In the kitchen of our small offices in the 1980s myself and two colleagues, and it took the three of us, attempted in our lunch break to complete the Daily Telegraph crossword.
On one occasion we were all stumped by a clue which read “a view that is recommended before death”. Our thinking ran along the lines of retrospective, fatalist or flashback? But we couldn’t find a word for any which would fit with the letters we felt we had already established.
After a very long pause the member of our team sitting across on the other side of the table from his inverted viewpoint (a different perspective?) observed: “Neapolitan fits the letters we have but I can’t explain why it would be the answer.” In unison both of us on our side of the table said, “see Naples and die”.
The Daily Telegraph crossword became something of a routine for the three of us, but it appears from history that we may not have been the first to form this habit.
In the weeks leading up to the Normandy landings of June 1944, and the commencement of the liberation of Europe it appears that someone, presumably with security clearance, somewhere in MI5, at high levels of the government or the military was also doing the Daily Telegraph crosswords and noticed some very concerning developments:
In the 30 May 1944 Daily Telegraph crossword, a clue appeared which looked innocent enough, referring as it did to a childhood rhyme.
“This bush is a centre of nursery revolutions” (11 across 8 letters).
The answer, Mulberry, however, had been chosen by the military planners of the Normandy invasion as a codeword for the floating harbours which they proposed to use in the imminent June allied operation.
Previously it had been noted that the words Sword and Gold, both used as codenames for invasion beaches had also appeared as crossword clue solutions, but it was decided that, as both were fairly common words, it was merely a coincidence.
Other invasion codewords had begun to appear as answers to clues in Telegraph crosswords during May in the period leading up to the invasion:
2 May 1944, Utah (17 across, 4 letters – “one of the US”) and 22 May, Omaha (3 down, 5 letters – “red Indian on the Missouri”) both were codenames for proposed Normandy landing beaches.
When the answer to a clue on 27 May was ‘Overlord’ (11 across, 8 letters – “But some bigwig like this has stolen some of it at times”) it was the code word for the entire operation (scheduled for 6 June) the authorities were concerned that the crossword may be being used to alert the enemy to the planned invasion.
A spy in our midst?
The last codeword to appear on 1 June when Neptune, the codeword for the marine part of the invasion appeared as an answer just five days before it was to begin (15 down, 7 letters – “Britannia and he hold the same thing”).
The editorial staff of the Telegraph were questioned, and two members of MI5 were immediately despatched to a school in Surrey where the crosswords had been set by the headmaster, Leonard Dawe who was arrested and interviewed.
Following interrogation on his use of some of the words his reply “why wouldn’t I use them?” his investigators were eventually convinced of his complete ignorance that the words were codewords and of his innocent use of them.
There had been a previous incident of an allied operation in northern France the ‘Dieppe Raid’ also appearing as the answer to a Telegraph crossword the day before the raid itself, ‘Dieppe’ appeared as an answer in the Daily Telegraph crossword (set on 17 August 1942) (clued “French port”), causing a security alarm. The appearance of the word was thoroughly investigated including by MI5 and it was eventually considered to be a coincidence. The Dieppe Raid itself resulted in severe allied losses in equipment and men but important lessons were learned for the Normandy landings.
What was later to come to light in regard to the 1944 crosswords was that even though the headmaster had written the clues for them, the actual words in the crossword grid had sometimes been provided by his students.
It had been Dawe’s practice to get some of his students to fill in words on crossword grids and he would later provide the clues for them. He himself had no idea at the time that they were codewords!
The school in Surrey was surrounded at the time by American and Canadian forces gathered for the coming invasion. The students may have heard the codewords they used bandied about by servicemen as they mixed with them.
Many years later, but also many before Brexit, I cycled up the east coast of the Cherbourg peninsula past landing beaches, there was still evidence of the successful allied invasion everywhere, the signpost to the small town of Sainte-Mère-Église declared that it had been the first town in France to be liberated. Even more poignant was that many towns that I cycled through had streets apparently named after fallen but remembered allied soldiers.
Omaha beach I found particularly interesting, it had been the subject of daring reconnaissance by a very small crew and specialised military personnel from a midget submarine in January of 1944 which formed part of the detailed planning for, and contributed to the ultimate success of, the invasion.