An enigmatic tale of an algologist and an abandoned sub…

You may very well have seen the story which has been doing the rounds recently; it’s a story from Bletcheley Park, the ultra-top secret establishment where code-breakers worked tirelessly to crack the Nazi coded messages which had been intercepted. Probably the most famous aspect was the cracking of the Enigma code and the work of Alan Turing but that was only part of what went on.

Apparently the story which is going viral across the media is about a man who was an expert in algae, ferns and lichen being called up to Bletcheley Park; as an expert in  cryptogams he was supposedly mistaken for an expert in cryptograms. Is this true? Or is it just a good story?

From the way the story has been reported and retold doing the rounds – for example:

They show him the enigma machine and are like “dude, you gotta help us crack it – you’re the best cryptogrammist in all of the UK!”. And poor Geoff is like “this is super awks, I’m a cryptoGAMMIST not a cryptoGRAMMIST. I’m not a specialist in codes, I’m a specialist in algae…”
And they’re like, “I’m really sorry but since Bletchley Park is totes secret, you’re just gonna have to stay here. But I guess you could give it a go?”

…it sounds like the script of a new hilarious film (or not) but the actual story is more interesting.

Geoffrey Tandy was the scientist in question, and a very eminent man in his field and friend of T.S.Eliot – in fact he read a version of ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ on the BBC.

He was born in 1900 in Kidderminster in Staffordshire. When he was a baby his father, Thomas Francis, aged forty, was a colliery agent married to Alice. Geoffrey’s grandfather,  John Crane, a retired clerk, was also living with them. Ten years later, Geoffrey had an eight year old brother named after their dad, Thomas Francis, and the family had moved to a pub, Thomas senior was now the landlord of the Tabbut Inn, Harvington. Alice helped in the pub, as, no doubt, did her father John.

Geoffrey was called up at the end of WW1 and served in the Field Artillery; following that he went to Oxford University, and obtained a degree in forestry. While there, at the age of twenty he married Doris Ellis who was always called Polly. He became a research student at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London and he also lectured there.  After three years he was appointed what was called a second class assistant in the Department of Botany, and three years later he was appointed as a first class assistant. During this time he and his wife became parents of a little boy, and two little girls.

His degree was in forestry mosses, ferns and algae, but he became a specialist in marine algae;  He went on a Great Barrier Reef Expedition in 1928, and two years later was a guest of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and went on two summer expeditions to Loggerhead Key in The Dry Tortugas

At the outbreak of WW2 he joined the Royal Navy, and this is how he came to be at Bletcheley Park. Lieutenant-Commander Tandy, RNVR, was appointed head of Naval Section VI in Block D . He was a skilled researcher, an excellent linguist but his speciality knowledge of the marine environment came to the fore when a sodden Enigma code book was rescued from an abandoned German submarine. Thanks to his knowledge and skills the soaking pages were dried and the information extracted proved to be of vital importance.

The story of the algologist mistaken for a cryptologist is jolly amusing, but there is much more to it than a ‘super awks‘ moment!

Here is an excellent article about Geoffrey Tandy:


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