The last survivor of the group of codebreakers who cracked a German cipher machine in the second world war has been honored by the Queen. Jerry Roberts has accepted the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) award but is still campaigning for his colleagues to be recognized in the same way.
Roberts, whose real forename is Raymond, is now 92. He was among the “Testery” project group at Bletchley Park concentrating on deciphering messages encrypted by the Lorenz cipher machine (pictured), known to the British as the Tunny system. This was separate to the better known Enigma code used for naval communication that was cracked by a team led by computer pioneer Alan Turing.
Roberts told the BBC that during three years work on the project, he and colleagues were able to decipher 64,000 messages, around 90 percent of the total sent between German forces. By some estimates, the interception may have shortened the war by as much as two years.
While Roberts led the daily decrypting efforts, he says two other specific individuals deserve honors for the Tunny work (along with Turing for his Enigma work.) One is Bill Tutte who was the man who originally cracked Lorenz. He was able to carry out the seemingly impossible task of cracking the code thanks to a German operator who sent a message from Athens to Vienna, experienced transmission problems, and then resent it with some minor alterations but — devastatingly for Germany in the long run — using the same encryption key. After a total of five months work by British staff, Tutte’s team managed to use the combination of a repeated key but a varied message to work out exactly how the cipher machines were set up.
The second man is Tommy Flowers who worked before the war on efforts to create electronic telephone exchanges. While working at BletchleyPark he developed Collossus, the first truly programmable electronic computer. His team built a string of Collossus machines to speed up the deciphering process, with a second-generation model helping reveal a German message confirming Hitler had not assigned additional troops to Normandy in the run-up to the D-Day landings.
Flowers received the MBE in 1944 and Turing the OBE the following year, though neither were able to talk about their work and the reason for the honor; Turing died before his wartime contribution became public knowledge. Tutte has not been honored in the UK but received a similar award in Canada.