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The Biologist Who Became the Most Famous Codebreaker of World War II

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Ravi Shankar Rajan is a software program director who writes on varied subjects from history, archaeology to leadership and poetry.

The extraordinary story of Geoffrey Tandy, a biologist who was ‘accidentally’ recruited at Bletchley Park in 1939 as a code breaker.

The extraordinary story of Geoffrey Tandy, a biologist who was ‘accidentally’ recruited at Bletchley Park in 1939 as a code breaker.

The Extraordinary Code Breakers of Bletchley Park

I am sure anyone versed in the history of World War II would undoubtedly know about the role of the famed Bletchley Park codebreakers who cracked the unbeatable German Enigma code leading to Allied victory in the war.

The British government acquired it in 1938 and made it a station of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), naming it as Station X. The station started with 200 code breakers but by the end of 1944, it had more than 9000 people working round the clock. And the interesting part was about three-fourths of the workers were women.

These were the people who worked in the background and destroyed the Nazi machine by deciphering the famed Enigma Code of the Germans. By 1942, the code breakers were deciphering nearly 4,000 German transmissions on a daily basis that included critical German information like efforts to resupply Rommel's army in North Africa, German reactions on Allied attempts to mislead them about D-day landings, general army morale at various fronts and so on….

Indeed, Winston Churchill hailed the work of Bletchley Park as the ‘secret weapon’ that won the war and it was an honour for any individual across the world to be selected as part of the elite group of Bletchley Park’s code breakers.

It was to this famed institution that a British cryptogammist( a biologist who studies algae) Geoffrey Tandy got invited to work in 1939. Tandy was told to work on a top-secret mission inside the Bletchley Park code-cracking department, which no one knew existed beyond the military.

Needless to say, he was a bit puzzled, but he went along to do his bit for the nation.

Bletchley Park was home to Britain's most prolific code breakers. And most of them were women.

Bletchley Park was home to Britain's most prolific code breakers. And most of them were women.

The Story of Geoffrey Tandy

As the story turned out, Geoffrey Tandy’s appointment at Bletchley Park was supposedly due to a typing goof up at the ministry.

While the exact details are not known but it seems that someone had mistaken his job of cryptogamist –an algae specialist for a cryptogramist—a codebreaker, which was exactly the skill required to work at Bletchley Park. Anyway, the damage was done and Geoffrey Tandy could not be sent out due to the secretive nature of the work being carried out at the institution. So, Tandy just stayed there, almost doing nothing for nearly two years.

Then something incredible happened.

In 1941, Allied forces torpedoed two German U-boats and salvaged some important documents from the wreckages including papers that revealed detailed instructions on how to unscramble the Enigma code. The problem was that the papers were fully sogged and in dire need of quick restoration before they could be used.

This was a do-or-die situation for the code-breakers and in came our algae expert, Geoffrey Tandy who knew a bit about restoration. Using absorbent materials and his expertise in plant life, he was able to dry the papers back to readability.

The rest was history. The Bletchley codebreakers were able the information to crack the Enigma code and thereby stop the juggernaut of the Nazi war engine.

Bletchley Park had 200 code breakers but by the end of 1944, it had more than 9000 people working round the clock.

Bletchley Park had 200 code breakers but by the end of 1944, it had more than 9000 people working round the clock.

Can Such a Goof-Up Really Happen?

No, such a goof-up can never happen at such a high level where the stakes are high, and millions of lives are involved, and the people operating Bletchley Park were not exactly amateurs.

I think the story of Tandy is less dramatic and more mundane. Tandy was not recruited because of a typing mistake. Rather he was recruited because he was also an accomplished linguist (in addition to being a biologist) whose expertise was required in the translation of decrypted messages. The job of Tandy was to decipher the cultural nuances of the translated words and it was critical work.

That said, such skills in diverse areas cannot be recruited from schools and colleges. These skills come with experience, personal initiative, and passion. And while a good education was clearly necessary, along with that "out-of-the-box" analytical thinking was one of the skills intelligence agencies were desperately looking for during the war times. Tandy thus fitted the bill perfectly.

And while I agree that, he might have played an important role in the drying and restoration of the soggy documents, his recruitment was certainly not an accident brought about by mixing up two long words. It was a reflection of Tandy’s skills and experience in diverse topics that made him an asset to the secretive work done at Bletchley’s park.

In the end, it does not really matter. What matters is the fact that Geoffrey Tandy did his bit for the country by using his extraordinary insights and helped win the war early thus saving millions of lives in the process. Hats off to him!

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Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 02, 2021:

The extraordinary story of Geoffrey Tandy, a biologist who was ‘accidentally’ recruited at Bletchley Park in 1939 as a code breaker. Tandy ultimately went on to play a decisive role in the Allied victory over the Nazis.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 01, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for your comments.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 01, 2021:

Those codebreakers did incredible work and helped to end the war. It was fascinating learning about Geoffrey Tandy and the part he played. Thanks for writing about him.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 01, 2021:

The extraordinary story of Geoffrey Tandy, a biologist who was ‘accidentally’ recruited at Bletchley Park in 1939 as a code breaker.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 01, 2021:

Thanks Misbah for your comments

Misbah from The World of Poets on May 01, 2021:

What an interesting and informative article, Ravi. I enjoyed reading it. What you said in the end is true by his intelligence he helped win the war early and saved many lives. Thanks for sharing

Blessings

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 01, 2021:

The extraordinary story of Geoffrey Tandy, a biologist who was ‘accidentally’ recruited at Bletchley Park in 1939 as a code breaker.

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