OBITUARY:Sir Stuart Milner-Barry
Wednesday 29 March 1995
In recent years, the modest resignations had come more frequently, but in his prime Milner-Barry was one of the most gifted attacking players of his generation. Despite his prowess at chess, however, and a passion for the game undiminished throughout 70 years of tournament play, he was too rational a man to let it take anything other than second place to his career in the Civil Service.
In fact, Milner-Barry could be said to have had three distinguished careers: a wartime cryptanalyst, peacetime mandarin, and chessplayer. Winner of the first British Boys' Championship in 1923, he was already established as a rising talent in chess by the time he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. He took First Class honours in Classics (part I) and Moral Sciences (part II), but, most important of all, it was at Cambridge that Milner-Barry became friends with C.H.O'D. (Hugh) Alexander, the young man who had deprived him of the British Boys' title in 1924. Their subsequent friendship was to play a remarkable part in Britain's war effort.
Apart from interrupting play in the 1939 Chess Olympics in Buenos Aires, the war came at a good time for Milner-Barry. He had been having a miserable time as a city stockbroker before being recruited to Bletchley Park by his fellow Trinity scholar Gordon Welchman.
"I am . . . almost innumerate," Milner-Barry wrote in 1993. "I therefore found Gordon Welchman's patient explanations very difficult to follow, and to this day I could not claim that I fully understood how the machine worked." Yet Milner-Barry's penetrating intellect and organisational ability were exactly what Welchman's genius needed to flourish in the cryptanalytical work of Hut 6. Meanwhile, in Hut 8, where they worked on U-Boat ciphers, a similar relationship developed with Hugh Alexander providing high-level mathematical skill and supreme organisational competence to inspire Alan Turing to the solution of impossible problems.
Realising the importance of the Bletchley Park work to the war effort, those four men wrote to Churchill in 1941 to request additional resources. And it was Milner-Barry who delivered the letter personally.
After the war Milner-Barry joined the Treasury, rising to the post of Under-Secretary, which he held from 1954 until reaching the normal retiring age of 60 in 1966. He was then asked to stay on at the new Civil Service Department as Ceremonial Officer, with principal responsibility for administering the honours system.
Appointed OBE in 1946 for his work at Bletchley, CB in 1962 for his work at the Treasury, he was created KCVO in 1975, two years before his retirement.
Chess players, however, will remember him for the Milner-Barry variation of the Nimzo- Indian Defence, and the Milner-Barry Gambit against the French Defence, two characteristically pugnacious attacking systems in traditionally quiet openings. His charm and modesty belied a savagely effective attacking style honed to perfection through his series of "serious friendly games" against his old rival Hugh Alexander. He scored good results for the English team between 1937 and 1961 and was President of the British Chess Federation from 1970 to 1973. To this day, Milner-Barry remains perhaps the only English player to have an opening variation known by his name the world over.
Philip Stuart Milner-Barry, civil servant, chess-player: born 20 September 1906; chess correspondent, the Times 1938-45; Principal, HM Treasury 1945, Assistant Secretary 1947, Director of Organisation and Methods 1954-58, Under-Secretary 1954-66; OBE 1946; Director of Establishments and Organisation, Ministry of Health 1958-60; CB 1962; Ceremonial Officer, Civil Service Department 1966-77; President, British Chess Federation 1970-73; KCVO 1975; married 1947 Thelma Wells (one son, two daughters); died 25 March 1995.
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