Forgotten Heroes of Espionage (4)

Professor John Fraser (1882 – 18/5/1945)

Those who know anything about the annals of British code breaking during the First World War will be familiar with the efforts of the cryptanalysts of the Royal Navy’s Intelligence Division. They were based in various rooms of the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall, the most famous being known as “Room 40 OB” or simply “Room 40”.

But there was another code breaking section that was just as influential in its own way. This was the British Army’s code breaking team known as Military Intelligence Section One B or MI1b for short. Amongst this mixed bag of army officers and civilian linguistics and radio experts one could pick any number of forgotten heroes. But today we celebrate just one: Professor John Fraser.

Professor Fraser was born in Inverness in 1882. He studied at the University of Aberdeen from where he graduated in 1903 before undertaking further studies at Trinity College, Cambridge and the University of Jena in Germany. In 1907, he returned to the University of Aberdeen where he was Assistant in Humanities.

In 1916, halfway through the First World War, his life changed. Officially he was appointed Lecturer in Celtic and Comparative Philology at the University in Aberdeen. However, what he actually did was travel all the way down to London where, in February, he joined the cryptanalysts of MI1b. There is no record now of how this rather dry academic ended up in a secret military unit, hundreds of miles away from his home. However, we do know that during the First World War, cryptanalysis was seen as work for linguists rather than the mathematical task it was to become in the Second World War when the work was tackled at Bletchley Park. Coding machines were far rarer and much coding was a “simple” matter of substitution either by numbers or code words. In their search for linguists, someone must have brought the highly talented Scotsman to the Army’s attention.

Although he was only at MI1b for barely more than two years, Fraser soon became indispensable to the unit. When he joined, MI1b had only just started to work on diplomatic codes because it was realised that by analysing what governments were saying to their embassies abroad, the war could be shortened by being able to pre-empt enemy – and friendly – nations’ intentions. MI1b had already broken the codes of the neutral USA (yes, allies do spy on allies). MI1b then turned their attention to Greece as Winston Churchill pushed his idea of attacking the “soft underbelly” of Europe.

But the best experts in MI1b were stumped by the task. They simply could not break the Greek codes. All their best experts had failed. It was Fraser who came along and had the stroke of genius. Because of his knowledge of such a wide range of European languages, it suddenly occurred to him one evening that the reason that they couldn’t break the Greek codes was because the messages weren’t written in Greek. They were written in French, the traditional language of European diplomacy. Alexander Denniston, the head of the section, was away from the office at the time, but Fraser sent him an urgent telegram. It simply read: “The Pillars of Hercules Have Fallen!” The reference to the Pillars of Hercules was because it was the first code that the unit had broken in the Mediterranean theatre of operations.

By the end of the war, Fraser was working in no less than twenty one different languages. He broke or helped to break codes in Greek, Spanish, Uruguayan, Argentine, Turkish, Swiss, Swedish, Norwegian, Brazilian and Dutch. He even helped to break the codes used by the Vatican. When MI1b was broken up in 1919 to become part of the organisation that would eventually become GCHQ, only a very few people were asked to stay on by Denniston. John Fraser was one of those very few.

But John turned down the opportunity. He missed Scotland and he missed the work on obscure Gaelic inscriptions that was to so fascinate him for the rest of his life. He returned to Aberdeen, but just two years later, in 1921, he headed south again to become Professor of Celtic at Jesus College, Oxford. It was a post that he was to retain until his death in Oxford in May 1945, just a few days after the end of the second great war in Europe. But he never forgot Aberdeen. In 1927 he married Frances Mordaunt, a teacher at the University of Aberdeen. Rather fittingly, she was the university’s Assistant in Greek.

Today, Fraser is pretty much forgotten, even as a professor of linguistics. He did not publish many academic papers during his lifetime. He has a Wikipedia page which is some measure of fame these days. But the entry is very brief and it does not say anything about his invaluable work as a code breaker during the First World War. Although he will never rise to the level of fame of such code breakers as Alan Turing, he was hugely important when his country called on him. He deserves to be remembered in the annals of spying.

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