WW II codebreaker to be inducted into regional museum Hall of Fame

Among the eight people the Waterloo Region Museum will induct into the 2016 Hall of Fame at a ceremony this weekend is a Second World War codebreaker who later lived a quiet life in West Montrose and is credited with developing the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo.

Former University of Waterloo professor William Tutte kept his work secret for 50 years

Benedict Cumberbatch, center, appears as British codebreaker Alan Turing in a scene from "The Imitation Game." (AP Photo/The Weinstein Company, Jack English) (The Associated Press)

Among the eight people the Waterloo Region Museum will induct into the 2016 Hall of Fame at a ceremony this weekend is a Second World War codebreaker who later lived a quiet life in West Montrose and is credited with developing the Faculty of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo.

Professor William Tutte knew all about the plans of high-level Nazis during World War II after breaking what was called the Lorenz Code. His work gave the allies an ability to develop counter-strategies to events that hadn't even happened yet. The Nazi high command, including its leader Adolf Hitler, used the code to communicate with each other.

"[Hitler] in fact used it but he had no idea the British, led by Bill Tutte had actually broken the code," explains UW Professor Emeritus Ken McLaughlin who wrote about Tutte in his book  Innovation and Entrepreneurship are in the Waterloo Genome.

"[The Nazis] thought they were perfectly safe in this machine called 'the secrets machine'." By continuing to use the broken code the German leaders "were, in fact, revealing their own strategy."

Broken code

The broken code "revealed the first strategy for an attack in Russia, revealed it for retaining troops after D-Day. If they had moved their troops, D-Day might have been postponed...we could actually therefore read the operational directions that Hitler and his general command were using."

McLaughlin explains Tutte was a graph theorist who had been recruited from Trinity College, Cambridge University in England, to Bletchley Park where they had an entire school of code breakers. Tutte was able to break the code without even seeing the machine the Nazis were using.  

He did it manually with pencils, paper, chalkboards and his mind.

A four-rotor Enigma machine used by the crews of German U-boats in World War II to send coded messages. British mathematician Alan Turing was instrumental in breaking the code, widely thought to have been a turning point in the war. (Alex Dorgan Ross/Associated Press)

Part of the Bletchley codebreakers' story was made famous in the movie "The Imitation Game."

"Alan Turing is more famous for developing the first pre-computer called the Collossus," said McLaughlin. It was critical in trying to maximize the understanding of these numbers. They had found an Enigma [German] code machine, so they could use it to try to figure out how the machine worked."

"Tutte is doing it in his head and the Lorenz is more sophisticated than the Enigma. The Enigma was used for naval battles. The fact Tutte did it without seeing the machine is even more remarkable."

'He had a terrible secret to keep.'

William Tutte and the other codebreakers at Bletchley Park were prohibited from telling anyone about their work due to the Official Secrets Act, versions of which are still recognized in both Canada and the U.K. An amended version is known in Canada today as the Security of Information Act.

"Primary papers are retained for 50 years and historians only get them once the 50 year rule is up," said Ken McLaughlin.

Dan Younger, a colleague of Tutte's at the University of Waterloo said the story of Tutte's code-breaking success only came out in 1997 on the professor's 80th birthday.  A rebuild of the computer Colossues was started at Bletchley in 1996 and Younger says people started asking what the computer was used for.

"It was in fact used to affect to implement the algorithm," Younger explained. "The method that Tutte had constructed for breaking what's called the Tunney Machine."

But keeping his work quiet was not without its burdens for Tutte.

"He had a terrible secret to keep... After his 80th birthday he did speak about it and write about it," Younger said.

"I know it in a detailed way because of a manuscript he wrote called 'At Bletchley Park' two years before his death. There he told in detail and in a very wonderful way his experience at Bletchley."

Portions of Tutte's work were published in an appendix of a book about the Colossus computer. But he never told anyone including his closest friends about his work during the war.

In 1948 Tutte moved to Canada where he accepted a teaching position at the University of Toronto. He was hired by the University of Waterloo in 1962. He died in 2002.

The Hall of Fame ceremony at the Waterloo Region Museum takes place this Sunday starting at 2 p.m.