Letter to Winson Churchill

Transcribed from Jack Copeland’s The Essential Turing.

Hut 6 Secret and Confidential
Prime Minister only

Hut 6 and Hut 8
21st October 1941

Dear Prime Minister,

Know your audience. Turing’s audience is Prime Minister Churchill. Yours is less well defined, but not entirely unknown. For NSF proposals, you are writing for a mix of diligent, competent reviewers and lazy, negative ones. You should aim to write proposals that appeal to both types of reviewers.

Some weeks ago you paid us the honour of a visit, and we believe that you regard our work as important. You will have seen that, thanks largely to the energy and foresight of Commander Travis, we have been well supplied with the ‘bombes’ for the breaking of the German Enigma codes. We think, however, that you ought to know that this work is being held up, and in some cases is not being done at all, principally because we cannot get sufficient staff to deal with it. Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention. No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.

You are competing for limited resources, so need to make the case that your project will provide more benefits relative to its cost than other projects. This depends on both making that case that the problem you are working on is important, and that you have a unique approach which is likely to produce valuable results.
We realise that there is a tremendous demand for labour of all kinds and that its allocation is a matter of priorities. The trouble to our mind is that as we are a very small section with numerically trivial requirements it is very difficult to bring home to the authorities finally responsible either the importance of what is done here or the urgent necessity of dealing promptly with our requests. At the same time we find it hard to believe that it is really impossible to produce quickly the additional staff that we need, even if this meant interfering with the normal machinery of allocations.

Be consise and get to the point quickly! It should not be a challenge for reviewers to figure out what you are proposing to do.
We do not wish to burden you with a detailed list of our difficulties, but the following are the bottlenecks which are causing us the most acute anxiety.

1. Breaking of Naval Enigma (Hut 8)

Owing to shortage of staff and the overworking of his present team the Hollerith section here under Mr Freeborn has had to stop working night shifts. The effect of this is that the finding of the naval keys is being delayed at least twelve hours every day. In order to enable him to start night shifts again Freeborn needs immediately about twenty more untrained Grade III women clerks. To put himself in a really adequate position to deal with any likely demands he will want a good many more.

This reads disturbingly sexist to modern ears, but keep in mind that is was written in 1941. In your writing (both in proposals and anywhere else), you should work hard to avoid any sexist language, including use of generic male pronouns.
A further serious danger now threatening us is that some of the skilled male staff, both with the British Tabulating Company at Letchworth and in Freeborn’s section here, who have so far been exempt from military service, are now liable to be called up.

2. Military and Air Force Enigma (Hut 6)

We are intercepting quite a substantial proportion of wireless traffic in the Middle East which cannot be picked up by our intercepting stations here. This contains among other things a good deal of new ‘Light Blue’ intelligence. Owing to shortage of trained typists, however, and the fatigue of our present decoding staff, we cannot get all this traffic decoded. This has been the state of affairs since May. Yet all that we need to put matters right is about twenty trained typists.

3. Bombe testing, Hut 6 and Hut 8

WRNS is the Women’s Royal Naval Service. The WRNS did much of the clerical work for codebreaking at Bletchley Park, but many also became (arguably) the first system administrators and computer programmers, configuring Turing’s Bombes and Colossus for different codebreaking programs.
In July we were promised that the testing of the ‘stories’ produced by the bombes would be taken over by the WRNS in the bombe hut and that sufficient WRNS would be provided for this purpose. It is now late in October and nothing has been done. We do not wish to stress this so strongly as the two preceding points, because it has not actually delayed us in delivering the goods. It has, however, meant that staff in Huts 6 and 8 who are needed for other jobs have had to do the testing themselves. We cannot help feeling that with a Service matter of this kind it should have been possible to detail a body of WRNS for this purpose, if sufficiently urgent instructions had been sent to the right quarters.


Apart altogether from staff matters, there are a number of other directions in which it seems to us that we have met with unnecessary impediments. It would take too long to set these out in full, and we realise that some of the matters involved are controversial. The cumulative effect, however, has been to drive us to the conviction that the importance of the work is not being impressed with sufficient force upon those outside authorities with whom we have to deal.

Unlike Turing’s, your proposals should not include any whining like this. But, they should conclude with a clear impact summary, explaining the value that will come from funding your project.
We have written this letter entirely on our own initiative. We do not know who or what is responsible for our difficulties, and most emphatically we do not want to be taken as criticising Commander Travis who has all along done his utmost to help us in every possible way. But if we are to do our job as well as it could and should be done it is absolutely vital that our wants, small as they are, should be promptly attended to. We have felt that we should be failing in our duty if we did not draw your attention to the facts and to the effects which they are having and must continue to have on our work, unless immediate action is taken.
Such obsequieousness is appropriate for certain DoD program managers, but not in NSF proposals!

We are, Sir, Your obedient servants,
A M Turing
W G Welchman
C H O’D Alexander
P S Milner-Barry

Churchill’s Response

Action this day. Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”