Obituary: Captain Raymond “Jerry” Roberts, Bletchley Park codebreaker

Born: 18 November, 1920 in Wembley, London. Died: 25 March 2014 in Liphook, Hampshire, aged 93

Captain Raymond "Jerry" Roberts: Bletchley Park cryptographer who kept his codebreaking war work secret for 60 years

RAYMOND “Jerry” Roberts was the last surviving member of the small Bletchley Park team of cryptographers who broke the Nazis’ top-secret Lorenz code (the UK team dubbed it the “Tunny” code) , including messages between Hitler, his top generals and his Italian ally Mussolini. Historians believe the Bletchley Park codebreakers may have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and shortened the Second World War by between two and four years – indeed that the outcome of the war would have been uncertain without the codebreakers at what was then known merely as Station X. Roberts recalled with pride and a chuckle that he had often listened to coded teleprinter messages from the Führer to his generals even before they did.

“We were breaking 90 per cent of the German traffic from 1941-45,” Roberts said only a few years ago, after the team’s work was declassified in 2002. Until then, for 60 years, he had adhered to the Official Secrets Act he had signed as a young man straight out of university and maintained silence. “We worked for more than three years on Tunny and broke, at a conservative estimate, just under 64,000 top-line messages,” he said.

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Among the team’s greatest successes was ascertaining that Hitler had “bought” the allies’ bluff that the 1944 D-Day landings would be at Pas de Calais, from where the White Cliffs of Dover are visible on a clear day. Hitler held back his massive defensive forces there while the allies famously landed farther south-west on the beaches of Normandy on 6 June in Operation Overlord. Thanks to the Bletchley Park codebreakers, Churchill knew pretty much exactly where Nazi tanks, big guns and troops were located. Although D-Day was bloody, the allied landing forces at Normandy might have been sitting ducks but for the Bletchley Park intelligence.

Roberts’s team was also able to give Britain’s Russian allies a detailed run-down of the Nazis’ plans for the 1943 Battle of Kursk, in western Russia (known as Operation Citadel), which would become the site of probably the largest tank battle in history and a turning point in the war. Bletchley Park had been able to warn the Russians months in advance of the Germans’ planned advance on the eastern front, detailing the Nazi tanks’ planned pincer movement and the exact number of troops they would commit. Had the Germans won that battle, they would have been able to send more troops to their western front against British, US and other allied forces.

We will never know how many of our troops made it safely through the war because of Bletchley Park’s intelligence on the Battle of Kursk. The codebreaking work at Bletchley Park has been well-documented in recent years, including in films notably the team which broke the codes of the Germans’ Enigma cypher machine. The country house at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, is now a museum to those days. But Roberts was one of the four founders of a team within that team – known as the Testery section, named after Major Ralph Tester, its head – that worked 24/7 to decypher a specific German encryption system that the cryptographers dubbed the Tunny Code.

The other founding members were Captain Peter Ericsson and Major Denis Oswald. All four were fluent in German. Roberts himself, although straight out of university, was given the rank of captain in the army’s Intelligence Service. They were eventually helped by the creation of the now-famous Colossus computer, the world’s first large-scale electronic digital computer, better-known for its work on the Enigma code.

Roberts and his team went unrecognised for 60 years until details of the Testery section were released in 2002. Only last year, when he was already 92, did he receive an MBE. A commemorative stamp was issued in his honour, showing him receiving his MBE from the Queen. “It was extraordinary to be on the same stamp as Her Majesty, not many people have that privilege,” he said.

Raymond Clarke Roberts, known since he was a schoolboy as Jerry, was born in north London, close to a popular public sports ground known as Wembley Park, which, as a child, he would watch being built into the famous twin-tower Wembley Stadium. His father was a pharmacist and his mother played organ at a Wembley chapel. He went to the historic Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, west London, at the time a boys-only public school, before studying modern languages “at” University College, London (UCL). Due to the outbreak of war, he never actually studied at the London campus itself. Like the rest of its other 14,000 students, he was sent out of the city while the university’s famous Senate House building was used as an observation post against Luftwaffe bombing during the Blitz.

And so, by chance, it was in Aberystwyth, Wales, that Roberts graduated from the UCL in 1941, somewhat confused that his home city was being bombed by a nation whose language he had studied and in which he had become fluent. (The first time he set foot on the UCL campus in London was 66 years after his graduation, when his stepdaughter Chao graduated, also having studied German).

At the makeshift UCL campus in Aberystwyth, Roberts’s linguistic gifts became quickly obvious to his German-language tutor. Professor Leonard Willoughby had been a linguist and important codebreaker in the Admiralty’s famous Room 40 during the Great War and put Roberts forward for an interview at a War Office building overlooking Trafalgar Square. Roberts was tested in his knowledge of German and French, and, to his surprise, of chess and crosswords. He was in. He was sent to Bletchley Park to be under the wings of John Tiltman, the chief cryptographer, who told the young Roberts: “Absolute silence must be preserved about what happens here.” Roberts maintained that silence for the best part of 70 years, including to his family.

After the war, Roberts worked for the allies’ war crimes investigation, using his fluency in French and German. He went on to become a major international businessman, specialising in marketing and market research for companies including Holiday Inn, Chrysler, American Airlines and British Gas. Very few, if any, of those companies knew of his importance during the Second World War. He sold his marketing research business to National Opinion Polls in 1993, wrote two books about his Bletchley Park experiences and spent the latter years of his life campaigning for recognition of his Bletchley Park colleagues.

Roberts spent the latter years of his life between his native Hampshire and a flat in Pimlico, London, where his hobby became trying to beat the stock market. An interviewer who visited him recently in Pimlico put a question to his wife Mei while Jerry was in a nearby room. “How much was it you got last week, Jerry, from your buying and selling shares, was it £6,000?” Mei asked. “£65,000,” came the reply from the adjacent room. “He’s still as sharp as a razor,” the interviewer noted.

Captain Jerry Roberts is survived by his third wife, Mei, three children from his first two marriages and four stepchildren.