Chess World War II Codebreakers
by Bill Wall

Enigma Machine
Dr. James Macrae "Max" Aitken (1908-1983), 10-time Scottish chess champion, worked in Hut 6 (with Stuart Milner-Barry) and Block D(6) at Bletchley Park (BP) solving German Army and Luftwaffe Enigma machine ciphers. He worked at Bletchley Park from 1940 to 1945. In 1944, the German armed forces put in a new reflector wheel into the Enigma machine. Aitken was assigned to tackle this problem. He played chess (and bridge) with several other code-breakers while at BP. Aitken was a regular member of the Bletchley Chess Club. After the war, Aitken continued to work for the Foreign Office and the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in Cheltenham.

Conel Hugh O'Donell Alexander (1909-1974) was an Irish-born mathematician and chess International Master (1950) who won the British Championship in 1938 and 1956. During World War II he was promoted to colonel in British Intelligence and was part of the British Government Code and Cipher Code at Bletchley Park, England, along with other English chess masters who helped break the German Enigma Code. Alexander first worked in Hut 6 working on the German army and air force Enigma code. He was Alan Turing's deputy. He was then transferred to Hut 8 working on the German Naval Enigma. Alexander helped break the German Atlantic key, called Dolphin in the summer of 1941. In December 1942, he helped break the U-boat key, called shark. When the Germans introduced a "super enciphered" method of transmitting the day's settings to their Enigma operators (using bigram tables), Alexander helped Turing develop a technique for breaking them called Banburismus, because it involved "punched holes on long sheets of paper printed in Banbury". Alexander also introduced a pneumatic tube system for transferring files and documents between huts. He had borrowed the idea from his pre-war job, working as the chief scientist with the John Lewis chain. He strengthened Bletchley Park's relations with the US Navy cryptanalytic team in Washington. Alexander tackled the 4-wheel Enigma, driving on the introduction of the high-speed bombes, both in the UK and in the USA. In January 1943, he was transferred to HMS Anderson in Colombo, Ceylon, leading a Far East codebreaking team. In February 1943, he invited the Naval sub-Section struggling to break the Japanese Naval attache machine, Coral, to join his Hut 8 team. In the autumn, he sent the US team a detailed report on how to break it, and was in Washington to oversee the final stages of the break in February 1944. In the autumn of 1943 it had become clear to Hut 6 that the Germans were planning to introduce a variable reflector, known in Bletchley Park as 'Uncle Dick.' Alexander was asked to oversee the attack on this development. He and his working party produced various suggestions on how to tackle the threat, some of which were implemented when the Germans introduced it into service on some Air and Army Enigma keys during 1944. In August 1944 Alexander moved from Hut 8 to lead the team working on the main Japanese naval key, the JN-25 code. When he left them in August 1944, his Hut 8 was breaking about a dozen German naval Enigma keys each day. Towards the end of World War II, he was working on Japanese codes. On some evenings, Hugh would visit the Bletchley Chess Club and give a 20-board simultaneous exhibition. After the war, he became head of cryptanalysis at GCHQ until he retired in 1971. He died at the age of 64 in 1974 and there has been speculation that the stresses caused by the mental demands of his career led to his early death. He was prohibited from traveling to any country under Soviet control or influence during his lifetime because of his association with cryptography. London was riddled with Russian spies at the time, and it was feared that if Moscow got wind of the presences of such an important Cold War code-breaker on their territory, he would be either killed or imprisoned. Alexander was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his contributions as a top British cryptanalyst. When he retired, the American government tried very hard to lure him to work for the Pentagon as a code-breaker. A lucrative offer was turned down in favor of devoting more time to writing chess books and promoting the game.

Major John Bergmann (1920- ) was a mathematician and worked as a U.S. Army codebreaker. He was also a chessplayer. He found himself on a mission near the border of Burma and China. The Japanese military had a radio station in the vicinity, and Bergmann was ordered to search it for documents disclosing the code settings used by the enemy. One of his Kachin Indian guides set off an explosion that hit Bergmann in the face, and he lost an eye. He was then assigned to at Fort Meade as part of the U.S. Army's World War II codebreaking operations. He played several chess games with Alan Turing during a visit to England. He made occasional trips to London for meetings with his British codebreaking counterparts. Bergemann worked on the Japanese code machine called Purple. He was also the liaison officer between Fort Meade and Bletchley Park.

Asa Briggs (1921-2016) was an English historian and chessplayer. From 1942 to 1945, he served in the British Intelligence Corps and worked at Bletchley Park. He was a member of Hut 6, the section deciphering Enigma machine messages from the German Army and Luftwaffe. At college in Cambridge, Briggs had played chess and this on one of the reasons he was recruited to work at Bletchley Park.

M. Arthur Chamberlain (1920-1996) worked at Bletchley Park at Hut 8 and was a chessplayer. He worked in Newmanry, which was a section at Bletchley Park that developed and employed machine methods. It was responsible for the various Robinson machines and the 10 Colossus computers, the world's first electronic computers.

Joan Clarke (1917-1996) worked at Bletchley Park and was the girlfriend of Alan Turing (even though he was gay). They both played chess with each other to relax. Clarke worked at Hut 8 and was the only female code-breaker in that group. Hugh Alexander, head of Hut 8 from 1943 to 1944, described her as "one of the best Banburists (a cryptanalytic process using sequential conditional probability) in the section. Turing proposed marriage to Clarke, despite telling her he was gay. She was reportedly unfazed by the revelation. Later, Turing decided that he could not go through marriage, and broke up with Clarke. Her hobbies included chess, botanical work, and knitting.

Arnold Denker (1914-2005) was U.S. chess champion in 1944 and 1946. During World War II, he was invited by the US government to help crack enemy codes because of his chess prowess. (source: ChessBase News, Jan 5, 2005)

Reuben Fine (1914-1993), during World War II, was put into 'special operations research.' He was employed by the U.S. Navy during World War II to calculate where enemy submarines might surface based on positional probability. He later did research on determining the location of Japanese Kamikaze attacks upon American ships. In an interview, Finde said, "We used our intellects to work out where the Japs were. But most of the time the military wouldn't listen to us. We warned them of the dangers in attacking Okinawa, but they weren't interested in our calculations." (source: The Spectator, Jan 28, 1989, p. 9). Fine's work was a precursor of what we now call 'wargaming.' Fine also worked as a translator with the Federal Trade Commission as he could speak French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, and Yiddish.

Harry Golombek (1911-1995) was three times British Champion (1947, 1949, and 1955) and International Master. He studied philology at King's College in London. During World War II, he worked at Bletchley Park, the British wartime codebreaking center. At the outbreak of the war, he returned from the Buenos Aires Chess Olympiad and joined the Royal Artillery (some sources say he was a bombardier). In 1941, his battalion was about to be shipped out when his commanding officer (CO) called him to his office. The CO said, "I am told you are a strong chessplayer. I have orders to send you to Bletchley Park." They had no ideas of its purpose. During the war, only three of Harry's battalion survived. Golombek helped decipher German enigma codes. Golombek worked with Hut 8, headed by Alan Turing. Golombek played chess against Alan Turing in quiet moments at Bletchley Park, giving him a queen and still winning. Golombek said that code breaking was like playing chess, in that it involved getting into your opponent's head and imagining what he was thinking as he was developing or using a cipher. It was Golombek who broke the Abwehr code used by the enemy in Turkey.

Dr. Irving John "Jack" Good (1916-2009), whose real name was Isidore Jacob Gudak, was one of the members of working on the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park. He was considered a mathematical genius and the Cambridgeshire chess champion. During his adolescent years, Good learned about ciphers and substitution codes, and amused himself creating and breaking simple codes. Good was recruited by Hugh Alexander, the reigning British chess champion (British champion in 1938 and 1956), to work at Bletchley Park. They knew each other before the war and played five-minute chess with each other. Good joined Bletchley Park on May 27, 1941, the day that the German battleship Bismark was sunk. He was met at Bletchley railway station by Hugh Alexander. Good found himself working for Alan Turing and Hugh Alexander at Hut 8, analyzing the naval Enigma machine. Good was an expert in Bayesian statistics. Good's ideas had a great impact on the analysis of the naval Enigma via processes such as Banburismus scoring and also on Good's later work under Max Newman attacking the Fish ciphers of the German High Command. Equally important to Bletchley was Good's intuition for computation and how to use the new machines such as the Newmanry's COLOSSUS to best effect. Good tells how he was able to double the efficiency of the COLOSSUS simply by reducing the precision to which one of the statistical scores were computed (using his statistical expertise to show that the error introduced was not great enough to change the conclusions). Good and Turing also worked together in Manchester on the first ever computer controlled by an internally stored program. Good was a fan of James Bond novels and his "vanity" car license plate was 007 IJG.

Wolfgang Heidenfeld (1911-1981) was a German-born (Berlin) Jewish chess author who was forced to emigrate to South Africa in the 1930s and then settled in Ireland in 1957. He was South African Champion in 1939, 1945-46, 1947, 1949, 1951, 1955, 1957, and 1959. He was Irish Champion in 1958, 1963, 1964, 1967, 1968, and 1972. During World War II, he helped decode German messages for the Allies.

Peter John Hilton (1923-2010) was a code-breaker at Bletchley Park and was a chessplayer. He was initially put to work on Naval Enigma in Hut 8. In late 1942, he transferred to work on German teleprinter ciphers. A special section known as the "Testery" had been formed in July 1942 to work on one such cipher, codenamed "Tunny," and Hilton was one of the early members of the group. His role was to devise ways to deal with changes in Tunny, and to liaise with another section working on Tunny, the "Newmanry," which complemented the hand-methods of the Testery with specialized codebreaking machinery. Occasionally the same message was sent repeated, a major security blunder which Bletchley park called a "depth." Hilton was able to look at the encoded texts coming from two separate teleprinter messages, combine them and extract two messages in clear German. He played chess with Turing and in his spare time solved chess problems.

Lieutenant Commander Alwin D. Kramer (1903-1972) was a Japanese-language expert who helped break the Japanese code. He was the US Navy translator in Washington on Saturday. December 6, 1941, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. He was also responsible for distributing MAGIC information to the President. Kramer was a chessplayer and a member of the Washington Chess Divan.

Art Levenson (1914-2007) was a cryptographer at Bletchley Park, U.S. Army officer and NSA official who work on the Japanese J19 and the German Enigma codes. He was the first U.S. Army codebreaker to be assigned to BP. At Bletchley Park, Levenson worked against both the Enigma and Tunny German cipher machines in Hut 6. He was also a chessplayer and was secretary of the Bletchley Park Chess Club.

Ake Lundqvist (1913-2000) was a Swedish Grandmaster of Correspondence Chess (1962). In 1945, he was the Swedish Correspondence Chess Champion. He took 3rd in the 3rd World Correspondence Chess Championship (1959-1962). He was part of the Swedish cryptanalysts that broke the German Siemens Geheimschreiber teleprinter crypto code during World War II. He helped break the 5-digit Russian Baltic Navy traffic encryption.

William Hamilton Martin (1931-1987) was a cryptanalyst with the U.S. Navy (1951-1954) and the NSA in the 1950s. He was a member of the Washington Chess Divan. In 1960, he renounced his U.S. citizenship and defected to the USSR.

Another chess player at Bletchley included Dr. Donald Michie (1923-2007), who later became involved in artificial intelligence and chess computers. Max Newman recruited Michie to handle linguistic methods of solution in breaking the Enigma Naval codes. Michie enhanced the mechanical methods of code breaking. Michie and Good began to use their joint backgrounds in statistics and linguistics to further the code-breaking technologies, which eventually led to the development of the Colossus machines and the breaking of a family of codes known as "Fish." These machines were the first working, special-purpose, electronic computers, developed just in time to have an impact on the invasion of continental Europe in June 1944. Michie played many games of chess and Go with Alan Turing. Neither one of them was very good at chess. Michie was also famous for losing his 1968 bet (500 British pounds) with David Levy when Levy said that no computer could beat him in 10 years (it took 21 years for a computer to finally beat Levy). On July 7, 2007, his car veered off the road while traveling to his home in London from Oxford. The car hit a tree, resulting in fatal injuries to both Donald, and his ex-wife, Anne.

Sir Philip Stuart Milner-Berry (1906-1995) was a strong international chessplayer and was hired to be a code breaker when World War II broke out. When the war broke out in 1939, he was in Argentina, playing chess for the British team in the Chess Olympiad. The team also included Hugh Alexander and Harry Golombek. The British chess team left the Olympiad early and sailed back to England. They soon found themselves at Bletchley Park, where they remaind for the duration of the war. Milner-Berry was the first to be recruited (by mathematician Gordon Welchman) to work for the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park, England. Milner-Barry then recruited Hugh Alexander and Harry Golombek. Milner-Berry was head of "Hut 6," a section responsible for deciphering German army and air force messages which had been encrypted using the German enigma machine. He was one of four leading codebreakers at Bletchley to petition the then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill directly for more resources for their work. Milner-Berry expressed the intensity of code-breaking in terms of chess. "It was rather like playing a tournament game (sometimes several games) every day for five and a half years." 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, Milner-Barry was put in charge of the "Crib Room". Milner-Barry wrote, 'Much has been written lately about what came out of Bletchley, but only from the point of view of the user. Security restrictions on the story of the breaking of the Enigma from the technical point of view have not yet been lifted. I still hope that they may be in my time. It would, I believe, make an enthralling story which would be particularly fascinating to chessplayers. For both Hugh and myself it was rather like playing a tournament game (sometimes several games) every day for five and a half years.' 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. Together, Welchman, Milner-Barry, 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 Milner-Barry 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, Milner-Barry took over as head of Hut 6, which by that time had grown to over 450 staff. 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.

Bernon Mitchell (1929-2001) was a cryptanalyst with the U.S. Navy (1951-1954), the Army Security Agency (1955), and the NSA in the 1950s. He was a member of the Washington Chess Divan. He also captained the NSA chess team. In 1960, he renounced his U.S. citizenship and defected to the USSR.

Graham Russell Mitchell (1905-1984) worked for MI5, the British Security Service, between 1939 and 1963. He played on the Oxford varsity chess team. He was also an International Master in Correspondence Chess (1953). During World War II, he worked at Blenheim Palace monitoring subversion and maintaining surveillance on suspected Nazi sympathizers. He may have been a Soviet agent suspected of containing hidden code in his chess games. He sent postcards with chess notation to what was thought to be an undercover agent in Frankfurt, Dr. Edmund Adam. If so, the code was never cracked.

Nicholas Anthony "Tony" Perkins (1912-1991) worked at Bletchley Park and was a strong chessplayer. He played on the Oxford varsity chess team. He competed in 5 Scottish chess championships and later played in the Munich 1958 Chess Olympiad.

David Rees (1918-2013) worked at Bletchley Park and was a chessplayer. He was active on Enigma research in Hut 6 at Bletchley Park. The German operators of the Enigma machines were told which three rotors and which settings to use each day, but they had to choose the starting positions of the rotors and indicate their choices via the first three letters of their first messages. John Hervel, predicted in February 1940 that some German operators might use short cuts that could be exploited by the Bletchley Park codebreakers. Rees was able to use the technique known as the "Hervel tip" to break Enigma ciphers for some critical months from May 1940. Rees later became professor of pure mathematics at the University of Exeter.

Laurance Safford (1893-1973) was a U.S. Navy cryptologist and a chessplayer. He established the Naval cryptologic organization after World War I. He was chief of Security Intelligence of Naval Communications in Washington, D.C. He gave the chief Japanese naval code problem to an organization in Hawaii. This paid off in the spring of 1942 when this crypto team, though unable to break JN-25, the main Japanese naval operational code, was able to deduce important information from it, largely through traffic analysis, in time to help win the Battle of Midway. The team was also able to trick the Japanese Navy into sending a message which revealed that it was Midway that was the focus of the attack, not the Aleutians, as Washington cryptanalysts maintained.

Claude Elwood Shannon (1916-2001) worked at Bell Labs. During World War II, he was on a committee studying cryptanalytic techniques. Shannon was a chessplayer and wrote the first paper on how to program a computer for playing chess.

Sir Howard Smith (1919-1996) worked at Bletchley Park and was a chess player. He played chess at Cambridge where he studied mathematics. Smith helped supervise the "Bombes" in Hit 6. He recruited Asa Briggs, his fellow chessplayer and bridge partner at Cambridge, to work at Bletchley Park.

Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a cryptanalyst during World War II and a weak chessplayer. In October 1941, he helped write a letter to Winston Churchill (also signed by Alexander and Milner-Barry) asking for additional staff. Turing oversaw Hut 8, tasked with breaking the German navy Enigma code. Turing played chess and Go at Bletchley Park during World War II. He became especially close to a woman he worked with, playing what he called "sleepy chess" with her after their night-shift code-breaking. In 1948, he began writing a chess program for a computer that did not yet exist.

Alain Campbell White (1880-1951), born in Cannes, France, was an American problem composer, author, and patron. He lived in Connecticut. In 1914, he founded the Good Companion Club, to which almost all known chess composers belonged. During World War I, he helped break the German Navy cryptographic codes, which was based upon a pattern of chess moves. (source: New York Times, July 17, 1988).

Shaun Wylie was another strong chess player and mathematician that worked at Bletchley Park. He worked at Hut 8 on the German Navy Enigma code was headed the linguistics section.

In 1923, the "Enigma machine" was first put on the market for banks and other companies with sensitive financial information. It was an electro-mechanical rotor cipher machine.

In 1926, the British Government purchased one Enigma machine, but it was considered too unwieldy. Meanwhile, in Germany, it was adopted by the German navy.

In 1928, the Enigma machine was adopted by the German Army.

In December 1932, three Polish mathematicians were the first to break one of the early Enigma systems. This was done without knowledge of the wiring of the machine, so the result did not allow the Poles to decrypt actual messages.

In 1935, the Enigma was adopted by the Luftwaffe.

In 1937, British codebreaker Alfred Dillwyn Knox succeeded in breaking into Italian Enigma codes.

In 1938, the Germans added complexity to the Enigma machines by adding two more rotors to the original 3 rotors. The Naval version had as many as 8 rotors.

In 1938, Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of MI6, purchased a country house in Buckinghamshiere called Bletchley Park, out of his own money. It was to be used as a Government Code and Cypher School. Alan Turing was recruited to work there.

In August 1939, the British Government Code and Cypher School (GSSC), created to break the German Enigma Code, moved to Bletchley Park (B.P.) in Buckinghamshire, and became known as the Golf, Cheese and Chess Society (also called the Golf Club and Chess Society). The Bletchley Park grounds was fenced in and huts were completed for cryptographers to work in. The guards were told their purpose was to keep the "inmates" of this purported lunatic asylum from wandering away. Bletchley Park was chosen because it was halfway between Cambridge and Oxford, the two universities that would server as the primary sources of cryptoanalytic trainees.

The GCSS was directed by Commander Alastair Denniston, who was convinced of the inevitability of war with Germany. His mission was to decode the German ENIGMA messages. The team created the world's first electronic computer, which was kept secret until the 1970s. Denniston believed that chess players had an aptitude for cryptanalysis and tried to recruit chess players and mathematicians. According to GC&CS cryptanalyst E.R.P. Vincent, chessplayers were selected because cryptanalysis required patient consideration of endless permutations

On September 3, 1939, war was declared. Bletchley's new recruits began to gather from universities around the country. Chess masters were also recruited.

In view of the chess talent at Bletchley Park, newcomers were advised not to play chess for money with any of the staff.

One British chess champion not offered to work at Bletchley Park was William Winter, British chess champion in 1935 and 1936. He was an active Communist who had once been arrested and served time in prison for sedition.

In November 1939, Bletchley Park broke some Enigma code used by the Luftwaffe, thanks to a crashed German aircraft.

In December 1939, work began in Letchworth on "Turing's Bombe." It was a machine that could sort through thousands of letter combinations at high speed.

In 1940, Bletchley broke Yellow Enigma, which was code used by the Germans for the Norway campaign.

In May 1940, Hut 6 broke into Red, the Luftwaffe Enigma. Some naval Enigma keys were also broken.

In May 1941, the German Bismark battleship was sunk with the help of decrypts from Bletchley.

In August 1941, the Hut 8 team succeeded in reading daily German naval Enigmas.

In February 1942, the German navy introduced the four-rotor Enigma machine for communications with its Atlantic U-boats. Messages could not be decrypted for the next 10 months.

In December 1942, Hut 8 succeeded in cracking the new, more complex naval Enigma codes.

In April 1943, a revolutionary machine with vacuum tubes (valves) and relays, called the Heath Robinson, started work at Bletchley.

In 1944, the Colossus machine, the forerunner of the computer, was introduced at Bletchley Park.

In June 1944, Bletchley was able to decode thousands of messages daily from every part of the German military machine.

During World War II intercepted communiques called the Venona files were used to find a pattern of espionage and betrayal in the United States. One of the agents who was later arrested in 1944 was a chess player who's cover name was Chess Knight. He was a KGB officer in Mexico City.

On December 2, 1944, there was a 12-board chess match between the Oxford University Chess Club and the Bletchley Chess Club. The Bletchley team won, scoring 8-4. For Bletchley, board 1 was Alexander, board 2 was Golombek, board 3 was Aitken, board 4 was Good, board 5 was Perkins, board 6 was Sgt Jacobs, board 7 was Sgt Gilbert, board 8 was Arthur Chamberlain, board 9 was Peter Hilton, board 10 was W.R. Cox, board 11 was D. Rees, and board 12 was Lt. Art Levenson.

In August 1945, Bletchley Park is cleared of all documentation and machinery and moved to Eastcote, Middlesex.

The American cryptanalytic agencies rarely sought out top mathematicians, scholars, or chess players the way the British did. They did recruit Arnold Denker and Reuben Fine, but did not utilize them or other chess masters very much. A 1944 U.S. Army study found that "no particular backgrounds of training was concretely indicative of cryptanalytic ability."

After the war, Cold War spies in Germany sent postcards back to Military Intelligence (MI5) containing coded messages written in cryptic text base around a series of postal chess games. Gordon Thomas, historian for MI5 and MI6, said that chess moves were a common way of communicating during the Cold War. He also said the Russians in particular favored using chess as a method of communicating. It was their great national pastime and information would often be disguised as chess moves.

In a KGB handbook, a section described how to use chess moves when communicating. For example, one move could ascertain what was happening and another could give instructions. Agents would be trained to understand chess moves.

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