Classics and Intelligence

John Richmond

University College

A.D. Knox

To the classicist Alfred Dillwyn Knox is a fascinating figure.

Knox was born at Oxford on 23rd July 1883 as the fourth of the six children of Edmund Arbuthnott Knox, tutor at Merton College and later a distinguished and vigorously active evangelical bishop of Manchester. Aged 11 the young Knox acquired a remarkable step-mother who made the following diary entry for her wedding day: “Finished the Antigone; married Bip” (F 44). At first the children were educated at home in a truthful household, and shared a love for railways, logical games and word-puzzles: Dilly was the most mathematical. After a preparatory school and six years at Eton, he went up to King's Cambridge as a scholar in 1903. He achieved a ‘First’ in part I and an ‘Upper Second’ in Part II of the Classical Tripos (1906-7), and fell under the spell of Walter Headlam, the eccentric Greek scholar of dazzling intellectual brilliance, who had a fine sense of fun. In 1891 the British Museum published the first edition of a newly discovered papyrus of the Mimes of Herodas. These poems show “a predilection for the ugly and seamy sides of life,” yet … “no one with any sense of humour can fail to be amused by Herodas.”[i]  Headlam began accumulating notes for a monumental edition of this little-known author. By a strange stroke of Fate Headlam died suddenly at the age of forty-two in June 1908, and his vacant Fellowship at King's was filled by the election of the young Knox in 1909. Harold Macmillan, the future premier, was privately coached by him for a few weeks in 1910, but found him austere and uncongenial. Dilly inherited the mass of papers that Headlam, whose methods of work seemed to be amazingly chaotic,[ii] had left behind him.

As an undergraduate Knox had been friendly with Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, two figures that were to have great influence in the twenties and later through the century. He now met another friend, Frank Birch, who was to become a comic actor, and he admired the aloof new Professor of Latin, the acerbic poet, A.E. Housman. At King’s:

[Knox] quickly established himself as a leading King's eccentric and a prominent supporter of his friend Maynard Keynes's campaign against the Bursar. In successive issues of the King's journal, Basileon, Dilly called on the Bursar to inspect the rats in Fellows' rooms, then to protect the rats from attack by water-rats attracted by the rising damp, and finally to have a care for the water-rats whose ‘nasty cough’ was disturbing the younger Fellows’ repose (A 94).

For years he toiled, working on the great commentary that had been started by Headlam, and damaging, it seems, his eyesight while poring over the British Museum's papyrus fragments. So hesitant and shy was Dilly, especially with girls, that he got the nickname ‘Erm’ from his habit of saying “Er, em …”. He bought a motor-bicycle, and when war broke out volunteered as a despatch rider, arguing that most of the despatch riding took place by night, and in the darkness there was no difference between good and bad sight. Neither this logic nor the result of a practical test impressed the army. However, early in 1915 his brothers were convulsed with laughter to see him walking along Whitehall “all dressed up like Lord Nelson” in the uniform of a sub-lieutenant of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. With his lanky figure “his uniform hung on him like a sack”. His life had taken a new turn with his recruitment to Room 40.

In fact he was given a special room, number 53, of tiny size, but equipped with the only bath in I.D. 25. He had solved many difficulties in Herodas in the atmosphere of hot water and soap, and now used the same method (F 134-139).

As Frank Birch, using Knox’s own verses, put it in his comic history of I.D. 25:

The sailor in Room 53

Has never, it's true, been to sea;

But, though not in a boat,

He has yet served afloat,

In a bath at the Admiralty.

Knox during this period shared a house with Frank Birch, and appeared in the parodic “Alice in I.D. 25” as “Dilly the Dodo,” working in a bathing machine:

‘My idea’, smiled the Dodo self-consciously; ‘you see, with an ordinary bathing-machine, you have to leave it to bathe. But in this one you can bathe without leaving it.’

The Dodo also suffers from Dilly’s angular frame and absence of mind:

Alice thought he was the queerest bird she had ever seen. He was so long and lean, and had outgrown his clothes, and his face was like a pang of hunger...

‘Perhaps you would like to see some of my work?’ [he asked] and he handed her a sheet of very dirty paper on which a spider with inky feet appeared to have been crawling (A 95).

In summer 1916 his brother, Ronald, thought to be “the wittiest young man in England,” was agonising over his coming decision to leave the Anglican Church and to become a Roman Catholic. Dillwyn recommended him a change from the ecclesiastical scene, and so he took his place between the table and the bath in Room 53 wearing clerical garb as “the solitary padre” (though not yet a Roman Catholic priest, as mistakenly recollected by Admiral James (J xviii): he was ordained on 5th October, 1919 (F 152)). There characteristically his brother “never explained to him exactly what he was meant to be doing”.

Dilly’s methods relied heavily on putting himself in the mind of the enemy, and on recognising patterns of language.  Thus he had an intercept where he believed he was dealing with an operator’s practice message, like “a quick brown dog jumps over the lazy fox” and others used by typists. He thought one group represented en, which gave:

-- -- -- -- en -- -- en  -- -- en --  --  --  -- en -- -- -- -- -- en.

Suspecting he might be dealing with some well known quotation in a rhyming couplet, perhaps in dactylic metre, he deduced that a poetic German operator might well be sentimental and refer to Rosen. The German experts in Room 40, when asked to help, suggested a well-known couplet by Schiller:

Ehret die Frauen! Sie flechten und weben

      Himmlische Rosen ins irdische Leben.[iii]

This inspiration gave more clues and led him to the invaluable solution of the code used by the Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy, which was then (1917) waging the submarine campaign that nearly starved Britain out of the war. Knox was now so dedicated that he lived in his office: for her part his stepmother, wife of the bishop, was patriotically digging her vegetable-garden even by moonlight. Late in the year his eldest brother, Eddie, was wounded at Paschendaele. Dilly fell in love with a Miss Olive Rodman, of a county family, who had been appointed at the end of 1917 as his secretary in that bizarre bathroom (F 142-146).

After the war Knox faced a difficult decision about his future. His fiancée's parents looked with wonder at this obscure, gaunt and hesitant suitor. He married in 1920, forgetting to invite his brothers to his wedding. During the war he had been elected Librarian at King's, but never took up the appointment. After the war he wished to return to King’s, but he was induced by his patriotic wife, who disliked Cambridge and its dons, to remain at his secret work, so secret that later even his children had no idea, until many years after his death, what he did as his work (F 201). At first he also worked at his classics under difficulties, often in trains to and from London. The great Knox-Headlam edition of Herodas appeared in 1922, abounding in stores of knowledge and setting the study of the author on a new footing. After publication, freed from working in trains, he bought a motor-bicycle to get to work without meeting his stockbroker neighbours from his house in High Wycombe,[iv] which was “surrounded by forty acres of sod­den woodland” (F 169-173; 186-190; 195-200). In the next year he published a dissertation on Cercidas, and was offered the Chair of Greek at Leeds. It has been inferred that in the late 20s he was at work on the codes of Soviet Russia, and at this time he was promoted to a higher grade. His last classical book – the Loeb text and translation of Herodas and related writers – appeared in 1929. In 1931 he had, as his wife had expected, a motor-bicycle accident, broke his leg, and was left with a permanent slight limp. Later he drove a motor-car causing much apprehension, not least when he took his hands off the steering wheel and exclaimed “Look! it drives itself!”. He was now frustrated in the Foreign Office and regretted he had not returned to the classics in Cambridge, but his wife argued that his duty to aid his country and to educate his children required him to stay in the Foreign Office. The imposing Edgar Lobel, the great Greek papyrologist, was a frequent visitor to his house.

From the early 30s the forthcoming challenge from Germany attracted attention to her “unbreakable” machine codes. Knox was now engaged on the greatest challenge of his life. In 1936 he ceased to attend the annual Founder's Feast in King's, as the wines were so good that he feared he might be betrayed into some slight indiscretion about his work (F 203). Some progress was made on German Naval Enigma, but in 1937 new variations were introduced which forced Knox to admit defeat (A 450). It would have been easy to abandon hope – Denniston was once heard to say to the head of Naval Section, “You know, the Germans don't intend you to read their stuff, and I don’t suppose you ever will” (HS 237). During the Spanish Civil War Knox broke a simplified version of Enigma used by Franco's forces and by his Italian and German allies. His digestion was never good, and after an operation cancer was suspected. He seemed to live entirely on black coffee and chocolate. This diet was later varied by the addition of mushrooms and gruel. At an excellent dinner on the trip to Poland in 1939 he scarcely touched the numerous courses concentrating on the matter in hand, and he struck the French Major Bertrand as “froid, nerveux, ascète”. (The Naval Commander, however, compensated for him by eating and drinking too much.) Knox was enraged to discover that the letters on the first rotor wheel were connected to the keyboard in simple alphabetical order, and that the Germans neglected to use additional opportunities of complication. He thought that was a “swindle” as it made things too easy (F 201-204; 229-240)!

In 1939 with the expansion of staff we get more witnesses for Dilly's professional life. An outsider reports:

It was, I think, generally accepted that of our own backroom boys ‘Dilly’ Knox was the mastermind behind the Enigma affair. He was quite young,[v] tall, with rather a gangling figure, unruly black hair, his eyes, behind glasses,[vi] some miles away in thought. Like Mitchell, the designer of the Spitfire fighter ... who worked himself to his death … Knox too, knowing he was a sick man, pushed himself to the utmost to overcome the problems of Enigma variations (introduced by the Germans to further complicate their cyphers between 1940 and 1942).[vii]

He moved with ten helpers into an old cottage overlooking the stable yard at Bletchley. When his assistants brought the files from London they were surprised “to find him surrounded with pretty girls, all of them, for some reason, very tall, whom he had recruited” as ciphering clerks. Sometimes he wandered into a large cupboard that he often mistook for the door. For his hot bath he had to go to a special hut. His explanations of his methods confused those who got them. He invented a host of strange terms: ‘QWERTZU,’ ‘beetles,’ ‘lobsters,’ ‘crabs,’ ‘one cow crossing the road.’ “Combined with his hesitant way of speaking, this made decipherment, to the outsider, seem quite as unintelligible as the cipher itself. American observers who came for a briefing were unable to make head or tail of their notes … They asked if they might see the working papers, and, after some search, were shown the back of some old envelopes. They wanted to know the office routine, but there wasn't any. Dilly had written things with purple ink, which faded, or with a blunt pencil, and when everything seemed to be going reasonably well he had taken his staff out and treated them to the best dinner that the Seven Bells public house could provide … There was no further explanation to give." Already at Eton, as Maynard Keynes remembered, his written work was presented “in a most loathsomely untidy, unintelligible, illegible condition,” and he forgot to include necessary steps in it – why “even in conversation he is wholly incapable of expressing the meaning he intends to convey” (F 67). His absence of mind had long been legendary and hardly inspired visitors with confidence: He stuffed “his pipe with sandwiches, when obsessed with puzzle-solving” (DNB) and in Room 40 “it was supposed that he kept his spectacles in his tobacco pouch to remind himself that he had taken the tobacco out of the spectacle-case, substituting a piece of stale bread to remind himself that he was always hungry" (F 137). “At his billet Dilly once stayed so long in the bathroom that his fellow lodgers at last forced the door. They found him standing by the bath, a faint smile on his face, his gaze fixed on abstractions, both taps full on and the plug out. What then was passing in his mind could possibly have solved a problem that was to win a battle” (A 94, quoting from an unpublished memoir).

Considered reserved and secretive by the new arrivals, Dilly made some new friends, especially Alan Turing, the brilliant and individual mathematician from King's, and Peter Twinn, an Oxford mathematician. On the other hand Gordon Welchman, when he informed Knox that he had discovered a brilliant method of breaking into the Enigma cipher, was astonished to be told that Knox’s section was already using the method, and to keep to the task he had been set. He admits that Knox was “notorious for not telling anyone anything, though he often thought he had done so.” He thought that Knox was mortified to discover that a neophyte in the department “whom he had kicked off his Cottage team” had in a few months discovered a method that Knox, with such triumphs behind him, had had to learn from the Poles (W 71-73). Yet Welchman, whatever defects he suspected in Knox, recognised his greatness by including him in the dedicatees of his book, The Hut Six Story.

By breaking the Italian Naval cipher Knox facilitated the defeat of the Italian Navy at the battle of Cape Matapan (March 1941). So that the Italians should have no suspicion that the cipher had been broken, he insisted on a press announcement that the battle resulted from air re­connaissance. Using his psychological methods he successfully suggested that the four letter keys used by operators to set their Enigma machines might well be German obscene words or girls' names rather than more secure random selections. In February 1941 he broke the Abwehr cipher, used by the German Army Intelligence Service, and is believed thus to have helped to find the German battleship Bismarck, when she vanished after sinking the Hood and damaging the Prince of Wales (May 1941), and also to have enabled a critical cargo of Spitfire fighter aircraft to reach Malta (April 1942, cf. HS 129-130).

In 1942 he had a further opera­tion for cancer, and retired to his home, where he spent his last days, despite the pain of his disease, doggedly working on a small difficulty in the Italian cipher. At the beginning of the next year he was awarded the C.M.G., and it was explained that some more illustrious honour could not be given because of the security risk. Though near to death he insisted on leaving his bed and dressing to meet properly the Palace emissary bringing the decoration. He had it sent to his department, since he felt it was theirs as much as his. His brother Ronnie slept outside his room on a made-up bed. “Dilly, though hardly conscious, could hear him. ‘Is Ronnie still out there bothering God in the passage?’ he asked.” He died a few days later on 27th February 1943, aged 59. His old friend, Maynard Keynes, wrote his obituary for the Times. Two sons survived him: Christopher Maynard (named for his mother's first fiancé killed in the war in 1914 and for his godfather), and Oliver Arbuthnott (F 253-257). The latter served at BP, where he established a reputation as a practical joker, on one occasion convoking a fictitious conference (L 128).


The view has been expressed that when Knox died, there died “with him the pre-industrial mind” (T 171). Welchman saw that Knox had no interest in organisation and administration as he himself had; in describing him as not “a technical man,” he is probably correct, though Knox’s fondness for his motor cycle and his car, and his taste for mathematics, must be remembered. Undoubtedly he was, as Welchman saw, “an idea-struck man.” The technical development of the decoding machines required great practical expertise and vision, and the organisation of the decoding and processing of vast masses of messages at Bletchley required qualities that Knox, who gave the impression of disliking “most of the men with whom he came in contact,” did not possess (W 34).

It certainly seems that the future of decryption will lie with mathematicians, as electronic encryption becomes standard.  Yet machines must be devised and instructed by men, and the skills that language study develops are likely to play some part. The prominence classics attained in this field has been explained thus:

There was, it will be seen, some rhyme and reason for a classical scholar to be allotted such work. He has been trained from his youth to wrestle in examinations with passages for unseen translation in which he has to guess, from his general knowledge and from the context, the meaning of unknown words ... modern linguists tended to be used rather for translation work (HS 63).

Alan Stripp writes that “the preference for a classical training was part of the GCHQ (the modern successor of the GC&CS) tradition, not because of any linguistic qualification but because it was thought that it enabled a student to tackle almost anything” (S 140). An Oxford graduate in German and French thought:

Absolute intellectual honesty is essential. The process must not be muddied by emotion or prejudice, nor by a desire to please. The skill is largely innate, but can be sharpened by a course of rigorous academic training (HS 17).

A mathematician summed up:

... nothing I did [at Bletchley] had any connection with my degree course in mathematics. But important facets of one's mental make-up are deeply influenced by the nature ... of one’s education. Characteristics which were in great demand at BP were a creative imagination, a well-developed critical faculty, and a habit of meticulousness (HS 111).

I do not know that any other belligerent made significant use of classical scholars. Most states had developed military intelligence in a professional way as part of a military career, and may be assumed to have given a restricted military education to their intelligence officers. (In Britain Col. Sir Claude Dansey of the Secret Intelligence Service would “never knowingly recruit a University man” before the war, and his experience during the war led him to say that he had less fear of Bolshies and Fascists “than I have of some pedantic but vocal University Professor” (AI 32). Gordon Welchman, looking back at the British success suggested that “professional cryptographers, however good they are, may fail to see how a mind with a different background might find a way of defeating them” (W 82). The French service handling foreign intelligence was dominated by the military, who had a very long tradition and were “a group which appeared to place loyalty and obedience above independence of mind, skepticism and pursuit of truth” (Douglas Porch, The French Secret Services, London 1996, 38). In the United States a few gifted amateurs were very successful (H.O. Yardley and W. Friedman and his wife (K 351-393)); in Germany use was made of the services of “a highly intelligent man, Dr. Wilhelm Vauck, Reserve Lieutenant, a secondary schoolmaster” on loan from the Army to an organisation “Signals security HQ” (part of the WNV, which in turn was part of OKW, Hitler’s personal military staff); his subjects were mathematics, physics, and chemistry. He assembled a team of mathematicians and language experts from army conscripts. Ironically they included a Soviet sympathiser in touch with the ‘Red Orchestra’ (H. Höhne, Codeword: Direktor, London 1973, 82-83). The German Foreign Office also recruited mathematicians (K 438). However, after the war Patrick Wilkinson discovered that a friend, the classical archaeologist, Otfried Deubner, had been a German cryptanalyst (WK 201)

In retrospect it is interesting to see the part played by chance.  Had Ewing not been appointed to the Naval College, had Knox not been a fellow of King’s, or had he resisted his wife’s influence and returned there after 1918 or gone to Leeds in 1923, or had Turing not been another fellow of King’s, or had there been no bath in Room 53 – the success story seems to hang on a hundred accidents. At another level one may speculate that if the War Office had made bureaucratic preparations about 1900 for a deciphering service, or if classics had been ousted from their dominant position in education a century or so earlier than they were, or if the “silly ass” image of the English had been less potent…,


Some of my colleagues who read Part I of this paper have been kind enough to give me additional information that may be of interest, and further books have been published. Professor Niall Rudd informed me that the late Professor of Latin in Trinity College Dublin (1942-78), D. E. W. Wormell, worked at Bletchley, and his widow, Mrs Daphne Wormell, recalls that their eldest son was born during their time there, when she had to struggle with the difficulties of shared houses and kitchens. She had a marriage connexion with Richard Fleury, who was put in charge of “Room 40” (Westminster College) in the autumn of 1939, but died from a heart attack about a year later. Professor Rudd also told me that G. P. Goold, later Professor of Latin at Yale and editor of the Loeb Classical Library, was seconded from the R.A.F. for his O-level knowledge of German, and that David Gaunt (Pt. I: 94) later became Senior Lecturer at Bristol. Michael Smith’s Station X: the Codebreakers of Bletchley Park (London, 1998: 74) mentions work by Charles Cunningham on German ciphers that revealed SS atrocities: he had read Classics at Glasgow. Professor James Diggle of Cambridge confirmed my conjecture (Pt. I: 101) that D. R. Shackleton Bailey had been at BP, and drew my attention to the character of F. J. Atwood in Robert Harris’s novel Enigma (London 1995) obviously based on F. E. Adcock (with whose publications he is credited!).

Professor D. A. F. M. Russell of St. John’s Oxford, himself one of the students of Japanese, has added several names of fellow-students, and some interesting details. Geoffrey Bownas of Queen’s Oxford returned to ancient history, but then became Professor of Japanese in Sheffield, pioneering a course in Japanese and Economics, and editing Japanese poetry. David Hawkes of Christ Church Oxford was made (like Ceadel) an instructor on the Japanese course, but, fascinated by the Chinese language and its script, was appointed (1959) as Professor of Chinese in Oxford (Pt. I: 100). J. K. Anderson became Professor of Classical Archaeology at Berkeley, A. E. Douglas of Balliol became Latin Professor at Birmingham, another Balliol man, C. L. Howard, worked on the Oxford Latin Dictionary and was Professor of Latin in various U.S. Liberal Arts colleges. Maurice Charlton of New College subsequently went to Japan to master Japanese, returned to Oxford as a Classics don in Hertford College, and then took up medicine, even lecturing on epilepsy in Japanese at Tokyo. The name of I. M. Campbell (Glasgow and Balliol), Professor of Humanity in Edinburgh (1959-82), was added for me to the BP list by W. S. Watt, Professor of Humanity at Aberdeen (1952-79).

Professor Watt himself (Fellow of Balliol) worked during the war in the Inter Services Topographical Department: it was established in the New Bodleian at Oxford. The staff assembled geographical information, and produced a long series of valuable encyclopaedic handbooks for service use that were printed by the Oxford University Press working night shifts. The gifted chief editor was A. F. Wells, Fellow of University College Oxford. (He published little, but perhaps his most accessible work is in A.N. Bryan-Brown and others, More Oxford Compositions, Oxford 1964.) Among the other talented classical scholars recruited by Wells were W.S. Barrett, later Reader in Greek Literature in the University of Oxford, F.H. Sandbach, Fellow of Trinity, Cambridge, and Professor of Classics 1967-70, Charles Oldham, and W.A. Sanderson, who worked in advertising. Some account of the ISTD is given in Donald McLachlan’s Room 39: Naval Intelligence in Action, 1939-45 (London, 1968: 310-311), and Patrick Beesly’s Very Special Admiral: the Life of Admiral J. H. Godfrey C.B. (London, 1980: 205-213). The war soon showed up the inadequacy of information on foreign shores and harbours, and it was hard to anticipate just where military operations on land might have to be undertaken. A famous appeal was made on the B.B.C. by the Director of Naval Intelligence for photographs of foreign scenes in private hands, and 30,000 replies were received. The discreet searching for information, its organisation, and finally its presentation was a very complex and exacting task.

In Michael Smith’s The Emperor’s Codes: Bletchley Park and the Breaking of Japan’s secret Ciphers, London 2000, there are several references to the scholars who worked on Japanese codes. [Arthur] Dale Trendall, Professor of Greek (1939-54), was one of a four-man team at Sydney University set up by the Australian Army; [C.] Wilfrid [F.] Noyce, “a classicist from King’s College, Cambridge, and a well-known mountaineer,” “had a very battered face,” made an important contribution to breaking the Water Transport Code, later became a Modern Languages master, then a poet and author, and died in 1962 climbing in the Pamir Mountains with an Anglo-Soviet expedition. Bernard Keeffe had won a Classics Scholarship at Clare College Cambridge. Mervyn Jones had secured a starred first at Trinity Cambridge, and read Aristophanes on the day the war ended; W. A. (Bill) Sibley was a Balliol undergraduate who worked on translating the Military Attaché Code messages, and later followed a career in insurance. Hugh Denham (reading Classics at Jesus Cambridge) and [Laurence] Jon[athan] Cohen (reading Greats at Balliol) went from the Japanese class finally to Kilindini, East Africa, where they did good work on the Naval JN25 code. Cohen became a Fellow of Queen’s Oxford (1957), Reader in Humanities (1982-84), and a well-known philosopher and psychologist. George Ashworth, who later held the post of Registrar of Manchester University, was described as having the quickest mind of the group (including Maurice Wiles [Pt. I: 99] and Mervyn Jones) working on the Army Air Force General Purpose Code at BP. John Griffin, also at Bletchley, subsequently taught at Bryanston School. References to all these names may be found in the adequate index to The Emperor’s Codes; some added information was kindly given by Professor Russell.

Finally, I must correct two errors in Part I: on p. 89 the date of de Grey’s birth should be 1886; on p. 99 it should be stated that the first Baron Lindsay was the father-in-law, not the husband, of Hsiao Li.


[i] A. D. Knox and Walter Headlam, Herodas: The Mimes and Fragments, Cambridge 1922: x.

[ii] E. F. Benson, As we were: a Victorian peepshow, London 1930, 133-139, cf. F 69-70. One may com­pare the description given by Cecil Headlam in Walter Headlam: his Letters and Poems, with a memoir, London 1910, 143-144.

[iii] This is the version of the lines I found in an edition of Schiller’s works: German textual critics may amuse themselves in speculating on the origin of the slight differences in F 145.

[iv] This scenic and historic town had then about 20,000 inhabitants, and was 29 miles from London and 25 from Oxford.

[v] Actually, he was 59 when he died in 1943: appearances deceive, youth is relative, and memory treacherous!

[vi] Horn-rimmed (W 33).

[vii] F. W. Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret, London 1975: 32; but his book is said to contain inaccuracies (HS 44).

COPYRIGHT: All material published in Classics Ireland is copyright. Responsibility for, and ownership of, copyright remains with the author of each article.
© Classical Association of Ireland :