As countries around the world commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day (the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe on 6 June 1944) news channels fill our screens with moving and horrifying images and footage of troops readying themselves on the shores of southern England, planes on bombing runs across the channel and landing craft coming ashore on the beaches of Normandy. The films show the military hardware, the explosions and exchanges of gun fire, and the people on the front line of the successful offensive. But what they do not show is the immaculate and comprehensive pre-planning that went into that crucial day, seen as the point in which the war turned in the favour of the Allies.
Number of bags of mail sent on D-Day and the following days from Army Council Secretariat minutes dated 19 June 1944 (POST 47/770).
One of the organisations involved in that planning was the General Post Office. Its work both in the lead up to, and aftermath of, D-Day was of major importance. Flicking through our files, it’s amazing what we uncover. Alongside some interesting information detailing the GPO’s activity both before and after D-Day itself in POST 47/770, we also unearthed a letter printed in the Post Office Circular of Wednesday 28 June, 1944.
The letter, dated 22 June 1944, thanks the GPO for its work in constructing “…a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom” and makes a point of offering the author’s appreciation of “their contribution… and [for the] excellent cooperation they have given towards our success”.
Letter from General Eisenhower reprinted in the Post Office Circular (POST 47/770)
Not only does this give us an insight into the vital role the GPO played in D-Day itself, but it shows how important the contribution was deemed at the time. Perhaps most excitingly, the letter is signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander.
The full transcript can be seen below:
ALLIED EXPEDITIONARY FORCE
Office of the Supreme Commander
22 June, 1944
Dear Captain Crookshank [sic]
The build up of the necessary forces for the current operations has involved the construction of a vast network of communications radiating from key centers of vital importance in the United Kingdom. The greater part of this work has been undertaken by the Engineers and Staff of the General Post Office.
It is my great pleasure, on behalf of the Allied Expeditionary Force, to ask you to pass on to them my sincere appreciation for their contribution and for the long hours they have worked and for the excellent cooperation they have given toward our success.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
65 years ago today General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his staff met to discuss the Normandy landings, or D-Day. The landings had been planned for some time and their success depended on good weather for the crossing and landing, and minimal resistance from German troops so that the Allies could gain a foothold.
Weather conditions had been too poor for a landing in early June 1944, but chief meteorologist James Martin Stagg forecast an improvement on 6th June. This weather forecast is usually cited as the deciding factor in Eisenhower’s decision to set D-Day for 6th June. However, Eisenhower is said to have received another piece of information during that meeting which was just as crucial, and he had the skill and inventiveness of the Post Office Research Station, Dollis Hill to thank for it.
Post Office engineers re-wire a telephone exchange after an air raid. Post Office telephone engineers developed the first programmable electronic computer during the 2nd World War.
Before the war Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers and his team at Dollis Hill had worked in switching electronics, exploring the possibilities for electronic telephone exchanges. But by the early 1940s they were helping the British code-breaking team at Bletchley Park. Colossus, later recognised as the world’s first programmable electronic computer, was their greatest achievement.
Colossus was primarily developed to decipher the Nazi Lorenz codes, high-level encryptions used by senior personnel, rather than the more famous Enigma codes used by field units. Computer technology was in its infancy in the 1940s and when in early 1943 Flowers proposed the machine, which would run on 1800 valves (vacuum tubes), there was great scepticism that it would work as until that point the most complicated electronic device had used about 150 valves.
But by December 1943 Colossus Mark 1 was working and it was soon moved to Bletchley Park, where it was able to break German codes within hours. An improved version, Colossus Mark 2, using 2400 valves, was unveiled on 1st June 1944, four days before Eisenhower made his decision about D-Day.
An essay by Flowers published in Colossus: The Secrets of Bletchley Park’s Code-breaking Computers describes the crucial meeting between General Eisenhower and his staff held on 5th June 1944. During that meeting a note summarising a recent Colossus decryption was handed to Eisenhower. It confirmed that Hitler was aware of troop build-ups in southern England, but would not be sending extra troops to Normandy as he was certain that Allied preparations were a hoax. This information was said to have convinced Eisenhower that the Normandy landings should take place the next day.
But whether it was the weather forecast or the Colossus decryption which tipped the balance in favour of 6th June, Flowers and the Post Office Research Station team made a remarkable advance in computer technology. By the end of the war 10 Colossus Mark 2 computers were in use at Bletchley Park, providing vital information to Allies forces, which certainly reduced the length of the war. After the war Flowers and his team returned to their work in switching, later pioneering all-electronic telephone exchanges. Their ingenuity was only recognised in the 1970s when restrictions on the Colossus project under the Official Secrets Act were lifted.
Posted in Postal History
Tagged 2nd World War, Allies, Axis, Bletchley Park, code, code breaking, Colossus, computer history, cryptography, cryptology, D-Day, digital computers, Dollis Hill, Dwight D Eisenhower, encryption, Enigma, General Eisenhower, Hitler, James Martin Stagg, Lorenz, meteorology, Nazi, Normandy landings, Official Secrets Act, Post Office Research Station, switching electronics, telephone exchange, Tommy Flowers, vacuum tubes, valves, weather, World War 2, WW2