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Alan Turing and the Royal Navy: How a naval success helped crack the Enigma Code

A Royal Navy Mission

On 9 May 1941, sonar onboard naval destroyer HMS Aubrietia located German U-boat, U-110. Supported by HMS Broadway, she dropped depth-charges; anti-submarine weapons designed to detonate after entering the water, subjecting the target to destructive hydraulic shock.

U-110 surfaced, with HMS Bulldog joining the effort in forcing the crew to surrender. The submarine eventually sank, but not before it was stripped of everything portable, including her Kurzsignale code book and Enigma machine. A technology used extensively by the German navy, these enciphering machines turned German words into gibberish (the “Enigma Code”) by the ways in which the rotors inside were ordered, enabling them to send seemingly indecipherable messages.

The Germans continued to use their codes, unaware that it had fallen into enemy hands and been given to the team at Bletchley Park, headed by Alan Turing.

Alan Turing by Elliott and Fry. National Portrait Gallery

Already the co-developer of the Bombe – a machine designed to search for possible correct settings used for an Enigma message – Turing went on to head the ‘Hut 8 Team’. Here he was tasked with tackling the naval Enigma; an extremely difficult task with Germany changing their codes daily.

Having already solved the essential part of the naval indicator system in 1939 and created the Banburismus – a technique that could rule out certain sequences of the rotors - receiving the Enigma machine was the upper hand Turing needed.

Eventually, he was able to intercept German messages, directing British forces away from attack. Professor Jack Copeland estimates that Turing’s work shortened the war in Europe by more than two years, saving over 14 million lives.

Turing's Personal History & Modern Impact 

In 1946, Turing was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his wartime service, but was arrested for “acts of gross indecency” in 1952. Opting for chemical castration over prison, Turing hoped he could continue his work, but his conviction lost him his security clearance and therefore his job at GCHQ – Bletchley’s post-war successor.

He was found dead in 1954 from cyanide poisoning, his death ruled a suicide. It was another fifty-nine years before Turing received a posthumous Royal Pardon for his conviction, the same year Britain legalised same-sex marriage. In 2017, an Act known as “Turing’s Law” pardoned those convicted of consensual same-sex relationships; a landmark moment in LGBTQ+ history.

In February 2021, Ministers announced an attempt to ‘fix a historic injustice’ by enabling veterans stripped of their medals for being gay, bisexual or transgender to apply for their restoration. It became the most significant move for LGBTQ+ equality since “Turing’s Law.”

Royal Navy presence at Glasgow Pride 2018. Crown Copyright and Open Government Licence.

Veteran Joe Ousalice, who identifies as bisexual, first drew attention to those discriminated against in 2019, his honours returned in 2020. Now others are set to follow. Veterans have been asked to apply for their medals due to the lack of an existing database stating the reasons for dismissal. The campaign continues for those who were also denied their full pension.

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