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…
They show him the enigma machine and are like "dude, you gotta help us crack it - you're the best cryptogrammist in all of the UK!". And poor Geoff is like "this is super awks, I'm a cryptoGAMMIST not a cryptoGRAMMIST. I'm not a specialist in codes, I'm a specialist in algae..." pic.twitter.com/tJymArsZ1k— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
UNTIL 1941.... when the allies torpedoed a German U-boat and managed to salvage a load of documents including a BIGRAM TABLE (!!!) which is like super duper important because they show how to unscramble messages through the enigma machine! pic.twitter.com/fTdGkZ94IN— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
But there's one major problem... all the papers are so soggy they are basically unusable. All was lost! But then Geoffrey FUCKING TANDY saved the day like the scientist badass he is. He was like "GUYS! I am a cryptoGAMMIST, remember! DRYING OUT WATERLOGGED THINGS IS WHAT I DOOOO" pic.twitter.com/rLhOHdWBAq— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
If it weren't for him, Benedict Cumberbatch's lookalike Alan Turing wouldn't have been able to do his thang. GO TANDY!— Florence Schechter (@floschechter) April 9, 2018
So a big up to scientists in unexpected places. And if anyone ever tells you off for a typo, tell them his story. pic.twitter.com/LVmY1MGU2A
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.”
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.