Work starts on tribute to town’s wartime codebreaking hero

The Codebreaker
The Codebreaker

Work on Newmarket’s unique tribute to Second World War codebreaker Bill Tutte officially began outside the historic Rutland Arms Hotel on Monday.

It was a special moment for members of the memorial committee who have been working on the project for nearly two years.

Joining them on Rutland Hill was Cambridge sculptor Harry Gray, whose work, The Codebreaker, will form the centrepiece of a newly landscaped public area designed by urban landscape designer Ramon Keeley.

The project will be completed this year with the sculpture due to be unveiled in September by memorial patron Professor Dan Younger, who worked with Tutte at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada; Jerry Roberts, who worked with him at Bletchley, and television’s Professor Brian Cox.

Bill Tutte’s fascinating story began in 1917 when he was born at Newmarket’s Fitzroy House stables, the son of a jobbing gardener and a housekeeper.

He spent time as a pupil at Cheveley primary school where he won a scholarship to the Cambridge and County High School for Boys - a success so notable that the headmaster at Cheveley declared a half-day school holiday in celebration.

Bill Tutte

Bill Tutte

From school Bill progressed to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he completed his chemistry degree in 1938 before switching to study mathematics in 1940, just as Europe was being engulfed in war. Bill’s tutor Patrick Duff arranged an interview with a mysterious government agency and as a result Bill was enrolled at the Government Code and Cipher School in London. From there he was chosen to work with the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, arriving in May 1941.

The Victorian mansion in Buckinghamshire was the wartime headquarters of M16. Its initial focus was the deciphering of the Enigma code, work led by Alan Turing. But in 1940, British radio receiving stations began to detect a new type of signal. It was teletype data which was given the name Tunny and was used for secret communications between the German Army high command and its field headquarters, mainly in Russia, the Middle east and later in France.

It was produced by Lorenz machines and was thought to be unbreakable until a German machine operator in Athens made a mistake. Against protocol he sent a message of some 4,000 letters twice, but the re-sent message differed slightly from the original giving the Bletchley cryptologists something to work with. The cipher tape was presented to Bill Tutte and with this alone he was able to determine the structure of the machine that had produced it. His genius led to the recreation of a Lorenz machine and eventually the development of the giant computer Colossus, which enabled Bletchley to break the Tunny codes for the duration of the war shortening the conflict and saving countless lives. In his biography of Bill Tutte, Professor Younger said: “That Tutte conceived of a method to employ a high speed computer to break this Tunny code, a code otherwise unbreakable, is an achievement that still stands tall.” The work was secret, never to be revealed. Scientists continued to accept American claims that their ENIAC was the world’s first electronic computer. But in 1968, Tony Sale, an engineer who had worked for the security services, wanted to publicise Colossus by rebuilding it. In 1996 he was finally allowed to proceed and the project and Bill Tutte’s contribution to code breaking were finally revealed the following year, just four days before Tutte’s 80th birthday. Tony Sale described the exploits of the Newmarket gardener’s son as “the greatest intellectual feat of the whole war”.