F. W. Winterbotham

F. W. Winterbotham

Frederick William Winterbotham (1897–1990) was a British Royal Air Force officer (latterly a Group Captain) who during World War II was responsible for the distribution of Ultra intelligence, gleaned chiefly by decryption of German Enigma machine ciphers at Bletchley Park, fifty miles northwest of London. Later, as an author, Winterbotham published the first popular account of Ultra. Though written without access to official records, it was the first book written after the British official ban on references to "Ultra" was lifted in spring 1974.

Winterbotham's book, "The Ultra Secret" (1974), first brought Enigma decryption out of the official secrecy that had been imposed 29 years earlier, at war's end, by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. To be sure, there had been mentions of Enigma decryption in earlier books by Władysław Kozaczuk, Ladislas Farago and Gustave Bertrand; but it was Winterbotham's book that gave the first extensive account of the uses to which the massive volumes of Enigma-derived intelligence were put by the Allies, on the western and eastern European fronts, in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and perhaps most crucially, in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Winterbotham's account has been criticized for inaccuracies and self-aggrandizement. Winterbotham was evidently no cryptologist and had only slight understanding of the cryptologic side of the multi-faceted and strictly compartmentalized Ultra operation. His mention of work done in Poland (by that country's Cipher Bureau) over the nearly seven years prior to World War II is minimal and mostly incorrect. Winterbotham later responded that he had simply passed on the story that he had been given at the time. His book erroneously suggests that Japan's PURPLE machine was a version of the German Enigma. Winterbotham confuses the elderly Alfred Dillwyn Knox, a veteran of Britain's World War I "Room 40" cryptologic operation, with another, "quite young" Bletchley Park employee. Specific inaccuracies have been pointed out in his accounts of decrypts and of actions taken or not taken in reliance on them, based on subsequent study of Ultra intelligence and military operations.

Nevertheless, Winterbotham's book is a vivid first-hand account by the officer responsible for the distribution and security of Ultra intelligence by the Special Liaison Units (SLU), and much of the book still retains interest and validity. Winterbotham's opinion was that the war's outcome "was, in fact, a very narrow shave, and the reader may like to ponder [...] whether or not we might have won had we not had Ultra."

Prior to and after "The Ultra Secret", Winterbotham published several other books dealing with various aspects of his intelligence work, including his trips to Germany from 1933 to 1937 posing as a Nazi sympathiser. Major Fred Winterbotham (sic) recruited Sidney Cotton in 1938 to carry out some very successful aerial reconnaissance over Italy and Germany in 1939-40 in a private Lockheed 12A aircraft.

In World War I, Winterbotham was in the British Army (the Royal Gloucester Hussars Yeomanry ie cavalry), but he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. He was shot down by the famous Richtofen Geschwader on 13 July 1917, and spent the next 18 months in a POW camp, where he learnt German.


* F.W. Winterbotham, "The Ultra Secret", London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974 ISBN 0297768328; also London, Futura, 1975, ISBN 0860072681
* F.W. Winterbotham, "The Nazi Connection", London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978 ISBN 0297774581
* F.W. Winterbotham, "The Ultra Spy: An Autobiography", London, Macmillan, 1989, ISBN 0333514254

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