back to article Bletchley Park remembers 'forgotten genius' Gordon Welchman

An exhibition has been launched at Bletchley Park to commemorate the work of Cambridge lecturer and "forgotten genius" Gordon Welchman at Britain's wartime codebreaking centre. Titled Gordon Welchman: Bletchley Park's Architect of Ultra Intelligence, the exhibition is based on the book of the same name by the great man's …

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  1. Vulch

    Welchman was recruited from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and in turn recruited several colleagues and former students from there.

    http://www.sid.cam.ac.uk/life/news/800/sidney-and-the-codebreakers-of-bletchley-park.html

  2. jason 7 Silver badge

    Please can we keep the accolades coming...

    ...for as many of these great people as we can please.

    As it does appear to be one of the greatest team efforts (even if many of them didn't know the whole game the others were playing) ever.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. phil dude
        IT Angle

        Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

        @Arnaut the less: "Our Manhattan Project, without the bad knock on effects."

        The Manhattan Project contributed to giving us digital computers as well as the myriad of other scientific technologies. Granted the *mission* was a big bang to project military aims, but ultimately saved a great number of lives. A bit like Bletchley, the *mission* was breaking codes, but the other spinoff's are probably greater.

        To those that have not been, I recommend a visit, it is quite fascinating.

        P.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

          "The Manhattan Project contributed to giving us digital computers as well as the myriad of other scientific technologies."

          It used IBM machines and Feynman's group found innovative ways of putting cards through the machines on overlapping cycles, but I was not aware that the MP actually contributed in any way to digital computing. Numerical methods yes.

          "but ultimately saved a great number of lives"

          The jury is very, very out on this one. It is not at all clear that Japan would not have surrendered due to blockade efficiency and Russia being free to enter the war in the East. Max Hastings concluded that the bombs were dropped basically because the US had them and the military machine simply worked on the assumption they would be used - after all they had a very limited shelf life and if they were not used would become useless as the fuel degraded.

          The bombs were developed too late to have any effect on the outcome of WW2. They did have an effect on the post-war era; an arms race that came close to nuclear disaster.

          However, the Radiation Laboratory contributed to radar, and it, Bletchley and Flowers contributed greatly to the development of electronics that brought about digital processing. These had an effect on the outcome of the war from fairly early on (the development of the cavity magnetron was separate). Without Bletchley Britain might have starved and without the Radiation Laboratory the American advance across the Pacific might have been much slower.

          The Manhattan Project was mainly, in terms of cost, about chemistry; isotope separation in particular. It consumed mathematical talent but its mathematical output was, basically, the design of warheads and the prediction of their effects.

          1. Chris Miller

            @Arnaut

            would become useless as the fuel degraded

            Pu239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, and U235 over 700 million years, so I don't think that this would have been much of a problem. Are you perhaps thinking of some later, thermonuclear devices that made use of tritium, which does indeed decay relatively rapidly, having a half-life of 12 years?

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: @Arnaut

              I was thinking mainly of the Po-210 in the trigger of the plutonium bomb, actually.

              But there were other shelf life issues beyond simple radioactive decay. There is a surprising amount of stuff now available on the web about all this.

            2. Alan Brown Silver badge

              Re: @Arnaut

              "Are you perhaps thinking of some later, thermonuclear devices that made use of tritium"

              I suspect he's thinking more of the relatively unstable explosives inside the initial weapons and the masses of duct tape holding their internals together.

          2. KA1AXY

            Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

            Had the bomb not been dropped on Japan, my father would have been part of the invasion force and I very likely would not be writing this. As it was, he had nightmares about the fighting in the Pacific (1st Marines) until his death. No PTSD back then.

            Mum served in the Navy at Nebraska Ave, and while we knew she had been doing work with codes, she never bothered to mention that the codes had belonged to someone else. Both parents went on to other government service, until I was born. My dad remained in government until his death.

            Greatest generation, indeed. They deserve all our thanks and respect.

            1. Jan 0 Silver badge

              Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

              I think you'll find that the bombs were dropped to discourage the 500,000 Russian troops from invading Japan. Would there have been a simultaneous US invasion? How many troops did the US have massed for the invasion?

              Respect and commiserations for your dad (and all the others), by the way.

              1. Andromeda451

                Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

                Some estimates were 2M US soldiers in the invasion force. We weren't there so armchair quarterbacking the war and the dropping of the bombs is nothing but mental masturbation. The fact that the empire of Japan was training schoolchildren to attack soldiers with sharpened sticks lends lie to the thought they would have surrendered. The dropping of the two weapons saved Japan from utter annihilation, one they may not have recovered from to this day.

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

              "Had the bomb not been dropped on Japan, my father would have been part of the invasion force and I very likely would not be writing this."

              My father was sent out there as part of the proposed invasion force (he had had combined ops training and been on D-day and was one of the relatively few of them who survived in good condition.)

              It was pretty apparent that the blockade was working and the Japanese were being rolled up everywhere. The fact that two bombs could be dropped from aircraft itself demonstrates that the Japanese no longer had a credible air defence, because if they had done, the risk would not have been taken of them being shot down and the bombs recovered by the Japanese. Long before the bombs were dropped, his service in the East had turned into cruising around river deltas sinking Japanese boats.

              The bombs were dropped partly so the US could end the war with Japan, before the Russians released from their Western front could invade Japan and bring it into the Communist world. So they might have had a strategic effect but it was political, not military.

              (The nearest my father came to getting killed in the East was the victory celebrations when he came back to his boat drunk from the Admiral's party, fell in and had to be fished out by his CPO.)

              Bottom line: In terms of defeating the Axis in WW2, the Manahttan Project was a sideshow.

          3. Yes Me Silver badge

            Numerical methods yes.

            It was because von Neumann was working on numerical analysis of simulated chain reactions that he got very interested when he heard about the ENIAC and muscled in on that project and later the EDVAC. But ENIAC itself was too late to actually help the Manhattan project which only used electromechanical calculators.

          4. Julz Silver badge

            Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

            @Arnaut Monte Carlo simulations... No whether you think that their use in share trading is for the greater good or not is debatable but at least the weather forecasts are more reliable.

          5. Charles Manning

            Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

            Amaut, you went off script. You're supposed to just shut up and drink the Kool Aid.

            There was a mad rush to get those bombs built. Once USA had those bombs they were going to drop them come hell or high water.

            Any reasonable bunch of people would have sent the Japanese a few film reels showing what the bomb could do (on a test range) and use that as leverage to stop the war. Failing that, they'd have had a go at brokering peace after dropping the first bomb.

            But no, we've got two bombs and by heck we're going to use them and justify things later.

          6. Alan Brown Silver badge

            Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

            "It is not at all clear that Japan would not have surrendered due to blockade efficiency and Russia being free to enter the war in the East"

            It wasn't clear at the time (witness what happened at Okinawa) and the top military brass were so fanatical that they still opposed the surrender even after the Emperor told them to give in (fanatical to the point of planning a coup). The Allies fully expected to lose a million men trying to take the mainland in house-to-house fighting.

            20/20 hindsight from 70 years on is an inexact science. Trying to see through the fog of war is a hell of a lot harder still.

            In any case, if those bombs hadn't been dropped in WW2, someone, somewhere would have dropped one on a large city. Just be thankful that fewer people died in Nagasaki and Hiroshima than in the Tokyo firestorms and that none have been used in anger ever since.

            (FWIW, 1980s Hiroshima and Nagasaki cancer rates were 0.25% above background normal. The abhorrence of how the bombs affected the population is justifiable, but it's clear that much of the long-term risks are statistically negligable and we really have to get past the knee-jerk "all nuclear stuff baaaaaad" mantra which is keeping us burning coal/oil when we should be using them as industrial raw materials or fertilizer.)

    2. graeme leggett

      Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

      The loyalty to the idea is remarkable - that so many of them chose not to talk of what they had done, even though by later years they would have lost little by doing so. They continued to maintain their silence by choice rather than the threat of cellar-based interview or Siberian exile.

      And now we can acknowledge the entirety of their contributions from leaders down to the lowest clerk, even if we now not who they were.

      1. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

        When Flowers got his medal in 1980 he gave a bit of a talk and seemed to have trouble talking about the stuff then. Where would the world be now if he'd got his bank loan after the war!

      2. Andrew Moore

        Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

        My father worked at Bletchley Park during the 50s/60s- something he only told me about last year. It seems absolutely everyone involved had to sign the Official Secrets Act.

    3. JeffyPoooh
      Pint

      Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

      Bloody hell no.

      Walchman's book 'Hut Six...' is already $999+ on the used book marketplace. Stories like this keep popping up and I'll never be able to afford to buy a copy.

      Same thing with Turing. Imitation Game book 'Turing ... Enigma...' is hundreds $$ used.

      Let's all stop talking about it for a while. Thanks.

      1. Richard Lloyd

        Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

        Straight after watching the interesting BBC Four documentary, I had a look online and Amazon UK had it for about 9 quid. Fast forward several weeks and it's now 350 quid! Amazon Germany (I had to pick that variant didn't I? :-) ) has it for 13 Euros though.

        Bear in mind that it's the revised paperback edition though - the original isn't available new (I believe all unsold copies were actually pulped).

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

          Re: book prices

          Turns out that my piano teacher, the wife of a local minister, worked at Bletchley in hut six. Her husband was a conscientious objector and even he didn't know exactly what she did until shortly before his death. When the story came out, her youngest son worked exceptionally hard to get it all down and last year, just before her own death, they published a book: My Secret Life in Hut Six which is actually a pretty good read (of course it mentions Welchman) and still available for £7.50 on Amazon or £10 direct from the publishers.

          She says of Welchman:

          He was friendly enough but very involved in his work. When he was in his office in Hut Six you hardly ever saw or heard him. He was a very good manager in that he delegated most of his responsibilities. He had a number of very able women assistants who ran the hut, and believe you me, they were a formidable bunch. They were deeply loyal to Mr. Welchman and did his bidding. He was polite and aloof, but they were unafraid of conflict and implementing the rules that were laid down.

          I can't say that knowing her past would have made my primary-age self any better as a piano pupil, but it would have been interesting to be able to talk to her about it.

          M.

      2. harmjschoonhoven
        Coat

        Psssssst....

        My bookseller told me The Hut Six Story by G. Welchman & M.M. Baldwin

        may be in reprint. Mine is the one with the book in the pocket.

      3. Dazed and Confused Silver badge

        Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

        > Walchman's book 'Hut Six...' is already $999+

        Given the interest there is now about Bletchley Park I'm sure it must make sense to re-print this book. Or is that still banned?

        Besides if they re-printed it I could have a copy (or two).

      4. Wommit

        Re: Please can we keep the accolades coming...

        Got my copy from Bletchley Park. Fascinating read.

  3. W Donelson
    Go

    Wow, thanks for this article!

    Wonderful stuff I never knew!

  4. John Sager

    BBC programme

    That was most interesting. I had read about JTIDS years ago but I didn't realise Welchman was instrumental in its development. They interviewed John Scarlett and as you might expect he was still pushing the GCHQ line. That seems to be a major problem with history of this stuff. Scarlett's view was "we know whether this stuff is still sensitive or not, so we should make the decision to declassify". He has a point, but it does seem hard for them to rationally appraise secret stuff to decide the balance of risk/benefit of declassification. You can see that with the whole story of BP - the history of WWII looks a lot different now in the light of those activities.

    As for Welchman's book, 'The Hut Six Story' was withdawn by its publishers and copies are now like gold dust - look at the prices on Amazon!

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: BBC programme

      So why is it vital to keep Bletchley secret from the Germans in 1979?

      1, We don't want the Russians to know that we can crack codes ?

      2, We don't want our Allies to know we were spying on them on the same way?

      3, Leaders who had "had a good war" want people to think that the victory was down to their genius not the fact that they had read the answers in the back of the book as it were

      4, All of the above

      1. DropBear
        Devil

        Re: BBC programme

        "So why is it vital to keep Bletchley secret from the Germans in 1979?"

        To play the devil's advocate here - it's choice 4, plus the fact that "knowledge is power", exclusive knowledge exponentially so; therefore even if it wouldn't actually matter a miserable iota whether anyone else knew or not, them *not* knowing is demonstrably, quantitatively *moaaaar power* than letting them know - so obviously we don't, even if we have no other justification whatsoever to keep it secret. Which is not even the actual case - you listed a few reasons yourself...

      2. Smooth Newt Silver badge

        Re: BBC programme

        So why is it vital to keep Bletchley secret from the Germans in 1979?

        I would go for unthinking British Civil Service instinct. Secrecy is power because it stops people asking inconvenient questions so lets you do whatever you want. British governments throughout history have been famously obsessed with secrecy.

        Doubly so for anything to do with secret intelligence gathering - these organizations simply "didn't exist" until 1994 so there was no question of publishing a history.

      3. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

        Re: BBC programme

        Probably because of bureaucratic stupidity. One of the keys to cracking any code is the fact that all languages have a definite distributions of sounds/letters. If the text is long enough the distribution in the text will approach the underlying language's distribution. This was noticed in the 1920's. The other key is one's computational capability to brute force a solution for the key. The development of Colossus was to make the brute force method for Enigma a reasonable option. The final bit is the fact many messages often contain set headers, greetings, and closings which vary very little (e.g. yours truly) which can be used to reduce the computations. I think these were part of Bletchley Park called "cribs". All of these are well known in concept.

        1. Mike 16 Silver badge

          Re: BBC programme

          "This was noticed in the 1920's"

          Or rather earlier, since it appears in Poe's "The Gold Bug" in the 1840s.

          Meanwhile, I have to wonder if the sale of "rare and precious" copies of the Hut Six Story (I have my copy here somewhere) are in the same vein as the "Teletype message about JFK assasination" (or other noteworthy event) that crowd out search results for actual teletype machines on eBay. Nice way to recoup my investment in old Teletype machines if I had space to store one outside the purview of SWMBO.

        2. werdsmith Silver badge

          Re: BBC programme

          @a_yank_lurker said:

          The development of Colossus was to make the brute force method for Enigma a reasonable option.

          Colossus was developed to break the "Tunny" Lorenz cipher. The brute force method to find Enigma keys used the Bombe machines.

      4. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: BBC programme

        So why is it vital to keep Bletchley secret from the Germans in 1979?

        It is not Germans, it is the Russians which were at issue at that time. You need to understand, in 1979, for USSR the wounds of the war were still raw. The veterans were still gathering in tens of thousands on the 9th of May. People who lost their best friends, husbands and loved ones were still crying when looking at war films. A lot of the middle command from WW2 who has suspected Churchil and Lord Dudley of treason were now high command.

        Revelations that their suspicions were right and Churchill back-stabbed and outright betrayed his Russian allies multiple times during the war (allowing the Channel Dash being just one example - all Enigma traffic was decoded and the official historical record is a load of BS) were not going to lead to a fantastic improvement of the trust and relationship between NATO and the Warsaw pact.

      5. TReko

        Re: BBC programme

        There's a great BBC programme from the late 1970's where Welchman is interviewed and his traffic analysis is shown.

        https://youtu.be/TPvqy9tldoo

      6. Matt Bryant Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: YAAC Re: BBC programme

        "So why is it vital to keep Bletchley secret from the Germans in 1979?....." Because the post-War Soviets absorbed, studied and used German code techniques, which meant the GCHQ had an easier time breaking their codes for many years. Bizarely, even though their own spies had warned them that the Brits had broken the German codes, Soviet units in Eastern Europe actually used captured German Enigma machines for several years after WW2! Of course, whilst the secret was a secret and Stalin's paranoia was in full swing, the Soviets wasted a lot of time and resources hunting for what they assumed were leaks in the GRU, NKVD and MGB/KGB.

        1. jonathan keith Silver badge

          Post-war Enigma

          I think I'm right in saying that after the war, the British sold Enigma machines to friendly governments, conveniently forgetting to mention the trivial fact that Enigma had been turned inside out by Bletchley.

      7. Jagged

        Re: BBC programme

        I believe the blame belongs to Churchill. Great wartime PM, lousy peacetime PM as the cliché goes.

        In his defence, he was expecting increase hostilities with Russia (wasn't wrong) but in hindsight he should have taken everything done at Bletchley and monetised the heck out of it! Mind you, I understand that the plans for the bomb were given to the US as part of war reparations, so maybe that wasn't an option,

      8. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: BBC programme

        >So why is it vital to keep Bletchley secret from the Germans in 1979?

        >1, We don't want the Russians to know that we can crack codes ?

        British intelligence services were riddled with KGB agents (in senior roles) until the 1960s. Russia knows far more about it than the public do.

        >2, We don't want our Allies to know we were spying on them on the same way?

        They've always known we were and do. As do they on us - ever flown Air France?

        >3, Leaders who had "had a good war" want people to think that the victory was down to their genius not the fact that they had read the answers in the back of the book as it were

        True to an extent - there was a lot of mythology to paper cracks and difficult decisions - literal human sacrifices were often made - many people who are still alive lost parents and loved ones who could have been forewarned but were strategically abandoned to their fates.

        My dad was in 'Royal Signals' - in the 1980s he revealed ran tech support/scheduling in the IoM station until 1944 - then he moved elsewhere doing something else he never spoke of again - even to those he was doing it with!

        The vast majority of people (and there were several 10Ks) who worked in these programmes never spoke of it because at the time the need for secrecy wasn't an abstract concept or a matter of debate - they were actually seeing/working the proof than tiny snippets of seemingly irrelevant information could loose the war.

        Ultimately the answer is simply than the clandestine services have a well-developed culture of secrecy.

    2. Craig 8

      "The Hut Six Story" [Re: BBC programme]

      Many copies of The Hut Six Story are available for sale at very reasonable prices in the shop at Bletchley Park :-)

      1. John Sager

        Re: "The Hut Six Story" [BBC programme]

        Many copies of The Hut Six Story are available for sale at very reasonable prices in the shop at Bletchley Park

        Bowdlerised?

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: "The Hut Six Story" [BBC programme]

          I'm guessing just page after page of blacked out lines

      2. keithpeter
        Windows

        Re: "The Hut Six Story" [BBC programme]

        "Many copies of The Hut Six Story are available for sale at very reasonable prices in the shop at Bletchley Park :-)"

        Interesting to see if a chap called Richard, or possibly Malcolm, turns up and buys a lot of copies.

        Does the Museum do mail order I wonder?

        The tramp: no-one pays much attention to tramps hanging around.

    3. jonathan keith Silver badge

      Re: BBC programme

      As far as I could make out from the (excellent) BBC doc, it was Welchman's ideas and work on Traffic Analysis, as opposed to code-breaking, that the UK and US governments wanted suppressed, because it was TA that provided the basis of GCHQ and NSA's most powerful tools (and still does, in many ways).

      1. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

        Re: BBC programme

        Actually traffic analysis is fairly simple concept. One maps the flow of traffic from HQ to lower commands and back up the chain. By following the routing of a message one can determine reporting patterns. The varying volumes (and lack of traffic sometime) is an alert about something is stirring. Generally when military operations are undertaken there is often period of abnormally low activity followed by a period of high activity. Combine the traffic with location finding and you have a fairly accurate map of unit locations, activity, and to some degree combat readiness. I am fairly certain the Soviets understood this during the Cold War.

        Another item, photographic analysis can often give a very accurate troop count by simply counting latrines.

        1. ChaoticMike

          Re: BBC programme

          >Another item, photographic analysis can often give a very accurate troop count by simply counting latrines.

          Thank gawd you didn't say 'counting troop movements'...

          1. earl grey Silver badge
            Trollface

            Re: BBC programme

            now you're taking the piss....

        2. Naughtyhorse

          Re: Actually traffic analysis is fairly simple concept.

          aka metadata,

          now where else have I heard this term recently......

          <black helicopter icon gone!>

          1. GrumpenKraut Silver badge
            Black Helicopters

            Re: Actually traffic analysis is fairly simple concept.

            Black helicopter for you ===---------------------->

  5. Deryk Barker

    Why

    Is there a photo of Colossus attached to this story? AFAIK Welchman worked exclusively on Enigma.

    The confusion of Enigma/Fish Bombe/Colossus is had enough already without you adding to it.

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