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You’ve probably never heard this cool story about WWII codebreaking... but you should

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Harvey Day
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Thanks to some dry school history lessons and the odd BBC documentary, most of us probably feel comfortable with the broad outlines of the Second World War: heroic bravery shown by front-line soldiers in unimaginably awful conditions, women working tirelessly on the home front and unthinkable violence committed by the Nazis in mainland Europe.

And after Benedict Cumberbatch’s 2014 film The Imitation Game, lots more of us know about the role of genius codebreakers, especially Alan Turing, at Bletchley Park. Turing, an early computer scientist and mathematician, worked to intercept coded messages that eventually enabled the Allies to defeat the Nazis (even though Turing was later chemically castrated for being gay… but that’s another story).

Now, Florence Schechter has told the story of how a Natural History Museum employee called Geoffrey Tandy found himself at the centre of the code-breaking action…

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The story is based on a Natural History Museum blog and was even repeated by then-foreign secretary William Hague in a speech in 2012.

What a wonderful – and possibly too-good-to-be-true – historical tale this is. However, and I truly hate to be the bearer of nitpicky news, it seems that this fantastical tale, which has gone viral on Twitter, isn’t completely true and has been embellished over the years.

According to a lengthy post by Colby Cosh in the National Post, the tale of Tandy accidentally being drafted in as a cryptogramist is just “a cute story.”

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A German WW2 cypher machine at Bletchey Park

He explains: “In short, Tandy’s job was not to be a ‘cryptographer,’ but an archivist-lexicographer for cryptographers, and it is pretty obvious he was not recruited because of some typographic accident. As a veteran officer, albeit from the lowly land army, he may have been the single person in the whole of the British Isles who was best suited for the role the Ministry of Defence found for him.

“Tandy’s son, who wrote a biography of his father, thinks the ‘cryptogam’/’cryptogram’ thing was just an obvious Bletchley joke that only later came to be mistaken for a factual tradition.”

However, it does seem to be true that Tandy’s technical expertise allowed him to salvage the waterlogged codebook which helped crack the Enigma code. So, it’s still a pretty impressive tale of human skill and ingenuity. 

We tip our hats to the memory of Tandy, Turing and everyone else in history who never really got the praise they truly deserve. 

(Images: Getty)