The Y Service 1939-1945

Hugh Skillen Obituary

An SWS officer who also worked at Bletchley Park,Major Skillen later became a prolific author. Many of his books are still available. He also helped in providing information for the resoration of the Bedford QLR.


Obituary from THE TIMES, London, February 12th 2004
Linguist who joined mathematicians and psychiatrists to break the code of the Enigma machine.

KNOWN only to the essential few as "Ultra", the intelligence derived from deciphered instructions to German ships and submarines, armies in the field and aircraft on mission shortened the war and saved countless lives. At the centre of this enterprise was the Enigma encoding machine. It was adapted by the German signals branch from a commercial prototype made by Dr Arthur Scherbius in Berlin in the 1920s, but it was in Allied hands from the early stages of the war. Mathematicians, psychiatrists, radio specialists and linguists played their crucial part.
Hugh Skillen was initially involved as a German linguist, then as the officer in charge of a wireless intercept station in the field. Later, after retiring from his career as a schoolmaster, he turned to writing about Enigma and Ultra, publishing 14 books in all.
Prominent among these was Enigma and its Achilles’ Heel (1992),explaining the origins of the system and the vulnerability of the encoder caused by carelessness in making the daily settings. He was also active, with the late Marie Bennett, in organising the annual Enigma symposium for former colleagues of MI8 who had worked on the decrypting of Enigma messages at Bletchley Park and elsewhere during the Second World War.
As a graduate in French, German and Spanish from Glasgow University, Skillen enlisted as a linguist at the outbreak of war, and served with the British Expeditionary Force in France until the Dunkirk evacuation.
Commissioned in 1941, he joined the wireless intercept branch of the Intelligence Corps. In April 1942 he was appointed officer commanding No 48 Wireless Intercept section attached to the United States Army for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa that November.
When Rommel was preparing a counter-stroke through the Kasserine Pass to force an Allied retreat from Tunisia the following February, Skillen's section learnt that the overall Axis commander in North Africa, General Jurgen von Armin, had diverted the 10th Panzer Division northwards. While Rommel was able to call on elements of this division later, information about his limited strength allowed Allied commanders to deploy accordingly. Thus the German thrust, though tactically damaging, failed in itsstrategic objective and Rommel ordered a withdrawal on Tunis.
At the end of the campaign in Africa, Skillen was brought home to become an instructor at No 6 Intelligence School in Hampstead, teaching the analysis of enemy signals traffic. After the Allied breakout from the Normandy bridgehead in July 1944, he was switched to the military wing of MI8 at BIetchley Park. Chosen for its
situation roughly halfway between Oxford and Cambridge and with a good rail link to London, BIetchley was crucial to the Enigma deciphering effort. Skillen worked there until being sent to Hamburg, in mid-1945, as head of the team charged with the de-Nazification of the powerful local radio station Nord Deutscher Rundfunk.
After taking a law degree at London University, he returned to his originally intended career as a schoolmaster in 1949. He joined Harrow County School for Boys, where he became head of French (and taught Michael Portillo in the mid-1960s). Skillen,convinced that future peace in Europe depended upon better understanding of each other's ways of life, pioneered exchanges for teenagers with families in France,Germany and Spain for the school. On retirement in 1976, he was invited to teach at Harrow School for a final year.
One of his last contributions to the memory of Enigma was the restoration of the White Ensign of HMS Bulldog, which had been responsible for capture of a German naval eight-rotor Enigma machine and associated codes from U-Boat 110, after it had been brought to the surface by depth charges in May 1941.
When heart disease ended his participation in the annual Enigma symposium, his wife Jean took over its organisation. She and their two sons survive him. Hugh Skillen,author and co-organiser of the Enigma symposium, was born on August 22,1915. He died in his sleep at home on January 4, 2004, aged 88.



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