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Could you have been a Bletchley Park codebreaker?

It's well known that many military intelligence heroes of the second World War, the men and women of Bletchley Park who broke the apparently unbreakable Enigma code, were crossword fanatics. Less well known is how The Daily Telegraph’s cryptic crossword of 13th January 1942 helped to win the war. Following criticism from readers that the paper's puzzle was becoming too easy, editor Arthur Watson set up a competition in his newsroom. He invited celebrated polymath WAJ Gavin to set a supremely difficult crossword and invited staff and contacts to try to complete it under time-trial conditions. Just five people beat the 12-minute deadline, although one, the fastest, misspelled a word and was disqualified. The puzzle was reprinted in the next day's newspaper so that everyone could have a go. Unknown to staff at The Telegraph, the War Office had got wind of the goings on, and were watching events keenly. Many of the contestants who had taken part in the newsroom time trial, or who had submitted answers to The Telegraph's offices, were surprised several weeks later to receive a letter inviting them to come to the War Office, where a member of the General Staff 'would very much like to see you on a matter of national importance’. Many of those interviewed went on to work at Bletchley and in other intelligence roles.

The full Daily Telegraph crossword from 13th January 1942 is reproduced below, and answers appear at the bottom of the page.

What may surprise you is how different a 1940s cryptic crossword is to that commonly published today. Cryptic crosswords today almost all follow rigid rules, known as “Ximenean”, after the great Observer crossword setter Ximenes. Those rules were summed up as saying that a good clue should contain: “1. A precise definition; 2. A fair subsidiary indication; 3. Nothing else.” As you will see, the 1942 clues are anything but codified and feature a mixture of general knowledge questions, riddles and anagrams, as well as what we would today consider to be classic cryptic clues.

Tom Chivers, writing in The Daily Telegraph in October 2014, commented on the cryptic crossword's enduring appeal: 'What people who don’t do them don’t realise about cryptic crosswords is that they’re a battle. They are mental combat between the setter and the solver: there are strict rules of warfare, but within those rules the setter will do anything to mislead and confuse the solver. That’s why a crossword is superior to a sudoku: a computer can set a sudoku, and a computer can solve it, but a crossword is human ingenuity versus human ingenuity, wit versus wit.' One can see why those sharp enough to crack the crossword of 13th January 1942 were admirably suited to work at Bletchley.


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