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Alan Turing's nephew reveals hidden stories of breaking Enigma Code

Tonight in Belfast Sir Dermot Turing will challenge perceptions about the Bletchley Park hero, and reveal how the role of Polish patriots in the battle to crack Hitler’s ‘impenetrable’ encryption device has been airbrushed from history

Sir Dermot Turing
Sir Dermot Turing
Codebreaker Alan Turing
Alan Turing during his school days
The Imitation Game. Pictured: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing.
Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, reveals the image of Alan Turing on the new £50 note
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

Alan Turing was a pioneering mathematician, computer scientist, philosopher, code-breaker and icon of the 20th century. His work cracking the Enigma code - helping Allies read secret German messages - at Bletchley Park shortened the Second World War by years and saved thousands of lives.

Yet despite being a national treasure he was persecuted and prosecuted for being gay. And his conviction, sentencing and chemical castration for homosexual offences led to his suspected suicide in 1954 at just 41 years old, an incident that has been the subject of considerable controversy ever since.

His nephew Sir Dermot Turing will be in Belfast tonight to talk about his uncle's fascinating life and career and revealing many more secrets about his role in one of the most important eras in modern history.

The 58-year-old from St Albans admits maths is not his strong point, but he has enjoyed a long career as a lawyer. As the author of X, Y & Z: The Real Story Of How Enigma Was Broken, he wants people to know there was more to his uncle than the Hollywood version of events.

"The achievements of Bletchley Park and the British code-breakers are widely understood to have helped shorten the Second World War by up to two years," says Sir Dermot, a father-of-two.

"What is less well-known is how much the British were in debt to the work done in Poland on the Enigma problem before the war began. I think that we have pushed the role of the Polish code-breakers into the shadows, which is quite a shame because what they did was quite astonishing.

"They used pure mathematical analysis to figure out the wiring of the machine. That you can just write down equations and then solve them and that tells you what the wiring diagrams are is pretty astonishing.

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"This is not just the story of an international treaty, because at its heart is a story about people - in some cases, intriguing and eccentric people - bound up in wider events they could not themselves control."

Sir Dermot says that his family were as much in the dark about Alan's secret activities as anyone else.

"The family doesn't have any precious secret information," he says. "Like all other citizens we knew absolutely nothing at all, because the whole Bletchley Park business was a State secret until it was revealed in the 1970s. We sat there glued to the TV to find out what he had actually done. And obviously he wasn't around to ask, so we had to find out in the same way as everyone else.

"In terms of my own discoveries on the Polish story, there is a lot there that is new. And in particular the French declassified files. There was a lot that hasn't been written about on that.

"In Belfast I will be talking about what the Poles did and how they did it and what happened to them. There are a whole load of spy stories in that, which are fun, including taking clandestine photographs in a hotel bathroom, dead letter drops to set up liaisons, and a guy smuggling documents over the German border by putting them in a bag full of smelly salamis.

"All the elements of a classic spy story are here: clandestine meetings, midnight escapes from the Nazi police, betrayals, jaunts over the Pyrenees in the snow, interrogations by the Gestapo - and at the centre of it all, an amazing piece of mathematical analysis.

"This all adds new spice to the already extraordinary story of Bletchley Park. There is quite a bit of what feels like an adventure movie rather than a story about solving equations."

Sir Dermot says that with France, Britain and Poland working together to save lives, there is reconciliation, confidence and a trust message at the centre of his uncle's story, which strikes him as current with regards Brexit.

He says pride wouldn't be the first word that comes to mind when he thinks of his uncle, but like others he is "in awe of his achievements".

"I wouldn't use the word proud," he says. "Not that I am in any sense ashamed of it, but that sort of implies that I have some degree of ownership of it, which would be arrogant. I'm obviously in awe of his achievements, and bizarrely I happen to have the same surname as him.

"I didn't know Alan. He died before I was born. It's not pride, it's more honour and respect."

Sir Dermot says that the 2014 film The Imitation Game, based on Alan's life and career, formed "good and bad" perceptions of his uncle.

"It's a great movie, which has good and bad parts to it," he says. "It drew the whole subject of code-breaking to an audience who would probably never have heard of it, nor be interested in it. And that has been a very positive thing. Certainly it has helped Bletchley Park in so much that it has driven a lot of visitors to go and see what actually happened there.

"I think perhaps the other side of the coin is that it is a movie with a plot, and to keep the audience on the edge of their seats for the entirety of the film liberties were taken with the storyline and with the characters. And that means that all sorts of misperceptions have arisen and I spend a lot of time answering questions about it.

"The thing that perhaps grieves me the most is that, towards the end of the movie, Alan is portrayed as someone who has suffered effectively a total mental collapse and is obviously in an inwardly focused state of inability to cope. And nothing could have been further from the truth.

"In the last two years of his life he obviously had to undergo this hormone treatment that had been imposed upon him, but that lasted a year and after the implant came out he was back to normal and the evidence that we had from the people around him and the correspondence from the time that survived is that he was back on his feet and back to his normal, slightly sarcastic and humorous self.

"So I think that is a completely unfair and wrong portrayal of it.

"And this reinforces the false portrayal that somehow the State was responsible for his death. I just don't think that's right at all. I think the movie-makers have fallen into a slightly easy trap, and that's a shame.

"Frankly, I think Alan Turing was bigger than that. He overcame the hormone treatment and he should be honoured for the strength and the guts to do that. He wasn't broken down and feeble and helpless as the movie would portray."

Through his adult life Alan battled with his sexuality. He had several convictions for homosexual acts - which was a common occurrence at a time when being gay was illegal - and underwent chemical castration after a trial in 1952.

Sir Dermot says that Alan wasn't alone in his struggles with the law.

"I don't agree with any of the things about 1950s attitudes to sexuality," he adds. "That feels very wrong and immoral from where we sit, but that was the spirit of the times. People generally thought like that in those days. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be judging it, but it was a different era.

"The Establishment did actually come out of the woodwork to help Alan. And again that is a story that people don't really know. When he was prosecuted, his professor at Manchester University and his former colleagues at Bletchley Park came to court to defend him and act as character witnesses to explain to the judge that, while they couldn't actually give the details of what Alan did during the Second World War, that they did explain his role in the war was absolutely crucial, and what's more his ongoing work was crucial to the country as well. We have this idea that there was this uncaring State that left Alan out to dry, which is not true.

"With regards the prosecutions, Alan wasn't alone. Looking at the court records during the time that Alan was prosecuted, it wasn't an exceptional case, this is what they were dealing with. About 50% of the trials they were dealing with in the criminal courts were homosexuality cases. It was quite extraordinary. It's not that he was being picked on; gay people were being picked on, he wasn't being singled out."

In 2013 Turing was given a posthumous royal pardon following an official apology by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, something Sir Dermot says didn't go far enough.

"The family are very delighted by the whole thing," he says. "My personal take on it is more complicated. My worry about the pardon was that it was upside down and the wrong way around because it's not Alan Turing that needs to be pardoned. It's not him who did something wrong, so it seemed to me a strange way to deal with it.

"The other thing is why he was singled out to be pardoned. There are other gay men who were prosecuted, 49,000 according to one count. To single him out for a royal pardon just because he is famous I think is unfair. In a sense I think it a bit disgraceful. While I wouldn't want his pardon to be taken away, I look at it as an unfinished job.

"The legislation, called the Policing and Crime Act 2017, is supposed to set the record straight for the 49,000. It does give a pardon to gay men who are prosecuted but only if they are dead. If any of these folks are still alive, and some of them are, they can't get their pardon unless they ask the Home Office and they have to prove their innocence.

"I'm sorry, but why we should treat the dead better than the living strikes me as being as extraordinary. I think the case is not closed on this."

Alan is the face of the new £50 Bank of England note, which will focus more on his development of computer science than his code-breaking. Sir Dermot says he is happy to carry his uncle's legacy forward, making more people aware of the work he did.

"I do a lot of talking about him and trying to help people understand that the things they see in the movies might not be true but also to draw attention to some of the lesser known achievements of his career," he says.

"For example, people don't know about the work he did on biological development towards the end of his life. The last five years of his life he spent working on mathematical models of how plants and animals grow and it is visually very interesting and very different from computer design and code-breaking. It is great to be able to come here and tell these stories and it is all thanks to the David Cross Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation."

Sir Dermot is in Belfast to help launch a cross-community educational programme in south Belfast developed by the David Cross Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (DCFPR) as they mark the 80th anniversary of the start of the Second World War.

Discussing the programme, Dr Terry Cross from the DCFPR said: "In any democratic society, tolerance and respect for other views and perspectives is something that must be consistently fostered to ensure new generations can continue to enjoy the benefits that accompany a peaceful society. Maintaining good community relations takes effort. It requires individuals to see situations from others perspectives. By building understanding, we can build trust.

"This cross-community programme is seeking to provide engaging, thought- provoking talks, events and activities that encourage people to think about the society that they live in, and recognise the benefits that come with diversity and embrace life."

If you would like to attend Sir Dermot Turing's talk tonight at 7pm in the Great Hall at Queen's University Belfast, call Maciek Bator on 07930476649 or visit www.facebook.com/WWIIPolesNI/. This event is free to attend

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