Unmysteries of the Explained: Antiques Roadshow and the truth behind the D-Day crosswords.

On Saturday I read this article by Corey Charlton in the Daily Mail. A recent episode of the Antiques Roadshow has revealed some extraordinary new information about the planning of D-Day.

Paul Wheeler, a Roadshow visitor, brought in a set of documents belonging to his late father, Major Sam Wheeler, who was involved in operational planning. They list a previously unpublished set of alternative codenames for the landings. Operation Overlord would be renamed Operation Hornpipe; D-Day would be called ‘Halcyon’ and the instruction to delay operations if necessary would be ‘Ripcord.’


(c) BBC/Daily Mail

Paul Atterbury, the Antiques Roadshow expert, said:

I was very intrigued when these documents were brought onto the Antiques Roadshow. They seem to suggest there was a different set of codewords used briefly in the run-up to D-Day.

‘Our interpretation of what happened is that because of security fears a new layer of codewords were introduced.

‘There was a risk that the Overlord codename had been compromised. There’s a well-known story of how Overlord and many other codenames appeared in a newspaper crosswords which aroused suspicion.

The story of the D-Day crosswords sent a shiver down my spine when I read it in Strange Stories, Amazing Facts over thirty years ago

On 2 May 1944 a British staff officer doing the London Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle noticed 17 across: ‘One of the U.S.’ answer: Utah, the code name of one of the landing beaches. It was found that in previous months the words JunoGold and Sword (all code names for landing beaches) had appeared. On 22 May came the clue ‘Red Indian on the Missouri’: Omaha (landing beach). On 27 May the solution to ‘a Big-Wig’ was Overlord. On 30 May the pattern continued with Mulberry(floating harbours used in the landings) and finally, on 1 June, the solution to 15 down was Neptune (code name for the naval assault phase).

D-day code words

MI5 agents suspected that this was a coded warning to the Nazis. On 1 June they detained the compiler, Surrey schoolmaster Leonard Dawe, only to find out he knew nothing. For decades it was thought to be a bizarre coincidence.

Bizarre indeed. But apparently the mystery was solved not long after I first read about it, when

in 1984 Ronald French, a schoolboy of 14 in 1944 and a former pupil of the crossword creator, revealed [in a letter to the Telegraph] that he fed the words to the schoolmaster who would often ask his students for words for his next puzzle. The pupil picked up the terms while hanging around Canadian and American soldiers camped close by the school, awaiting the invasion. The soldiers talked freely in front of him “because I was obviously not a German spy”. He believes that hundreds of schoolchildren must have known what he knew.

From Robswebstek

Ronald French said that Mr Dawe would let the boys fill in empty crossword blanks, and then invent the clues for their answers. After Mr Dawe’s roasting by MI5, French revealed where he had got the names from. Mr Dawe – in a state of total horror – gave French a lecture on official secrets. Then he made him burn the notebook where he’d written all the nuggets he’d gleaned from playing truant in the army camps. He also made him promise never to tell anyone the truth of it – a promise French kept for forty years.

Tom Rowley writing in the Telegraph this April gives some more background, including the moment of Mr Dawe’s arrest, as witnessed by the Head Boy Tom Weston

““An official-looking car turned up,” he recalls. “I was interested, so I kept watching. After a time, I saw Mr Dawe go off in the car with whoever it was. We were astonished at the thought that Dawe was a traitor. He was a member of the local golf club. It was a complete mystery to most of us.”

In 1958 Mr Dawe gave his account of his interrogation in a BBC interview. MI5 put him and his fellow crossword compiler Melville Jones through the mill, but decided ‘not to shoot us after all.’

The investigation into Mr Dawe’s D-Day crosswords took place in the wake of another extraordinary congruence two years before. On August 18th 1942, one of the Telegraph crossword solutions was ‘Dieppe.’ The following day the British and Canadians launched the disastrous Dieppe Raid, one of the worst Allied military disasters of the war, in which 3,623 of 6,086 men who landed were killed, wounded or captured. On that occasion an investigation decided that it was simply a coincidence. No one has ever found evidence otherwise.

The Dieppe case is so singular that writers have speculated since Ronald French’s bombshell that there must have been some other dimension to the D-Day mystery, yet to be revealed. Personally I doubt it. Mr Dawe does not, of course, say whether he told MI5 how the boys helped him with the crosswords. It would’ve been difficult to lie to MI5. Either way it must have been obvious to them how the boys picked up the codenames – an osmotic leak of information of the sort that  Evelyn Waugh had sent up two years before in Put Out More Flags:

Peter Pastmaster came into Bratt’s wearing battledress and, on his shoulder, the name of a regiment to which he had not formerly belonged.

“Hullo. Why on earth are you dressed like that?”

Peter smirked as only a soldier can when he knows a secret. “Oh, no particular reason.”

“Have they thrown you out of the regiment?”

“I’m seconded, temporarily, for special duty.”

“You’re the sixth chap I’ve seen in disguise this morning.”

“That’s the idea —- security, you know.”

“What’s it all about?”

“You’ll hear in time, I expect,” said Peter with boundless smugness.

They went to the bar.

“Good morning, my lord,” said Macdougal, the barman. “I see you’re off to Finland too. Quite a number of our gentlemen are going tonight.”

 (c)The Estate of Evelyn Waugh

Major Wheeler kept his secret rather better. And 70 years have passed before his son revealed it. For a historian there is something alchemical about discoveries like this. As with Ronald French’s confession to the Telegraph, something unknown is now known, and in a moment it has become an inseparable part of the subject. Revelation has become routine understanding.

I’m glad that High Command stuck with ‘Overlord.’ It’s a brilliant codename. ‘Hornpipe’ isn’t quite the same. And ‘Halcyon’ – Greek for kingfisher – is a bit too revealing. I couldn’t think what I knew about halcyons, then I remembered the line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra

‘While birds of calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.’

The kingfisher was believed to build her nest on the sea. For this she needed a spell of clear weather and calm seas. Just like an invasion fleet.

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