The Irish Codebreaker Who Defeated Italy in WWII & Found Solace in Beethoven

Listen to Jackie Ui Chionna's True Spies podcast: Emily Anderson - Cribs, Codes & Cairo

Ireland’s Emily Anderson lived a life of mystery and melody but to the outside world she was simply ‘Miss Anderson of the Foreign Office'.

When Emily Anderson accepted the 1961 German Order of Merit for her acclaimed Selected Letters of Beethoven she must have smiled at the irony. During WWII, Anderson was a British spy, a top-ranked Bletchley Park codebreaker who helped the Allies defeat Germany and Italy. Now Anderson was the guest of honor, fêted at the German Federal President’s residence in Bonn.

Emily Anderson, Bletchley Park codebreaker
Emily was recruited for Britain's MI1(b) codebreakers

There was no hint the Germans knew they were ushering a British spy into the heart of power. Anderson had clung to her cover story as a musicologist and author until her death in 1962. 

In addition to her Beethoven work, she’d also published Letters of Mozart and His Family and, for amusement, translated Croce's Goethe from Italian into English. All the while, Emily Anderson was Britain’s secret weapon. Female code breakers were a rare species when Anderson joined GC&CS in 1919 - the forerunner to Britain’s Government Communications HQ (GCHQ) - whose alumni included Alan Turing

Anderson was promoted to head of the Italian diplomatic section in 1927 and posted for several years to Cairo - Britain’s Middle East HQ in WWII - where she smashed the Italian codebooks, changed the course of the war in North Africa, and was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

“She dazzled everyone with how brilliant she was,” said Jackie Uí Chionna, author of Queen of Codes, a meticulously-researched biography that explores the secret life of a codebreaker equally comfortable playing the piano or living a life of high-stakes drama in a war zone.

Galway Bay, Ireland
Emily Anderson left Galway Bay for the bright lights of London

From a small town in Ireland to the big leagues

Emily Anderson grew up in Galway Bay, on the rocky shores of Ireland’s west coast, the daughter of a physicist-turned-university-president who insisted young Emily learn German and French from her governess and spend summers billeted with a German family to perfect her skills. Born in 1891, Emily came of age at a tumultuous time in Irish history.

While Ireland was officially ‘neutral’ in WWI, spy paranoia gripped the island. When London declared war on Berlin on August 4, 1914, Emily was studying in Germany. She decamped to Barbados to teach French for two years but returned to take up a post teaching German in Galway. Before long, Britain’s Foreign Office invited Emily to join their fledgling code-breaking team.

Emily Anderson translated letters from Mozart and Beethoven
Listen to Jackie Ui Chionna's True Spies podcast: Cribs, Codes & Cairo

The Irish Codebreaker Who Defeated Italy in WWII & Found Solace in Beethoven

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Listen to Jackie Ui Chionna's True Spies podcast: Emily Anderson - Cribs, Codes & Cairo

Ireland’s Emily Anderson lived a life of mystery and melody but to the outside world she was simply ‘Miss Anderson of the Foreign Office'.

When Emily Anderson accepted the 1961 German Order of Merit for her acclaimed Selected Letters of Beethoven she must have smiled at the irony. During WWII, Anderson was a British spy, a top-ranked Bletchley Park codebreaker who helped the Allies defeat Germany and Italy. Now Anderson was the guest of honor, fêted at the German Federal President’s residence in Bonn.

Emily Anderson, Bletchley Park codebreaker
Emily was recruited for Britain's MI1(b) codebreakers

There was no hint the Germans knew they were ushering a British spy into the heart of power. Anderson had clung to her cover story as a musicologist and author until her death in 1962. 

In addition to her Beethoven work, she’d also published Letters of Mozart and His Family and, for amusement, translated Croce's Goethe from Italian into English. All the while, Emily Anderson was Britain’s secret weapon. Female code breakers were a rare species when Anderson joined GC&CS in 1919 - the forerunner to Britain’s Government Communications HQ (GCHQ) - whose alumni included Alan Turing

Anderson was promoted to head of the Italian diplomatic section in 1927 and posted for several years to Cairo - Britain’s Middle East HQ in WWII - where she smashed the Italian codebooks, changed the course of the war in North Africa, and was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

“She dazzled everyone with how brilliant she was,” said Jackie Uí Chionna, author of Queen of Codes, a meticulously-researched biography that explores the secret life of a codebreaker equally comfortable playing the piano or living a life of high-stakes drama in a war zone.

Galway Bay, Ireland
Emily Anderson left Galway Bay for the bright lights of London

From a small town in Ireland to the big leagues

Emily Anderson grew up in Galway Bay, on the rocky shores of Ireland’s west coast, the daughter of a physicist-turned-university-president who insisted young Emily learn German and French from her governess and spend summers billeted with a German family to perfect her skills. Born in 1891, Emily came of age at a tumultuous time in Irish history.

While Ireland was officially ‘neutral’ in WWI, spy paranoia gripped the island. When London declared war on Berlin on August 4, 1914, Emily was studying in Germany. She decamped to Barbados to teach French for two years but returned to take up a post teaching German in Galway. Before long, Britain’s Foreign Office invited Emily to join their fledgling code-breaking team.

Emily Anderson translated letters from Mozart and Beethoven
Listen to Jackie Ui Chionna's True Spies podcast: Cribs, Codes & Cairo

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London calling

Emily Anderson thought of codebreaking as her day job. She considered her “real work” to be the nights and holidays she spent traveling the world in search of the private correspondence of her two favorite composers: Beethoven and Mozart. She trolled archives and libraries, wrote to private collectors (even including self-addressed, stamped envelopes), and was on friendly terms with Harold MacMillan, her London publisher later elected Britain’s prime minister.

In 1943, Emily returned to the diplomatic section of GC&CS at its new offices in Berkeley Street, London, and remained there until her retirement in 1950 when her ‘real work’ began in earnest.

She was delighted at the prospect of deciphering Mozart’s letters in the 1930s - the composer and his family wrote to each other using numerical codes to disguise politically sensitive comments - and Emily now turned her attention to deciphering Beethoven’s execrable handwriting and Gothic script. She corrected translations and established the texts of more than 200 letters previously unpublished.

Beethoven wrote letters in a coded-like script
Emily used ‘cribs’ to decipher Beethoven


Code breaking cribs

In a memorable BBC interview, Anderson described how she used code-breaking techniques - looking for patterns and repetitions - even down to the curl on the end of a letter to create a ‘crib’ to ‘crack’ the code of Beethoven’s letters. “I have to take a magnifying glass to it and go over and over again a particular word,” she told her interviewer Denis Stevens, who also happened to be a wartime spy. 

By asking how Emily Anderson became so skilled in the art of translation, “Stevens could not have known that he would, inadvertently, be tapping into the origins of Britain’s greatest female codebreaker,” Jackie Uí Chionna writes in Queen of Codes.

Emily Anderson died in London at the age of 71, having never married. The Royal Philharmonic Society awards the international Emily Anderson Prize to young violinists each year. Until Queen of Codes, her life story had never been fully told and Britain’s greatest female codebreaker remained an enigma.

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