Espionage played a pivotal role in the Second World War. Both the Allied and Axis forces developed spy networks across the globe to gather intelligence as well as spread fake news, all in the hope of gaining the vital upper hand on one another.
Keeping one's cards close to one's chest was crucial in gaining any sort of advantage and such secrecy even crept into the public consciousness. Posters were strewn across Britain during the war with the words ‘Loose lips sink ships’ emblazoned upon them, reminding people that enemy ears were listening anywhere and everywhere.
The element of surprise could make or break an operation. The failed Allied raid on the French port of Dieppe in 1942 had shown just how devastating the loss of surprise could be. The Allies were sent packing, tails between their legs and licking their wounds.
So when it came to planning the largest amphibious assault in the history of military warfare, secrecy was of the utmost importance. In preparation for D-Day, the Allied forces dedicated an entire deception campaign known as Operation Fortitude, part of the wider Operation Bodyguard. In 1944, the Germans suspected an Allied invasion of Europe was on the cards but had no idea where or when it might be launched. Fortitude aimed to keep the Germans in the dark; any sort of leak could put the entire operation in jeopardy.
Therefore, you can imagine the stir amongst British intelligence when a month before the invasion was due to take place in early June, top-secret codenames associated with D-Day started to appear in the Daily Telegraph crosswords.
During the war, daily newspapers were widely circulated and read, keeping the nation up-to-date with the events of the war. Amongst their topical news articles were often crosswords. In early 1944, the words ‘Juno’, ‘Gold’ and ‘Sword’ (codenames for three of the five Normandy beaches targeted by the Allies for D-Day), cropped up in the Daily Telegraph crossword as solution words. At the time these were considered common words in crosswords and so were largely ignored by intelligence agencies as a case of coincidence.
However, on 2 May 1944, the word ‘Utah’ appeared in a crossword as a solution to the clue ‘One of the U.S.’ Utah was the codename for the D-Day beach assigned to the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. Another coincidence?
Eyebrows at MI5 were well and truly raised twenty days later when the word ‘Omaha’ appeared in the crossword section; another codename for a Normandy beach assigned to American forces.
Then on 27 May, a crossword clue about a ‘Big Wig’ provided the answer of ‘Overlord’, the codename of the entire Normandy operation. Three days later ‘Mulberry’ appeared, the codename for the floating harbours to be used in the landings. On 1 June, a matter of days before the operation was to be launched, the word 'Neptune' appeared as a solution word. Operation Neptune was the name given to the amphibious assault phase of Operation Overlord.
Did foreign agents plant the words there or were they a case of unbelievable coincidence? Remarkably a similar event had occurred before Dieppe in 1942. The day before the failed raid took place, the word 'Dieppe' appeared as an answer once again in the Daily Telegraph crossword.
The War Office sent Lord Tweedsmuir, a senior intelligence officer, to investigate and he concluded that it was a ‘complete fluke’. Were the D-Day words just a case of déjà vu or something more sinister?
MI5 wasn’t taking any chances and went in search of the author of the suspicious crosswords. It led them to Strand School in Effingham, Surrey, to the office of the headmaster, Leonard Dawe. The 54-year-old teacher juggled his daytime job alongside his passion for creating crosswords for the Daily Telegraph.
Two MI5 agents escorted Dawe’s off the premises and into custody, where they held him for the next few days grilling him about his recent choice of crossword clues.
‘They turned me inside out,’ Dawe’s would later say in a 1958 interview with the BBC. ‘Then they went to Bury St. Edmunds where my senior colleague Melville Jones (another crossword compiler for the newspaper) was living. They put him through the grill as well. But in the end, they eventually decided not to shoot us after all. Had D-Day failed, I suppose they might have changed their minds.’
After a thorough investigation, MI5 concluded it was another case of pure coincidence and the two gentlemen were certainly not German spies. The story, however, doesn’t end there.
On the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landings in 1984, the Daily Telegraph decided to re-tell the story of the coincidental crossword incident. Ronald French, a property manager from Wolverhampton, happened to read the article and got in touch with the paper with some intriguing information.
It turned out French was a pupil at Strand School back in 1944. Dawe used to invite students into his study to help him with the crosswords. He’d ask them to write words onto a blank crossword, which he’d later provide clues for. French says he assisted the headmaster in this way on multiple occasions and may have even been the one who inserted the D-Day codenames into the crossword.
At that time, the school was in an area littered with American and Canadian forces. French claimed he’d learnt the words from soldiers whilst he hung around one of the many nearby military camps.
‘I was totally obsessed about the whole thing,’ he told the Daily Telegraph. ‘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… Everyone knew the outline invasion plan and they knew the various codewords.' French kept a notebook detailing all he’d heard.
French said that soon after D-Day, Dawe sent for him and questioned him about the codenames. French told the headmaster where he’d heard the words and even owned up to writing it all down in his notebook.
‘He was horrified and said the books must be burned at once,’ French said. ‘Mr Dawe gave me a stern lecture about national security… He made me swear on the Bible I would tell no one about it. I have kept that oath until now.’
If French is to be believed, it wasn’t a case of pure coincidence but one involving ‘loose lips’. Luckily on that occasion, Hitler didn’t have anyone in Effingham listening!