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Bletchley Park hero, Captain Jerry Roberts, awarded MBE

02 January 2013

Most people have heard of the tragic genius Alan Turing who was instrumental in breaking the Nazi Enigma code machine at Bletchley Park. But fewer know the role of Captain Jerry Roberts in cracking the more advanced Tunny machine.

Bletchley Park, which quietly and secretly evolved into the modern spy center GCHQ, was home to the UK’s code-breaking efforts during World War 2. Alan Turing is probably the best known of the code-breakers (he committed suicide by cyanide in 1954, probably as a result of persecution for his homosexuality). Less known, however, is the ‘Testery’ group which successfully broke the Lorenz code used with the Tunny code machine. While Enigma was based on four revolving wheels, Tunny used 12 wheels and was considered by the Nazi high command to be unbreakable.

But break it they did; and key Testery member Capt Jerry Roberts has now been honored for his work with the award of an MBE. “Speaking on Radio 5 Live,” reports the BBC, “he said he was pleased to be appointed MBE, but felt his colleagues perhaps deserved greater recognition.” Capt Roberts, now aged 92, has spent the last few years campaigning for greater recognition of what he calls the ‘four T’s’: the Testery group as a whole, Turing, Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers.

Testery was established in 1942 under Major Ralph Tester, specifically to crack the Lorenz cipher. Capt Roberts was one of the original members. Turing is well known. Bill Tutte was the mathematician who cracked the code itself, and worked out the logical structure of the cipher machine. He died in 2002. Tommy Flowers (1905-1998) designed and built Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer, in just 10 months. It became operational in February 1944. For 19 months before Colossus, the Testery group was decrypting Lorenz by hand.

By the end of the war, with Colossus, the Testery group was breaking 90% of the intercepted traffic given to them. After the war, General Dwight D. Eisenhower said that “Bletchley decrypts shortened the War by at least two years.” During this period the war was causing the death of up to 10 million people per year. It could be suggested, then, that Capt Jerry Roberts MBE was instrumental in saving the lives of 20 million people.

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