A codebreaking chess champion — Brian Maye on Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander

Skilled cryptanalyst made a significant contribution to the codebreaking work carried out at Bletchley Park

Irish-born Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander made a significant contribution to the codebreaking work carried out at Bletchley Park during the second World War and was a skilled cryptanalyst. Also a chess player and chess writer, he was twice British chess champion and earned the title of international master. He died 50 years ago on February 15th.

His Anglo-Irish family were landowners in Imlick, Carrigans, Co Donegal, but rather than follow the family farming tradition, his father Conel William Long Alexander became an academic and professor of engineering at UCC. His mother was Hilda Barbara Bennett from Birmingham and he was born their eldest child on April 19th, 1909, in Cork. When his father died in 1920, the family moved to Birmingham, where he attended King Edward’s School before winning a scholarship to study maths at King’s College, Cambridge, from where he graduated with first-class honours in 1931.

He taught maths at Winchester College and in 1934 married Enid Constance Crichton, daughter of Ronald Neate, an Australian sea captain. They separated after the war and she returned to Australia with their younger son Patrick, who afterwards became a poet; the older son, Michael, became a British diplomat. In 1938, Alexander left teaching and joined the John Lewis Partnership as head of research and personnel.

When war broke out, he was recruited by a friend to the Bletchley Park codebreaking centre, and was initially assigned to Hut 6, the section dealing with breaking German army and airforce “Enigma” messages. Transferred to Hut 8 in 1941, which dealt with German naval Enigma, he became deputy head to Alan Turing. He was more involved in the day-to-day operations than Turing and when the latter was in the US, Alexander became formal head of Hut 8 around November 1942. In October 1944, he was transferred to work on the Japanese JN-25 code.


Awarded an OBE in 1946 for his work on decrypting the Enigma code, he joined GCHQ that year (it was the postwar successor to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park). Within three years he had been promoted to head of cryptanalysis, a position he retained until retiring in 1971. Peter Wright of MI5, in his 1987 bestseller Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, referred to how Alexander helped MI5 with the Venona project (a US counterintelligence programme that ran until 1980) and how the mutual cooperation between the two agencies served to break down barriers and promote progress. Wright strongly praised his dedication and professionalism. He was awarded a CBE in 1955 and a CMG in 1970 for his work.

At university, Alexander had dominated the chess championship and he represented Cambridge at varsity chess matches from 1929 to 1932. He twice won the British Chess Championship (1938 and 1956), represented England at the Chess Olympiad six times (1933, 1935, 1937, 1939, 1954, 1958) and was awarded the international master title in 1950. Only once did he play in Ireland, when he represented England in 1957, and turned down an invitation to play for Ireland in 1935. Despite this, one source suggests that he always considered himself to be Irish (see www.stjohnstonandcarrigans.com/hughalexander).

He won Hastings International Chess Congress 1946/47 and his best tournament result may have been first equal (with David Bronstein) at Hastings 1953/54, where he was undefeated and beat Soviet grandmasters Bronstein and Alexander Tolush in individual contests. His chances of playing abroad were limited as he wasn’t permitted to play in the Soviet bloc due to his secret cryptography work. This limitation, together with his arduous career, might explain why he never became a grandmaster, as he certainly had the potential. He retired from competitive chess completely in 1963 because of the demands of his work but was non-playing captain of the British team from 1964 to 1972. On retirement, he wrote chess columns for the Sunday Times and produced a number of popular books on the subject.

Following a recurring illness, he died at his home at the relatively young age of 64. In Spycatcher, Peter Wright speculated that the exceptional mental demands of his cryptanalytical career combined with chess playing could have contributed to his early death. His lifelong friend and fellow Bletchley Park codebreaker Stuart Milner-Barry wrote of him in the London Times shortly after his death: “One could have wished for nothing else but that vivid and vigorous presence, that quick, clear and energetic mind, the passion for intellectual argument, the practical kindness and spontaneous understanding with the young – all of this will be sadly missed. To have been so close a friend for 50 years is indeed good fortune.”