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025 Sir Alfred Ewing and the principle of hysteresis

Sir Alfred Ewing

Sir Alfred Ewing

British crack German codes

It is Sunday 13 December 1914. It is the 25th week after the shooting at Sarajevo. 

British submarine captain Norman Holbrook stunts in the Dardanelles. With his B11 he dives under a minefield, sinks a Turkish battleship and manages to escape.

The Serbs recapture their capital Belgrade from the Austrians.

The Battle of Warsaw rages on.

The Turks in Armenia force the Russians into the defensive.

Indian troops attack the Germans at Givenchy.

Bernhard von Bülow, former German Reichskanzler, arrives in Rome for a charm offensive.

In England the conviction of Nicholas Ahlers, a naturalized German, for high treason is annulled because of an error of form.

Hussein I is proclaimed sultan of Egypt, which as a British protectorate no longer belongs to the Ottoman sphere of influence.

The Russians manage to prevent an outbreak of an Austrian garrison from the besieged town of Przemyśl.

And the British seaside towns of Hartlepool, Whitby and Scarborough are shelled by German warships, despite intelligence from Room 40, which is run by Sir Alfred Ewing.

The code of honour is broken. That is how the British feel it after the attack of Scarborough. This small northern English town nestles against the North Sea coast without any protection. For that reason an attack from the sea is unallowed, at least according to the Second Hague Peace Conference of 1907. Yet the Germans blasted Scarborough. Possibly they thought that the small town did possess artillery, but that does not diminish the outrage in Great Britain. The Germans play the war game without obeying the rules. In that case Great Britain is going to give them a taste of their own medicine.

Shelling the Yorkshire coast demanded dozens of lives. It is the first time since Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter in 1667 sailed up the Thames that an enemy killed ‘Brits on British soil’, even unpunished, for admiral Franz von Hipper’s squadron succeeded in reaching their own safe harbour.

It is extra bitter for the British because they were informed in advance of the daring attacks of 15 and 16 December 1914. The code of the Germans themselves had been cracked. Room 40, the extremely secret decoding department of the navy, had already intercepted German messages about a plan of attack on 14 December. However, the fleet that admiral Jellicoe had hurriedly sent towards Von Hipper, was not successful because of the bad weather and blunders of commanding officers. Room 40 must have been swearing loudest about this.


Sir James Alfred Ewing was in charge of the cryptographic whizz kids of Room 40, which was in reality not one room but a series of rooms. He was the soft-spoken son of a Scottish vicar with firm eyebrows underlining his noble forehead. His blue eyes sparkled when he encountered a tough problem that cried out for a clear solution. He had been like that from an early age. In Ewing’s own words: ‘In a family whose chief interests were clerical and literary, I took pleasure in machines and experiments. My scanty pocket money was spent on tools and chemicals. The domestic attic was put at my disposal. It became the scene of hair-raising explosions. There too the domestic cat found herself an unwilling instrument of electrification and a partner in various shocking experiences.’

In Japan he had trained himself for seismology and magnetism to guide the country of the Rising Sun into the modern era as part of the big project of the Meiji dynasty. For science he also explained en passant the principle of hysteresis, a result does not only depend on the size of the cause, but also on the direction in which the cause  is moving. This is a physical principle, but possibly it can also be of use to a historian of World War I.

Back in Scotland Ewing was mainly concerned about living conditions of the very poorest. Among other things he threw himself into improving sewage systems, but he also had one or two things to say about a phenomenon like metal fatigue. His employment at the Admiralty, the authority over the Royal Navy, was another step in his career. He was going to look after the educational programmes there.

After the death of his first wife Ewing remarried in 1912. His bride Ellen was a daughter of his friend and fellow professor John Hopkinson, a mountaineer who had also roused Ewing’s interest in alpinism. On holiday in Switzerland in 1898 Ewing declined an invitation of Hopkinson to go up into the mountains. He felt a little stiff from the climb of the day before. Hopkinson, his son Jack and two of his three daughters would never return. Their bodies were found hanging from ropes under a mountain top.

Ewing was raised to the peerage even before the war. The navy’s intelligence service knocked on Ewing’s door soon after the hostilities started in 1914. They did not know what to do with the intercepted messages which the German radio station Nauen near Berlin had broadcast. Would Ewing be able to make head or tail of it? Well, he had always been fond of solving riddles. Didn’t he win a prize with that at the newspaper when he was a boy?

Ewing entered into a highly successful co-operation with the Director of Naval Intelligence, Reginald William Hall, who was nicknamed ‘Blinker’ because of a tic that made one of his eyes blink like a navy lamp. Hall was the perfect man for the job. He coupled ingenuity to ruthlessness. When a British judge appeared to be very lenient to a German spy, so the story goes, Hall saw to it that the judge’s house was cabled through to the Germans as the location of a factory, after which they made the place part of a bomb flight.


Even a Gyro Gearloose like Ewing needs help from the outside. And he got it from a certain Alexander Szek, born in England, but of Austro-Hungarian descent. Szek was working for a radio station in occupied Brussels and therefore he was an interesting target for the British Secret Service. The question was if Szek was willing to spy for the British. They added that in that case his relatives in London would not have to go to prison. It goes to show that one should not expect too much of ethics in wartime. The intimidated Szek very nervously started to take photos of a German codebook for the British, which could be of use to Room 40. It has never really become clear what happened to Szek. Perhaps the Germans caught him as a spy. Maybe the British got rid of him as a risk factor.

In October 1914 fortune smiles on Ewing. At the Russian embassy they have something that might interest the British. It is a German naval codebook, made heavier with lead, so that in case of danger it could be sent down to the bottom of the sea immediately. But the Russians found the book on the dead body of a German telegraph operator. His corpse was floating in the water after his cruiser Magdeburg had been eliminated in the Baltic Sea by the Russians. The poor man did not have a chance to get rid of the secret book.

The British owe another German codebook to Wilhelm Wassmuss, a sort of German Lawrence of Arabia. Wassmuss the adventurer tried to plan a rebellion against the British in Persia. In an attempt to escape, however, he apparently did not see a chance to take his luggage with him. In this luggage was the diplomatic codebook number 13040.

Together with the Handelsschiffsverkehrsbuch, captured by the Australians, and another Verkehrsbuch, which was picked up from the bottom of the English Channel by a British fishing boat, Ewing can start unraveling the German codes and cipher constructions. Are the Germans aware of this? No, they are so pleased with the ingenuity of their coding system that they believe it can not be cracked.

Year in and year out Room 40 can eavesdrop in the bosom of the German war machinery. The powerful radio station near Berlin is essential to the Germans, for the very first act of war of the British had been the destruction of the transatlantic cables of the Germans. In the night of 4 August 1914, shortly after the British ultimatum to the Germans had expired, the British ship Telconia had entered the North Sea. Where the Dutch coast changed into the German coast, the Telconia crew had picked up five German cables from the bottom of the sea and cut through them one by one. Thus Germany was condemned to broadcasting wireless messages, especially with the aim to supply the many U-boats with instructions. The Royal Navy made far less use of radio messages.

The British eagerly prick up their ears in the ether. They possess four receiving stations along the English coast, but Ewing’s men also get their German signs of life from radio amateurs. The biggest problem for Room 40 is not picking up and decoding German messages, but preventing the Germans from finding out about this.

Room 40’s biggest catch is the Zimmermann Telegram, sent to the German ambassador in America on 17 January 1917. Arthur Zimmermann was then Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He linked a daring plan to the decision to resume  unrestricted submarine warfare. The telegram mentioned that the Mexican government could count on German support in case it tried to recapture Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Zimmermann expected president Wilson to throw himself into the war on the side of the allies because of the unrestricted submarine warfare. So it was important to keep America busy at home. This strategy included the intention to have Japan defect. The proposition was to have Mexico make the necessary connections. The Zimmermann Telegram was the dynamite that blew the United States into the Great War. There was no getting away for Wilson. He could no longer remain neutral against a  Germany that was stirring things up behind his back with America’s neighbours.

Historian Barbara Tuchman made a masterly reconstruction of the Zimmermann Telegram. Chapter One starts with the description of the following scene from Room 40. ‘The first message from the morning watch plopped out of the pneumatic tube into the wire basket with no more premonitory rattle than usual. The duty officer at British Naval Intelligence twisted open the cartridge and examined the German wireless intercept it contained without noting anything of unusual significance.’ Tuchman unravels step by step how in this message the end of the Great War was concealed.

The decoding of the Zimmermann Telegram is owed to two of Ewing’s devoted code crackers. One is the clergyman William Montgomery, who before the war became known as an expert on the work of St Augustine and as a gifted translator of theological works into German. The other is Nigel de Grey, a shy boy from the publishing trade, who will also join Room 40’s successor Bletchley Park in the Second World War.


Sir Alfred Ewing, the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Whitehall’,  will not be there in 40-45. He died in 1935 after leaving Edinburgh University as Principal six years earlier. In May 1917 he had left Room 40, the heart of British cryptoanalysis.

Next week: Alfred Anderson

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)






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