Alan Turing was described in a recent Channel 4 television documentary as “Britain’s greatest ever code-breaker”. Alan Turing’s importance to the Allied victory in World War Two cannot be overstated though by the time of his death – and for many years after it – few knew about Turing’s huge achievements at Bletchley Park such was the secrecy that surrounded it.
Alan Turing was born on June 23rd 1912 at St. Leonard’s-on-Sea in East Sussex. His father was a career civil servant and for many years of his childhood, Turing’s parents were in India. A retired couple brought up him and his brother. It soon became clear that he was academically very different to other pupils at the first school he attended in St. Leonard’s-on-Sea. At the age of fourteen, Turing joined the prestigious Sherborne School in Dorset. Here he excelled in Mathematics and Science. However, his success in these subjects did not please all his teachers and some complained that he should have put as much effort into learning the Classics as he did Maths and Science. Turing was very much a loner at the school and the one sport he excelled at was long distance running where he could be by himself. However, he did befriend Christopher Morcom and they became very close.
In December 1929 both Turing and Morcom took entrance exams for King’s College, Cambridge. However, Morcom developed an illness and died of complications shortly afterwards. In a series of interviews with a psychiatrist after World War Two, Turing said:
“I worshipped the ground he walked on.”
Turing won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. Here, as at Sherborne, he excelled in Maths and Science and in 1933, aged just 23 years, Turing was made a Fellow of the college.
Turing put a great deal of effort into computation. To his contemporaries, computation meant getting as many people as was necessary to complete a task in as short a space of time as was possible. For Turing computation meant something different – getting machines to do what others felt humans should be doing. Turing became fascinated by what machines could do instead of people and it was a subject that drove him on for the rest of his short life. The only deviation from this topic was when he studied mathematical biology post-1945.
In May 1936, Turing handed in to the college authorities, “On computable numbers, with an application to the entscheidungsproblem”. It was to become a seminal piece of work and one that leading figures in C21st computing, such as Apple’s Steve Wozniak, believes set the standards for modern computation. “Turing came up with what we know about computers today.” (Wozniak)
However, it was his work at Hut 8, Station X, at Bletchley Park that made such a huge contribution to the Allied success in World War Two. Turing, with his mathematical background, was fascinated by cryptology. Nazi Germany had developed the Enigma machine to send codes to military leaders on the front line. While Enigma looked like a slightly larger typewriter it was capable of encrypting codes in 15 million million ways. The naval Enigma machine used by U-boats was even more sophisticated. Turing, along with his team, cracked the Enigma codes and the Nazis were never aware of this. The advantage that this gave the Allies cannot be overstated. However, the public never got to know about what went on in Hut 8. Turing was not in charge of Hut 8 as he found the task people management difficult. Hut 8 was managed by Arthur Henderson but he later admitted that the real star of the team that worked there was Turing.
The historian Asa Briggs was also a cryptologist at Bletchley Park and he said of his colleague:
“You needed genius at Bletchley Park and Turing was a genius. I think Turing’s own contribution to the war was crucial.”
Anybody who worked on code breaking at Bletchley Park must have been viewed by the authorities as a highly talented person. Rolf Noskwith was one of these code breakers and he later said that:
“I regarded him (Turing) with a certain amount of awe.”
It is generally accepted that Turing enjoyed his time at Bletchley Park. He had eccentric habits but he was one of a number of people at Station X who must have baffled some of the military personnel there with their odd behaviour. Few people would have chained their tea mug to a radiator to ensure it was not stolen – but Turing did. He was also known to cycle to work with his clothes over his pyjamas or to wear his gas mask on his bike to ward off hay fever. But he was working on codes and creating machines to break these codes – so he must have been in his element. Turing believed that if a machine was used to send coded messages, you needed a machine to decode those messages. His answer was to build, along with Gordon Welchman, the ‘Bombe’. By the end of the war, 200 Bombes existed reading Nazi secret messages.
After World War Two, Winston Churchill stated that he was only concerned about losing the war during the Battle of the Atlantic. No one thing led to the Allies success in this battle but a massive step towards victory in the Battle of the Atlantic was taken when Turing cracked the Naval Enigma – and the Kriegsmarine was never to know about it. Once Turing had done this, whenever, German Naval High Command sent a coded message to its U-boats, British Intelligence was privy to what was being sent and could act accordingly. In the great scheme of the war, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of what Turing achieved in Hut 8.
“Defeating U-boats was our most vital task.” (Briggs)
Turing got engaged to Joan Clarke while he worked at Bletchley Park. However, he was not prepared to live a lie nor hurt Clarke in later months/years. He told he that he was gay and broke off the engagement. He later said that she was not upset by his revelation and she obviously kept it private as his security clearance for Bletchley Park would have been instantly revoked and he would have been arrested if Clarke had made such information public.
After the war had ended, Turing was employed at the University of Manchester to build on his pre-war work on computation. Such was the secrecy surrounding Hut 8 that no one knew about Turing’s involvement and the vital part he played in World War Two.
After World War Two, Turing lived in a very difficult time. He was a homosexual at a time when homosexuality and associated acts were illegal. In 1952, there were five times more charges for homosexuality that pre-1939. This was almost certainly a result of the belief that moral standards had dropped during World War Two and that society had to redress itself.
Turing also lived in the early years of the Cold War. This created a feeling of paranoia throughout most western societies where, America, for example, experienced the ‘Red Scare’.
In 1952, Turing had published his groundbreaking “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, which many believe underpins current developments in the world of computing. However, his life was turned upside down by his social life. Turing spent some of his spare time in what was considered the gay district of Manchester. He befriended a man called Arnold Murray. They spent time at Turing’s house. One of Murray’s associates burgled Turing’s house and Turing informed the police. He somewhat naively announced to the investigating officers that the reason that Murray’s friend had burgled the house was because he was having a sexual relationship with Murray and presumably Murray fed back to his associate what was in the house and how it could be best broken into.
Turing was intelligent to know that homosexuality was illegal at the time. Yet he openly told the police that he had broken the law. No one will ever know why he did this. Both Turing and Murray were arrested and charged with gross indecency. The newspapers of the time, totally ignorant of what Turing had achieved in World War Two, portrayed him as a pervert. Turing was given a simple choice – prison or what was effectively chemical castration – an attempt to take away his libido. Turing was given a course of stilboestrol, a synthetic version of the female hormone oestrogen. The process physically charged him and he began to grow breasts. It did not destroy his libido but reduced it. However, the whole experience clearly affected his mental capacity. Notes taken by his psychiatrist Franz Greenbaum indicated that Turing became more and more mentally unsettled as his ‘treatment’ progressed. He had spent many of his years in some form of institution – Sherborne, Cambridge, Bletchley Park – and now he clearly found it difficult to work outside of the clear and specific boundaries found within institutions. Turing may well have found it difficult to comprehend how vicious life could be outside of the life he had previously experienced. He was also a victim of his time. In America, Senator George McCarthy rose to national fame with his attacks on communists and ‘reds under the bed’. McCarthy also included homosexuals in his attacks:
“The pervert is easy prey to the blackmailer.” (McCarthy)
The UK was already reeling after the exposé of Guy Burgess – a Cambridge graduate who was also a homosexual. As Turing’s extremely important work done during World War Two was obviously known to the authorities, they would have viewed him as a security risk. His prosecution for homosexuality had led to the immediate withdrawal of his security clearance and he was no longer required for cryptology consultancy work at GCHQ. Turing admitted to Greenbaum: “I know that they have been watching my house. I wish they’d leave me alone.”
On June 8th 1954 Turing’s body was found in his bed by his housekeeper. A report stated that he had killed himself on June 7th 1954 with cyanide. Turing’s body was cremated on June 12th 1954.
In September 2009, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on behalf of the government, made a public apology to Alan Turing and his family. He said:
“We are sorry. You deserved so much better.”