- A.N. Other
- 19th century wars, Biographies and personal histories, Naval Intelligence
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2017 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Mick Graham-Smith
In February 2016 this paper was presented to the Western Australian Chapter of the Naval Historical Society. They considered it of such merit that it should be included in the NHR for the benefit of all members. We thank the Chapter and the author for permission to reproduce this illuminating story.
Background to the Peninsula War
Britain’s contribution to the Napoleonic War effort was made mainly in the Iberian Peninsula. Many of Wellington’s army commanders and men, who subsequently fought at Waterloo, learned their trade or cut their teeth in Portugal and Spain during this period of 1808 to 1814. Unable to subdue Britain because the strength of the Royal Navy, Napoleon attempted to strangle her economically through blockade, otherwise known as the ‘Continental System’. To be effective, it had to be applied across the whole continent of Europe. In 1807 Napoleon joined his ally Spain to occupy Portugal. Once this was accomplished, he then turned on the Spanish royal family, forced their abdication, and placed Joseph, his brother, on the throne in Madrid. The Spanish people rose against the French and a general uprising spread across the countryside and into Portugal. Napoleon was incensed. Increasing his military strength, he systematically reconquered central Spain. Answering cries for help from Spanish and Portuguese resistance, Britain sent a small force led by Sir John Moore to the peninsular, but superior French forces obliged it to retreat to Corunna where it was evacuated and Moore was killed.
A second British expeditionary force under Sir Arthur Wellesley landed in Portugal, swept across the border into Spain in a final effort to drive the French out of the peninsula. At this time the French were facing a guerrilla menace; to help overcome this they employed cryptography as a means of ensuring messages remained undetected. It is not commonly known that code-making and code-breaking were used prior to the German Enigma Code in the Second World War. At this point in the story it is pertinent to introduce here a person who, together with others, was instrumental in the defeat of French forces in that campaign. His name was George Scovell.
Meeting George Scovell
Born in 1774, George was the eldest son of a family of five siblings living in London. He excelled at school, particularly in mathematics and languages, mastering French, Greek and Latin. His parents could not afford academic pursuits for their son and so he was apprenticed to an engraver to learn a trade at the age of 14. George yearned for a career as a cavalry officer, a desire achieved when he was 19, initially as a lieutenant and subsequently with the purchase of a captain’s commission in the 4th Dragoons. The officers in cavalry regiments came from wealthy backgrounds with spending habits that George could not match on his meagre annual salary of less than £200. A captain and friend in the 57th Foot Regiment offered to purchase the captain’s commission from George which resulted in their swapping regiments. This was a stage down for him with less prestige, but nonetheless it enabled him to get married.
George Scovell’s first campaign with his regiment after 13 years of soldiering was during the disastrous retreat to Corunna in 1808. Back in England the experiences of that campaign convinced George that the Army desperately needed reform and he felt that he could play a part in addressing some of its inadequacies. Science and brain power was more important to securing victory than noble birth or the maintenance of patronage. He set about solving some of its problems by joining the staff of the Quartermaster-General and being part of a much larger and better equipped expeditionary force to the Peninsula under Sir Arthur Wellesley in 1809.
It was imperative that the Army should be in possession of up-to-date intelligence of the enemy’s activities and dispositions. To this end, George established a new unit called the Corps of Guides which was made up of a motley band of Spanish deserters, Portuguese smugglers, Swiss and Italian mercenaries and Irish soldiers of fortune. These men were recruited for their local knowledge of the countryside, ability to speak the language and ride horses. He even employed an Irish Roman Catholic priest as a spy! Scattered like ‘penny packets’ across the Spanish countryside, the Guides set about the task of gathering intelligence by capturing French communiques. Letters were written on tiny scraps of paper hidden in the seams of clothing, inside saddles and even riding crops. The French were using a code consisting of a combination of 150 numbers, known as the Portuguese Code, which George was able to crack in two days! He was a gifted linguist, having spent 20 years studying French grammar and syntax, as well as speaking Spanish and Italian fluently. He was fascinated by the workings of secret messages, codes and signals. Wellesley rewarded George for his natural ability in this area by promoting him to the rank of major.
The French soon realised they were being hoodwinked and a new Great Cipher with 1,400 numerals was circulated to Napoleon’s field commanders and his brother Joseph, the King of Spain. There were two tables: one for enciphering, the other for deciphering. This Grand Chiffre, as it was known, allowed more permutations in writing a single phrase or even a single word. A place name such as Seville could be a single number or six numbers of a single letter code or two codes for SE and VILLE. This enabled different applications to be mixed up when a recurring word was used in a despatch. The cipher even had vacant numbers that could be included in the middle of a word to make guesswork even harder. Amongst the tricks of the trade, a number of vacant codes could be included at the end of a despatch, as code breakers usually tackled the end first and an intelligent decipherer would be wasting his time on meaningless numbers! Thus if letters of utmost importance were intercepted, nothing would be lost. Couriers were a natural target and in order to improve the chances of messages getting through, the French were forced to send more than one copy of each despatch.
The first captured French message using the new code occurred while Wellesley was planning the capture of Ciudad Rodrigo. George pored over intercepted documents and made gradual progress using letters that contained encoded words and phrases so that the coded sections could be inferred from the context. The information on troop movements gathered by his band of brigands or army Guides was critical when making assumed guesses about the identity of persons and places in coded letters. By taking shortcuts and mixing language, he was able to break enough of the code to enable Wellesley, who had by now become the Duke of Wellington, to achieve a resounding victory at Salamanca in May 1812. Wellington knew exactly what the French dispositions were and what tactics they proposed to adopt. The secret was shared by only three officers in his headquarters, namely Wellington’s two field commanders, Lieutenant-Generals Thomas Graham and Rowland Hill, and George Scovell himself. Following these successes George was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and Mentioned in Dispatches, not for drawing blood, but for application of science and intellect. Besides his work on intelligence, George was remarkable for inventing practical things such as a portable forge with bellows for blacksmiths which could be carried by two mules instead of cumbersome carts.
In 1813 George was appointed to form a new unit called the Staff Cavalry Corps, a regiment of headquartered horsemen able to turn their hand to a variety of duties. Besides code making and code breaking, they gathered intelligence, drew maps, acted as postmasters for all mail and communications, as well as maintaining discipline in the army. This multi-skilled unit developed in later years to form further specialised units in the British Army such as the Royal Intelligence Corps. The Royal Engineers assumed the task of map making and postal services, and later, the Royal Signals, for communications. George Scovell’s red coated gendarme ordisciplinary force set the precedent for the Royal Military Police to wear red caps and armbands. The Red Caps were often referred to as ‘the other enemy’ by men serving in the ranks!
Communications between Army and Navy
As Wellington’s army marched closer to the coast in northern Spain, co-operation with the Royal Navy became a necessity. The Navy’s local commander, Commodore Popham, had written a treaties called ‘Telegraphic Signals or Maritime Vocabulary’ for the Royal Navy which made communications between warships more efficient and secure. Operating along the Biscayan coast, he wrote to Wellington suggesting the communications between them across no man’s land ought to be protected by cipher. George Scovell came up with a solution which was most ingenious. He made sure that both Headquarters had copies of the same edition of an English pocket dictionary which could be used as the basis of his code. To quote an example given by him, the code 134A18 could be deciphered as follows: 134 is the page number; A is the column; and 18 is the number of words or letters from the top. In this particular case the word was ‘chessboard’. With his knowledge of a ‘two book’ system, it is remarkable that a man in charge of Wellington’s communications arrived at a virtually impregnable solution so quickly!
Victory in sight
Interception of letters revealed squabbles and jealousies between the French marshals and Napoleon’s brother. Their disposition of forces, including numbers of cavalry, infantry and artillery, together with supplies of ammunition and supplies were ascertained through George Scovell’s handiwork. At this time news was filtering through to the French hierarchy that Napoleon’s Russian campaign was doomed and about to become an unmitigated disaster. He had set out with half a million men but only 20,000 returned alive to France. This had a devastating effect on morale amongst the French forces in Spain. Marshal Soult, the instigator of much of the unhappiness in the Iberian army, was recalled together with 15,000 veterans needed to reconstruct the French army at home.
Wellington started to prepare for the final battle for control of Spain. At this stage George Scovell had mastered virtually the whole of the Grand Chiffre and Wellington was able to employ this to advantage by a series of flanking movements to force the enemy back from Burgos to Vittoria where the French army was put in full retreat. With victory secured on 21 June 1813, his troops seized Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage train and discovered a copy of the tables. The code was now completely broken! The remnants of the French forces were pursued back into France and the Iberian Peninsula was freed from Napoleon’s yoke. The final battle at Toulouse was inconclusive when both sides learned that Napoleon had abdicated in Paris.
Throughout the five year Iberian campaign Wellington never lost a single battle and this achievement can be credited in large measure to George Scovell’s amazing code breaking and other related skills. With this acquired knowledge, Wellington judged when to refrain from action and with utmost patience, he would bide his time and seize a winnable opportunity only when it presented itself.
The final battle to eliminate Napoleon from continental Europe did not occur until 1815 at Waterloo. George, who had taken part in all previous major battles with the French, was on Wellington’s staff on that momentous day of 18th June. He was lucky to escape injury or even death. When his horse reared, he raised his arm to prevent his hat from falling off and a ground shot carried away the armpit of his coat. Had he not raised his arm, the shot would have hit his arm and possibly his shoulder. The impact knocked him off the horse.
For his services George was knighted in that year. He received the Waterloo Medal and was awarded the Russian Order of St. Vladimir. With the war over, nearly all military personnel were placed on half pay. He contemplated migrating to New Zealand where he had been offered the position of Commissioner of Police. Instead he became Lieutenant-Governor (1829-1837) and then Governor (1837-1856) of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, positions he held for 27 years. In 1847, now a Lieutenant-General, he was honoured with the colonelcy of his old regiment, the 4th Dragoons. After becoming a full general in 1854, he retired from active service, dying at the age of 87 in 1861. Fittingly, he was buried at Sandhurst in the grounds of the Royal Military College.
Sadly he and his wife Mary had no children. However he had a very fruitful career and aspired to remarkable heights far removed from his formative years as an engraver’s apprentice. As the father of secret business at the time, George Scovell was the forerunner to the great code breakers of the 20th century.
An Australian Twist
I would like to finish here by mentioning two bits of rather useless information that came up in my research:
Mary and George Scovell were great friends with Jane Austen, the famous novelist. Apparently she attended their wedding in Manchester and this event is recorded in her novel Mansfield Park.
One of the battles in the Iberian Peninsula campaign was at Barrosa. Thomas Graham (later Lord Lynedoch) led a British-Portuguese division that routed a French force twice its strength during a bid to lift the siege of Cadiz. (Cadiz was the port from which the combined French and Spanish fleets sailed to meet Lord Nelson at the famous Battle of Trafalgar). A junior officer at the Battle of Barrosa was William Light who later became Surveyor-General of South Australia in the 1880s. He decided to name one of the wine producing areas ‘Barossa Valley’ and the town nearby ‘Lyndoch’ in recognition of the battle and his former commander. Spelling was obviously not his strong point. Unfortunately both names were incorrectly spelt and in posterity they have remained as such! There is a museum in Lyndoch which displays items of historical military memorabilia covering that period in history.