“What do you mean pretending all these years you were just a farmer?” demanded the local doctor’s wife, scolding Frederick William Winterbotham, a proper gentleman farmer who is her neighbor in Devon.
The woman had just learned that 77-year-old F.W. Winterbotham, the man quietly raising sheep, cattle and barley in the misty hills of England’s South Hams for 23 years, was also retired Royal Air Force Group Captain Winterbotham who has sent a shock wave through the British intelligence establishment with his book, The Ultra Secret. It has also become an American best-seller.
The book is the first published account of an astounding code-breaking operation—designated Ultra—that enabled the British secret service to intercept German military communications during World War II. Through Ultra, the RAF knew the number of attacking Luftwaffe aircraft and their targets, Generals Auchinleck and Montgomery were advised in advance of the movement of Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the Coastal Command and Royal Navy had accurate information about German U-boats in the Battle of the North Atlantic.
Winterbotham was responsible for Ultra’s organization, the distribution of its findings and security. But even 30 years later, his account of Ultra’s achievements has not been universally admired. In Britain he has been criticized for disclosing spy trade secrets. Some historians say the book unnecessarily minimizes the battlefield victories of Allied commanders and their forces.
However, one American expert, former deputy CIA director Ray S. Cline, now an analyst at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic Studies, calls Ultra “the outstanding intelligence success of World War II.”
Winterbotham, son of a well-to-do solicitor (and a direct descendant on his mother’s side of King Edward I), traveled around the world when he was 16. Then he worked as a lumberjack in Canada and a farmhand in Australia before joining a cavalry unit at the start of World War I. He later transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was shot down in a dogfight over Belgium by the Richthofen squadron, captured and held 18 months in German prison camps.
After the war he earned a law degree at Oxford, but, learning that the newly established Royal Air Force was forming its own intelligence branch in 1929, he returned to uniform and subsequently became the senior air staff representative in the secret service. The German he had learned in prison camp soon came in handy as he made frequent trips to Germany, ostensibly as a liaison officer between the air ministry and foreign office.
In this role he succeeded in ingratiating himself among the Nazi leaders. In 1938 Winterbotham’s cover was blown, and he left Germany permanently. But his familiarity with German leaders helped later in determining the authenticity of intercepted signals.
The Ultra project began in 1939 after Polish and French agents passed the British a copy of the German’s “Enigma” coding machine. With Enigma in its possession British intelligence established the Ultra Project in Bletchley Park, a country house 50 miles northwest of London. In April 1940, as the Germans prepared to attack France, Ultra passed its first test, decoding four Luftwaffe ciphers involving personnel movements. “From the intelligence point of view, they were of little value,” Winterbotham says. “But to the backroom boys at Bletchley Park and to me, they were like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.”
Winterbotham had to disguise the British “discoveries” by moving planes, ships or agents into position where it would seem that they, rather than Ultra, had learned the German secrets. At one point Prime Minister Winston Churchill had to forego evacuating Coventry before a devastating air raid to avoid tipping the Germans that their code had been broken.
After the war Winterbotham left “The Firm”—as the intelligence service was dubbed by its members—because of internal politics. He tried working in advertising for BOAC and for the government’s Colonial Development Corp., but came to hate “the rat race in London.” He retreated to a farm in Devon in 1952 with his second wife, Petrea, whom he had met in service during the war. There Winterbotham farmed, dabbled in politics, painted and collected antiques until 1966, when he began to put down his memoirs of the Ultra Project.
Refused access to government documents, Winterbotham used published battle accounts to jog his remarkably acute memory. But when he submitted his manuscript for clearance in 1968, government censors deleted all mention of Ultra. Published as an autobiography in 1969, the book sold only 1,500 copies. But through another writer, Ultra came to the attention of Cass Canfield of Harper & Row, who was an Oxford classmate of Winterbotham. Canfield commissioned a book on Ultra, hoping for eventual security clearance.
After persistent cajoling, Winterbotham received permission to publish the book last spring—after agreeing not to reveal any secrets that might endanger present-day codes.
Winterbotham’s success has allowed him to splurge on two new cars. Though he is now growing deaf and o needs a magnifying glass to read, he is enjoying his notoriety so much that he plans to expand and republish his first book. “If I had the facility,” he adds, “I’d start writing whodunits.”