Historical Notes: 1944: forewarned and forearmed

IN RECENT years the idea of breaking the supposedly unbreakable German Enigma code has attracted more attention than the exploitation of the intelligence derived from it (soon christened "Ultra"). The spotlight has been turned on the mathematicians and chess-players who did the impossible. Without them, what the Germans were telling each other by radio would never have been known, but the knowledge was to prove a war-winning weapon.

In early 1941 at Bletchley Park, civilians lacking military experience above parade-ground level and ignorant of the vocabulary of command - I was one of them- were suddenly empowered to send Enigma-derived signals to GHQ Cairo about Rommel's activities in Egypt. We learned about German plans to attack Crete a fortnight before the invasion was launched. From then onwards we were always busy, increasingly so as D-Day approached; by 1944 there was so much Ultra originating in France, Italy and elsewhere that it required a cool head to keep abreast of developments in all theatres and to switch attention from one to another perhaps several times an hour.

Crete was lost, mainly because there was insufficient force to take advantage of the forewarning. The perfect revenge did not come until two years later. By retreating through Tunisia, Rommel gave advance notice that he would counter-attack with 31,000 men and 135 tanks at a place called Medenine on 6 March. Montgomery dug in 600 anti-tank guns and quickly knocked out 50 German tanks. Unless there is force to back it, intelligence is useless; given sufficient force, intelligence sharpens conquest and can even create the opportunity for it.

Ultra first made its mark in late summer 1942. With Rommel poised for a final thrust on Cairo, Churchill appointed Montgomery to the command of 8 Army. Montgomery drew up a plan of action, divining what Rommel would do and how to foil him. Two days later, Rommel told Hitler exactly the same - in Enigma. The defensive battle of Alam Halfa paved the way for the victory of Alamein. The Montgomery legend was born and Ultra's reputation established.

Ultra's greatest triumph was to reveal Hitler's biggest mistake. By the end of July 1944 the British 21 Army Group was massed round Caen, the Americans had taken Cherbourg and were advancing down the west coast of the peninsula. The Germans tried to cut off their advance on 6 August. On 10 August Hitler personally ordered a renewal of the attempt - thus committing his armour westwards although his main danger was from his rear in the east. Both allies took immediate advantage. Two German armies were surrounded and annihilated in the Falaise pocket. Paris fell on 25 August.

In the euphoria of victory everyone from the Chiefs of Staff down excitedly proclaimed, "Hitler is beaten, the war is almost over." Only Churchill kept his head, saying on 8 September that it was at least as likely that Hitler would still be resisting at the beginning of the New Year as that he would collapse before then. In fact, Arnhem was still to come and the surrender did not follow until May 1945. The sobering lesson was the old one about not counting chickens before they are hatched.

It has been said that Ultra shortened the war by two years. This is pure speculation, however plausible it may seem - even in 1945 new and faster U-boats fitted with Schnorkels to make them undetectable might still have cut the supply-line which fed Britain and fuelled Normandy, had they been developed just a few months earlier. What is certain, however is that from at least late in 1942 Ultra gave such a profound insight into the intentions of the Nazi High Command and the activities of its subordinates that its contribution to victory was nothing less than tremendous.

Ralph Bennett is the author of `Behind the Battle' (Pimlico, pounds 12.50)

Suggested Topics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes