the Atlantic and our convoys could avoid them.
If that hadn’t happened, it is entirely possible, even probable, that Britain would have been starved and would have lost the war.
A number of your colleagues were unsung heroes because of the secrecy surrounding the work of Bletchley Park. Should Alan Turing be singled out do you think?
Captain Jerry Roberts: Yes, because without him, I, and many people are convinced that we would have lost the war.
The other heroes are two men whose names are hardly known at all – one was Bill Tutt – he broke the other major cypher system which was called ‘Tunny’ which was used by the top levels in the German army, the really top people at the Berlin headquarters sending messages to and from the top generals on the various fronts – the Western Front, Italy and Russia. This was absolutely vital information. The Tunny system had been ordered by Hitler in 1940 I think, especially for communications between these top people. It was like listening to the generals on the telephone discussing their problems and most of all, telling us what their decisions were.
Do you think that all the secrecy surrounding the work of Bletchley Park has held back the honour that you and so many other people think should be bestowed on people like Alan Turing?
Captain Jerry Roberts: Yes, it is undoubtedly so. On the other hand, don’t forget that the story of Turing has been in the open for 35 years and nobody has done anything whatsoever about it. He has not received any honour in the meantime – in 35 years.
Thousands of people have now signed a petition calling for a pardon for him. Do you agree that he deserves a public apology?
Captain Jerry Roberts: I certainly do. And he deserves some recognition. I don’t know whether there can be such a thing as a posthumous knighthood – but he should get it. We owe a great deal to him. Can you imagine what life would have been like under the Nazis?
What’s your abiding memory of Alan Turing?
Captain Jerry Roberts: I used to see him sometimes at Bletchley, he was a very shy man, a very diffident man. I used to see him sometimes walking along the corridor flicking the wall with his fingers with his look averted from people. He was very sociable among people of his own kind but for the generality of people, he really had no time for them.
Was he known for being a particularly intelligent man?
Captain Jerry Roberts: Oh yes, his intelligence was recognised by the people who knew what he had done, and he had very good recognition at Bletchley Park.
Captain Jerry Roberts
There are wonderful stories about Turing! One of my favourite ones was that his billet was about four miles away from Bletchley and he used to cycle into work but he also used to suffer from hayfever. In the spring when his hayfever was bad he was seen cycling along wearing his gas mask to keep the pollen out. He was enormously sensible and logical.
There is talk that if he should have this posthumous pardon, if he gets an apology for being prosecuted in 1952 for being homosexual, then that would suggest that every man who was ever prosecuted for being gay should also get one. Do you think that sits ok?
Captain Jerry Roberts: I put the boot on the other foot. It’s not a matter of pardon, it’s a matter of giving him some high honour. You must understand in the 18th century when John Churchill deserved well of the country, they made him Duke of Marlborough, and a century later Wellington was made Duke of Wellington. I don’t suggest that Alan Turing be made Duke of Dollis Hill, but something should be done to raise his stature to what it truly was – that emphatically should be done.
The question of a pardon is complicated because as you say, you may have to pardon all sorts of other people. I haven’t had time to look into the rights and wrongs of that but my initial instinct is to say ‘yes, by all means [pardon them], they were not committing any crime’.
last updated: 15/09/2009 at 16:37