Friday, April 20, 2018

The Greatest World War II Story You've Never Heard

In 1939, Geoffrey Tandy had been toiling away for years in comfortable obscurity as a specialized biologist at the Natural History Museum of Great Britain. He loved his job, he loved his country, and he loved serving in the Royal Naval Reserves on alternate weekends. But with Germany's invasion of Poland, individuals just like Tandy and from every corner of the free and civilized world would find themselves asking exactly what he did -- namely, "What can I do to help out even more?"

And in Tandy's case, the answer to that question turned out to be, "More than he or anyone else could realistically have imagined."

Biology is rarely a war-altering profession, so it will come as no surprise that Tandy's first reaction when he learned that he'd been summoned to a shadowy facility in Milton Keynes called "Bletchley Park" was to presume that the appointment had some connection to his duties in the Naval Reserves. But since no one outside the compound had the remotest idea what went on in there, and since Tandy's duties in the Reserves were proportionally un-spectacular, any clearer idea of just what His Majesty's government had in mind for Tandy would have to wait.

Not one to trouble himself with such a conundrum, Tandy went to Bletchley Park, where he was ushered through a rigorous security screening and eventually approved Top Secret. On his third day at the compound he was finally introduced to the people he'd be working under, and taken to a large room where, it transpired, teams of hyper-brilliant mathematicians and bilingual engineers had been toiling literally around the clock on the awesome and forbidding task of cracking the German "Enigma" codes. Tandy was shown the first captured Enigma machines, invited to converse with various team leaders and associates, and even introduced to Alan Turing himself -- thought by many to be the more-or-less literal father of what we now know as the computer.

It was all most impressive and more than a little humbling for Tandy, who at this point felt he could wait no longer and asked exactly how he might contribute.

His superiors (no doubt a bit flummoxed by the question) explained with dour pomp and gravity that King George VI needed the services of all the finest cryptogramists throughout the empire, just like him, regardless of their rank or present military status.

Ah. Yes, but Tandy wasn't a cryptogramist -- the term used at the time for someone trained in the deciphering of codes. He was rather a cryptogamist, which is a specific type of biologist who studies mounted specimens of marine algae and seaweed.

He explained this at once, noting that either someone at MOD must have misread his Naval Reserve personnel file, or that perhaps the whole confusion was down to a literal typo. But this presented a big problem for all concerned, since the most secretive operation in the whole of the British war effort could hardly discharge someone who'd just been shown the entire secret, on grounds that they had made a garden-variety personnel mistake.

Now don't panic because this story doesn't take a dark and action-movie turn at this point, with Tandy being told he'll never see the light of day again or some-such. Not a bit of it. For one thing, the man himself was far too loyal and far too eager to help, and for another the Britain of the day was (recent Brad Pitt movies notwithstanding) just not that sort of place. Instead Tandy was essentially given a sinecure and presumably invited to do his best to stay out of the way. There the whole matter would remain for over two solid years.

And then, then the most astounding thing happened.

In the summer and autumn of 1941 the British Isles were in grave trouble. Hitler was winning the air war over the English south coast, and there was little chance of enticing the isolationist-prone Americans from taking up the cause beyond lend-lease. The German U-boat blockade, which had been neutered in 1940 by a cracking of the infamous Enigma machines for encoding the communications of Doenitz' Kreigsmarine, had suddenly and mysteriously pivoted to indecipherability once again.

The most popular (and, as it turned out, correct) theory at Bletchley Park was that the Germans had added a fourth coding gear to the Enigma machine, increasing the number of possible letter combinations by a hopeless-to-crack-in-time power of twenty-six. What the code breakers needed, really the only thing that would save the last light of freedom in Europe, was to recover one of the modified machines, and its corresponding code book, called "the bigrams," intact.

Thus it was that the Royal Navy could scarcely contain its collective jubilation when, in late autumn of 1941, a German U-boat was cornered in shallow water off Portugal and torpedoed, and both its Enigma and its bigrams were successfully recovered. Unfortunately no one had thought to brief the triumphal sailors on the proper deportment of the sodden bigrams, and by the time they arrived at Bletchley Park they were hopelessly illegible through a combination of seawater immersion, improper storage, ad hoc drying and rough care. The codebreakers weren't even altogether certain they could touch any of the individual pages without destroying them.

If only the team had access to the very peculiar and specialized expertise necessary, to dry thin sheets of something that doesn't want to be dried and in a manner that preserves its every detail, all the way down to the molecular level. If only the team had, in other words, Geoffrey Tandy -- sitting a few meters away and drinking tea and trying to stay out of the way as best he could.

Tandy placed a quick and pleasantly cryptic phone call to his masters at the NHM and within a single day's round-trip to London he'd returned with exactly the tools needed for the job, principally a nifty drying medium that wicks the moisture from a flat specimen without contracting it. Goodness knows how much of the stuff Tandy got through, but what is known is that within a week the Royal Navy once again knew the precise location of every U-boat from Cyprus to the Grand Banks, and by mid-1942 the German blockade was relegated to the status of an incidental nuisance. Tandy had bought the British empire just the time it needed for the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor, thus dragging the United States into the war. Without which, there may not have been a war in Europe for the United States to join. And all because a secret team of code-breakers had hoodwinked themselves over a routine typo.

Think about that, the next time you're wondering what your purpose is. Maybe, maybe, it's just to be there when someone else needs exactly what it is that you do best.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
20 April, 2018

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