Columns 31.12.2013 10:00 am

The angel of World War 2

Andrew Kenny.

Andrew Kenny.

The year ends with a sad tribute to an angel who probably saved more lives than anybody else in World War 2.

He might have saved my father’s life before I was conceived. I might owe my existence to him. He died a tragic and unjust death.

Alan Turing, like my father, was born in Britain in 1912. Turing was a mathematical genius. He laid down the mathematical foundations of the modern computer.

When war broke out in 1939, military intelligence was of the highest importance. The Germans sent messages from their high command to their generals and admirals through codes on “Enigma” machines. The Germans believed their codes were unbreakable. I’d have thought the same. However, Polish cryptologists had already made a vital start in unlocking Enigma. They passed this on to the Brits, who set up a deciphering headquarters at Bletchley Park near London. Turing was the key figure here. It was his piercing insights that eventually broke the German codes.

While Turing was at Bletchley, my father was the third officer on a Scottish merchant ship bringing grain across the Atlantic from Canada to Britain. These ships were in mortal peril from the German U-boats. But thanks to Turing, Royal Navy admirals were reading the German orders to the U-boat captains at the same time as they were. They moved in their anti-submarine warships accordingly, and with devastating effect.

In the terrible but decisive tank battles in Russia, the Brits forwarded the German battle orders to the Russians. At crucial moments, the Germans found the Russians waiting for them.

Turing’s achievements were secret. Neither my father nor the Russian tank commanders realised they had this angel at their shoulder. Some of his work remained classified until last year.

Turing was homosexual. In 1952, he was found guilty of having sexual relations with a consenting, adult man. This was then a crime in England. He was ordered either to imprisonment or to chemical castration. Such horrible, evil injustice! He chose the latter. In 1954 he was found dead by poisoning. It might have been accidental but was probably suicide. So ended the gentle saviour of millions.

This Christmas Eve, Alan Turing received a pardon from Queen Elizabeth II – a pardon for having done nothing wrong.

 

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