The Codebreakers of Room 40

The Codebreakers of Room 40

The Room 40 Codebreakers

In 1914, war was declared between England and Germany…a war that would soon cover the world. But this war was unlike any of the wars before it. Technology had advanced far and quickly in the decade prior, and the nations soon found that new methods of warfare were available to them–and not just on the battlefield. Changes had come that would change the landscape of intelligence-gathering forever too.

A New Intelligence in the Great War

One of the first actions of the Great War was to cut the Trans-Atlantic cable that had been connecting Europe to North America. England knew that if they cut the cable, it would greatly hinder Germany from communicating with and recruiting aid across the sea. Of course, telegrams now had wireless technology available to them…and a curious thing was soon discovered.

New technology in England allowed them to snatch those wireless communications right out of the air.

The discovery was accidental–but the implications were HUGE. It was reported to the Navy, and soon they’d scrabbled together a team to investigate and to put this windfall to use. They were quite literally able to intercept every…single…telegram coming from the Continent, because England was the relay point. That meant ALL German communications. But of course, the Germans weren’t just sending out plain text. They were sending their telegrams in code.

Enter the Codebreakers.

An initial team of gentlemen were brought in who had a knack with breaking codes. Dilly Knox, his brother Alfred, William Montgomery, Nigel de Grey…some of them were mathematicians. Some were linguists. Some where history professors. Bankers. Music critics. They were reruited because they had a “something.” A knack. A skill. But what to do with them?

The British Admiralty didn’t know, at first. They knew they could be useful, but they had no place for such an unprecedented team. They assigned them, first, a closet connected to the director’s office. But their very existence was top secret, so every time a visitor came in, they had to scramble to hide.


Soon the Admiralty granted they needed a room of their own, so they assigned them an office. Old Building, Room 40. It was often referred to as OB40 or Room 40.

How Did They Crack the Codes?

The Germans and their allies were employing many different kinds of codes and cyphers, and the Codebreakers had to determine which ones were being used in each message intercepted, and then sort out how to crack them.

Most of their work was accomplished very logically: they captured the codebooks from downed aircraft and sunken U-boats. Once the books were in hand, it was a simple but laborious process of applying the code to each message…before the next day’s variant was employed. A new variant was set at midnight each night, and the codebreakers on the night shift would be expected to work out the new key by the time the day shift arrived or face unending teasing.

But sometimes they weren’t codes–they were cyphers. These didn’t have a handy key that would help if they could get their hands on the book, they required actual cracking. The Codebreakers of Room 40 had to crack cyphers many times over the course of the war as well.

What Happened with the Information?

But though the Room 40 codebreakers were soon churning out decrypted communications daily…what then? The Admiralty, quite frankly, didn’t trust the information at first. It was outside their experience, and the civilian codebreakers had no idea about military protocol, to put the information into terms that would make sense to the military. For quite a while, they were constantly butting heads and frustrating each other. Eventually, a new director was named–Reginald “Blinker” Hall–and he soon assigned a liaison to take the raw data the codebreakers provided and turn it into information that the military knew what to do with.

Even so, they soon discovered a new conundrum: they couldn’t act on much of the information without revealing their hand. If Germany knew they were intercepting communications, they would take actions to stop them, and then they’d lose it all. So before anything could be used, they first had to find another excuse for how they came by the information.

Did Room 40 Grow?

By the end of the war, Room 40 had grown to occupy an entire floor of the Old Building. They had dozens of codebreakers on staff and scores of secretaries–but no “tea girls,” like the rest of the Admiralty, because secrecy was still their byword. Every single person employed in the division was directly recruited by an existing member, so that absolutely everyone was trusted. They had parties, wrote bad poetry about themselves, sang songs, and became a family in many ways.

What’s more, by the end of the war, the Admiralty not only recognized their superb work as having been critical to the war effort, they were in fact largely responsible for the end of the war; they “leaked” a doctored photograph to Germany that showed the Navy in mutiny, which so disheartened the German troops that they insisted upon an armistice.

What Happened Afterward?

After the Great War, most of the employees of Room 40 went back to their ordinary lives…but not all. Quite a few were recruited for a new endeavor: a school dedicated to training up the next generation of cryptographers.

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Yesterday’s Tides

Remember When . . . The Schools Were at War Too

Remember When . . . The Schools Were at War Too

Well, that time of year has come again. My family has officially started the 2018-19 school year. Part of me hates the loss of free time…and part of me is excited about all those awesome books we get to read together this year!

For those of you who have been reading the Shadows Over England series, you know that one of the most important things for the family of thieves-turned-agents is that with the advent of steady income they can, for the first time, afford to send the little ones to school. While “public schools” had long been available in England, they weren’t what we think of them as today. They weren’t free for the public–they were just available for anyone from the public to pay to attend. Free, compulsory schools were set up in the 1890s, at which attendance was required…until the age of 10. My family, however, didn’t send the little ones to those for a few very good reasons–they weren’t a legal family, and if the children were known by the system, they’d be taken away. So Barclay educated the children at home until such a time as he could pay to put them in a better school.

In An Hour Unspent, we get a glimpse of the kids finally taking on the roles of traditional children. They’re attending school, fighting over books, struggling with Algebra. All things familiar to children today. But for them, this was huge. This was an opportunity. This was a new life unfolding before them.

But the war changed the school system just as it changed everything in England. Many of the teachers were gone, having enlisted. Meals, which had only been served in schools for 8 years at that point in history and were far from inspiring, became sparse and even less inspiring as shortages took effect. Older children often left school as soon as they legally could, usually between 10 and 12 years old, to get a job and help their families survive.
In some ways, the war hit colleges hardest. In my research, I found several mentions of professors leaving colleges when they closed in 1914–presumably because of lack of students. But then those same professors returned to their colleges in the later years of the war–presumably when more students came in.

As the war dragged on and shortages increased, the need for food was on everyone’s mind. “Grow your own” became a necessity, and many schools created gardens and instructed their students in how to grow vegetables. Schoolchildren were also called upon to knit scarves and socks for servicemen, write letters to soldiers, and raise funds for the war, often by selling small flags and pins to be worn on special Flag Days.

Though hard days for everyone, the First World War did, in fact, lead to educational reform in England. In 1918 the school leaving age was raised to 14, with more options available for children 14 to 18, to train them for better paying, skilled labor. This was one of the huge things that led to the stop of child labor. Which meant it was opposed by factory owners, landowners, and even the Church. But it also paved the way for what we know today–mandatory education for children up to 18 years of age (which came into effect after WW2 in England).
Did you enjoy school or dread it? Would you have left school to get a job as a young teen had it been an option?

Remember When . . . The War Brought Darkness

Remember When . . . The War Brought Darkness

War changes things. We all know that, but most of today haven’t lived through a “total war” that really impacts everyone at home, whether we or our family are directly involved in the fighting or not. Most people are very aware of how WWII did this…but most of us don’t realize that the things we’re so familiar with from that war, had their roots in the First World War.
But London, for instance, experienced huge changed when war was declared, and it was interesting to show these through my characters in An Hour Unspent.
London Blackout – Wiki Commons
One of the first changes to be put into place was a blackout in coastal towns and London. As early as 1913, Churchill, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, drew up a plan for a blackout in the event of war. For the first time in history, people had to fear enemies coming not just from land or sea, but from the air. Many still primarily feared rockets or missiles that could be launched from naval vessels, but there was (rightfully) a growing fear that aircraft could be weaponized. At the start of the war, airplanes weren’t the biggest threat–they had a difficult time crossing the channel and couldn’t carry much by way of bombs or guns. But zeppelins were a different story.
As a result, eight days after England declared war on Germany, blackout restrictions were put in place. In London, this meant no electric lights were permitted outside. Street lamps were painted over to dim them. Most houses at this time still had the old gas lights installed as well as the new electric ones, and they had to use those after dark, or use curtains to keep the light from shining.
The streets became hazardous after dark. Before, when gas street lamps were the norm, there weren’t automobiles zipping around. The combination of faster vehicles and less light was, let’s say, not a good combination.
So in an effort to keep people off the streets after dark, many traditional nighttime events like operas and plays and concerts were moved up to earlier hours or canceled entirely.
First Zepplin sighting 1915 – Wiki Commons
But dimming the lights wasn’t the only step London took to confuse an aerial attack. They knew that a night attack was most likely for zeppelins, and they knew that if they were to come across the Channel, it would have to be on a clear night.
A clear night meant moonlight. And moonlight would reflect most off…water.
Everybody of water in London would become a homing beacon. So they drained the lakes and ponds in the parks, leaving nothing but muddy expanses where once there had been beautiful vistas.
What they couldn’t drain, however, was the Thames. And in the first zeppelin raids, the river was indeed what the airships followed.
By the end of the war, all this was no doubt old hat. But can you imagine seeing one of those drained lakes at the start? How sobering a reminder it would have been that the world had gone mad and that the very skies should be feared? Quite a scary thing. And one my characters had to encounter and combat.
Remember When . . . Food Was Scarce

Remember When . . . Food Was Scarce

As I write a series about the Great War, set in Europe, I keep being reminded of one of the hardships that goes hand-in-hand with total war: hunger. Within months of the German invasion of France and Belgium in 1914, lack of food became an issue. First in Belgium, where citizens were accustomed to buying nearly all their everyday food from abroad, and then in occupied France, where the locally grown produce was being requisitioned by the German army.

In A Song Unheard, my hero is from Belgium, though he’s currently in Wales with an orchestra made up of other Belgian refugees. But his sister and mother are still in Brussels, and through the eyes of his little sister, Margot, we get a glimpse of wartime in an occupied country. The anxiety of realizing that there’s only a few weeks’ supply of food in the country. The reality of bread lines. The question of whether aid will come.

Something I found interesting as I was researching A Song Unheard–and which came up again in my research for the final book in the Shadows Over England Series, An Hour Unspent (due to my editor on Friday, eeep!)–is that the British were not happy with the idea of other countries sending food aid to Belgium and France.

Seems kind of strange, right? These were their allies. They obviously didn’t want the people to starve. But they held an American ship filled with food for Belgium for months in a British port. Why?

Because they didn’t want it to help the German army. And even if the rescue workers could guarantee all the food went to civilians, they still argued it would indirectly aid the German army, since it would mean less competition for what food was in the country. They’d blockaded German ports and wanted them to feel the pressure.

Eventually, the British government had to grant their approval to the aid. Hence began the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), which took much-needed supplies into Belgium and Northern France throughout the war. Crossing front lines in both directions, allowed past blockades, and permitted to move freely through the war zones, the CRB was called, by one British diplomat, “a piratical state organized for benevolence.”

So naturally, they’re going to have to play a small role in my stories. 😉

Remember When . . . The Davies Sisters

Remember When . . . The Davies Sisters

If one researches art in Wales, one will come across two sisters–a lot. If one researches music in Wales during World War I, one will come across them again. If one researches how soldiers adjusted to life back at home after the war . . . you get the idea. You’ll yet again end up reading about the Davies sisters, Margaret (called Daisy) and Gwendoline (Gwen).

So naturally, they have to be in my Welsh-set A Song Unheard.

Actually, they’re what inspired it. When I was doing my initial research for how the arts were put to use during WWI, I ran across part of their story, and it intrigued me. It inspired my entire plot.

You see, in the first weeks of the war, Germany invaded Belgium–a country who only existed because it had sworn to neutrality. To violate those terms wasn’t just a blow to the Belgians, it was a blow to civilization. No one could quite believe that the German leadership had so blatantly scorned an agreement made and signed. It wasn’t how gentlemen behaved–it wasn’t how war was waged.

The invasion of Belgium proved to Europe that Germany had no respect for the heretofore “civilized” way of doing things. It horrified the world when the troops marched in and began burning villages, beating priests, and killing innocent civilians. Refugees flooded into friendly nations like England.

And in Wales, these two sisters didn’t just wait for refugees to come to them. They sought them out. Within a few months of the invasion of Belgium, Daisy and Gwen had sent friends into that devastated country to recruit Belgium’s top musicians to come to Wales.

Musicians? you might say. Why??

The answer is two-fold. First, the Davieses were first and foremost always looking to better their “dear principality.” They loved Wales and wanted to better it. They wanted to bring culture to the area often deemed a bit too rural. But that wasn’t their only reasoning.

They also wanted to help. You see, everyone knew from the start that if Germany didn’t relinquish its hold on Belgium, it would soon spell utter disaster for the small nation. Their food supplies wouldn’t last beyond a few months. And with all trade cut off, its citizens would soon be starving. Aid was being organized within weeks of the invasion, much of it spearheaded by Americans (who were thus far otherwise staying as far from the war as possible).

Well, Gwen and Daisy wanted to help with the relief effort. So they put together a symphony orchestra of Belgian refugees and toured Wales, raising money for the Belgian Relief Fund.

This, of course, is where A Song Unheard was born. My hero is a violinist previously with the Brussels Conservatoire, now part of this orchestra touring Wales.


But even after organizing this, the sisters were by no means ready to sit back and say they’d done their duty. A few years later they moved to France, not far from the front, to run a cantina for the soldiers. And a few years after the war, they purchased and opened an estate called Gregynog, whose primary purpose was to rehabilitate soldiers returning from the war, to teach them art and crafts and music to help soothe the ragged edges wrought by violence.

These were sisters described by all who knew them as devout, faithful, focused always on the Lord–and on helping their fellow man. Today, the largest collection of art in Wales is on display because the sisters donated them to the university museum upon their deaths. Theirs is a legacy known far and wide in their dear principality.

Here’s hoping my fictionalized versions of them can do them justice!