Churchill and the Bletchley Park “Geese”

Churchill was fascinated by Ultra Intelligence, but were the staff of Bletchley Park his ‘Geese who laid the golden egg and never cackled’?

Martyn Davies / Bletchley Park Manor House / CC BY-SA 2.0

Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Bletchley Park, the home of Britain’s Second World War “codebreakers”, on 6 September 1941. This event has gone down as a near legendary affair in the history and remembrance of Bletchley Park.[1] Codebreakers such as John Herivel, Malcolm Kennedy[2] and Gordon Welchman[3] all recalled and relayed the visit in some detail. Churchill was much impressed and the handful of codebreakers who got to meet him were delighted and awestruck. Churchill also was struck by the general lack of military discipline, remarking “I know I told you to leave no stone unturned to find necessary staff, but I didn’t mean you to take me so literally!”[4]

Churchill had long been captivated by intelligence and the material produced by Bletchley Park was a source of particular fascination. Each day, the Head of the Secret Intelligence Service, General Sir Stewart Menzies, would arrive at Downing Street with ‘buff boxes’ containing Ultra intelligence reports — material derived from breaking high-grade axis cipher systems, most famously Enigma.[5] This interest would come in handy. Some weeks later, on 21 October 1941, four of the senior cryptanalysts, including Welchman and the now famous Alan Turing, wrote directly to the Prime Minister to request more resources, particularly staff. Churchill responded by ordering General Ismay, ‘Action this day! Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this has been done’.[6]

One of the most enduring claims, born of Churchill’s obsession with intelligence and Ultra in particular, is that Churchill described the staff at Bletchley Park and beyond, who produced this material, as his ‘Geese who laid the golden egg and never cackled’. Martin Gilbert, the pre-eminent biographer of Churchill, wrote that, ‘He also called them, more colloquially, his “hens”.’[7]

The allusion to geese and golden eggs is a direct reference to Aesop’s fables. Aesop is believed to have been an ancient Greek storyteller who lived between 620 and 564 BCE. The moral of Aesop’s tale is that the owner of the goose demanded more eggs each day than the goose was capable of producing and ultimately killed it in his avarice. [8] In other renditions of the fable, the man killed the goose and dissected it looking for the source of the gold. In applying it to Bletchley, Churchill signified the importance of the product, Bletchley’s gold; the high status of Bletchley in producing it; and the disciplined secrecy under which it was produced (Bletchley’s staff “never cackled”).

The goose with the golden eggs, New York Public Library, CCO 1.0 Dedication

Being a prudent wartime leader, Churchill would not and did not make the same mistake as Aesop’s goose owner. Thus, the story of Prime Minister and his Bletchley geese is steeped in symbolism and meaning, all of which serves to promote the value and work of the codebreakers and the wisdom of Churchill. It also sounds like the kind of statement one could imagine the famed orator and journalist-PM producing. Unsurprisingly, it has been repeated in history books, popular and academic, documentaries and countless newspaper and magazine articles.[9] But did he ever actually use these words to describe Bletchley Park? After the phrase has become practically ubiquitous in history and memory of British codebreaking, I imagined the source would be easy to find — probably lots of them. So, I decided to find it.

I turned to the standard works on Bletchley Park, such as Michael Smith’s The Secrets of Station X (2011), an updated edition of his 1999 classic, Station X — the book which accompanied the Channel 4 documentary — yet was surprised to find no reference to the source. So instead, I turned to some academic volumes. I began with David Kahn’s 1991 account of Naval Enigma, Seizing the Enigma. The notes here, of the sources I could examine, pointed to Martin Gilbert’s 1983 biography of Churchill, Finest Hour and to Andrew Hodges’ seminal 1983 biography of the cryptanalyst and mathematician, Alan Turing. Both of these pointed to Ronald Lewin’s Ultra Goes To War. [10]

First published in 1978, Lewin’s book represented perhaps the first history, as opposed to war memoir, published on Bletchley Park and Ultra intelligence. It does indeed include what appears to be the point of origin for the ‘geese’ quote. He wrote, ‘Churchill himself, asking for Ultra papers, would say “Where are my eggs?”: he had a way of referring to the people at Bletchley as “the geese who laid the golden eggs and never cackled”.’ However, if you look through the text or end note, no source is given for this quotation.[11] In other words we are back to square one or we are left with the possibility that Churchill never said the words at all.

Readers might well point out that others, veterans of the wartime agency, have since recalled Churchill uttering these words. Indeed, he is said to have done so before the small crowd of Bletchley workers on 6 September 1941. In fact, Mair Russell-Jones, a recent addition to Hut 6, recalled the speech and his using the phrase. Mair, like many Bletchley Park staff who kept their secrets so long, first began to outline her experiences aged 82 and these memories were written up and published in 2014.[12] The question, after decades of silence, yet also a vast popular historical culture around Bletchley Park and that quotation well established within it, is whether Mair was in fact recalling that popular culture?

As oral historians have long found, to quote Lynn Abrams, ‘we need to be aware that the memories recalled will not only consist of very personal experiences — things that only happened to our interviewee — but that these individual memories are recalled in the relation to the memories of family and friends and are informed by a host of public representations’.[13]

It is vital to note that isn’t to say that people lie, but they misremember as real events in their past. Genuine memories are mixed among and overlaid by popular representation of those same events and period. For instance, it has long been repeated that there was a tunnel connecting Bletchley Park and the Bletchley town Railway station. Mair recalled that Churchill emerged from a hole in the ground to offer his speech and that she ‘later discovered that connected Bletchley railway station to BP’.[14] Yet when English Heritage investigated this, they found that “there is no evidence for wartime tunnels or underground rooms at Bletchley Park.”[15]

To conclude, Churchill could well have referred to Bletchley Park’s codebreakers as his ‘Geese who laid the golden egg and never cackled’. In fact, he probably did. The quote must have come from somewhere, but it is astonishing how much traction it has gained given that concrete evidence is in very short supply.

[1] Christopher Andrew, Her Majesty’s Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (London: Viking, 1986), p. 449.

[2] Michael Smith, The Secrets of Station X: How Bletchley Parked Win the War (London: Biteback Publishing, 2011), p. 137.

[3] Gordon Welchman, The Hut Six Story: Breaking the Enigma Codes (London: Penguin, 1982, 1984), p. 128.

[4] David Kahn, Seizing the Enigma: The Race to Break the German U-Boat Codes, 1939–1943 (New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1991, 1998), p. 185.

[5] John Colville, 14 November 1940, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1939–1955 (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1985), p. 294.

[6] Michael Smith & Ralph Erskine (eds), Action This Day: Bletchley Park from the breaking of the Enigma Code to the birth of the modern computer (London: Bantam, 2001), pp. ix- xiii.

[7] Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Volume VI: Finest Hour, 1939–1941 (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1983), p. 612.

[8] Aesop, The Fables of Aesop as first printed by William Caxton in 1484 with those of Avian, Alfonso and Poggio, II, Joseph Jacobs Ed. (London: David Nutt, 1889), p. 245.

[9] For a handful of examples of many: Christopher Andrew, ‘Churchill and intelligence’, Intelligence and National Security, 3:3 (1988), p. 181. Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park: The WW11 Codebreaking Centre and the Men and Women Who Worked There (London: Aurum, 2010), p. 159. Michael Smith, The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories (London: Aurum, 2015), p. 55. Jen Rivett, ‘How Bletchley veteran Mary helped Allies win the war’, Oxford Mail, 1 September 2010, https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/8363322.bletchley-veteran-mary-helped-allies-win-war/; Richard Kay, ‘How Kate’s granny helped foil Hitler: At Bletchley Park, the Duchess hinted at her relative’s secret life as a code-breaker. Now RICHARD KAY reveals the inspiring true story’, Daily Mail, 17 May 2019, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7042795/RICHARD-KAY-reveals-inspiring-true-story-Kates-granny-helped-foil-Hitler.html.

[10] Gilbert, Finest Hour, p. 612 (note 2); Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (London: Vintage, 1983, 2012), p. 549 (note 4.29).

[11] Ronald Lewin, Ultra Goes to War (London: Arrow, 1978, 1980), p. 64.

[12] Mair and Gethin Russell-Jones, My Secret Life in Hut Six: one woman’s experiences at Bletchley Park (Oxford: Lion Books, 2014), p. 191.

[13] Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), p. 79.

[14] Mair and Gethin Russell-Jones, My Secret Life in Hut Six, p. 190.

[15] English Heritage, The National and International Value of Bletchley Park: A Platform for Discussion and its future, 2 July 2005 https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/national-international-value-bletchley-park/bletchley-values-paper/.

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