The one puzzle that GCHQ has never been able to solve… As the spy agency issues its annual Christmas codebreaking challenge

If you plan to spend a portion of Christmas curled up on a warm sofa pondering that day’s crossword puzzle, then you owe at least a small vote of thanks to a man called Leonard Dawe.

An exceptional footballer, who played for both Southampton and England’s amateur team before World War I, Dawe had settled down to life as a science teacher at St Paul’s School in London when, in 1925, he landed a part-time second job at The Daily Telegraph.

It involved the so-called ‘cross-word puzzle’, an American novelty which had recently crossed the Atlantic and was proving a huge hit with readers of popular newspapers.

The Telegraph wanted some of that action. So Dawe was hired to create a challenging, and perhaps more cerebral, version of the brainteaser for its pages.

He came up with a distinctive variant of the puzzle, which revolved around in-jokes and subtle wordplay. Readers found the whole thing addictive.

An exceptional footballer, who played for both Southampton and England’s amateur team before World War I , Leonard Dawe had settled down to life as a science teacher at St Paul’s School in London when, in 1925, he landed a part-time second job at The Daily Telegraph

Dawe was hired by the Telegraph to create a challenging, and perhaps more cerebral, version of the brainteaser for its pages

Dawe was hired by the Telegraph to create a challenging, and perhaps more cerebral, version of the brainteaser for its pages

Indeed, such was its success that (while other compilers also played their part), Dawe is regarded to this day as the man who popularised what we now call ‘cryptic crosswords’.

By the time he died, in 1963, Dawe had produced more than 5,000 puzzles. But few have caused as much head-scratching as a series that hit newsstands at the height of World War II.

So deep is the mystery surrounding these that the brightest minds at GCHQ, which puts out its own codebreaking challenge every Christmas — the latest of which was published in the Mail last week — has failed to get to the bottom of it… despite decades of trying.

The puzzles in question were published at a singular moment in British history: during the momentous weeks of May and June of 1944, when the country was filled with Allied troops preparing for D-Day. Absolute secrecy surrounded the operation, as its success or failure — and the lives of 156,000 soldiers — hinged on whether the Germans got wind of the battle plans.

Indeed, so paranoid were Allied commanders about details leaking that a new level of classification, called ‘BIGOT’, was used.

Denoting a level above ‘top secret’, it was stamped on maps and documents detailing anything to do with the landings.

All of which explains the panic that broke out when senior MI5 officers realised that codenames for several of the beaches in Normandy where troops would go ashore had begun cropping up in Dawe’s crosswords.

On May 2, the four-letter answer to a clue that read ‘One of the U.S.’ turned out to be ‘Utah’, the name given to a beach assigned to the U.S. Fourth Infantry Division.

So paranoid were Allied commanders about details leaking that a new level of classification, called ¿BIGOT¿, was used

So paranoid were Allied commanders about details leaking that a new level of classification, called ‘BIGOT’, was used

A few weeks later, the crossword clue ‘Red Indian on the Missouri’ had the solution ‘Omaha’, which was the codename for the beach where the U.S. First Infantry Division was due to land.

Other recent answers to clues set by Dawe had included the codenames ‘Juno’, ‘Sword’ and ‘Gold’. Then, on May 27, one carried the solution ‘Overlord’, which was the name given to the entire D-Day operation.

A couple of days later, Dawe also presented readers with a clue that read: ‘This bush is a centre of nursery revolutions.’ The answer, ‘Mulberry’, was the code name for floating harbours that would be used during the invasion.

Then came a puzzle with the answer ‘Neptune’, which was what the Allies were calling the naval assault phase of D-Day.

Cue utter panic for the Allied High Command. ‘This breach of security is so serious it gives me the shakes,’ said Dwight D. Eisenhower, the U.S. general in charge of the whole thing.

The British secret services ordered an investigation into Dawe. At the time, he was the headmaster of The Strand, a school in Tulse Hill, South London, that had been evacuated to Surrey.

They quickly discovered two pertinent facts. Firstly, that Dawe’s brother-in-law, with whom he shared lodgings, was a senior admiralty official.

Secondly, this was not the first time Dawe’s work had come to the attention of spooks.

In August 1942, Lord Tweedsmuir (the son of novelist John Buchan, who worked in Canadian intelligence) had led an inquiry into how ‘Dieppe’ had appeared as an answer in the Telegraph crossword the day before a disastrous Allied raid on the French port.

‘We noticed that the crossword contained the word Dieppe and there was an immediate and exhaustive inquiry which also involved MI5. But, in the end, it was concluded that it was just a remarkable coincidence — a complete fluke,’ he later recalled.

In August 1942, Lord Tweedsmuir (pictured above) had led an inquiry into how ¿Dieppe¿ had appeared as an answer in the Telegraph crossword the day before a disastrous Allied raid on the French port

In August 1942, Lord Tweedsmuir (pictured above) had led an inquiry into how ‘Dieppe’ had appeared as an answer in the Telegraph crossword the day before a disastrous Allied raid on the French port

Panic broke out when senior MI5 officers realised that codenames for several of the beaches in Normandy where troops would go ashore had begun cropping up in Dawe¿s crosswords

Panic broke out when senior MI5 officers realised that codenames for several of the beaches in Normandy where troops would go ashore had begun cropping up in Dawe’s crosswords

This time, no chances were taken: two officials from MI5 descended on Dawe’s home in Leatherhead and subjected him to interrogation.

‘They turned me inside out,’ he said. ‘Then they went to Bury St Edmunds where my senior colleague Melville Jones [the paper’s other compiler] was living and put him through the works. But they eventually decided not to shoot us after all.’

Dawe denied being a German spy. But the incident appeared to leave him shaken (not to mention rather embarrassed) and he did not share details until 1958, when he agreed to take part in a BBC interview, to the amazement of former pupils.

‘We were astonished at the thought that Dawe was a traitor,’ said one. ‘He was a member of the local golf club.’

The interview failed, however, to shed light on exactly why so many Allied codenames had actually cropped up in his crosswords. Dawe wasn’t saying.

Speculation about it all continues to this day.

A potential answer, of sorts, emerged in 1984, when one Ronald French, a property manager from Wolverhampton, wrote to inform The Telegraph that he’d been responsible for inserting several of the offending answers into the puzzles.

French had been a 14-year-old pupil at The Strand in 1944, and claimed that Dawe was in the habit of asking pupils to help design the answer grids that he’d then turn into crosswords, in order to help develop their mental agility. Dawe would then devise clues for the solutions they had created.

French said he’d learned of the codenames from Canadian and American soldiers stationed close to the school, who were awaiting the invasion.

‘I was totally obsessed about the whole thing. I would play truant from school to visit the camp and I used to spend evenings with them and even whole weekends there, dressed in my Army cadet uniform,’ French added.

‘I became a sort of dogsbody about the place, running errands and even, once, driving a tank. Everyone knew the outline invasion plan and they knew the various codewords. Omaha and Utah were the beaches they were going to.

‘They knew the names but not the locations. We all knew the operation was called Overlord.’

He added that the soldiers talked freely in front of him ‘because I was obviously not a German spy. Hundreds of kids must have known what I knew.’

A Churchill tank on the beach at Dieppe during the raid by Allied commandos on the German occupied port town in Northern France - August 1942

A Churchill tank on the beach at Dieppe during the raid by Allied commandos on the German occupied port town in Northern France – August 1942 

 Although he could not recall writing the actual words into a puzzle, French did remember the consequences.

‘Soon after D-Day, Dawe sent for me and asked me point blank where I had got the words from,’ he revealed. ‘I told him all I knew and he asked to see my notebooks. He was horrified and said the books must be burned at once. He made me swear on the Bible I would tell no one about it. I have kept that oath until now.’

It was an intriguing version of events, and the BBC even made a film based on French’s revelation. It was called The Mountain And The Molehill and was broadcast in 1989.

Historians have never been entirely convinced, though. Some believe the whole thing was a coincidence; others a joke that got out of hand.

The author Ben Macintyre belongs to the latter camp. He claimed in The Times this week that French was ‘hardly credible’, pointing out: ‘As Eisenhower’s reaction attests, the codewords were some of the most closely held secrets of the war. GIs could not have known them. Indeed, all eight code words were known to only a handful of officers in Allied intelligence.’

Macintyre believes a more credible explanation was that Dawe, who had served in World War I, mixed socially with not just a well-connected brother-in-law, but a host of other officers involved in D-Day planning.

He may therefore have learned the codenames from a loose-tongued friend, and inserted them into a series of puzzles as some sort of insider joke.

If that was indeed the truth, then he took this secret to the grave.

Or, to put things another way, after a life of creating brainteasers, Dawe decided to leave behind one final conundrum that no one has ever been able to solve.

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