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Gordon Welchman: Bletchley Park’s Architect of Ultra Intelligence

Joel Greenberg
This competent and comprehensive biography covers the life of Gordon Welchman. Chapter One covers early life, starting with birth on 15 June 1906 and childhood in Bristol, through schooling at Marlborough College and mathematical studies at Trinity College Cambridge.

The main topic of Welchman’s life was his work at Bletchley Park from September 1939. Despite the story told in The Imitation Game film, Enigma code was not solved and modern computing was not started by Alan Turing alone. After WWII ended, Welchman spent three years working as Director of Research for John Lewis and Co, enjoying more family time than when working at Bletchley Park. He felt that the future of business lay in the United States of America, so he began to contact Americans with whom he had worked. Welchman flew alone in autumn 1948, followed by his wife, three children and a dog who travelled by ship, arriving in December 1948.

Welchman’s choice of work was limited by security clearance for a non-citizen, but he was able to join Project Whirlwind at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In these early days of computing, work centred on improving data handling methods and data storage (memory) capacity. Work continued with Engineering Research Associates, which involved moving to Washington DC. Due to the unhappiness of Katherine Welchman (wife), the family returned to England in 1954. Gordon Welchman completed his work for Ferranti Ltd by setting up a computing service in London. While children Nicholas, Rosamund and Susanna completed their schooling at boarding schools in England, Katherine found Victorian era aspects of British life as unpleasant as she had found American dialects and behaviours. She returned to New York. Gordon Welchman returned to USA in May 1957. He initially worked for Ferranti, then in 1959, started working the Applied Technology Department of ITEK Corporation, which researched photography, particularly aerial, optics and information sciences. After living separate lives for many years, the couple finally divorced in 1959. Later that year, Katherine married physics professor Francis Bitter. Gordon married artist Fannie Hillsmith in 1961. After that marriage ended, in 1972, Welchman married for a third time, to Elizabeth Wimer, known as Teeny

In 1962, Welchman joined the four year old MITRE Corporation in Bedford, Massachusetts, to develop data storage, largely for military purposes. This role caused him to think more about his war time service than he had until then. In the early 1970s, several newspaper articles and books about Bletchley Park and code breaking were published, which Welchman considered unimpressive. He began to ask for advice about publishing a more complete account and sought access to GCHQ documents. He was interviewed for the BBC TV series Secret War, transmitted in spring 1977, one of the events which opened Bletchley Park history to the public. Finally, in February 1982, Welchman’s The Hut Six Story was released for sale in the USA. Release in UK followed in May 1982. Much of the rest of Welchman’s life was spent defending his decision to publish. While he had evidence that his work had been cleared by D-Notice Committee in UK, GCHQ had a more confusing approach. Welchman’s life ended, from cancer, in 1985, feeling shabbily treated by official bodies.

The book has a good selection of well reproduced black and white photographs. There are six appendices. Most detailed are two guides to Enigma and the Bombe, plus information about German use of Enigma code and other keys. The index is very comprehensive, making this book easy to use for detailed reference.

4.5 out of 5.

Paperback ISBN 978 1 84832 752 8.

Publisher Frontline Books (imprint of Pen & Sword). This edition first published in UK 2014 and reprinted 2016.

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