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Enigma: Who was really who?

by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore for the Evening Standard


The historical accuracy of Mick Jagger's film, Enigma, is well-documented.

The Bletchley Park codebreakers really were blacked out and this really did lead to multiple sinkings of Allied ships in mid-Atlantic after the Germans altered their naval code. But what has not come out is the authenticity of the main characters.

Like any good novelist, Robert Harris, on whose book the film is based, insists that no single real-life codebreaker is the model for the roles portrayed.

But for anyone who has delved into what went on, there are striking similarities between the characters on screen and the real-life personalities.



Kate Winslet (Hester): the Blonde's mousey flatmate who outwits the men and breaks the code.

There were not many female cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park. But one of the most successful was Mavis Lever, who at the age of 19 broke the Italian naval Enigma, exploiting techniques she had been taught by her boss, Dilly Knox, one of the codebreaking stars at Bletchley Park

Mavis is still alive, and advised Kate Winslet about her role. Like Winslet's Hester, Mavis was a young woman with an independent spirit: she demonstrated outside the German Embassy during the late 1930s, she sewed red flags for those fighting the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, and she fasted once a week so she could afford to contribute to the communist cause.

But the most significant similarity between the real-life codebreaker and her screen alter ego was that, like Hester, Mavis became close to the man who taught her everything she knew about codebreaking.

Dougray Scott (Tom Jericho): the absentminded codebreaker brought back to break the code after becoming ill.

Tom Jericho's character is partly based on Alan Turing, the bestknown codebreaker at Bletchley Park, and partly on Harry Hinsley, the young naval intelligence officer who helped Turing break the naval Enigma code by pointing out that unprotected German weatherships must have Enigma codebooks on board as they were being sent Enigma messages. But the closest fit is Dilly Knox, whose techniques were used to break both the Italian and the German secret service Enigmas.

Like Jericho, Knox was eccentric and absent-minded. He would walk around Bletchley Park in his dressing-gown, forgetting he was not dressed, and stuff his sandwiches instead of tobacco into his pipe.

Another characteristic shared by Knox and Jericho is that both liked to drive their cars very fast. Knox even created a pseudo-mathematical theory to support his speeding. A very dangerous driver, he was famous for remarking innocently: "It's strange how people are always saying sorry when you nearly run them over." Like Jericho, Knox loved pretty women. He fell for Mavis Lever while teaching her about breaking the Italian Enigma code. Later he was hurt when told she wanted to marry another codebreaker.

Knox also had a battle with the head of Bletchley Park just as Jericho did in the film, the only difference being that Knox would attack his boss in vituperative letters rather than assaulting him physically as Jericho does in the film.

Soon afterwards he discovered that he had cancer, and died one of the forgotten heroes of the Second World War on 27 February 1943.


The Blonde

Saffron Burrows (Claire): the dizzy blonde who loves dancing and having sex with codebreakers.

There were many candidates who could have been the model for Claire among the well-bred young girls at Bletchley Park. The best match was a glamorous codebreaking clerk, nicknamed "Hula" - her exotic looks were thought to resemble those of an Egyptian belly dancer.

Like Claire in the film, Hula was very sexy and able to get anything she wanted, whether petrol or clothes, from "blokes" she knew.

At a time when nice girls didn't sleep with men before marriage, she lived openly in sin with one of the naval section's administrators, with whom she was suspected of having orgiastic threesomes along with Frank Birch, the head of the German Naval Section.


The Boss

Robert Pugh (Skynner): the head of the Naval Section who gives the codebreakers a stirring Shakespearean speech before setting them to work on the Naval Enigma.

Skynner is loosely based on Frank Birch, the real head of Bletchley Park's Naval Intelligence Section.

He was an actor before arriving at Bletchley. As well as having a fondness for Shakespeare, Birch played a pantomime dame in the West End.

Like Skynner, Birch often became infuriated by the eccentric codebreakers, writing about Turing and his assistant: "They are untidy, they lose things, they can't copy out right, and they dither."


The Admiral

Corin Redgrave (Admiral Trowbridge): the admiral who visited the codebreakers.

Admiral Trowbridge has the same attitude to Enigma as that adopted in real life by Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord. Pound didn't understand the subtleties of the Enigma secret, and insisted that Enigma information should be ignored unless it gave absolutely certain intelligence.

This led to one of the most infamous and costly errors of the Second World War. In July 1942, he ignored Enigma evidence suggesting that convoy PQ17, carrying weapons to Russia, was not about to be attacked by the German battleship Tirpitz and ordered the ships to scatter. The unprotected ships were subsequently picked off one by one by German U-boats.

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