Commander Alexander Guthrie (Alastair) Denniston CMG CBE RNVR (1 December 1881, Greenock – 1 January 1961, Milford on Sea) was a British codebreaker in Room 40 and first head of the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) and field hockey player. Denniston was appointed operational head of GC&CS in 1919 and remained so until February 1942.
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Denniston was born in Greenock, the son of a medical practitioner. He studied at the University of Bonn and the University of Paris. Denniston was a member of the Scottish Olympic Hockey team in 1908 and won a bronze medal.
World War I and interbellum
On 26 July 1939, just five weeks before the outbreak of World War II, Denniston was one of three Britons (along with Dilly Knox and Humphrey Sandwith) who participated in the trilateral Polish-French-British conference held in the Kabaty Woods south of Warsaw, at which the Polish Cipher Bureau initiated the French and British into the decryption of German military Enigma ciphers.
World War II
In October 1941, four senior codebreakers, Alan Turing, Gordon Welchman, Stuart Milner-Barry and Hugh Alexander wrote to Churchill, over the head of Denniston, to alert Churchill to the fact that a shortage of staff at Bletchley Park was preventing them from deciphering many messages. An addition of man or womanpower, small by military standards, could make a big difference to the effectiveness of the fighting effort. The slow response to previous requests had convinced them that the strategic value of their work was not understood in the right quarters. In the letter, there was praise for the 'energy and foresight' of Commander Edward Travis.
Churchill reacted to the letter immediately, ordering "Action this day". Resources were transferred as fast as possible.
In February 1942, GC&CS was reorganised. Denniston was effectively demoted, placed in charge of a civil and diplomatic division in London. Travis succeeded Denniston at Bletchley Park, overseeing the work on military codes and ciphers.
When Travis took over, he 'presided over an administrative revolution which at last brought the management of Intelligence into line with its mode of production' (Hodges).
Personal and Post-war life
Denniston and his wife had two children: a son and daughter. The son, Robin, had a good education at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. After Alistair's demotion, Robin's school fees were paid through a scholarship. Sadly, the Dennistons' daughter had to leave her school.
Robin distinguished himself as a publisher. In 2007, he published Thirty Secret Years, a biography of his father that solidified his reputation in GCHQ history.
Honours and awards
- 7 January 1918 appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) Commander Alexander Guthrie Denniston, R.N.V.R. Naval Intelligence Division, Admiralty.
- 2 January 1933 appointed a Companion of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) Commander Alexander Guthrie Denniston, O.B.E., R.N.V.R. Head of a Department, Foreign Office.
- 12 June 1941 appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) Commander Alexander Guthrie Denniston, C.B.E., R.N.V.R. (Retd.), Head of a Department of the Foreign Office.
- F. H. Hinsley, revised by Ralph Erskine, "Denniston, Alexander Guthrie [Alastair] (1881-1961), cryptanalyst and intelligence officer", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
- Ralph Erskine, "The Poles Reveal their Secrets: Alastair Denniston's Account of the July 1939 Meeting at Pyry", pp. 294-305, Cryptologia 30(4), 2006
- Hodges, Andrew (1983), Alan Turing: the Enigma, pp 219-223
- The Daily Telegraph, 27 May 2012 Obituary: Robin Denniston
- The London Gazette: . 7 January 1918. Retrieved 2008-11-20.
- The London Gazette: . 2 January 1933. Retrieved 2008-11-20.
- The London Gazette: . 12 June 1941. Retrieved 2008-11-20.
- Robin Denniston Churchill's Secret War: Diplomatic Decrypts, the Foreign Office and Turkey 1942-44 (1997)
- James Gannon, Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies: How Spies and Codebreakers Helped Shape the Twentieth Century, Washington, D.C., Brassey's, 2001, ISBN 1-57488-367-4.
- F. H. Hinsley and Alan Stripp, eds., Codebreakers: the Inside Story of Bletchley Park, Oxford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0-19-820327-6.
- Władysław Kozaczuk, Enigma: How the German Machine Cipher Was Broken, and How It Was Read by the Allies in World War II, edited and translated by Christopher Kasparek, Frederick, MD, University Publications of America, 1984, ISBN 0-89093-547-5, pp. 59–60.
- The Papers of Alexander Guthrie Denniston are held at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge, and are accessible to the public.
- DatabaseOlympics.com profile
- Thirty Secret Years: A. G. Denniston's work in signals intelligence 1914-1944
|New title||Deputy Director of GC&CS
later Deputy Director (Diplomatic and Commercial)
Sir Edward Travis