Recognition That Is Long Overdue for a National Hero; More Than 40 Years after His Death, One Man's War Efforts Are Being Celebrated COVER STORY . . . THE CODE CRACKER .

Article excerpt

Byline: By RICHARD McCOMB

The death of 79-year-old Alastair Guthrie Denniston, a retired British intelligence officer, went unreported.

There were no obituaries in the newspapers, no statement from the Foreign Office on the passing of AGD of the GC&CS.

It was as if the cipher master had never existed.

The unremarked death of Denniston, and, more significantly, the lack of acknowledgement about his contribution to defeating Nazi Germany, always rankled with his son, Robin.

It was as if his father, who died at a seaside cottage hospital in 1961, had been airbrushed from the history of Britain's stunning war-time achievements, his legacy of covert intelligence gathering and sensitive diplomacy scratched from the record.

Robin, now aged 80, a former publisher and retired vicar living in Worcestershire, has decided it is time for the story to be told. More than four decades after his death, the code-breaker is coming in from the cold.

Robin, who was ordained at Worcester Cathedral, has written a compelling account of his father's life, Thirty Secret Years, in the hope of bringing long-overdue recognition to Dennis-ton's clandestine operations in signals intelligence, a career that culminated in his work at the famous Bletchley Park code-breaking centre during the Second World War.

No one outside the hush-hush world of Britain's security network knows terribly much about the role played by Commander Denniston in intercepting and deciphering top secret enemy communications.

It is puzzling, particularly as he was reputedly one of the first two Britons to clap eyes on an Enigma machine, the device used by the Germans to send their encrypted messages.

Cracking the Enigma cipher - work undertaken under Dennis-ton's command at Bletchley Park - and the production of high level intelligence, known as Ultra, was critical to Allied successes during the 1939-45 conflict.

Denniston also played a central role in persuading the British and United States to exchange signals intelligence in the era of mutual scepticism and North American isolationism.

Yet when he left the service on May 1, 1945, officially retired, Denniston was given an annual pension of just pounds 591.

I put it to his son that it seems an extraordinary snub to someone who should have been hailed as a national hero. "I couldn't think of a better way to put it," says Robin diplomatically. The sense of resentment is palpably English.

He does, however, hope publication of Thirty Secret Years will set the record straight.

Alastair Denniston, the eldest of three children, excelled at classics, mathematics and languages.

He attended university at the Sorbonne and Bonn. An accomplished trilingualist, he became a language teacher at the Royal Naval College on the Isle of Wight and it was his fluency in German that led to him being tapped up by the Admiralty in late 1914.

At the age of 33, Denniston entered the brave new world of wireless interception and crypta-nalysis, becoming the "watch-keeper" at Room 40 OB (Old Buildings) in Whitehall, the Government's fledgling signals intelligence centre.

He and his staff were responsible for decrypting, translating, assessing and processing secretly intercepted messages between the German High Command and the Grand Fleet during the First World War.

Little could anyone have known that this was the beginning of the world's most sophisticated eavesdropping operations.

It was a close colleague of Den-niston's in Room 40, Nigel de Grey, and a fellow linguist, William Montgomery, who intercepted and decoded the Zimmer-mann telegram on January 16, 1917, an act that hastened the United States' entry into the 1914-18 war. The secret message had informed the German ambassador in Mexico City of plans to invade the US.

Denniston stayed on at Room 40 until 1919. …