The Enigma of Hugh Alexander

Codebreaker Hugh Alexander deserves much more than the obscurity into which his name has fallen 

Dominic Lawson

It is often said of chess — by those who don’t play it — that it is socially useless. It is a solitary pursuit, anti-social even, and who ever heard of anyone’s life being saved by chess? Yet 70 years ago, with the outbreak of the Second World War, the British Government found chess players to be uniquely useful in work which saved the lives of countless soldiers in the field: cracking the code — the Enigma — which the German Army used.

Three leading British chess players, Stuart Milner-Barry, Harry Golombek and Hugh Alexander, were assigned to Bletchley Park to join the mysterious organisation then known as the Government Code and Cypher School. Alexander — an Anglo-Irishman whose full name was Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander — was eventually put in charge of the vital Hut 8, which was concerned with the breaking of the Naval Enigma, therefore playing an invaluable role in the Battle of the Atlantic.

It is not just because of the war’s anniversary that I want to single out CHO’D Alexander: he was born 100 years ago and deserves much more than the obscurity into which his name has fallen. This is no doubt in part due to the secrecy of the professional work he undertook: I have in front of me a memoir of him by Sir Stuart Milner-Barry (who became a very senior civil servant), which bears the legend “Handle via Comint Channels Only” and underneath “Approved for Release by NSA [National Security Agency] 9-18-2007.”

The memoir makes clear that Alexander was not as other men, or even other code-breakers: “We worked [at Hut 8] through the War on a continuous three shift basis. The night shift was not generally popular because everybody quickly became tired through lack of proper sleep in the day; but Hugh had a strange passion for working at night and used to put himself on nights for weeks on end. This did not prevent him working much of the day as well — he seemed to thrive on this strange regime.”

Alexander was entirely consumed by the mind-boggling intellectual struggle. After the war, following a brief stint on civvy street, he returned to become the head of cryptanalysis at GCHQ, where he remained until his retirement in 1971, regularly refusing all promotions. On his retirement, he was offered a similar job at the NSA by the Americans, but he was already a sick man, dying in 1974 at the age of 64.

His former colleague Peter Wright (later to become notorious for his book Spy catcher) blamed Alexander’s relatively early death on the immense mental strain and responsibility of his work in cryptanalysis over more than 30 years. That is mere speculation. Yet what is true and remarkable is that Alexander combined this more than full-time task with leading the British chess team at no fewer than six Olympiads. 

As Milner-Barry remarks: “When one remembers that he always put his profession first, it is astonishing that he should have been able to maintain himself as England’s leading chess player for some 25 years.”

Indeed, those six Olympiads would have been eight, were it not for the fact that Britain would not allow Alexander to play either behind or even anywhere near the Iron Curtain, so valuable did they believe the contents of his brains would be to our Cold War foes. Thus it was only when the leading Soviet and Eastern European players could be persuaded to play in the UK — or in matches conducted through the medium of the telegraph — that Alexander could match his chess skill against theirs. Yet on these rare occasions, Alexander — in an era when the Soviet chess players were generally regarded as unbeatable — proved himself able to win against the very best, something which no British player would be able to emulate until the arrival of Tony Miles in the 1980s.

The best example of this was the annual Hastings Tournament in the winter of 1953/4. Alexander came joint first with Russia’s David Bronstein, then the world’s number two, and ahead of such leading Grandmasters as Tolush, Matanovic, Olafsson, Teschner and Tartakower. 

Most sensationally, Alexander crushed the former Soviet champion Tolush in the final round, having beaten Bronstein earlier in a marathon game which took three days to complete and which put chess on the front page of the British tabloid newspapers for possibly the only time in history.

As a leading player in the secret battles of the Cold War, Alexander would have well understood the unfortunate consequences for both his Soviet opponents in losing so unexpectedly to him. They were subjected to harsh criticism on their return and Bronstein in particular lost some of his privileges. Yet one suspects he would not have lost too much sleep over this. As Milner-Barry recorded: “Hugh himself said that he did not particularly care for people, and could get on perfectly well without them. The first statement was manifestly untrue, but he was certainly far from being a sentimentalist. There was plenty of Irish toughness about him, and his realistic attitude to life sometimes bordered on the ruthless.”

Exactly the same (apart from the Irishness, of course) could have been said of the strongest player of Alexander’s era, the Soviet Mikhail Botvinnik. Yet even the mighty Botvinnik fell victim to Alexander’s phenomenal powers of calculation. In the 1946 Anglo-Soviet match, they tied — and Alexander’s victory showed to the full his extraordinary courage and self-confidence, challenging the apparently omniscient Soviet champion in his favourite and most complex opening line and refuting Botvinnik’s latest idea over the board. Here is that great Cold-War battle, Alexander playing White.

1.e4 e6 2.d4 d5 3.Nc3 Bb4 4.e5 c5 5.a3 Bxc3+ 6.bxc3 Ne7 7.Qg4 cxd4 8.Qxg7 Rg8 9,Qxh7 Qa5 10.Rb1! Qxc3+ 11.Bd2 Qc7 12.f4 Nbc6 13.Nf3 Bd7 14.Ng5 Rxg5 15.fxg5 0-0-0 16.Qxf7 Qxe5+ 17.Kd1 Nf5 18.g6 Ne3+ 19.Kc1 Qe4 20.Bd3 Qxg2 21.Re1 Ne5 22.Qf4! Nf3 23.Re2 Qh3 24.Bxe3 e5 25.Qf7 dxe3 26.g7 Qg4 27.h3 Qg1+ 28.Kb2 Qg3 29.Bg6 Nd4 30.g8=Q Rxg8 31.Qxg8+Kc7 32.Qh7 Kd6 33.Bd3 e4 34.Qh6+ Kc7 35.Rxe3 Qe5 36.Ka2 Nf5 37.Qg5 Be6 38.Be2 d4+ 39.Reb3 b6 40.Qd2 d3 41.Bg4…
And the time scramble over, Botvinnik resigned.

When Alexander died, Botvinnik described him as “a great chess player — he will never be forgotten”. It is sad that he appears to have been proved wrong.

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