Conel Hugh O'Donel Alexander bigraphy, stories - British cryptographer

Conel Hugh O'Donel Alexander : biography

19 April 1909 - 15 February 1974

Conel Hugh O'Donel Alexander, CMG, CBE (19 April 1909 – 15 February 1974), was an Irish-born British cryptanalyst, chess player, and chess writer. He worked on the German Enigma machine at Bletchley Park during World War II, and was later the head of the cryptanalysis division at GCHQ for over 20 years. In chess, he was twice British chess champion and earned the title of International Master. He was usually referred to as C.H.O'D. Alexander in print and Hugh in person.

A quote

"In playing through an Alekhine game one suddenly meets a move which simply takes one's breath away."

Bletchley Park and GCHQ

In February 1940 Alexander arrived at Bletchley Park, the British codebreaking centre during World War II. He joined Hut 6, the section tasked with breaking German Army and Air Force Enigma messages. In 1941, he transferred to Hut 8, the corresponding hut working on Naval Enigma. He became deputy head of Hut 8 under Alan Turing. Alexander was more involved with the day-to-day operations of the hut than Turing, and, while Turing was visiting the United States, Alexander formally became the head of Hut 8 around November 1942. Other senior colleagues included Stuart Milner-Barry, Gordon Welchman, and Harry Golombek. In October 1944, Alexander was transferred to work on the Japanese JN-25 code.

In mid-1946, Alexander joined GCHQ (under the control of the Foreign Office), which was the post-war successor organisation to the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) at Bletchley Park. By 1949, he had been promoted to the head of "Section H" (cryptanalysis), a post he retained until his retirement in 1971.

MI5's Peter Wright, in his 1987 best-selling book Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, wrote about Alexander's assistance to MI5 in the ongoing Venona project, as well as other important mutual cooperation between the two organizations, which broke down previous barriers to progress. "Any help is gratefully received in this department", Alexander told Wright, and that proved the case from then on. Wright also lauded Alexander's professionalism, and opined that the exceptional mental demands of his cryptanalytical career and chess hobby likely contributed to Alexander's early death at age 64, despite his healthy lifestyle.


  • Harry Golombek and William Hartston, The Best Games of C. H. O'D. Alexander (1976).
  • Sir Stuart Milner-Barry, "A Tribute to Hugh Alexander", in Harry Golombek and William Hartston, The Best Games of C H O'D Alexander (1976), pp. 1–9 .
  • British Chess Magazine, April 1974, p. 117 & June 1974, p. 202 (obituary and tribute)
  • Ken Whyld, Chess: The Records (Guinness Books, 1986)
  • in The Times

Category:1909 births Category:People educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham Category:1974 deaths Category:People associated with Bletchley Park Category:Government Communications Headquarters cryptographers Category:People from County Cork Category:Irish chess players Category:British chess players Category:Chess International Masters Category:Chess Olympiad competitors Category:British mathematicians Category:Alumni of King's College, Cambridge Category:Companions of the Order of St Michael and St George Category:Commanders of the Order of the British Empire Category:British chess writers

Early life and education

Hugh Alexander was born into an Anglo-Irish family on 19 April 1909 in Cork, Ireland, the eldest child of Conel William Long Alexander, an engineering professor at University College, Cork (UCC), and Hilda Barbara Bennett.Harry Golombek, revised by Ralph Erskine, "Alexander, (Conel) Hugh O'Donel (1909-1974), chess player and cryptanalyst" in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004 His father died in 1920 (during the Irish War of Independence), and the family moved to Birmingham in Great Britain where he attended King Edward's School. He won a scholarship to study mathematics at King's College, Cambridge, in 1928, graduating with a first in 1931. He represented Cambridge in chess.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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