Thursday, May 24, 2012

The contrasting fates of Alan Turing and Lord Sempill

Alan Turing, genius and war hero.
Most British people have heard of Alan Turing. You would have to have studiously avoided learning about the the history of Second World War, computer science, codebraking and gay rights issues in order to have remained ignorant of one of the greatest mathematical minds of the 20th Century and his extraordinary contribution to the British war effort. Fewer people have heard of William Forbes-Sempill, 19th Lord Sempill, yet his influence on the British war effort was no less dramatic.

Alan Turing was born in London to Julius Mathison Turing, a recently returned Indian civil servant and Ethel Sara Stoney, the daughter of a noted railway engineer. As a child he attended private schools, eventually earning a place at Cambridge University where he graduated with a first class honours degree in Mathematics. Turing managed to thrive at establishment institutions like Sherbourne and Cambridge University because of his intelligence, however he was treated with suspicion by the establishment elite due to his non-aristocratic background, eccentric nature, intimidating genius and his homosexual tendencies.

After obtaining a Phd from the prestigious Princeton University in New Jersey he returned to the UK to work with the secret Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) intelligence service where he concentrated on cryptanalysis of the German Enigma code. During the Second World War Turing was an important figure at the Bletchley Park codebreaking facility where he made many invaluable contributions to the deciphering of complex German military codes. He was described by fellow codebreaker Asa Briggs "the genius" that Bletchley Park needed.

It has been estimated that the work of Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park shortened the war by between two and four years, and that without their contributions the outcome of the war would have been uncertain. Turing didn't only make a significant contribution to the British war effort, he also did pioneering work in computing and is widely considered to be the father of computer science and artificial intelligence.

William Forbes-Sempill was the Eton educated son of John Forbes-Sempill, 9th Baronet of Craigievar and hereditary member of the House of Lords. During the First World War the younger Sempill served as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps and then with the Royal Navy Air Service. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service during the war.


Captain Sempill showing a Gloster Sparrowhawk
to Admiral Togo Heihachiro, in 1921.
In the aftermath of the war he led a British Deputation to Japan where he assisted the Japanese navy in setting up an airforce base and establishing their aircraft carrier fleet. Sempill received a personal letter from the Japanese Prime Minister Tomosaburo Kato thanking him for his work with the Japanese navy, in which his contribution was described as "almost epoch-making" and he later received Japan's highest honour, the Order of the Rising Sun, for his especially meritorious military service.

After American concerns were raised about the growing naval strength of the Japanese, Sempill's mission in Japan was officially discontinued. However Sempill carried on providing support to the Japanese by passing classified military and technical information to Japanese Naval attache in London, Captain Teijiro Toyoda. In 1925 he was questioned about his distribution of official secrets, but for undisclosed reasons he was never prosecuted under the official secrets act.

By the 1930s Sempill was an active member of several far-right, fascist and Anti-Semitic organisations including the Anglo-German Fellowship, The Link and Archibald Ramsay's The Right Club, (which was a secretive organisation with the aim of ridding the Tory party of Jews). Sempill was far from the only member of the British establishment elite to embrace the fascist ideology. The founder of the British Union of Fascists was Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Baronet, of Ancoats, whose fascist activities received a lot of positive press from the 1st Viscount Rothsmere's Daily Mail newspaper. 

The British Union of Fascists counted dozens of Knights, Earls, Dukes, Barons, Lords, Ladies and Viscounts amongst its members. The Royal family, who were at the very epicentre centre of this orgy of hereditary entitlement and establishment ennoblement, also had a number of keen fascists, Edward VIII maintained notoriously close relations with Nazi Germany, causing their arms industry minister Albert Speer to lament that "I am certain that through him, permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.". The Queen mother famously stated that she would have been happy for the Nazis to invade the UK, as long as they kept the Royal family.

Most of the intelligence files on Sempill's activities during the 1930s and 1940s mysteriously "disappeared" from the national archive, however it is known that he continued to receive regular payments from the Japanese government owned Mitsubishi Corporation and entertained several high ranking Nazis throughout the period.

Despite his track record of passing classified information to foreign powers and his fascist tendencies, Sempill was assigned to the Admiralty in 1939 on the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany. His position allowed him access to highly sensitive information about the latest British military hardware and official secrets. In June 1940 MI5 discovered that Sempill was still receiving payments from Mitsubishi, and an investigation revealed that he was almost certainly passing secret information to the Japanese. However the Attorney General (Lord Donald Somervell, Baron Somervell of Harrow) advised against prosecution, and Sempill was allowed to keep his position in the Admiralty and his access to sensitive information. In 1941 Sempill personally intervened to secure the release of the Japanese ambassador Makahara, who had been arrested under suspicion of spying.

Six months after the August 1941 Newfoundland Conference meeting between British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Japanese Embassy in London sent detailed notes about the meeting back to Tokyo. These encrypted notes were intercepted and decoded at Bletchley Park and the transcript was passed to Churchill, who noted that they were "very accurate", Three months later, further notes on Churchill's personal agenda and inner circle were intercepted on their way from Japanese Embassy in London to Tokyo. An investigation by Anthony Eden concluded that only two men could have created the notes: Commander McGrath or Lord Sempill.


The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill intervened
to protect Lord Sempill despite a mountain of
 evidence the he'd been spying for the Japanese.
On 9 October 1941 Churchill gave instructions to "clear him out while time remains." The following week the Admiralty confronted Sempill and told him he could either resign or be fired. Sempill protested, and Churchill intervened to say "I had not contemplated Lord Sempill being required to resign his commission, but only to be employed elsewhere in the Admiralty." Sempill was then shifted to a post in northern Scotland, However he continued to assist the Japanese. In Early December a raid on his office found him in possession of classified documents that he had been instructed to return months previously. Then around a week later he was caught making phone calls to the Japanese (more than a week after the Japanese invasion of British Malaya and their attack on Pearl Harbour). Sempill was made to resign, but he was never prosecuted for his treasonous relationship with the Japanese that did so much to help them to develop the technology they used to kill thousands of British and American servicemen during the Pacific War.

Sempill's activities were never made public during his lifetime and he continued to live the life of establishment nobility, keeping his position in the House of Lords that he had inherited from his father, and he was even given the chairmanships of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the British Gliding Association.

Sempill died peacefully in 1956 having never faced punishment or public criticism for his crimes. His hereditary seat in the Lords passed to his daughter Ann, and his Baronetry to his younger brother Ewan. It was only in 2002 that the scale of his treachery and his fascist and Anti-Semitic tendencies came to light after classified documents about his activities were finally released into the public domain.


All of the vital codebreaking activities that took place at Bletchley Park
remained shrouded in secrecy until well into the 1970s.
Returning to Alan Turing; he had a much harder time after the end of the war. All of his codebreaking work was classified by the government so he could never talk about his great contribution to the war effort.

Turing continued his work with computers, famously devising the Turing Test as a means of determining whether computer has achieved artificial intelligence, a test that remains an essential concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence. He also developed the LU Decomposition method (complex algebra) and did pioneering work in the field of morphogenesis, (which is the study of how biological organisms develop their shape).


In 1952 Turing was charged with the "crime" of gross Indecency after admitting to having had a homosexual relationship with a man who later robbed his house. He was found guilty and given the choice of imprisonment or chemical castration. This conviction meant that his security clearance was revoked, which meant that he was barred from continuing his cryptographic work with the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Turing chose to be chemically castrated rather than face imprisonment.


On the 8th of June 1954 Turing was found dead by his cleaner. A post mortem examination determined that the cause of death was cyanide poisoning, however no forensic examination of the property took place, and his death was officially attributed to suicide.

 Many people including his mother refused to accept the suicide verdict. The ambiguous circumstances of his death and the lack of a thorough investigation mean that nobody will ever know whether his death was intentional suicide, accidental poisoning or by means of foul play.


Turing's brilliance was not recognised until years after his death. In 1966 the Turing Award was established to for technical contributions to the computing community. It is widely considered to be the computing world's highest honour, equivalent to a Nobel Prize in computing. It took until 2009 for the British establishment to made an official public apology, which was made by Prime Minister Gordon Brown on behalf of the British government for the way in which Turing was treated after the war.

The similarity between the two men lies in the way the war conduct of both of them remained shrouded in secrecy until long after their deaths. Sempill was never exposed as the traitor he was, and it seems that somebody intervened to ensure that many presumably incriminating files from the 1930s and 1940s "disappeared", never to reach the public domain at all. Meanwhile, all the hugely important work undertaken at Bletchley Park remained secret until the 1970s, meaning that Turing's outstanding contribution to the war effort was not recognised until long after his death.


In the UK, living in a castle like this seems to
provide immunity from prosecution for treason.
Had the public been allowed to know about the codebreaking work at Bletchley Park, Winston Churcill's famous speech about the valiant fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain could easily have been made about the codebreakers too; "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

What is remarkable about the contrasting fates of these two men is the way that members of the British establishment (including the Prime Minister and the Attorney General) repeatedly intervened to protect one of their own, despite his fascist tendencies and decades of treasonous behavior, whilst the establishment people Turing had known and associated with during his time at Cambridge University and at Bletchley Park refused to intervene to help him when criminal charges were brought against him for the trivial offence of engaging in homosexual acts, despite his outstanding contribution to the war effort.

It seems amazing that British nobility, including the Prime Minister, would repeatedly intervene to ensure that another member of their privileged class avoided prosecution for the incredibly serious crime of passing official secrets to foreign powers at a time of war, yet wouldn't do anything to lean on prosecutors to drop the charges against a war hero and genius who happened to have been born into the "lower social orders".

The British nobility turned a blind eye the most heinous of crimes (espionage, treason, fraternising with the enemy, Anti-Semitism)  because it was one of their own class doing it, yet they refused to intervene to prevent a true war hero from suffering homosexual prosecution and chemical castration, simply because he was not one of the upper classes.


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