How Different Would the World Be Today if Turing Had Not Broken the German Codes?
Editors’ Note: This is the first in a series of four esssays on Alan Turing, who is considered the father of modern computing and whose work breaking German codes changed the course of World War II. These essays are by Jack Copeland, an expert on Alan Turing.
Writing ‘counterfactual’ history is always speculative, never cut and dried. Because, if some key matters had gone differently, the overall outcome of a war or battle or election might have been very different or it might nevertheless have been just the same. If the CIA had killed Osama Bin Laden in 2000, 9/11 might still have happened—perhaps because, following Bin Laden’s (counterfactual) death, one of his lieutenants would have stepped forward to take control of Al Qaeda and implement Bin Laden’s plans.
If Hitler’s Operation Sea Lion (Seelöwe)—his planned invasion of Great Britain in 1940—had actually been launched, troop carriers would have poured across the English Channel from France, accompanied by fleets of supply barges loaded with tanks, artillery, and heavy machine guns. During the massive attack by sea and air, thousands of gliders crammed with heavily armed crack German soldiers would have descended onto British soil. Paratroops would also have rained down, with swarms of dive-bombers disabling airfields and holding back a British ground response.
Once the invaders had secured a foothold—a patch of territory containing suitable harbours and airfields—Hitler’s formidable forces would have advanced ruthlessly in every direction, until they held all Britain’s key cities, or so the Führer planned. In the event, though, the Sea Lion invasion was postponed and then abandoned. But Britain’s fate had hung by a thread. If her Royal Air Force had not proved so resilient during the summer of 1940, if the German leader’s attention had not been wandering in the direction of Russia, if Alan Turing’s complicated electromechanical machine or bombe, whimsically named ‘Agnus Dei’—the Lamb of God—had not been breaking the Luftwaffe’s top-secret Enigma communications … then it might all have turned out very differently. When the Imperial Japanese air force attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Roosevelt might have faced a Europe completely dominated by Emperor Hirohito’s ally, Hitler.
The tide began to turn against the German military in 1942, with the neutralisation of the North Atlantic U-boat threat, and the humiliating rout of Field Marshal Rommel’s panzer army at El Alamein in North Africa. British successes in the U-boat war—where Turing was a key player—freed up the supply routes from North America to Britain, while the disaster at El Alamein denied Hitler his chance of taking the Suez Canal and capturing the precious middle Eastern oilfields. Debilitating shortages of fuel plagued the German military for the rest of the war.