Spartacus Blog

The Anglocentric and Sexist misrepresentation of historical facts in The Imitation Game movie.

Tuesday, 2nd December, 2014

John Simkin

During a speech in the House of Commons in January 1948, Winston Churchill suggested that all political parties "to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history." (1) At the time he was writing his six volume account of the Second World War. However, as his biographer, Clive Ponting has pointed out, there were some things that he carefully left out of these books. This included his desire to use chemical weapons against Nazi Germany. In March 1944 Churchill ordered 500,000 anthrax bombs from the United States. These bombs were to be dropped "well behind the lines, to render towns uninhabitable and indeed dangerous to enter without a respirator." He wrote to General Hastings Ismay, his Chief of Staff, on 6th July, 1944: "It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a nod of complaint from the moralists of the Church... It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women... One really must not be bound by silly conventions of the mind."

On 28th July 1944, the chief of staffs reported to Churchill that gas warfare was possible and that Britain could drop more than Germany but they doubted whether it would cause many difficulties to the German authorities in controlling the country. However, they were deeply concerned by the possibility that Germany would retaliate as they feared the British public would react in a different way to those in Germany: "the same cannot be said for our own people, who are in no such inarticulate condition". After reading the chiefs of staff assessment Churchill concluded gloomily, "I am not at all convinced by this negative report. But clearly I cannot make head against the parsons and the warriors at the same time." (2) This story reveals why we cannot allow politicians to control our views of the past. But today, it is filmmakers rather than politicians, who have the most power in shaping our perceptions of the past.

Government Code and Cypher School

Churchill would have approved of the way he is portrayed in the recently released film, The Imitation Game, which claims to be a true account of the life of codebreaker, Alan Turing. An early scene shows Turing being interviewed by Alastair Denniston, the head of the the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park. Denniston is portrayed by a man who has very little understanding of the people needed to "break" the Enigma Machine and is appalled by Turing's request for £100,000 to build a machine that will enable MI6 to read German secret messages. Denniston threatens to sack Turing but in a scene soon after this, he tells his codebreaker that he has friends in high places, as the prime minister, Winston Churchill, has agreed to make the £100,000, available to Turing. Churchill is therefore displayed as someone who had the brilliant foresight of realising that Turing was so talented that if he was given the money he would expose the secrets of Enigma. The scriptwriter, Graham Moore, from Los Angeles, was probably hoping that the audience was unaware that it was Neville Chamberlain who was prime minister in 1939. In fact, by the time Churchill became prime minister, Turing's machine, named "Victory", was already in operation at the GCCS. Turing never asked for £100,000, this figure is the cost when it reached GCCS.

This scene is just one of the many misrepresentation of historical facts in the film that is introduced to pander to the perceived nationalism and sexism of the cinema audience. Turing was not interviewed by Denniston in 1939 to see if he should be a member of the codebreaking team. In fact, Turing had been working with Denniston since 1937 in an attempt to discover the secrets of Enigma. Denniston realised that in order to deal effectively with the increasing amount of secretly coded messages he had to recruit a number of academics to help with the work of the Government Code and Cypher School. One of Denniston's colleagues, Josh Cooper, told Michael Smith, the author of Station X: The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park (1998): "He (Denniston) dined at several high tables in Oxford and Cambridge and came home with promises from a number of dons to attend a territorial training course. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this course for the future development of GCCS. Not only had Denniston brought in scholars of the humanities of the type of many of his own permanent staff, but he had also invited mathematicians of a somewhat different type who were especially attracted by the Enigma problem." (3)

According to codebreaker, Mavis Batey, Turing went to one of the first of the training courses on codes and ciphers at Broadway Buildings. Turing was put on Denniston's "emergency list" for call up in event of war and was invited to attend meetings being held by top codebreaker, Alfred Dilwyn Knox to "hear about progress with Enigma, which immediately interested him... unusually, considering Denniston's paranoia about secrecy, it is said that Turing was even allowed" to take away important documents back to the university. (4)

Mavis Batey
Codebreakers Keith Batey and Mavis Batey

Alastair Denniston had been head of Government Code and Cypher School since 1919 and had been aware of the problem since 1926 when he purchased one of the original Enigma machines developed by Arthur Scherbius. A version of the Enigma Machine was offered to the British Army but the apparatus was rejected as being "too ungainly for use in the field".

The German Navy did purchase the machine and decided to adapt it for sending secret messages and in 1929 the German Army began using this improved version of Enigma. In Nazi Germany, the Luftwaffe, the Gestapo and the Schutzstaffel (SS) and vital services, like the railway system, also employed improved versions of the Enigma Machine. As Peter Calvocoressi, the author of Top Secret Ultra (2001) has pointed out: "Over the years the Germans progressively altered and complicated the machine and kept everything about it more and more secret. The basic alterations from the commercial to the secret military model were completed by 1930/31 but further operating procedures continued to be introduced." (5)

In the film Denniston is shown as a self-righteous man with limited intelligence who sets out to obstruct Turing's codebreaking efforts. Charles Dance (the actor who plays the role of Commander Denniston) when interviewed about his role in the fim, actually described his character as a “pompous prat”. (6) All the evidence from his colleagues suggest a very different man. Aileen Clayton, for example, describes him as "a quiet middle-aged man who seemed more like a professor than a naval officer. It was to him that I had to report, and I was immediately impressed by his kindness and by the courtesy with which he greeted me." (7)

Denniston was fully aware that any future war, unlike the First World War, was going to be a war of movement. The development of mechanized vehicles in the 1920s and 1930s, whether on the ground or in the air, meant that they moved rapidly away from their bases and from each other. This problem was mainly solved by the development of radio communication during this period. It enabled a commander to communicate with his superiors, his men and his base, from wherever he might happen to be. However, this form of communication had a major disadvantage. It was impossible to be sure that your enemy could not hear what you were saying. In the vast majority of cases the secret communication of information was vital. This secrecy was achieved by cyphering.

The situation was explained by Francis Harry Hinsley: "By 1937 it was established that... the German Army, the German Navy and probably the Air Force, together with other state organizations like the railways and the SS used, for all except their tactical communications, different versions of the same cypher system - the Enigma machine which had been put on the market in the 1920s but which the Germans had rendered more secure by progressive modifications." (8)

The recruitment and employment of skilled academics was expensive and so, once again, Denniston had to write to the Treasury to ask for financial assistance: "For some days now we have been obliged to recruit from our emergency list men of the Professor type with the Treasury agreed to pay at the rate of £600 a year. I attach herewith a list of these gentleman already called up together with the dates of their joining." (9) R. V. Jones, one of those academics who Denniston recruited, later claimed that his actions during this period "laid the foundations of our brilliant cryptographic success". (10)

Francis Harry Hinsley, the author of British Intelligence in the Second World War (1979-1990) has pointed out: "In 1937 Denniston had begun to recruit a number of dons who were to join GCCS on the outbreak of war. His contacts with academics who had been members of Room 40 OB helped him to choose such men as Alan Turing and Gordon Welchman, who subsequently led the attack on Wehrmacht Enigma. Denniston's foresight, and his wise selection of the new staff, who for the first time included mathematicians, were the basis for many of GCCS's outstanding wartime successes, especially against Enigma... More than any other man, he helped it to maintain both the creative atmosphere which underlay its great contribution to British intelligence during the Second World War and the complete security which was no less an important precondition of its achievement." (11)

The Anglocentrism of The Imitation Game

In June 1938, Sir Stewart Menzies, the chief of MI6, received a message that the Polish Intelligence Service had encountered a man who had worked as a mathematician and engineer at the factory in Berlin where the Germans were producing the Enigma Machine. The man, Richard Lewinski (not his real name), was a Polish Jew who had been expelled from Nazi Germany because of his religion. He offered to sell his knowledge of the machine in exchange for £10,000, a British passport and a French resident permit. Lewinski claimed that he knew enough about Enigma to build a replica, and to draw diagrams of the heart of the machine - the complicated wiring system in each of its rotors.

Menzies suspected that Lewinski was a German agent who wanted to "lure the small British cryptographic bureau down a blind alley while the Germans conducted their business free from surveillance". Menzies suggested that Alfred Dilwyn Knox, a senior figure at the Government Code and Cypher School, should go to interview Lewinski. He asked Alan Turing to go with him. They were soon convinced that he had a deep knowledge of the machine and he was taken to France to work on producing a model of the machine.

According to Anthony Cave Brown, the author of Bodyguard of Lies (1976): "Lewinski worked in an apartment on the Left Bank, and the machine he created was a joy of imitative engineering. It was about 24 inches square and 18 inches high, and was enclosed in a wooden box. It was connected to two electric typewriters, and to transform a plain-language signal into a cipher text, all the operator had to do was consult the book of keys, select the key for the time of the day, the day of the month, and the month of the quarter, plug in accordingly, and type the signal out on the left-hand typewriter. Electrical impulses entered the complex wiring of each of the rotors of the machine, the message was enciphered and then transmitted to the right-hand typewriter. When the enciphered text reached its destination, an operator set the keys of a similar apparatus according to an advisory contained in the message, typed the enciphered signal out on the left-hand machine, and the right hand machine duly delivered the plain text. Until the arrival of the machine cipher system, enciphering was done slowly and carefully by human hand. Now Enigma, as Knox and Turing discovered, could produce an almost infinite number of different cipher alphabets merely by changing the keying procedure. It was, or so it seemed, the ultimate secret writing machine." (12)

The Polish replica of the Enigma Machine was taken to the Government Code and Cypher School. In early 1939 the CCCS arranged for Alan Turing to meet with Marian Rejewski and Henryk Zygalski, mathematicians who had been working for the Polish Cypher Bureau. He had been trying for seven years to understand the workings of the Enigma machine. They told Turing that he had come to the conclusion that as the code had been generated by a machine it could be broken by a machine. In Poland they had built a machine that they named "bomba kryptologiczna" or "cryptological bomb". This machine took over 24 hours to translate a German message on an Enigma machine. Turing was impressed by what Rejewski and Zygalski had achieved but realised that they must find a way of achieving this in a shorter time period if this breakthrough was to be effective. (13)

On 25th July, 1939, Polish cryptologists held a meeting with French and British intelligence representatives in a meeting at Pyry, south of Warsaw. Britain was represented by Alastair Denniston and Alfred Dilwyn Knox. They provided the latest information they had on the German system and most importantly provided the information that Engima was breakable. Five weeks later the German Army invaded Poland. According to Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, the author of Enigma: The Battle For The Code (2004), that without this information the substantial breaks into German Army and Air Force Enigma ciphers by the British would have occurred only after November 1941 at the earliest. (14)

On the outbreak of the war Alan Turing immediately began working on improving the Poles "bomba kryptologiczna". (Rejewski and Zygalski had escaped from Poland in September and were in hiding in France and eventually made their way to England, but they were too late to work on the project). To be of practical use, the machine would have to work through an average of half a million rotor positions in hours rather than days, which meant that the logical process would have to be applied to at least twenty positions every second. (15)

Sinclair McKay, the author of The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (2010) has argued: "Alistair Denniston, had taken the precaution of surrounding himself with so many of the cryptography experts with whom he had worked since the First World War... He was a man of many talents... Judging by the many memos that he sent in his time at Bletchley Park, and which have now surfaced in the archives, he was also a man of uncommon patience, especially when dealing with volcanic, quirky or short-tempered colleagues." (16) According to his son Robin Denniston, the establishment that Denniston founded was brilliant, but he himself "was not ... a man who found leadership easy. He lacked self-confidence. He was a highly intelligent self-made Scot who found it difficult to play a commanding role among the bureaucrats and politicians with whom he had to deal." (17)

During the early stages of the war Denniston became aware of the deficiencies of the "need to know" policy, under which information is tightly compartmentalised, and only supplied to people who require it. As Ralph Erskine has pointed out that "need to know" policy carries a hidden flaw: "it assumes that is possible to know in advance who will require access to specific intelligence, yet that is completely impractical." As one codebreaker pointed out, he could not tell whether he needed anything until he had seen it. This included sharing information with other intelligence agencies. On 7th January, 1940, Turing had a meeting with codebreakers from Poland and France in Gretz-Armainvillers, near Paris. Turing learned "crucial information about rotors IV and V from the Poles, enabling him to solve its first Enigma key immediately after he returned." (18)

The first machine, named Victory, was installed at Bletchley Park on 18th March 1940. Gordon Welchman, one of the most important of the codebreakers, wrote in his book, The Hut Six Story: Breaking the Enigma Codes (1997), that Turing's machine "would never have gotten off the ground if we had not learned from the Poles, in the nick of time, the details both of the German military... Enigma machine, and of the operating procedures that were in use." (19)

Why did the scriptwriter, Graham Moore, decide not to tell us about the important role that the Poles made in the development of the Enigma machine? Is it connected to the hostile feelings the British public have towards immigration at the moment? Did he think it would be unpopular to give the idea that Polish immigration might have helped us win the Second World War? For example, we would have definitely struggled to win the Battle of Britain without the valuable help of Polish pilots (it is claimed that they shot down around 20% of all Luftwaffe aircraft during the battle).

The film also gives the impression that he made the machine on the own. Several times Alastair Denniston tells him off for not making use of the rest of the team. This is pure fiction of course. Turing was a mathematician, not an enginner. The machine was not even made at Bletchley Park. Turing finalized the design at the beginning of 1940, and the job of construction was given to the British Tabulating Machinery factory at Letchworth. Its chief engineer, Harold Keen, and a team of twelve men, built it in complete secrecy. Keen later recalled: "There was no other machine like it. It was unique, built especially for this purpose. Neither was it a complex tabulating machine, which was sometimes used in crypt-analysis. What it did was to match the electrical circuits of Enigma. Its secret was in the internal wiring of (Enigma's) rotors, which 'The Bomb' sought to imitate." (20)

Alastair Denniston & Alan Turing

Alan Turing's biographer, Alan Hodges, has pointed out that he was a very impractical man. The only thing he tried to make during the war was a one-valve wireless set that was a complete failure. (21) I suppose the filmmakers would argue that Turing writing out his calculations on paper would not have provided enough attractive visual images. However, if they wanted to show people making the machine, why were they so scared to show it being produced by the enginers in the factory? Did they consider this idea too complex for the British public?

In its efforts to communicate the message that Turing was a war hero, they decided they would try to destroy the reputation of Alastair Denniston, who undoubtedly was a great man who provided an important service to the nation in its time of need. Denniston constantly appears in the film as a symbol of the establishment that did not understand Turing genius. On one occasion he arrives with a posse of soldiers claiming that he is about to destroy his machine. Later, he turns up with the military police, who carry out a search of his office, because Denniston is convinced that Turing is a Soviet spy. This of course did not happen and from 1938 when Denniston brought him into the project, he was completely supportive of his work. I am all for filmmakers exposing incompetence in government agencies, however, it is disgraceful to make this kind of attack against a man who deserves to be fully respected by the British public.

On 26th November, 2014, Denniston's grandchildren wrote to The Daily Telegraph to complain about the portrayal of their grandfather. "While the much-acclaimed film The Imitation Game rightly acknowledges Alan Turing’s vital role in the war effort, it is sad that it does so by taking a side-swipe at Commander Alastair Denniston, portraying him as a mere hindrance to Turing’s work.... Cdr Denniston was one of the founding fathers of Bletchley Park. On his final visit to Poland in the summer of 1939, he was briefed by Polish mathematicians on the electrical equipment they had developed to break the German cipher machine, Enigma. The Enigma machine that Denniston took back to Bletchley ultimately allowed Britain to read the German High Command’s coded instructions. Such was the secrecy surrounding his work that his retirement in 1945, and death in 1961, passed virtually unnoticed, and he remains the only former head of GC&CS (the precursor to the intelligence agency GCHQ) never to have been awarded a knighthood. It was he who recruited Turing and many other leading mathematicians and linguists to Bletchley, where he fostered an environment that enabled these brilliant but unmanageable individuals to break the Enigma codes. The GCHQ of today owes much to the foundation he created there." (22)

The film’s writer, Graham Moore responded to this criticism by claiming: “Cdr Denniston was one of the great heroes of Bletchley Park. As such, he had the perhaps unenviable position of being a layman overseeing the work of some of the century’s finest mathematicians and academics - a situation bound to result in conflict as to how best to get the job done. I would say that this is the natural conflict of people working extremely hard under unimaginable pressure with the fate of the war resting on their heroic shoulders.” (23)

It is not true that there was conflict between Turing and Denniston over "how best to get the job done". The only complaint that Turing and other codebreakers made about Denniston concerned funding. However, by looking at the declassified documents we can see Denniston fought very hard to get the extra money needed by the codebreakers. Denniston left Bletchley Park in February 1942, to take up another post in London. (24) His replacement, Commander Edward W. Travis, was no more successful than Denniston in obtaining the necessary funds to run the project successfully.

In October, 1941, Alan Turing, Hugh Alexander, Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman and Stuart Milner-Barry wrote a letter to Winston Churchill concerning the funding of GCCS: "Some weeks ago you paid us the honour of a visit, and we believe that you regard our work as important. You will have seen that, thanks largely to the energy and foresight of Commander Travis, we have been well supplied with the 'bombes' for the breaking of the German Enigma codes. We think, however, that you ought to know that this work is being held up, and in some cases is not being done at all, principally because we cannot get sufficient staff to deal with it. Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention."

The men added: "We have written this letter entirely on our own initiative. We do not know who or what is responsible for our difficulties, and most emphatically we do not want to be taken as criticising Commander Travis who has all along done his utmost to help us in every possible way. But if we are to do our job as well as it could and should be done it is absolutely vital that our wants, small as they are, should be promptly attended to. We have felt that we should be failing in our duty if we did not draw your attention to the facts and to the effects which they are having and must continue to have on our work, unless immediate action is taken." (25) Churchill told his principal staff officer, General Hastings Ismay: "Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done." (26)

Why then does Graham Moore want to destroy the reputation of Denniston? I assume for no other reason than he is just repeating the Hollywood formula for making movies. You create drama by introducing conflict between the characters. In the film Turing is not only in conflict with Denniston but Hugh Alexander, his so-called boss in Hut 8. This is again not true. Alexander did not arrive Bletchley Park until February, 1940, where he worked under Turing. This is done because when in the film Denniston tries to sack Turing, Alexander steps forward and threatens to resign if this takes place. Denniston is forced to back down and Alexander and Turing become great friends. How many times have we seen this in movies where enemies become friends in a time of crisis? I suppose it is based on some sort of research done with audiences about what makes them feel good about a movie. It seems daft to me, but if that is what they want to do with works of fiction, that is fine by me. However, this is a true story, it is not acceptable to rewrite the past in order to give a film some dramatic tension. Especially when it involves destroying the reputations of people who deserve to be national heroes.

Sexism in The Imitation Game

Like every other mainstream movie, The Imitation Game, has to have a love interest. Alan Turing was of course gay but the filmmakers obviously thought it would not help its attempt to produce a mass-audience movie by concentrating on one of Turing's homosexual relationships. Moore must have been overjoyed when Moore discovered that Turing was actually engaged to a woman, Joan Clarke, who also worked at Bletchley Park.

This relationship is dealt with in some detail by Alan Hodges in his book, Alan Turing: the Enigma (1983). The producers of the film claim that their film is based on this book and sent Hodges a copy of the script in the summer of 2013. According to The Daily Mail, Hodges was not very happy with this aspect of the movie. The newspaper reports Hodges as saying: "They have built up the relationship with Joan much more than it actually was." He also disapproved of the proposal to give Keira Knightley the part. He said the casting of Knightley did not "strike him as right" and added "I'm not being rude about her, but Joan Clarke was no glamourpuss." (27)

In the film, Alan Turing first meets Joan Clarke when she turns up to sit a crossword test that had been advertised in the Daily Telegraph. The screenwriter has Joan arriving late and Alastair Denniston, who is guarding the door, refuses to let her enter, making it quite clear that this is a competition for men (the room is full of men sitting at desks). However, Turing, who is administrating the test, intervenes, and insists that she is allowed to join the other competitors. Joan is the first to finish the crossword and is rewarded by being given a secretarial post at Bletchley Park.

Strange as it may seem, this crossword competition did in fact take place. In 1942 there was a rapid expansion of Bletchley Park. As part of the recruitment drive, the Government Code and Cypher School placed a letter in the Daily Telegraph. They issued an anonymous challenge to its readers, asking if anybody could solve the newspaper's crossword in under 12 minutes. It was felt that crossword experts might also be good codebreakers. The 25 readers who replied were invited to the newspaper office to sit a crossword test. The six people who finished the crossword first were interviewed by military intelligence and then recruited as codebreakers. (28)

However, Joan Clarke did not take the test. Nor were Denniston and Turing involved in its administration. Denniston had already left Bletchley Park at this time and Turing was far too busy dealing with breaking the constantly changing Enigma machine to deal with such mundane matters. Why did the screenwriter tell the truth about Joan Clarke's recruitment? Why did he invent a scene that suggests the attractiveness of Clarke played a role in her gaining a place at Bletchley Park? In his attempt to highlight the sexism of the period, he only reveals his own sexist views.

Joan Clarke was in fact headhunted to join Bletchley Park. Denniston had instigated a programme before the outbreak of the war where academics kept a look out for talented mathematicians in our top universities. Joan graduated in 1939, achieving a double first in Mathematics from Newnham College. One of her tutors was Gordon Welchman, who had been recruited by Denniston with Turing in 1937.

Clarke's biographer, Lynsey Ann Lord, has pointed out that documents "describe Clarke as congenial but shy, gentle and kind, non-aggressive and always subordinate to the men in her life; qualities that would allow her to conform within the male dominated world of Bletchley Park." At first she was engaged in routine clerical work. "Clarke was originally paid £2 a week - but as this was an era of female discrimination in the workplace, similarly qualified men received significantly more money." (29) Her abilities were soon recognised and in order to give her higher pay she was promoted to the rank of linguist. "The principle of equal pay and rank being stoutly resisted by the civil service, she had to be promoted to the humble rank of linguist that the pre-war establishment reserved for women." (30)

Although the Foreign Office was institutionally sexist, people within the Government Code and Cypher School, including its early leader, Alastair Denniston, held fairly progressive views on the subject. Denniston was aware that in time of war, the country could not afford to dismiss the talents of 50% of the population. Denniston did not interfere with those academics who recruited women to their units.

Mavis Batey
Codebreaker - Mavis Batey

Alfred Dilwyn Knox, the senior cryptographer at Bletchley Park, and the man who has been described as "the mastermind" behind breaking the Enigma code, had a reputation for employing women. His unit was based in what was called the "Cottage" (in reality, a row of chunky converted interlinked houses - just across the courtyard from the main house, near the stables). (31)

Knox admitted that he liked employing women. According to Sinclair McKay, the author of The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (2010): "Dilwyn Knox... found that women had a greater aptitude for the work required - as well as nimbleness of mind and capacity for lateral thought, they possessed a care and attention to detail that many men might not have had." Two of the women in his unit, Mavis Batey and Margaret Rock, became important codebreakers. Mavis later recalled: "A myth has grown up that Dilly (Knox) went around in 1939 looking at the girls arriving at Bletchley and picking the most attractive for the Cottage.... That is completely untrue. Dilly took us on our qualifications." (32)

Mavis Batey
Codebreaker - Margaret Rock

Knox was so impressed with the work of Mavis and Margaret that in August 1940, he contacted head office in an effort to get them a pay rise: "Miss Lever (later Mavis Batey) is the most capable and the most useful and if there is any scheme of selection for a small advancement in wages, her name should be considered.... Miss M. Rock is entirely in the wrong grade. She is actually 4th or 5th best of the whole Enigma staff and quite as useful as some of the 'professors'. I recommend that she should be put on to the highest possible salary for anyone of her seniority." (33)

Mavis Batey and Margaret Rock worked with Knox on the "updated Italian Naval Enigma machine, checking all new traffic and even the wheels, cogs and wiring to see how it was constructed." (34) In March 1941 Mavis deciphered a message, “Today 25 March is X-3". She later recalled that "if you get a message saying 'today minus three', then you know that something pretty big is afoot." Working with a team of intelligence analysts she was able to work out that the Italian fleet was planning to attack British troop convoys sailing from Alexandria to Piraeus in Greece. As a result of this information the British Navy was able to ambush four Italian destroyers and four cruisers off the coast of Sicily. Over 3,000 Italian sailors died during the Battle of Cape Matapan. Admiral John Henry Godfrey, Director of Naval Intelligence, sent a message to Bletchley Park: "Tell Dilly (Knox) that we have won a great victory in the Mediterranean and it is entirely due to him and his girls." (35)

Mavis Batey
Codebreaker - Shelia Lawn

Mavis and Margaret also played a very important role in breaking of the Enigma cipher used by the German secret service, the Abwehr. This was a vital aspect of what became known as the Double-Cross System (XX-Committee). Created by John Masterman, it was an operation that attempted to turn "German agents against their masters and persuaded them to cooperate in sending false information back to Berlin." (36) Masterman needed to know if the Germans believed the false intelligence they were receiving.

As the The Daily Telegraph later explained: "On December 8 1941 Mavis Batey broke a message on the link between Belgrade and Berlin, allowing the reconstruction of one of the rotors. Within days Knox and his team had broken into the Abwehr Enigma, and shortly afterwards Mavis broke a second Abwehr machine, the GGG, adding to the British ability to read the high-level Abwehr messages and confirm that the Germans did believe the phony Double-Cross intelligence they were being fed by the double agents." (37)

This was not the last of these women's breakthroughs. In February 1942, Mavis Batey solved the Enigma used by the Abwehr solely for communications between Madrid and several outstations situated around the Strait of Gibralter. Margaret Rock has been given credit for solving the Enigma being used by the Germans between Berlin and the Canaries in May 1943. (38) Maybe someone in Hollywood should consider making a movie about the codebreaking exploits of these two amazing women. It would be good to see women play central parts rather than as attractive appendages.

Alan Turing and John Cairncross

When Alan Hodges saw the script for The Imitation Game for the first time in the summer of 2013, his main complaint was about the relationship between Alan Turing and John Cairncross, the Soviet spy. Hodges made the point the Turing and Cairncross worked in different departments and would never have met. He described the scene where Turing discovers that Cairncross is a Soviet spy as "ludicrous". The producer of the film, Teddy Schwarzmann, who is based in New York City, responded to these criticisms by pointing out that the film was a drama andwhile they do not want to invent events, there are some "creative liberties". He added: "When we come over, we are also going to get in touch with some other experts on that period. We know how very important Turing is to you over there." (39)

I am not sure who the "experts" were who Schwarzmann consulted but he seems to have ignored them because virtually every factual detail in the film is wrong. Alex von Tunzelmann, writing in The Guardian, was especially critically of the relationship between Turing and Cairncross: "In the film, Turing works out that Cairncross is a spy; but Cairncross threatens to expose his sexuality. 'If you tell him my secret, I’ll tell him yours,' he says. The blackmail works. Turing covers up for the spy, for a while at least. This is wholly imaginary and deeply offensive – for concealing a spy would have been an extremely serious matter. Were the makers of The Imitation Game intending to accuse Alan Turing, one of Britain’s greatest war heroes, of cowardice and treason? Creative licence is one thing, but slandering a great man’s reputation – while buying into the nasty 1950s prejudice that gay men automatically constituted a security risk – is quite another." (40)

The film does not accuse Turing of treason because it includes a scene where he tells Sir Stewart Menzies that Cairncross is a Soviet spy. Menzies, as chief of MI6, was nominally in charge of Bletchley Park but he was based in London, and probably never ever visited the place. Yet, in the film, he is always there, watching what is going on. Even if Menzies did visit Bletchley Park, Turing would have no idea who he was. Those were the days when he head of MI6 was an official secret. (41)

Menzies tells Turing that MI6 is aware that Cairncross is a Soviet spy but they are using him to convey information to Joseph Stalin. Of course, MI6 did not become aware of Cairncross's spying activities until Anthony Blunt made his confession to Arthur Martin of MI5 on 23rd April 1964. He also named Cairncross and eleven other associates as spies. (26) Martin and Peter Wright interviewed Cairncross in Paris. He made a full confession: "He (Cairncross) was anxious to come home, and thought that cooperation was the best way to earn his ticket. Cairncross said he had no firm evidence against anyone, but was able to identify two senior civil servants who had been fellow Communists with him at Cambridge. One was subsequently required to resign, while the other was denied access to defense-related secrets. We were particularly interested in what Cairncross could tell us about GCHQ, which thus far had apparently escaped the attentions of the Russian intelligence services in a way which made us distinctly suspicious, especially given the far greater numbers of people employed there. Cairncross told us about four men from GCHQ who he thought might repay further investigation." (42)

Cairncross and the others named by Blunt were never prosecuted because the British security services did not want to reveal its incompetence in preventing secrets being passed to the Soviet Union. It is the same reason why Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess were allowed to escape to Moscow. Anyway, there were not the only ones leaking information to the Soviets. Winston Churchill had been supplying Stalin with selected information from GCCS. According to Sinclair McKay, the author of The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (2010): "In fact, from 1941, Churchill had for tactical reasons personally been feeding Stalin information gleaned from Bletchley Park; the more difficulties that Hitler encountered on the Eastern Front, the better for the Allies." (43)

At the end of the film it is claimed that the events at Bletchley Park were kept secret for fifty years. They even get this fact wrong. Frederick Winterbotham, who had worked at Government Code and Cypher School during the war, approached the government in 1973 and asked for permission to publish a book he had written on the subject. The intelligence services reluctantly agreed and Winterbotham's book, The Ultra Secret,appeared in 1974. Those who had contributed so much to the war effort could now receive the recognition they deserved. (44) Unfortunately, some of the key figures such as Alan Turing, Alastair Denniston and Alfred Dilwyn Knox were now dead. Denniston's son points out that when his father died in 1961, despite of the important work he had done, no obituaries appeared in the national press. (45)

The Ultra Secret was soon followed by books by other members of the codebreaking team, including, Peter Calvocoressi, R. V. Jones, Gordon Welchman and Mavis Batey. We also discovered the reasons why the government tried to keep it a secret for so long. These books contained embarrassing details about how the government ignored certain information from GCCS that enabled them to plead ignorance about the Final Solution and the knowledge that Dresden was not a valid military target in February, 1945. As Calvocoressi points out: “The bombing of Dresden was terrible and should never have taken place.” (46)

A large number of historians have written in great detail about what happened in Bletchley Park. The facts of the case are no longer in doubt. The makers of The Imitation Game have completely ignored this and filled the film with lies. This matters because the vast majority will watch this film and not read the excellent books on the subject. Neil Webster, the author of Cribs for Victory: The Untold Story of Bletchley Park's Secret Room (2011), told Robin Denniston: "The cryptographic organisation at Bletchley was highly efficient. Indeed it was the most efficient working organisation I have met, perhaps because... it was run mainly neither by business men nor career civil servants but by mathematicians and chess players, who brought detached and decisive minds to the solution of cryptographic, organisational and human problems." (47)

George Steiner wrote in The Sunday Times on 23rd October, 1983, that increasingly "it looks as if Bletchley Park is the single greatest achievement of Britain during 1939-45, perhaps during this century as a whole". It is a shame that this film fails to capture the truth of this statement. (48)


Previous Posts

The Anglocentric and Sexist misrepresentation of historical facts in The Imitation Game (2nd December, 2014)

The Secret Files of James Jesus Angleton (12th November, 2014)

Ben Bradlee and the Death of Mary Pinchot Meyer (29th October, 2014)

Yuri Nosenko and the Warren Report (15th October, 2014)

The KGB and Martin Luther King (2nd October, 2014)

The Death of Tomás Harris (24th September, 2014)

Simulations in the Classroom (1st September, 2014)

The KGB and the JFK Assassination (21st August, 2014)

West Ham United and the First World War (4th August, 2014)

The First World War and the War Propaganda Bureau (28th July, 2014)

Interpretations in History (8th July, 2014)

Alger Hiss was not framed by the FBI (17th June, 2014)

Google, Bing and Operation Mockingbird: Part 2 (14th June, 2014)

Google, Bing and Operation Mockingbird: The CIA and Search-Engine Results (10th June, 2014)

The Student as Teacher (7th June, 2014)

Is Wikipedia under the control of political extremists? (23rd May, 2014)

Why MI5 did not want you to know about Ernest Holloway Oldham (6th May, 2014)

The Strange Death of Lev Sedov (16th April, 2014)

Why we will never discover who killed John F. Kennedy (27th March, 2014)

The KGB planned to groom Michael Straight to become President of the United States (20th March, 2014)

The Allied Plot to Kill Lenin (7th March, 2014)

Was Rasputin murdered by MI6? (24th February 2014)

Winston Churchill and Chemical Weapons (11th February, 2014)

Pete Seeger and the Media (1st February 2014)

Should history teachers use Blackadder in the classroom? (15th January 2014)

Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)

Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)

The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)

The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)

Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)

New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)

Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)

Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)

Unity Mitford and Adolf Hitler (30th October 2013)

Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)

The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)

Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)

British Newspaper Reporting of Appeasement and Nazi Germany (14th October 2013)

Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)

Wallis Simpson and Nazi Germany (11th October 2013)

The Activities of MI5 (9th October 2013)

The Right Club and the Second World War (6th October 2013)

What did Paul Dacre's father do in the war? (4th October 2013)

Ralph Miliband and Lord Rothermere (2nd October 2013)