Rolf Noskwith, the last surviving member of the team put together by Alan Turing to break the German navy’s Enigma ciphers during the second world war, would never have been allowed to play a leading role in the work of Bletchley Park, the codebreaking centre in Buckinghamshire, if the views of Britain’s security chiefs had held sway.
Noskwith, who has died aged 97, was studying mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1941 when he was spotted as a potential codebreaker. But he was initially banned from going to Bletchley because he had been born in Germany and was therefore seen as a security risk.
Trinity had indeed produced some notable traitors: four of the KGB’s Cambridge spies had studied there, none of them spotted by the Security Service, which even recruited Guy Burgess as an agent and Anthony Blunt as an officer, while sanctioning Kim Philby’s employment by MI6 and John Cairncross’s role as a Bletchley Park intelligence officer.
By contrast, the suspicion of Noskwith was surprising given that he was a German Jew whose family had emigrated to Britain shortly before Hitler came to power. Fortunately the authorities relented and after being interviewed by CP Snow, then a civil service commissioner, and Hugh Alexander, the administrative head of the Hut 8 naval Enigma team, Noskwith arrived at Bletchley in 1941, aged 22. He joined a Hut 8 team that included Joan Clarke, who at one point was engaged to Turing, and which was about to begin breaking the naval Enigma ciphers on a daily basis.
The ability to read messages sent by German U-boats giving their locations allowed the Admiralty to re-route allied convoys around the U-boat “wolf packs”, which had sunk large numbers of allied ships bringing supplies and US troops across the Atlantic. Breaking those messages is estimated to have cut at least two years off the end of the war.
In February 1942, the German navy introduced the more complex Shark four-rotor Enigma machine (the basic naval machine had three rotors). Hut 8’s inability to break it allowed the U-boats to pick off the Atlantic convoys one by one, but by mid-December 1942 the team had found the key, and thereafter the U-boats were on the run, relentlessly taken out by long-range Liberator aircraft on the basis of locations deciphered at Bletchley.
By the end of the war, Noskwith was so steeped in codebreaking that, he said: “I was unable to tear myself away.” He stayed with Bletchley Park’s successor organization, GCHQ, when it moved to Eastcote in north-west London, working first on a backlog of Japanese naval attache messages that required a similar technique to naval Enigma, and then concentrating on codes and ciphers used by Tito’s Yugoslavia.
Noskwith was born Rolf Noskovitch in Chemnitz, Germany, the son of Polish Jews, Malka (nee Ginsberg) and Chaim, who owned a clothing factory in the city. The family moved to Britain in 1932, not because of persecution – although it was already rampant – but because tariffs on their goods made them too expensive to export to the UK.
Rolf’s father decided to change the family name to Noskwith and then set up Charnos, a textile business based in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, which capitalised on the growing popularity of stockings and lingerie. Rolf studied at Nottingham high school before going to Cambridge.
He left GCHQ to join the family business in 1946. A year later he had a chance meeting with Walter Eytan, another former member of Hut 8 who was then involved in setting up the state of Israel. Eytan asked Noskwith if he would come and break codes for the Israelis – but he turned down the offer.
In 1957, by which time he had become chairman of Charnos, Noskwith married Annette Greenbaum, a German Jew who had come to Britain on the Kindertransport, the refugee system which brought some 10,000 Jewish children to the UK. She was the daughter of Franz Greenbaum, Turing’s psychiatrist in the period leading up to his death in 1954.
Throughout his later life, Noskwith retained a strong interest in codebreaking, contributing a chapter to Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park (1993), edited by FH Hinsley and Alan Stripp, as well as a more expansive account of his reminiscences in The Bletchley Park Codebreakers (2011), edited by Ralph Erskine and me.
After seeing the 2014 film The Imitation Game, in which Benedict Cumberbatch played Turing, Noskwith compiled a long list of the movie’s errors. He routinely kept it in his pocket and would pull it out whenever anyone asked him if the film accurately reflected life at Bletchley Park.
He is survived by Annette and by their son, Adrian.
From The Guardian
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