Days to Centenary: 248
It’s sometimes easy all these years after the end of World War II to lose track of the significance of events and individuals, even when at the time the events were staggering and the individuals were critical to the course of history. It’s even easier to lose track of an individual’s impact when it was a closely guarded government secret during the war and for a long time afterward.
Alan Turing’s work at the centre of the extremely successful Bletchley Park codebreaking efforts is now a well documented matter of historical record, but even so it’s easy to underestimate it because the secrecy which earlier surrounded it prevented it from gathering to itself the attributes of a legend in the way that contributions that were publicized as they took place (or shortly afterward) were able to do. It never gained the momentum to reach critical mass, to mix physics metaphors for a moment.
And, in today’s computer-dependent world, it may be that Turing’s other contributions — as the intellectual father of the universal computer and the instigator of artificial intelligence — are so glaringly relevant to our day to day lives that it’s easy to allow those aspects of his life to overshadow his war work.
Finally, Turing did so much, and the praise that’s resulted has (much after the fact) become so effusive, that it’s tempting to assume that it’s overblown. One might even be forgiven for thinking that in a rush to distance itself from its shameful gay-bashing past, modern Britain has overshot the mark and exaggerated Turing’s importance to the Allied war effort.
So just how important was he? Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany and its Axis partners. Not one of the biggest, or really bloody huge, or damned near incalculable, but the single most estimable contribution of any person, period.
Captain Jerry Roberts, who worked with Turing at Bletchley Park and who was in a position to see firsthand exactly how his codebreaking interacted with the rest of the war effort, says “without him we would have lost the war.” Roberts told the BBC:
You have to understand the measure of what Turing did. Early in the war, in 1939, he had broken the Enigma used by the Luftwaffe and the German army but he’d been unable to break the naval Enigma.
In 1940/41 the German U-boats were sinking our food ships and our ships bringing in armaments left right and centre, and there was nothing to stop this until Turing managed to break naval Enigma, as used by the U-boats. We then knew where the U-boats were positioned in the Atlantic and our convoys could avoid them.
If that hadn’t happened, it is entirely possible, even probable, that Britain would have been starved and would have lost the war.
Of course Turing didn’t do the work at Bletchley Park single-handed. Mightn’t he be receiving credit that’s due to the entire team of men and women who worked there? There’s no doubt that every person who worked in the cryptography effort has a right to be immensely proud of the results of their work, but Roberts still insists that Turing’s role was essential:
Interviewer: A number of your colleagues were unsung heroes because of the secrecy surrounding the work of Bletchley Park. Should Alan Turing be singled out do you think?
Roberts: Yes, because without him, I and many people are convinced that we would have lost the war.
Even if you don’t take Churchill and Roberts at their literal word, it seems clear tht Turing’s contribution to the Nazi defeat would be hard to overstate . So on June 23, 2012 when you’re honouring Turing (as I know you will be), be thankful for your laptop, sure, and be grateful for your iPhone. They both rely on Turing’s pioneering work. But you might also want to be thankful that we’re not all living in one of those alternate histories where the Nazis won the war and established dominion over the world.
YouTube hosts a documentary called World War II, Mind of a Codebreaker, which documents some of what took place in that long ago time at Bletchley Park. The video quality is low, and it’s broken up into twelve pieces, but it’s well worth watching anyway. All parts are embedded below.