Eric Waugh: Alan Turing, the reluctant hero who fought a secret war to liberate Europe
Published 15/09/2009 | 08:00
Alan Turing, the brilliant wartime codebreaker at Bletchley Park, was treated savagely over his homosexuality.
But it was not our fault: so the Prime Minister has only made a fool of himself by apologising for it. His mawkish words ring hollow in the mouth of someone not even born until the war was five years over.
This business of proxy apologies by politicians in search of a vote, commits the grievous sin of seeking to judge other, distant, times by the standards of our own. Blair, always seeking the cloak of pseudo-morality, started it with the Irish famine. Slavery was our next big sin. It is all so pointless.
I am enough of an old fogey to remember that other war well. Among the chaps who won it were a glorious band of eccentric intellectuals at Station X, Bletchley Park, a remote Victorian country mansion whose acres have since been lapped by the suburban estates of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire.
Of that crowd, Turing was the brightest star in a constellation of genius. Aged 27 when the war broke out, he was the son of the Chief Engineer of the Madras and Southern Mahratta Railway, had had a brilliant career in mathematics at Cambridge, and been elected a Fellow of King's. He suffered from hay fever and used to cycle to work in June with his gas mask on. The chain was loose on his bike. Instead of having a link taken out, he counted the number of times the pedals went round before the chain fell off, so that he could stop and adjust it in time.
In his workplace, he chained his mug to the radiator to stop it being stolen. In a moment of pessimism about the war, he withdrew all his money from the bank and buried it in Bletchley Woods. The real emergency was that he was never able to find it again. But his work enabled Montgomery to be briefed on Rommel's intentions in the desert in 1942 before the key battle of Alamein and the planned movements of U-boats to be plotted in the Atlantic.
War heroes come in all shapes. In the autumn of 1937, a 21-year-old graduate, also just out of Cambridge, made his way to his first job at Cabin Hill School in the Knock suburb of Belfast. In contrast to Turing, up at the same time, he had only achieved a mediocre degree - a third in English - and he had got in because both his father and his teacher at Mill Hill School knew the admissions tutor. There were 10,000 unemployed graduates; so when Fox's teachers' agency sent him details of the Belfast job, he decided to go for it. But he felt it turned out to be a disaster: yet I - who was one of his pupils - remember how he held us spellbound, seated on top of a desk, shoes and scarlet socks on the seat, declaiming poems from the Spanish Civil War.
The only memory of Belfast he relished was his school production of Treasure Island. I remember it well, smoking rifles and all. But the political religiosity of Northern Ireland grated, and the following year he moved to a grammar school in Kent, where a Cambridge friend, Harry Ree, was on the staff and, he was sure, got him the interview. The headmaster said his classroom work was awful - but after class he was accomplishing small miracles with the school clubs.
In fact, the fellow, though academically unimpressive, was a charismatic leader - and a superb organiser. It was now the autumn of 1938. He faced the call-up. But when it came, he registered as a conscientious objector. He told his friends he had no intention of being put under orders, that might be stupid, to kill people and not be able to say: "Don't be a bloody fool."
He was sent to work helping ewes to lamb on a Lincolnshire farm. Then, his younger brother in the RAF died trying to land a Blenheim bomber when his pilot had been wounded. America and Russia were in the war. He decided he could stay out no longer.
By this time, Harry Ree was working in the Army's secret military schools. He said he could put his friend in touch with an organisation which could use his fluent French. The reluctant 'conchie' found himself in a bare room of the Northumberland Hotel being interviewed by the thriller writer, Selwyn Jepson. They talked French for three-quarters of an hour. At the end of it, Jepson offered him a job - still without saying what he would be doing.
Thus began one of the heroic espionage sagas of the war; for the ex-teacher was Francis Cammaerts and he had just been recruited by SOE, the secret wartime organisation set up to foster resistance in occupied Europe. By the end of the war he was a lieut-colonel, leading a secret army in south-east France numbering 20,000, a DSO, Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur, holding the Croix de Guerre - and the US Medal of Freedom.
But, modestly, he has never told his story - until now, when Ray Jenkins has produced a remarkable biography - much of it really autobiography, culled verbatim from long interviews at his subject's home before his death three years ago, at the age of 90, in Le Pouget, his village retreat in Languedoc.
This is a worthy, candid, and quite fascinating memorial to Cammaerts. As for Turing, the computing genius who, in his misery, died by his own hand, he should be remembered by every user of an Apple computer: their logo reminding us that it was by eating an apple injected with cyanide that he died.