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The secret story of the Jewish codebreakers who helped win the war

    As the Director of GCHQ, I rarely write in public. But the death of Rolf Noskwith earlier this month, at the age of 97, prompts me to tell the story of our  remarkable group of Jewish staff at Bletchley Park during the Second World War and the years that followed. 

    Their role in codebreaking and in our “signals intelligence” mission was out of all proportion to the size of the Jewish community in Britain at the time. In turn, Bletchley’s contribution to winning and shortening the course of the war and therefore bringing to an end the Holocaust in Europe is clear.

    Less well known is the role of some of these staff in establishing and building the new state of Israel. This is a fitting time in which to remember and to celebrate their story, and to remind ourselves of the enduring values and unbroken line which links these great individuals and our work today.

    In those early days of the war, the Jewish staff invited to share the Sabbath meal with Rebecca and Philip Bogush and their daughters — the only known Jewish family in Bletchley village, who had been evacuated from Stamford Hill during the Blitz — were as eclectic a group as the rest of “Station X”.

    There were established academics at the height of their careers, young servicemen recruited for their mathematical or linguistic skills, clerks and messengers who combined fast typing with languages, including the Bogush daughters, Muriel and Anita. They came from a variety of social backgrounds, the famous names of Anglo-Jewry alongside recent immigrants from Germany and eastern Europe.

    Among the academics were great figures in the history of computer science, not least Max Newman, whose lectures Alan Turing attended at Cambridge University. Newman’s work at Bletchley was critical to cracking the “Tunny” code used by the German High Command. Convinced that codebreaking could be mechanised, he was a driving force in the creation of Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer. It was the remarkable technological breakthroughs of Newman, Turing, Welchman and others that the scholar George Steiner had in mind when he described Bletchley as perhaps the greatest achievement of Britain not just in the Second World War but in the 20th Century.

    There was also a vibrant group of younger Jewish academics who would meet on Wednesday evenings at the flat of Joe Gillis, a lecturer at the Maths faculty of Queen’s University, Belfast. There they discussed the future, personal and political. Some of Bletchley’s most talented staff were regular attendees: Rolf Noskwith; Morris Hoffman, a young civil servant who had been one of the earliest members of the Federation of Zionist Youth before the war; Jack Good, a gifted mathematician and British chess champion, who was Turing’s statistical assistant; Michael Cohen, a Scot who had been at Glasgow University studying Divinity with a view to becoming a rabbi; and the remarkable Ettinghausen brothers, Walter and Ernest.

    Rolf Noskwith
    Rolf Noskwith

    They had been recruited from Oxford and both worked in Hut 4, in the German Naval Section, where Walter ran “Z Watch”. Their team’s work was critical to the protection of trans-Atlantic convoys — Walter came to know the name of every U Boat commander — and to Royal Navy operations. Z Watch was closely involved in the hunt for the German battleship, the Bismarck, and Walter himself handled some of the vessel’s last messages in May 1941.

    The extreme secrecy necessary at Bletchley, which was maintained until the 1970s, has made collecting the particular experience of Jewish staff difficult. Walter Ettinghausen told even his wife very little about his work in later years and felt so loyal to Bletchley that he refused to read the first unauthorised account of the “Ultra” secret, the operation to intercept and decode German signals sent using Enigma, the German cypher machine.

    But some personal testimonies and the work of the historian Martin Sugarman give us glimpses into the experience of being Jewish in a place that, through its work, was beginning to gain unique insights into the mass murder of Jews across Europe.

    During the summer of 1941, Bletchley was intercepting top secret German police radio and SS Enigma messages cataloguing the systematic killing of Jews as the German army advanced into Russia, village by village. Based on these statistics of tens of thousands of deaths, Bletchley’s assessment was that this was a high-level Nazi policy and that the SS and police were vying with each other as to their “score” of victims.

    The War Office believed Bletchley’s view to be an exaggeration, but Winston Churchill was reading the reports himself and decided in August to risk revealing some of the Ultra operation by speaking in some detail about “this merciless butchery”. The scale of what was later to be seen as the beginning of the Holocaust was already sensed by Churchill — “we are in the presence of a crime without a name”, he said.

    In reaction to Churchill’s speech, German police were instructed to send details of all future “executions” to Berlin by hand, to avoid interception. Bletchley continued to collect material for the later investigation of war crimes, but the priority was to use the Ultra intelligence to win the war and bring the Holocaust to an end. Having established the systematic nature of the mass murders, Bletchley staff noted to Churchill that “it is not therefore proposed to continue reporting these butcheries specially, unless requested to do so”.

    By the autumn of 1941, there were enough non-secret sources pointing to mass murder, particularly that of 33,000 Jews near Kiev, that Churchill felt able to send his famous personal message to the Jewish Chronicle in November without risking the Ultra secret: “… in the day of victory the Jew’s sufferings will not be forgotten… he will see vindicated those principles of righteousness which it was the glory of his fathers to proclaim to the world”. Two years later, on the 25th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, he sent an almost identical message to the JC on the “unspeakable evils” suffered by the Jewish people.

    Among Jewish staff at Bletchley, there was clearly some awareness of what was happening but it was partial and fragmentary. There were reminders of what they were confronting — Morris Hoffman remembered seeing a captured German book bound with looted Torah scroll.

    Walter Eytan with President Charles de Gaulle
    Walter Eytan with President Charles de Gaulle

    Walter Ettinghausen was surprised that he and his brother passed security clearance, given their German birth. He assumed that the recruiters “concluded, correctly, that we had an extra interest in fighting Hitler”. Writing in the 1990s he records movingly the personal impact of an intercepted signal from a German ship in the Aegean, transporting Jews from the islands to Piraeus zur Endlösung’ (“for the Final Solution”). In 1944, he had never heard this phrase before, but instinctively knew what it meant. Typically of the man and the culture of Bletchley, he did not mention this to his brother or anyone else on Z Watch, until asked to write an official account in the 1990s.

    The meetings at Gillis’s flat were more focused on the future than current atrocities. It was there that the Professional and Technical Aliyah Association was founded, to encourage Jewish professionals to emigrate and build a modern, democratic Israel.

    Walter Ettinghausen declared at one gathering that he would be on the first boat to Palestine after the war. He left in 1946 and, as Walter Eytan, went on to play a key role in Israeli foreign policy and public service.

    Gillis himself became a founder and professor of Applied Mathematics at the Weizmann Institute; by 1948 Michael Cohen was coding messages for the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem and went on to help found the “British Kibbutz” in Upper Galilee.

    There were many other Jewish Bletchley veterans who put their skills at the service of the new state; when Noskwith saw Eytan at the UN in 1947 to offer his own expertise in Israel, Eytan responded: “Codebreakers we have plenty of!”

    Others in the group chose to stay in the UK. Many, like Newman and Good, returned to academia; others continued to work for GCHQ, including Ernest Ettinghausen and Naky Doniach, who was in charge of teaching Russian during the Cold War and whose technical dictionaries are still in use.

    The numbers of Jewish staff at Bletchley rose significantly as United States liaison officers joined the effort, including Abraham Sinkov, Leo Rosen and William Friedman — a giant of 20th-century codebreaking who went on to be the first chief cryptologist of the National Security Agency, GCHQ’s American counterpart.

    This history matters to those of us working in GCHQ today. The values of freedom and democracy, which Churchill speaks of in his message to the JC, ran through Bletchley and motivate us still. It is not enough only to be legally compliant: any government intelligence agency must have a strong sense of ethics. To remember, as Elie Wiesel put it, “means to lend an ethical dimension to all endeavours and aspirations”. That is one of the reasons I reinstituted the tradition of sending all our new recruits to visit Bletchley; they need to understand the roots of brilliant technical innovation and the ethical core of our mission.

    Today, our strong partnership with our Israeli counterparts in signals intelligence is protecting people from terrorism as I write. As we establish the new National Cyber Security Centre as part of GCHQ, we are building on an excellent cyber relationship with a range of Israeli bodies and the remarkable cyber industry in Be’er Sheva. At the heart of all of this joint work are the outstanding cryptology, brilliant technical skills, shared democratic values and the determination to keep people safe, which go back to Bletchley.

    I hope Rolf Noskwith and the veterans of Bletchley Park would be proud of this legacy.

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