Gordon Welchman, no longer a forgotten hero

October 07 2016

THREE quarters of a century after his crucial work saved thousands of lives in the Second World War, Gordon Welchman has received official recognition.


THREE quarters of a century after his crucial work saved thousands of lives in the Second World War, Gordon Welchman has received official recognition.

A blue plaque has gone up in his birthplace of Fishponds in a ceremony led by Robert Hannigan, the director of the Government communication headquarters GCHQ.

Welchman worked at the Government Code and Cypher School Bletchley Park during the war alongside Alan Turing and others, deciphering encrypted German military signals.

After the war he moved to America where his work at the forefront of computing paid a key role in the Cold War.

In the early 1980s, he wrote a memoir of his time at Bletchley Park, The Hut Six Story, which was published first in the US and then in the UK. The authorities took exception to the book, forbade him to publicise it and withdrew his security clearance, meaning that Welchman spent the last three years of his life trying to clear his name.

Mr Hannigan acknowledged that GCHQ had criticised Welchman 30 years ago for lifting the veil on British security but told the ceremony that “the world was a different place” then.

He paid tribute to Welchman, who he said had been ahead of his time.

“He made an immense contribution – thousands of Allied lives were saved by his codebreaking. He was a giant of his era and part of an extraordinary group of people who shortened the Second World War. We have a huge amount to thank them for.

“I’m honoured to share today with his family and represent the organisation his work and his values helped build.

“Gordon Welchman and his colleagues set the standard for GCHQ. Our current staff look to follow that lead and work with the same ingenuity and passion to keep Britain safe.”

Gordon Welchman was born in St Mary’s vicarage in 1906  in Fishponds where his father was the canon. His blue plaque, provided by Bristol Civic Society, is on the wall of St Mary’s Church.

The vicar, the Rev Lizzie Kesteven, whose maternal grandparents both worked at GCHQ, hosted the tribute event, and said it was wonderful to think that gifts and talents nurtured in Fishponds could go on to serve the country and the world.

She said he would be an inspiration to the children of Fishponds CE Academy, who were taking part in a codebreaking workshop in the church room as part of GCHQ’s schools outreach programme.

Among the guests was Welchman’s daughter Susanna Griffiths, who said: “I’m very proud of my father and everything that he achieved. Fishponds and St Mary’s was such a big part of his life and to now be indelibly linked here is very special.

“He was a man of huge intellect and integrity and this plaque is a great honour for our family, and something I’m sure he’d say he didn’t deserve."


Cracking the code 

GORDON Welchman was head of Hut Six at Bletchley Park, which was responsible for breaking German Army and Air Force Enigma codes.

He was one of the group that famously made a successful request to  Winston Churchill in 1941 for more resources to carry out their work.

Welchman’s work centred on  analysis of the “traffic” of messages, which he recognised could be more useful than simply decoding them. 

Welchman also devised an adaptation to Turing’s machine,  making it much more efficient in  breaking Enigma codes.

Robert Hannigan, director of GCHQ, said Welchman’s ideas were revolutionary and transformed GCHQ.

A mathematician, he helped the organisation realise that it needed to recruit people with different skills to enable it to keep the country secure.

Welchman’s legacy includes the establishment of a national security system, Mr Hannigan said.