Cribs, Codes and Cairo

Cribs, Codes and Cairo

Emily Anderson was the best codebreaker you've never heard of. Fiercely devoted to secrecy, she served Britain's interests in two world wars - mastering five languages along the way. In this remarkable True Spies story, Sophia Di Martino and historian Jackie Ui Chionna give Anderson a much-deserved moment in the limelight.
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True Spies, Episode 196 - Cribs, Codes and Cairo

NARRATOR: This is True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios. Cribs, Codes, and Cairo.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The process of code-breaking is really about seeing patterns and repetitions, and it involves feats of almost unimaginable mental gymnastics that most people would just not be able to do in a million years.

NARRATOR: The British Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters, London. 1961. In a radio studio deep within the building, one of the corporation’s foremost classical music shows is set to go on air. Across from the program’s presenter sits this week’s guest - an elderly woman who has translated and published the complete letters of Beethoven. All alongside her day job as a Foreign Office civil servant. The show goes live, and the guest discusses her new book - already considered a masterpiece in modern musicology.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And the interview, if you listen to it carefully, is extraordinary 

NARRATOR: The presenter asks his guest how exactly she managed to read Beethoven’s handwriting, known to be some of the most unintelligible in the world.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She talks about figuring out the handwriting of Beethoven, and how she looked at him. And she studied it again and again and again. And you wonder what that letter is. And then you think, “Ah, it could be this.” And then you use that letter as a crib. 

NARRATOR: A crib? Regular True Spies listeners might know that a 'crib' is a code-breaking technique. Had this elderly musicologist just outed herself as a cryptologist on national radio?

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She uses words like flash. ‘It comes in a flash.’ 

NARRATOR: Flash. That’s another codebreaking term.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She actually tells the world in that BBC interview exactly what she was doing all those years. She gives for the first and only time an indication of the processes she used in codebreaking. 

NARRATOR: Within a year she was dead. She left behind no partner or children. She didn’t even have a funeral. Her final wish was for her remains to be cremated and scattered with no one present.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: So in other words, every single shred of her life disappeared in one fell swoop. 

NARRATOR: To those who knew only Emily Anderson the musicologist, the fact that she vanished without a trace may seem curious. But to those who knew Emily Anderson the codebreaker, it may not have been surprising at all.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She lived by the code of secrecy, the code that says never speak, never reveal what you've been doing.

NARRATOR: For that same handful of people who knew her full life story, she was one of the most extraordinary individuals they’d ever met. And yet, the details of that extraordinary life are only now being revealed.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: You signed the Official Secrets Act and you keep your mouth shut in perpetuity. And that's exactly what she did. The only problem with that, of course, is that's the reason why nobody has heard of her. Her name should be widely known. Please God going forward, there will be more recognition of who this remarkable woman was. 

NARRATOR: Ireland. 2017. Jackie Ui Chionna, lecturer in history at the University of Galway, is ensconced in the library researching her new book. And it has nothing to do with Emily Anderson, an academic she knew only the folklore of.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Up until that point everybody felt that - and the official record even if you Google her today - it’ll say that she left in 1920 to join the Foreign Office. Everybody in Galway accepted that. But in fact, she didn't. 

NARRATOR: Flicking through piles of dusty records, Jackie stumbles across a strange document.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Purely by accident. 

NARRATOR: It is by Emily Anderson, a professor at the university a century prior, a famous daughter of Galway, a city on the west coast of Ireland, Anderson was feted for her works on classical musicology.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The first letter she wrote was very standard: I wish to resign my position as professor of German.

NARRATOR: But it’s a second letter that catches Jackie in its grip. 

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She wrote to her friend in the college, who was the college registrar, and she said: Well, look, I'm just letting you know I'm not really going to work in the Foreign Office. 

NARRATOR: I’ve been recruited to military intelligence, Emily writes.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And when I read that, I just thought: ‘What? She what?’ She had military intelligence. Where was that on the record? Nobody knows about that.

NARRATOR: Captivated, Jackie shelves her original project to focus on Emily Anderson instead. Despite having no experience studying intelligence history, she must know more about this woman.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And so I went hunting for her. 

NARRATOR: And what she discovered was even more than she could have ever hoped for.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: It's acknowledged at the highest levels of British intelligence, even today, that she was by far and away the best ever of the female codebreakers. 

NARRATOR: Which was just as well, for early in the Second World War, Emily Anderson was sent to crack codes in a crucial strategic region for both sides of the conflict - the Middle East.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: For the codebreakers, living in Cairo must have been something of a surreal experience because, on the one hand, there are swimming pools and country clubs, etc. But, at one point, Rommel and his Panzer divisions were about seven miles from Cairo so they were in danger of being overrun at all parts of the war. 

NARRATOR: From an early age, Emily Anderson led an unusual existence.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She was the daughter of a university president. She grew up in the college quadrangle at the University of Galway in the west of Ireland. And so, she was in many respects living literally within the confines of the university.

NARRATOR: It was a cloistered, claustrophobic life.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She didn't really mix with too many other people because nobody was really her social equal. So she grew up an isolated, self-reliant person. and was facilitated by her family to learn languages, mathematics, physics, and music.

NARRATOR: After graduating with special distinction in French and German from the University of Galway, Emily followed her father into academia, finding a teaching post in the Caribbean. Before long, though, world events conspired to bring her back to Ireland.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Her brother. was flying with the Royal Flying Corps. His plane was shot down by the Germans in December 1916 and he was taken as a prisoner of war.

NARRATOR: That family trauma would later change the trajectory of Emily’s life.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She was very much pro-war, very much in favor of doing everything she could to get her brother - and every other prisoner of war, and every other soldier fighting - at the front back to their families. 

NARRATOR: Back in Galway supporting her parents, Emily spotted an opportunity.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: A position had come up as a professor of German. 

NARRATOR: After cruising through the interview process, Emily Anderson got the job. Unbeknown to her, though, she would soon be called to take a position with very different stakes. Two years prior, back in 1914, only a few hours after Britain had declared war on Germany, the British ship CS Alert departed Dover and headed into the English Channel. At 3.15 am it arrived at its destination. But that news confused the men onboard. For this ‘destination’ was the middle of the channel, near nothing and no one. The ship’s commanding officer ordered his men to drop a large grappling hook to the seabed and begin dragging. When the men pulled the grapple up, it brought with it several cables. The commanding officer ordered his men to cut five lines he singled out. In an instant, all German telegraph cable communication to the outside world was severed, marking one of the first hostile acts of World War I. So, the Germans in turn adopted a new form of communication - the wireless.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And that meant that of course, if it's wireless, anybody can intercept it, which meant that messages had to be encoded from all sides. 

NARRATOR: Now faced with a torrent of coded enemy communication, the British had to move quickly, setting up two cryptanalysis units.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The first was for the Army, which was Military Intelligence 1B as it was known, M.I.1B. The second was the Naval Cryptographic Institute called Room 40.

NARRATOR: And both of these needed the best minds in the country if they were to crack the enemy’s new codes.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And the people who are best at doing that were like linguists, people who had a very good ear and an eye for linguistic patterns and repetitions. 

NARRATOR: In 1914, military intelligence was still very much a man’s world. But not for long.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Because of the war effort and because men were at the front, there were very few people there who could do that work by the time we got to 1916, 1917. So, at that point, women were needed urgently in all efforts of the war.

NARRATOR: And Emily Anderson was a perfect match for the job...

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: …because of her linguistic skills in German and French. 

NARRATOR: Even now, it’s unclear how Emily was approached for this line of work.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: It’s known as SIGINT, signals intelligence. 

NARRATOR: Even Jackie couldn’t quite get to the bottom of how she was recruited.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: But it's very likely it was through her father's connections with Cambridge. and many of the women recruited for signals intelligence - or SIGINT - work were recruited by Cambridge and Oxford. The universities that had produced women language graduates.

NARRATOR: Emily was offered a job at M.I.1B - the Army’s cryptanalysis unit, based in London.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And she was one of only very few women who were recruited for that job.

NARRATOR: But in accepting the role, Emily had some stipulations of her own.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She at that point was not in any way of the view that she wanted to give up her academic work. She was, after all, by this stage a professor of German. But she did say she would go and serve for the duration of the war. And that's where the real adventure began, I suppose.

NARRATOR: Working in shifts around the clock, Emily and her colleagues ‘attacked’ the enemy’s diplomatic messages.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: In other words, she was listening in to the embassies and the ambassadors and the politicians talking to each other about strategies, intentions, and ambitions. 

NARRATOR: But it wasn’t quite as simple as that. While you could hear these messages over the wireless, they were heavily encoded. To the point where it often wasn’t even clear which language they were originally in.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: But if you are skilled in looking at patterns and repetitions, it's much easier to recognize firstly, what language you're decoding. Because if you get a message, it comes in blocks of five numbers and letters and a skilled cryptographer would look at that page and say, “Okay, that's looking like it's a verb. It's a German verb.” Most German verbs end in an E-N. If I see on the page where a verb is likely to be and it looks like it's E-N but in the form of QR, then that's very likely to be a German code.

NARRATOR: These patterns are known as a crib - a key to the code’s broader structure. For example, a message might include the phrase ‘nothing to report’ in encrypted form. Guessing where this phrase likely was, if indeed it was in an encrypted message, provided a key to unlock the code. But finding a way into the code was only the start for a mind like Emily’s. The next phase involved a process called ‘book-building’.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And book builders are not just those who are given a page of Morse code and are asked to break it and make sense of it. She started looking at patterns of building blocks for the codes in whatever language it was. She's going back to how the original cryptanalysts would have created that code by breaking it down and reverse-engineering it in a way.

NARRATOR: A book builder like Emily would compile all these cribs, systemizing all these keys into a template. A template that could then be applied to each language of code.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And that's what book building was about. It was about finding the keys, the ways to get into those codes.

NARRATOR: Soon, Emily was known to be the best book builder in all of British intelligence.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She was so good at it that she was the one who trained others in book building. One of those she taught said that her method of book building was neat and ruthlessly methodical. And that pretty much sums up Emily Anderson: neat and ruthlessly methodical. 

NARRATOR: In the first years of the war, not everyone in the British government was a fan of codebreaking. Some saw it as a distraction from the real business of fighting. But that all changed in early 1917 when the British intercepted a message from the German Foreign Minister to his ambassador in Washington, D.C. The foreign minister, one Arthur Zimmerman, instructed the ambassador to approach Mexico with a deal: wage war on America, and Germany will reward you with the US territories of Arizona, Mexico, and Texas. The Zimmerman Telegram, as it’s now known, was used by the British to entice America into the war, marking one of the first times signals intelligence influenced world events. (You can learn more about the Telegram in the True Spies episode of the same name.) Within 18 months, the war was over. The Allies had won. But even with the advent of peace, demand for top codebreakers like Emily remained.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: It was realized by both the Army and the Navy that there was going to be a need for cryptanalysis going forward. There was likely to be another war and there was a need for people to keep an eye on our supposed neighbors, but in fact, those who may potentially be our enemies. 

NARRATOR: The Army and the Navy’s cryptography units, M.I.1B and Room 40, merged shortly after the war’s end, forming the Government Code and Cypher School, or GC&CS.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: GC&CS was by far and away the best codebreaking bureau in the world. They had incredible ability, they had an incredible core crew.

NARRATOR: And Emily Anderson, who had only agreed to stay on until the war’s end, was at the top of its ‘Wanted’ list.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Because she was so good. She was streets ahead of most other codebreakers working for either the Army or the Navy and cryptanalytic bureaus. She was extremely, extremely fast. And for that reason, they wanted her to stay on.

NARRATOR: But Emily was torn.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She had a decision to make. Does she stay on, give up her position as a professor of German, or does she decide, no, I'm going to give up this work and I'm going to actually take a career within the codebreaking world?

NARRATOR: Leaving her academic career behind was no small matter, which Emily made plain to her government suitors.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She didn't accept a job with the Government Code & Cypher School until they'd met the criteria that she set.

NARRATOR: Which, in 1918, included groundbreaking demands.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She wanted a full-time permanent position, something that had never happened to women before. Women were never given positions that they could be promoted from within the civil service.

NARRATOR: But that’s not all Emily insisted on.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She wanted a salary that equated with her male counterparts because she was every bit as good as most of them and far better than a lot of them. So she didn't accept the role as a codebreaker until such time as they gave her the money that she felt she deserved. 

NARRATOR: And sure enough, Emily got her wish.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: So she was at one point, remarkably, the highest-ranked woman within the British civil service and the best-paid woman within the British service. 

NARRATOR: By the early 1920s, Emily was a full-time codebreaker at the Government Code & Cypher School. Having proved to possess one of the most brilliant minds in the service, she was highly respected by all her - nearly all male - colleagues. But she had no intention of merely coasting through her life and work.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She just wanted to get better and better all the time. 

NARRATOR: And while she was already an expert in French and German, Emily spotted an opening that would stretch her skillset.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She knew that there was a shortage of Italian codebreakers, so she decided that she'd fill that gap and she'd hone her skills for that task.

NARRATOR: But simply turning to Italian textbooks and tutors was not what she had in mind.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Emily Anderson always took things to the extreme. So what she decided to do was to translate a life, a biography of the German philosopher and poet Goethe, written by an Italian just to hone her Italian translation skills so that she could become an Italian codebreaker. It was an extraordinary thing to do. She took on all this extra work just to get better at her job and keep her mind active.

NARRATOR: Italian may have been her fourth language, but soon Emily was head of the Italian diplomatic - or Diplo - section at GC&CS. And the positive feedback on her translation of Goethe’s biography spurred Emily on to further academic pursuits outside the world of espionage. Her next challenge would be huge in both scope and significance - translating the letters of Mozart.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And in a way, yet another remarkable thing about this woman is that she used the skills that she had actually acquired as a codebreaker in her musicological work.

NARRATOR: In fact, Mozart’s letters were the perfect subject matter for a codebreaker. The great composer himself had even used simple ciphers - substitutions of certain letters for others - after falling foul of the Archbishop of Salzburg. As his patron the Archbishop expected loyalty from subjects like Mozart, who wasn’t prepared to give it; instead railing against the parochialism and disdain of his master. Indeed, the Archbishop came to regularly check Mozart’s mail before allowing it to reach its ultimate recipient.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And she started seeing patterns and repetitions, and she was able to use the skills she's honed as a codebreaker to decrypt - effectively, to break the code.

NARRATOR: Emily’s work entailed extensive travel throughout Europe, tracking down correspondence in obscure university libraries and private collections. All the more reason to keep her day job secret.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: If you think about it, she's going to places like Berlin, Bonn, Salzburg. She's going to places where she can access musical archives. Had anybody even remotely suspected that she was a codebreaker? There's no way she would have been received in those circles.

NARRATOR: Nonetheless, as the 1930s marched on, travel across the continent was becoming more and more dangerous.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: People like Emily Anderson knew before anybody else that a new war was likely because they were listening in to the embassies and the ambassadors and the politicians talking to each other about strategies, and intentions, and ambitions. They knew that the Germans were definitely planning another war.

NARRATOR: So, in September 1938, the True Spies of the British government. took action. In September 1938, a group of some 150 men and women descended on a country estate. Handpicked by British intelligence, these were some of the greatest linguists and mathematicians in the country. And while the estate itself was far enough from London to be safe from bombing, it was still a commutable distance to the capital.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: They needed to do a dry run to see. Could they set up a massive codebreaking center in the UK that would be able to handle all this massive amount of traffic they knew they were going to have to deal with? 

NARRATOR: The estate’s name? Bletchley Park.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: They chose Bletchley because it was on the Inter Varsity line between Oxford and Cambridge, so they knew that they'd be drawing a lot of talent from those places. 

NARRATOR: But simply turning up to build an intelligence operation wasn’t exactly subtle. So the codebreakers came undercover.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: They decided to run what they called Captain Ridley's Shooting Party.

NARRATOR: But ‘Captain Ridley’ was an MI6 officer. And while he and his 150 ‘guests’ spent the weekend ostensibly hunting and drinking...

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: …In reality, it was a dry run to see how quickly they could get people there. And it was tremendously successful. It was a brilliant idea. It gave people an idea of how, logistically, people could be moved from London to the countryside, how they would be accommodated, how quickly they could get there, and what the telecommunications requirements would be. 

NARRATOR: But Emily Anderson was not one of the shooting party. Remember, she was head of the Italian Diplomatic section.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The work she was doing at that point was so important that they couldn't spare her for this ‘practice session’, if you like. She was desperately needed in London to keep listening in to the Italians because their intentions were the top priority at that time. 

NARRATOR: Would the Italians ally with the Germans against the British? Would they begin attacking targets in the Mediterranean? Emily Anderson was in charge of finding out.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: People defer to her. They regard her as the ‘Queen of Diplo’. They know that nobody but nobody is better than her because she knows the nuances of that language. 

NARRATOR: When the war began, a year after Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party, Emily Anderson did decamp to Bletchley.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She was billeted in a really nice house, a manor house in Swanbourne, about seven miles from Bletchley. It was a very prestigious billet because she was one of the most senior staff there. 

NARRATOR: But Emily didn’t stay there long. And only 80 years later did Dr. Jackie Ui Chonna find out why.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: By the time she got there, she had already begun a relationship with a fellow codebreaker, a woman called Dorothy Brooks. Dorothy was much younger than Emily. She was about 25 at the time they met and Emily would have by this stage been in her late 40s. But they really, obviously, clicked. A relationship developed between them.

NARRATOR: But her hosts were not impressed by her sexuality.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And so she left. She wasn't prepared to have somebody judging her, making decisions about what she could and couldn't do so she moved to another billet. 

NARRATOR: And what happened at that billet was to change the course of British wartime intelligence.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: It was with a family called Bartley. Charles Bartley had a daughter called Patricia, and Patricia was still alive until a few years ago. I actually interviewed her for my research on Emily Anderson and she was able to tell me she remembered Emily arriving. 

NARRATOR: Almost immediately, Emily spotted something in this young woman.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She had spent her childhood and her youth in France being educated in a convent school there so she had fluent German and French.

NARRATOR: She should be at Bletchley. Emily knew it.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Patricia Bartley was recruited to Bletchley Park on foot of Emily's recommendation and subsequently, within a year, was head of the German diplomatic section at the age of just 25. It's an astonishing, astonishing story. 

NARRATOR: And the Bartley family overlooked Emily’s and her partner Dorothy’s sexuality.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: They were very happy together - walking, driving in Emily's car, playing music together, all of those little things that made her time at Bletchley a very happy time.

NARRATOR: But much like the First World War did some 25 years earlier, the Second was about to upend her life too.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Emily was at Bletchley for just under a year. She was working hard there, listening in to the Italian Embassies and she knew what was happening in North Africa, and East Africa was going to be critical to the war.

NARRATOR: It was clear to both sides that whoever controlled North Africa would likely win the war in Europe. It was the perfect location for launching bombing campaigns against enemy shipping in the Mediterranean, therefore gaining control of supply lines to much of the Continent. But to win North Africa, one had to win East Africa first.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Because, of course, it flanked the sea route between the Gulf of Aden and Suez.

NARRATOR: Crucial for the transport of fuel from the Middle East. Not only that, the Italians had colonial control of the Ethiopian empire in East Africa, stationing a quarter of a million troops there.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And the British identified this as something they would have to win before they took North Africa because it meant that the Italians would be effectively taken out of the war. And they were absolutely right in that regard.

NARRATOR: But Emily’s work attacking Italian diplomatic code was beginning to be hampered. 

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Increasingly, the Italians were getting stronger in North and East Africa. Her traffic was being intercepted. She wasn't getting the same feed of messages.

NARRATOR: Emily insisted on going to Africa herself to be closer to the source of the intelligence.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Now, that in itself was astonishing because she could just as easily have sat out the war at Bletchley and did what she was doing there quite comfortably. But she was so determined that she was going to make a difference and that the Italians needed to be defeated if Germany was to be defeated that she insisted on being sent.

NARRATOR: But Emily wasn’t about to leave her partner and fellow codebreaker Dorothy behind. 

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: It was agreed that it was essential to get a team of codebreakers on the ground, particularly Italian codebreakers on the ground in Cairo, intercepting traffic so that the Italians could be defeated. And that prompted this remarkable move from Bletchley to Cairo.

NARRATOR: With the direct aerial route to Egypt cut off, Emily, Dorothy, and the rest of the team had to go the long way around.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: What they had to do is take a ship from Liverpool to the Cape, to Durban, in the most southern part of the African Continent, and then make their way up through the entire length of Africa to Cairo. It was a journey that took about three-and-a-half weeks and it involved planes, trains, automobiles, and anything you care to mention to try and get from the tip of Africa to Cairo. But they did it.

NARRATOR: Once there, Emily helped set up a codebreaking base.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Known as the Combined Bureau, Middle East - CBME.

NARRATOR: But the focus was not on diplomatic intelligence, Emily’s specialism.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The traffic she was going to be intercepting in Cairo was military traffic.

NARRATOR: So, Emily gave up her job as head of the Italian Diplomatic Section to run the Italian Military Section, focusing on the East Africa Campaign.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And that, again, was another groundbreaking thing for Emily Anderson. She was the first woman to be appointed to a position in theater like that.

NARRATOR: But Cairo wasn’t just another theater of battle in late 1940. It was near the epicenter of the entire war at that time.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: At one point, like Rommel, his Panzer divisions were about seven miles from Cairo. So they were in danger of being overrun at all parts of the war. It was always a constant danger that they might have to move. There are descriptions of people arriving at cocktail parties covered in sand, having just come from fighting in the desert. 

NARRATOR: One of Emily’s female colleagues was even trained in using a machine gun.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: If she had to leave Cairo under duress, if the Italians or the Germans were approaching, she could whip out her machine gun from the back of her car and use it. So it wasn't an easy situation to be under because they were so close to the fighting line. 

NARRATOR: Despite the personal danger Emily and her team were in, they had little time to think. The East Africa campaign saw the Cairo codebreakers flooded with signals intelligence.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The volume of traffic that they had to intercept and had to interpret was phenomenal. It was absolutely incredible, the pressures they were under. It was day and night. Some of them slept under their desks at the office because they just were so tired they needed to sleep, but also because they were afraid of air raids and they were told they'd be safer under their desks. They had to really react very, very quickly.

NARRATOR: And react Emily did. Exceptionally.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: They managed to intercept messages being dispatched by the Italian military almost as soon as they were dispatched. So they were literally aware of every single step the Italians were making almost as soon as they made them. And that, in a sense, meant that it was the perfect example of the cryptographer's war because never before in the history of warfare has any military commander been so well-served by military intelligence as they were during the East Africa campaign. That's what the Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East said.

NARRATOR: And the consequences of Emily’s work were hard to overstate.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The campaign itself was waged between June 1940 and November 1941 and it could be argued, was probably the most significant victory of World War II because it effectively demolished the Italians in East Africa.

NARRATOR: Victory at the battle of Amba Alagi in 1941 proved decisive for the Allies when the Italian Army accepted defeat.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: It cost them an Army of 220,000 men, and it cost them an empire in East Africa. Within a few months of them actually exiting the war, they are now under attack by the Germans on their home territory. So it really was a critical change because it meant not only had they taken the Italians out of the conflict but it also meant that now the Germans had to then worry about subduing the Italians in Italy, and that diversified their forces, obviously. So it was very strategically important. 

NARRATOR: With the Italian surrender, Emily Anderson and her team were no longer needed in Cairo but there’s no time for celebrations.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The war continued in mainland Europe and the talents and the skills of Emily and Dorothy and the other codebreakers at Cairo were needed back home so they were airlifted back on a flying boat.

NARRATOR: Back in England, Emily received the Order of the British Empire award for her work in Cairo. Even though it was top secret, Emily’s contribution was considered so important that her superiors insisted on the honor, even if the official reason given was for vague ‘Foreign Office work’. Despite the accolade, Emily wasn’t going to rest on her laurels.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Again another segue in her career. She began to break Hungarian codes.

NARRATOR: Hungarian was known in the service to be the hardest European language to learn, let alone crack. But as the war drew to an end, Emily saw the importance of mastering it.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Hungarian codes were critical because, of course, the rise of the Soviets. And Hungarian-Soviet relations were very, very strategically important, and knowing what was happening in the minds of the Russians. 

NARRATOR: By the end of the conflict, Emily Anderson had perfected codebreaking in a fifth language.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: To the point that she became the expert on Hungarian codes within GC&CS.

NARRATOR: But her success didn’t end there. Remember Patricia Bartley? The young woman whom Emily recruited to Bletchley? Well, Emily’s eye for talent proved instrumental there too.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: The Germans had two major codes during the Second World War. The first was their German military code, which was Enigma. And the second was their German diplomatic code, which was Floradora. Now, most people will know that Enigma, of course, was broken. at Bletchley using Enigma-breaking machines. But the remarkable thing about Floradora was that it was almost single-handedly [broken] by Patricia Bartley using pencil and paper.

NARRATOR: D.r Jackie Ui Chionna even met Patricia shortly before she died in 2021 to ask how she did it.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: She said to me that they made a mistake. They repeated something that you should never do in writing a code.

NARRATOR: Remember cribs, the keys into a coded message? Often the most effective way of getting these keys was through guessing what was in the original message. And if you know the same words keep coming up, then that drastically reduces the number of permutations in the code you had to find a key for. Jackie on Patricia Bartley again.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: In her description of the process, it was a group of German sailors who were basically complaining about the quality of the food that they were getting, that they were getting the same old food every day. And of course, that meant repeating the menus. And she spotted this and that gave her the crib that enabled her to break into Floradora.

NARRATOR: Jackie asked Patricia what that meant exactly.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And she said to me, “It meant that I was reading messages meant for Hitler before he read them.” They didn't think it was possible for anybody to break it. And yet she did it as a young 25-year-old, 26-year-old on her own pencil and paper, spotting a repetition that nobody else had spotted. 

NARRATOR: To Emily, though, the success of her protégée would have come as no surprise. After the war, Emily stayed on at the GC&CS for several years while also returning to her musicology. This time, her subject was Beethoven.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: Beethoven's handwriting was almost illegible to anybody reading it, his later letters in particular. But here's a professional codebreaker, so she spends 15 years looking at these garbled letters that nobody else could read, and she started seeing patterns and repetitions, and she was able to use the skills she's honed as a codebreaker to decrypt, effectively, to break the code of Beethoven's bizarre handwriting. And that is a feat that nobody else could ever have been able to do.

NARRATOR: Shortly before she died, Emily Anderson’s two lives as a codebreaker and a musicologist had an ironic encounter. In 1961, the president of West Germany presented her with the Order of Merit First Class for her work reading and translating Beethoven’s letters.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: And the Germans have absolutely no idea that she had actually been spying on them through two world wars and the interwar period.

NARRATOR: For Jackie, the scene encapsulates everything about Emily Anderson.

JACKIE UI CHIONNA: I think that's the key to understanding Emily Anderson. She knew that if she didn't keep a low profile, if she didn't keep her professional life secret, she couldn't have lived the other life. But it was very clear to me, talking to intelligence historians within GCHQ, that as soon as I mentioned her name, they said, “Oh, thank goodness somebody is finally working on Anderson because we know that she's the best. We always knew she was the best.”

NARRATOR: And after six years, in 2023, Jackie’s work culminated in a book on Emily Anderson, titled Queen of Codes: The Secret Life of Emily Anderson, Britain's Greatest Female Code Breaker. You can find it wherever you get your books. Next time on True Spies, meet Agent Sonya - housewife, mother, and communist spy. 

Guest Bio

Dublin-born Jackie Ui Chionna teaches History at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is also the author of Queen of Codes: The Secret Life of Emily Anderson, Britain's Greatest Female Code Breaker/

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