• Sep 20, 1906
    (b.) -
    Mar 25, 1995
    (d.)

Bio/Description

A British chess player, chess writer, World War II codebreaker and civil servant, he represented England in chess both before and after World War II. Born in Hendon, London, he was the second of six children to a schoolteacher, Edward Leopold Milner-Barry, and Edith Mary. A talented chess player, he won the first British Boys' Championship in 1923. He was a pupil at Cheltenham College, and won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained firsts in classics and moral sciences. He represented Cambridge in chess where he befriended another chess player, (Hugh) Alexander, and composed a number of chess puzzles. Between 1929 and 1938 he was a city stockbroker, although he was unhappy with the work. From 1938, he was the chess correspondent for The Times. He worked at Bletchley Park during World War II, and was head of "Hut 6", a section responsible for deciphering messages which had been encrypted using the German Enigma machine. He was one of four leading code breakers at Bletchley to petition the then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill directly for more resources for their work. After the war he worked in the Treasury, and later administered the British honours system. In chess, he represented England in international tournaments, and lent his name to three opening variations. He represented England in chess, and played in the international Chess Olympiads of 1937 and 1939. The latter tournament, held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, coincided with Britain's declaration of war on Germany in September 1939. He, along with teammates Hugh Alexander (at that time the British chess champion) and Harry Golombek, abandoned the tournament unfinished, and returned to Britain. Upon their return, all three soon joined the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park. He was recruited by mathematician Gordon Welchman, who had been his contemporary at Trinity College. He, in turn recruited Hugh Alexander. Arriving in early 1940, he joined Welchman's "Hut 6" section, whose task was to solve the Enigma cipher machine as used by the German Army and Air Force. In 1993, he wrote that "to this day I could not claim that I fully understood how the machine worked, let alone what was involved in the problems of breaking and reading the Enigma cipher". Nonetheless, with his knowledge of the German language, he made a study of the decrypts and found that they contained stereotyped patterns and forms of address that could be exploited as "cribs" – reliable guesses for the plain language message that matched a given piece of encrypted text. Finding reliable cribs was a critical task for Hut 6, as Enigma was broken primarily with the aid of "bombes", large electromechanical machines which automatically searched for parts of the correct settings. Bombes were reliant on a suitable crib in order to succeed. In autumn 1940, he was put in charge of the "Crib Room". He was billeted with Alexander, who was working in Hut 8, the counterpart to Hut 6 working on German Naval Enigma. Their close friendship let them easily resolve the competing needs of their sections for the limited available bombe time. By October 1941, he was deputy head of Hut 6 under Welchman. At this time, Bletchley Park was experiencing a shortage of clerical staff which was delaying the work on Enigma, and the management of GCCS appeared unable to obtain the resources needed. This affected both Hut 6 and Hut 8, which was run by mathematician Alan Turing with Hugh Alexander as his deputy. He, along with Welchman, Turing and Alexander bypassed the chain of command and wrote a memorandum directly to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, outlining their difficulties. It fell to him to deliver the message to 10 Downing Street in person, on 21 October 1941. The next day, Churchill responded, "Action this day: Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done". Within a month their needs were being met. In autumn 1943, he took over as head of Hut 6, which by that time had grown to over 450 staff, Welchman having been appointed the Assistant Director of Mechanisation at Bletchley Park. He remained in charge until the end of the war, presiding over a number of technical challenges presented by the introduction of extra security devices to the German Enigma, including the Enigma Uhr and a rewireable "reflector" rotor. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that, "Although he increasingly felt that Hut 6 was on the verge of losing the ability to decode Enigma, it held on until the end of the war, and this was due in no small part to his gifted leadership". The official history of Hut 6, written immediately after the end of World War II, comments on his early "most vital technical achievement" in finding cribs, and on his "administrative and diplomatic talents" in his later role as head of the section. He joined the Treasury in 1945 with the grade of Principal. In 1947, he married and had a son and two daughters. The same year, he was promoted to Assistant Secretary, and Under-secretary in 1954. Apart from a stint in the Ministry of Health from 1958–1960, he remained with the Treasury until 1966, when, at age 60, he had reached the normal retirement age for the civil service. He was persuaded instead to carry on as a ceremonial officer administering the honours system. In this role, he supported the knighthoods of P. G. Wodehouse and Noel Coward. He eventually retired in 1977. He was appointed “The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (OBE), an order of chivalry in 1946 for his work in World War II; “The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB)” in 1962, and “Royal Victorian Order (KCVO)”, a dynastic order of knighthood in 1975. In 1985, he fiercely defended the reputation of Gordon Welchman, who had come under posthumous criticism for publishing details about the wartime work of Hut 6. In 1992, echoing his wartime visit to 10 Downing Street, he was a member of a party who delivered a petition to the Prime Minister calling on the government to help preserve Bletchley Park, which was then under threat from demolition.
  • Date of Birth:

    Sep 20, 1906
  • Date of Death:

    Mar 25, 1995
  • Gender:

    Male
  • Noted For:

    One of four leading code breakers at Bletchley Park to petition the then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill directly for more resources for their work
  • Category of Achievement:

  • More Info: