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The Time a Seaweed Biologist Helped Win World War II

World War II is full of all manner of strange reports and schemes. It was a tumultuous time, during which there were many mix-ups, madness, and flat-out oddities. In the midst of all of this some cases serve to stand out as mostly forgotten gems that deserve a closer look, and one of these is the odd tale of a humble biologist who was supposedly called to action by accident only to prove his mettle in some surprising ways.

In the 1930s, the man called Geoffrey Tandy was a respected biologist specializing in the field of non-flowering, spore-producing plants like moss, seaweed, ferns, algae, fungi, and lichens, called “cryptogams,” and as a “cryptogammist” he was employed in a quiet, academic position at the Natural History Museum in London. Considering his field of expertise and position, when World War II loomed up over the horizon it couldn’t have seemed more removed from what Tandy was doing, a completely alien realm of warfare in which he had no place. He ended up volunteering for the Royal Navy Reserves in order to do his duty for his country, but all he really wanted to do was get back to studying his beloved algae and the museum. Unfortunately for him, he would allegedly get caught up in the war in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

The common story goes that in 1939 the British were looking for brilliant minds who could help them decrypt the secret messages that the Germans were sending each other, called the German Enigma cipher. It was a deep mystery that had baffled the top minds of the field, and so for this purpose was built the top secret elite codebreaking facility known as Bletchley Park, a place so classified that barely anyone even knew it existed at all and which employed such geniuses as Alan Turing, who would invent the modern computer. The Defense Ministry scrambled to recruit codebreakers for the war effort, a difficult thing to do since at the time the British were behind the curve when it came to military intelligence, and in fact had no dedicated specialized intelligence schools from which to draw from, and so they were forced to go through files and hope they could find what they needed. It was in this way that they supposedly came across Tandy’s file, which described him as being one of the best “cryptogrammists”, or codebreakers, in the country, and he just so happened to be enlisted with the Royal Navy Reserves. How fortunate! The problem was, whoever read that file didn’t realize that Tandy was not a codebreaking “cryptogrammist,” but rather a “cryptogammist,” a specialist of algae and seaweed.

Bletchley Park

This would explain a bit of Tandy’s confusion when he was brought to Bletchley Park and asked to get to work on codebreaking, something he apparently had not the slightest knowledge of. The military apparently did realize their mistake after the fact, but since Bletchley Park was so completely top secret they kept him around anyway, just hoping he wouldn’t get in their way. Considering that a specialist in algae and fungi was not much in demand during World War II, for a while Tandy largely wasn’t of much use there, but this would all change in 1941.

It was then that the British were able to make a groundbreaking discovery of a set of code books captured from a sunken German U-boat, but the problem was they had been completely ruined by the water and were unreadable. They were seen as practically useless in the end, but not to Tandy. According to this version of history, Tandy finally stepped out from the shadows and proved that he was of use after all. In his unique field, he had much experience in preserving damp or wet samples, and so using his know-how he was able to gradually dry the pages and coax legibility out of them. These restored documents would then go on to be instrumental in helping Turing to make his codebreaking machine to crack the Enigma Code, quite possibly shaving 2 to 4 years off the war and saving millions of lives, all because of a biologist who was there completely by accident. It is a remarkable tale to be sure, often advertised as the typographical error that won World War II, and it is even written of in articles by the Natural History Museum in London, but there has been some doubt that it went down quite like this.

Codebreaking room at Blechley Park

Skeptics point out that while it is true that Tandy was in the Royal Navy Reserves and was indeed recruited to Bletchley, it is likely that the British knew exactly what they were doing rather than some misunderstanding or typo. At the time British Intelligence were looking to get their hands on anyone who could be of use, and so drew from a wide variety of disparate and unrelated fields, with the famed James Bond author Ian Flemming being a good example. With their work trying to retrieve sodden, waterlogged documents from enemy submarines, they likely chose him specifically because of his expertise in this area. There is also the fact that, rather than a useless goon there by accident, Tandy reportedly was actually very adept at interpreting the technical language and jargon of various Naval documents. Even Tandy’s own son, Miles, has claimed that the whole “crytpogrammist”/”cryptogammist” mix-up thing was probably a joke thought up by the people at Bletchley Park, after which it was later reported as real, later being embellished over the years. Whatever the case may be, this academic did indeed have a role to play, and it remains a strange little oddity from the history of World War II.