Cambridge and the codebreakers

The notorious Enigma machine baffled many with it's difficult encryptions
Image credit: Tim Gage

Praise of the new film The Imitation Game, based on the life and work of mathematician Alan Turing, has already begun. But it should be remembered that the genius of cracking the Enigma code came in the end as a group effort by many Bletchley Park codebreakers.

Alan Turing himself was an undergraduate of King’s College from 1931 to 1934, achieving a double first in mathematics, and was soon elected a fellow. Following the outbreak of war in 1939, Turing took up a full time post at the GC&CS (now GCHQ), and it was here that, with the help of his team, he developed the Bombe into the Enigma cracking machine.

At GC&CS Turing encountered Hugh Alexander, another double- first mathematician from King’s College. Alexander’s intelligence shone through in his chess playing; he frequently represented Cambridge in Varsity matches, and with Grandmaster potential. Alexander helped Turing develop Banburismus, a technique to decipher the super-encoded Enigma.

Joan Clarke attained a first every year in maths from Newnham College. She was the only woman to work on the deciphering of Engima, described as “one of the best Banburists in the section”. After her work in Bletchley Park she pursued her interests in Numismatics, and was awarded the Sanford Saltus Gold Medal for her research.

John Caincross was a French and German graduate of Trinity College, and would later be revealed to be the fifth member of the Cambridge spies. During the war he worked in Hut 3 on German army communications, smuggling decriptions in his trousers to pass on to the KGB. Recent theories have suggested that information was purposefully left to Caincross to pass on by MI6.

Max Newman studied Maths at St John’s College. On the outbreak of the Second World War Newman began work in Bletchley Park, and though he did not work directly with Turing his contributions were great: Newman’s work lead to the of the Colussus computer, the first programmable electron digital computer. 

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