The Real X-Files
|Within these walls...Bletchley Park,the mansion near
modern Milton Keynes where German codes were cracked
The wartime secrets of Bletchley
Park,Britain's top level code breaking centre,are brought to light -
and it's staff brought to life - in a new series
Teenager cracks e-mail code
|Sarah Flannery, 16, who baffled the judges with her grasp
of cryptography They described her work as "brilliant"
BY AUDREY MAGEE, IRELAND CORRESPONDENT
|An Irish schoolgirl was yesterday hailed as a mathematical
genius after devising a code for sending secret messages by computer.
Sarah Flannery used the science of cryptography
to design a code that is ten times faster than
the one currently used to convert confidential information so that it can
he sent via the Internet and e-mail. She has been inundated with offers of
jobs and scholarships from international companies and universities.
Miss Flannery, 16, from Blarney, Co Cork, used matrices to formulate an
alternative to RSA, the current data protection code, devised by three students
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1977. The result is an algorithm,
a mathematical blueprint, that is far faster than the
RSA and equally secure.
Miss Flannery, whose father, David, lectures in mathematics at Cork Institute
of Technology, devised her code to enter the Irish Young Scientists and
Technology competition. She won at the weekend and left the judges unable
fully to comprehend her project. They described her work as "brilliant" and
one judge advised her to patent it.
Miss Flannery said she was thrilled. "I had to go through lots of stuff before
I finalised the theory," she said. "I reached critical points where I would
get stuck for three weeks or so.I just kept thinking about it and then the
whole thing slipped into place." The oldest of five children, she earned
eight As in her junior certificate, the Irish equivalent of GCSEs, with extra
tuition from her father.
Miss Flannery is now deciding what to do with her new code, the Cayley-Purser,
named after Arthur Cayley, an eminent 19th century Cambridge mathematician,
and Michael Purser, a cryptographer who inspired her. She is considering
publishing her findings rather than patenting as she does not want people
to pay for her discovery.
She will represent Ireland at the EU Science Contest in Greece in September.
From the sinking of the Bismarck to the D Day landings, British code breakers
had a remarkable influence on the course of the Second World War. Thousands
of young people working under an assortment of intellectuals and academics,
broke German signal codes, including messages between Hitler and his generals.
"Never had one side known so much about the enemy's intentions in the history
of warfare," says David Darlow, series producer of
Station X [Ref: Video
N45], named after the radio call sign of the code-breakers at
Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.
According to some estimates, the decoding work carried out at the mansion,
near what is now the new town of Milton Keynes, shortened the war by as much
as two years. "The story came out in the seventies when some people were
allowed to speak, but the bulk remained silent. Now some have spoken for
the first time.
"This was a bunch of schoolkids and students, most of whom had never seen
a code before. Some were good at crosswords or
chess, others were good mathematicians or linguists.
They were a weird bunch whose average age was in the early twenties, and
it was a curious military establishment - it was
the forties equivalent of Silicon Valley."
The work revolved around the codes generated by Enigma, the machine used
by the German armed forces for encoding communications. With Enigma, any
message could be easily translated into groups of five letters transmitted
in Morse code and then decoded by a machine using the same settings. The
difficulty of the task facing the British can be gauged from the number of
settings for an Enigma machine 150 million million million.
But good intelligence work, educated guesses, brilliant analysis and mind-numbing
thoroughness, combined with sloppy German operators, meant signals could
be decrypted in days or hours. "Much of it depended on the mathematical
probability of a particular letter occurring. So machines were built enabling
decryption that took days manually to be done in half an hour," says Darlow.
In fact, they developed the world's first programmable computer but, like
everything at Bletchley, it remained a secret and its designers, notably
mathematician Alan Turing,
never received credit. "Turing," says Darlow, "was the greatest scientific
brain of the mid-20th century, on a par with someone like
"One reason why everything that went on at Bletchley remained a secret was
that the techniques and some of the machines were still in use against the
Russians and even our allies for decades. We've talked to at least 200 people
who worked at Bletchley Park, so it's difficult to believe that there are
any more substantial secrets to come out. "We have used drama to bring alive
the story of the people involved. When you hear people talking about the
satisfaction that comes with breaking a coded message, it sounds like they
could be talking about sex."
|Alan Turing in the film IMITATION GAME names his Enigma solving
machine CHRISTOPHER after his schoolfriend.What may not be raedily apparent
is that CHRISTOPHER is also an anagram of SHORT CIPHER,which seems
World War 2 Encoding Machine stolen from base
An Enigma encoding machine used to send secret messages during World War
2 has been stolen from a former spy centre in Buckinghamshire.
The machine,one of only 3,was stolen from Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes.
Police believe the machine was taken on March31 or during an open day
on Apr1. Police said the machine was worth around £100,000.
Robert Harris : Enigma
|| Although he was born more than a decade after the end of
the Second World War, Robert Harris has a remarkable ability to recreate
the atmosphere of the war years, as revealed in Fatherland, his first
novel, which sold more than four million hardback copies, and now in
Enigma. Of course, none of this success happened by accident, and
Harris's meticulous research two years' worth went into Enigma is
largely responsible for the accuracy and extraordinary vividness of his settings.
The original source of inspiration for Enigma was a documentary that
Harris saw about
Turing, the pioneer in computer theory who played a key role in unscrambling
the torrent of radio messages transmitted by the 200,000 Enigma machines
manufactured by the Third Reich.
| 'I knew that Enigma was important,' the author
explains, but what was it like at Bletchley Park? Ten thousand people worked
there. I felt curious about how they lived. I like novels that take you inside
another world.' Formerly a BBC researcher and reporter, and later a political
columnist for the Observer and the Sunday Times, Robert Harris does not regret
turning his back on either politics (which he almost entered) or journalism.
The success of his novels has given him the freedom to become a full-time
writer, and to explore in-depth the Second world War, a subject that has
fascinated him since he was a boy of thirteen and first read The Rise
and Fall of the Third Reich. 'I just found it all riveting. Those twelve
years are the crucible of the modern world, possibly the most important in
human history, in what they tell us about what human beings are capable of.'
His first book, Selling Hitler, about the Hitler Diaries fiasco, was
nonfiction written in fictionalised style. While writing it, Harris realised
that he enjoyed the process of blending fictional narrative with facts. It
has proved to be a lucrative combination, enabling him to move with his wife,
a BBC producer, and their two children, to a beautiful Berkshire vicarage
with a garden that slopes down to the Kennet and Avon canal. '
As my publisher says,' the author comments wryly, "'You can say what you
like about Adolf, but he's been good to Robert."'
Bletchley tale told blandly
The Enigma codebreakers may have helped to win the war,but a new film
about them is no triumph,says Fiona Morrow
At a full six years from option to final cut, the film of Robert Harris's
bestselling novel Enigma took longer to make it to the screen than
it took the Allies to win the Second World War.
Enigma the novel is a fictionalised account of the story of the Bletchley
Park codebreakers, the men and women whose intelligence and skills proved
pivotal in undermining the Nazis. By the time Enigma the film was
in the can everyone had swapped sides: this time the Brits found themselves
taking on the Americans, and with the help of the Germans, no less.
The first production from Mick Jagger's movie company Jagged Films,
Enigma was declared "too British" by the major Hollywood studios and
failed to generate financing in America, the ultimate irony being that it
was two German companies, Intermedia and Senator Films, wno came up with
the £14 million budget.
On reading the novel, Jagger's fascination with the work of Bletchley Park
was immediate and intensified by the fact that the story was set in 1943,
the year that the frontman for the Rolling Stones was born. He has since
called Hollywood's determination to co-opt British history "a disgrace",
and he and the coowner of Jagged, Victoria Pearman, are proud that they have
drawn on so much homegrown talent - of which attended the film's premiere
at the Edinburgh International Film festival on Saturday.
Directed by Michael Apted, scripted by Tom Stoppard
and starring Dougray Scott, Kate Winsiet, Jeremy Northam and Saffron
Burrows, Enigma is, according to Robert Harris, something of a novelty.
"To have a film of this scale which makes no concessions to America is quite
extraordinary, and an achievement in itself," the author said.
It's a shame, therefore. that the undeniably intriguing and heroic business
of Bletchley has come flattened into a film which suffocates under the weight
of its own self-regard: from its opening credit sequence Enigma fails
to muster any sense of urgency, with John Barry's tready score only adding
to the inertia. Dougray Scott plays Tom Jericho, a genius driven to a nervous
breakdown through an ill-fated affair with Bletchley beauty Claire (Saffron
Burrows). After a forced absence, Jericho is redrafted to the Park when the
Germans unexpectedly switch to a new, as yet unbroken, code.
But Jericho is distracted by Claire's sudden disappearance and teams up with
her roommate Hestor (Kate Winslet) to track her down. Their movements are
followed by a secret service agent, Wigram (Jeremy Northam). With Michael
Apted's almost wilfully leaden direction, it's perhaps unfair to blame Scott
entirely for his unprepossessing performance; the actor appears unsure whether
he is playing a romantic lead or an action hero, quickly resorting to a wearisome
hangdog petulance. In contrast, Northam's unabashed hamming,though thoroughly
at odds with the film's serious tone, comes as something of a relief. The
women acquit themselves best, with Winslet especially lighting up the screen
whenever her perky sleuth is called upon. But in the attempt to parallel
the unpicking of the German's code with the unravelling of a human enigma
in the form of Burrows's floaty femme fatale, the film oversimplifies both
elements. The scenes that work best - those when the assorted eccentric
codebreakers are cooped up at work in their hut - are all too rare, the spirited
support of actors such as Tom Hollander and Robert Pugh sadly
Indeed, it's all so average that one can't help but feel slightly cynical
about the whole patriotic furore around the film, and read Hollywood's lack
of interest more in terms of commercial nous than offensive imperialism.
It's interesting to note that Jagger turned down an initial bid from Miramax
for distribution rights, only to return, when he had no luck elsewhere, to
find the original bid reduced to distribute the film in the UK.) In the end,
Enigma was the first film acquired by actor Stephen Baldwin's new
company, Manhattan Films, for distribution to America.
The codebreakers of Bletchley were kept under wraps by the Official Secrets
Act until the 1970s, their quite brilliant efforts gone unremarked and
unrewarded. Though Enigma has been trumpeted as the film to set the record
straight, one cannot help but wonder how those former Bletchley Parkers who
attend the Royal Gala Performance in aid of the Prince's Trust in September
will feel about seeing their unique history turned into an unremarkable romantic
Enigma is released on Sept28
[The Times 20/8/2001]
A code breaker and an enigma
Alasdair Palmer on a life of the man who deciphered a 3,500-year-old
The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris.
By Andrew Robinson
Thames & Hudson,£12.95 [168pp]
|Michael Ventris No scholar
| MICHAEL VENTRIS fits the template for the romantic
notion of genius. He was brilliant; he was unconventional; he was emotionally
detached; and he died at the age of only 34, having achieved an intellectual
breakthrough for which others had laboured in vain.
Given that he died in 1953, it is surprising that it has
taken so long for someone to get round to writing about him. But perhaps
it took the success of A Beautiful
Mind the biography of the mathematician
John Nash, to convince
publishers that there is a market for books about intellectuals who work
on recondite subjects.
And Linear B, the ancient script which Ventris deciphered, is certainly a
recondite subject. A strange, pictographic-looking writing incised on clay
tablets nearly 3,500 years old, Linear B was discovered (and named) by Sir
Arthur Evans when he excavated the Minoan city of Knossos at the beginning
of the last century. The same script later turned up on tablets unearthed
during excavations of what has been dubbed "Nestor's Palace" at Pylos in
Evans was convinced that the Minoans had their own language unrelated to
ancient Greek, and his attempts to decode it proceeded from that assumption.
All those attempts failed, as did those of his well-qualified scholarly
successors. Michael Ventris was not well qualified. He was not even a scholar:
his first love was not ancient history or languages: it was modern architecture.
Ventris was, however, an exceptionally gifted linguist, with the ability
which some people have to pick up languages, apparently without trying: he
arrived in Sweden for a holiday, for instance, and within a week was able
to hold extensive conversations in Swedish. But he never went to university,
and it is a testament to the remarkable level of education available in some
schools before the Second World War that Ventris left Stowe (a term early,
as it happens: his mother could not pay the fees) with a degree of fluency
in Latin and Greek not matched by most of today's graduates in classics.
At the age of 18, Ventris published a paper on Linear B interesting enough
to persuade Sir John Myers, then recently retired as Professor of Ancient
History at Oxford but still working on decoding the script, to write to him
appreciatively about it. In this vigorous and fluently - written book, Andrew
Robinson describes how Ventris initially followed Evans's assumption that
Linear B must relate to some language other than Greek - his own preference
was for Etruscan - only to run into the same brick wall with which Evans's
had collided. Several years later, he eventually reached, or rather jumped,
to the conclusion that Linear B was actually made up of symbols for syllables
of archaic Greek, an insight which proved to be the key to unlocking the
Mr Robinson does a work-manlike job of trying to make you to understand Ventris's
"astonishing" achievement -but it is very difficult for someone who is not
a linguist to appreciate just what it was that Ventris did. The task is made
more difficult by the fact that the fruits of decoding Linear B have been
so meagre: no poetry, no stirring accounts of love, murder, or war; nothing,
in fact, of any literary value at all All that the tablets have yielded are
endless lists of livestock and agricultural products, of textiles, drinking
vessels, tripods and furniture. It's no doubt important material for the
academic study of Mycenean society. But it is hardly the stuff of shattering,
stirring, or even interesting insights into a vanished society.
Ventris himself seems to have known that nothing particularly interesting
would emerge from decoding linear B: he lost interest in the script almost
from the moment that he had solved the problem of how to read it. He went
back to architecture, but was so disappointed with his own work that he resigned
from the job which he had been given.
So unlike A Beautiful Mind this is a story of a
troubled genius who is not redeemed by love or anything else. Ventris's
marriage to a rich society beauty fell apart, and his death in 1953 may have
been suicide : he crashed his car into a stationary lorry in the early hours
of the morning The Man who Deciphered Linear B is true to its subject,
so does not resolve the man and the work into some neat, comforting lesson.
But its fidelity to the facts makes it an unsettling read.
Ventris's own sense of despair hovers uneasily over the whole enterprise,
posing a question which Andrew Robinson's gushing enthusiasm never quite
succeeds in either anwering or banishing: beyond solving a fiendishly complicated
and difficult cross-word puzzle, what actually did Ventris do that was so
[Sunday Telegraph April 21 2002]
The series is accompanied by a book Station X,
the Codebreakers of Station X by Michael Smith,
published by Channel 4 Books, price £14.99.
Enigma by Robert Harris
Andrew Hodges Homepage
Ciphers @ Southampton