Enigma of the ‘forgotten’ hero of Bletchley Park The little known Birmingham genius who broke German codes before Alan Turing but failed to win the accolades
HE didn’t have Oscar-winning films made about him and his name is barely known beyond those with an interest in Second World War history.
But Dilly Knox is as important in the world breaking as Alan Turing.
He is a real Brummie hero, whose vital contribution to winning the War is often overlooked.
This week marked 75 years since the capture of code books which enabled Turing and his team to break the German naval Enigma code.
But the groundwork had already been done by Knox, the son of a Birmingham clergyman.
And like Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the awardwinning movie The Imitation Game, Knox met a tragic end, dying of cancer at the age of 58.
Knox, born Alfred Dillwyn Knox, grew up in Birmingham, although he went to school at Eton.
His father was Edmund Knox, vicar of Aston from 1891 when Dilly was seven, and of St Phillip’s from 1894. He later became Bishop of Coventry and Archdeacon of Birmingham.
Knox read classics at King’s College, Cambridge and began codebreaking long before Turing at Bletchley Park.
And while Turing struggled to break the German Naval Enigma cipher, Knox and his team broke both the German Secret Service code and the Enigma code used by the Italian Navy as early as 1935.
The cracking of one cypher in particular helped the Allies to victory in the naval Battle of Cape Matapan.
But new information has recently come to light about a humiliation suffered by Knox after a meeting with Polish codebreakers in Paris in July 1939.
Author Hugh Sebag-Montefiore has included the declassified documents in the updated anniversary edition of his book Enigma: The Battle For the Code.
Knox was upset when he discovered he had been pipped at the post by the young Polish mathematicians, who had cracked a code and kept it to themselves.
He was furious and let loose in an angry rant in a taxi.
“The new papers include additional details of his humiliation, which at times make for excruciatingly painful reading,” Sebag-Mon- least as of code- tefiore writes. “That such a great man should have lost all sense of proportion in front of colleagues whom he had always tried to impress represented the ultimate indignity.
“He would have felt even more mortified if he had seen the apologetic letter which his boss Alastair Denniston decided to write to Gustave Bertrand, the French representative at the meeting they had both attended, whom he had embarrassed.
“It said ‘You may have guessed what is my greatest problem: it’s Knox. He is really clever, but has no idea how to work with other people. You will have noticed that when he is not at work, he is such a kind person, everyone adores him. But at work, he is impossible! He wants to do everything himself. He cannot explain anything simply, and he will never admit that anyone knows more than him. However, I can’t manage without him. He knows the Enigma machine better than anyone.’”
Knox, in fact, was known as very absentminded.
When he married Olive Rodman in 1920, he forgot to invite two of his three brothers to his wedding. Sebag-Montefiore writes: “Work in his section ground to a halt at least once a day when his pipe went missing. “On one occasion, he spent such an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom that the concerned young man waiting outside finally pushed open the door, only to find that Knox was neither having a bath nor committing suicide, but was standing up lost in thought, with the taps running and the plug out.” He liked to surround himself with female codebreakers who became known as Dilly’s Girls, including his main protégé Mavis Batey, who went on to write a biography about him. “Dilly Knox is a forgotten Brummie hero,” SebagMontefiore adds. “He was the real hero before Alan Tur ing even started at Bletchley Park. He was a classical scholar and felt he was being overtaken by these young whizzkids who were showing him up.
“He never got over that humiliation.
“He died in 1943 before his codes were used to invade Europe.
“He’s a father figure in the Enigma story – he came up with the techniques, but that’s not the way it’s remembered.
“It’s tragic because he didn’t get the final accolade of breaking Enigma.”
The updated 75th anniversary paperback edition of Hugh SebagMontefiore’s Enigma: The Battle For the Code is out now, published by Orion’s Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
The groundwork had already been done by Knox, the son of a Birmingham clergyman
> ‘Dilly’s Girls’ – the women Dilly Knox worked with at Bletchley Park