More on Code Breaking

Following the surprising amount of interest in my recent code-breaking activity publicised by the BBC and the Daily Telegraph, here is a little background.

Some years ago I was invited to take part in a historical event held at Mont Orgueil Castle in Jersey. My character for the week was to be the spymaster Philippe d’Auvergne. I was provided with a small look-out post at the top of the tower and a telescope. The weather was not the best and I decided to restrict my outdoor forays to a minimum, and prepared instead to display period code-breaking activities based on the story of George Scovell, who cracked the code used by Napoleon’s armies in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War.  For the benefit of visiting youngsters a set of simple cyphers was prepared for them to try their skill.

First I needed some coded documents. I wrote a computer program that would mimic the French coding system. The basis of the coding was that a single letter could be represented by up to half a dozen numbers of one, two or three digits. A number could also represent an entire word or group of commonly used letters forming part of a word.

I found some historical reports from the period in French and fed them into the program without reading them first. All I knew was the subject matter of the reports. I armed myself with pens, pencils, a notebook and an original 1791 French/English dictionary, as seen here:

Code breaker

Over the course of four days I managed to decode and translate one long document of about two pages and parts of several shorter ones that I used as cross-references. Sadly I have not been able to find any of the documents, but here from my notebook is a sample of my working:

My code-breaking notebook
The right hand page records the deciphered numbers, while the left hand page contains all the relevant notes.

I found this a most satisfying exercise, and I have recently used the same coding in my Peninsular War wargame campaign where the players requested messages to be in code.

Battle of Valencia 6 July 1808

This is one of those really annoying newspaper reports that gives no map and no pictures, just in the style of “The Times” in the early 1800s.

Marshal Moncey with 9,000 French approached the outskirts of Valencia with orders to take the city.

Don Jose Caro, commanding a militia force of 7,000 men defending earthworks to the north-west of Valenica, somewhat rashly decided to attack the French.

(The wargame was fought using the “Commands & Colors” system with house rules for roads, etc. and for the campaign rating of generals and unit commanders. The main rules amendment was that a cautious officer would refuse to move on a D6 roll of 1 and a rash officer would exceed his orders on a D6 roll of 6.)

From “The Trumpeter” 7th July 1808

The battle started with an advance in the centre by Brigadier-General Perdiguero with his 2nd Brigade.

On the French side General de Brigade Dubois attempted to advance on the right flank with 35eme de Ligne and 2eme de Ligne. His intention was to capture the village on the right flank. The officer of the 2eme being somewhat cautious decided to hold back and the 35eme advanced alone.

The Spanish retaliated by sending their cavalry to hold the village. The Valtueña cavalry entered the village from the south.

The French then ordered attack in the centre, hampered somewhat by the rugged hills. Two light infantry regiments (29eme and 41eme Legere ) struggled to move forward in the poor terrain while the 111eme de Ligne made no attempt to move.

On the Spanish side General Perdiguero advanced with the regiments Talamillo del Tozo, Valle de Tena and Alemanas. This was a somewhat foolhardy move, abandoning the defensive earthworks that had been so painstakingly constructed over the previous weeks.

The French struggled forwards in the centre, the 29eme Legere making some progress.

The Spanish abandoned the fortifications on their right, general Ribagorda ordering the regiments Vales, Valdeavero and Torres de Segre forward. This was countered by an advance through the woods by the French 2eme Brigade commanded by General Mousseaux-Neauville, who ordered three light battalions (38eme, 64eme and 62eme) to advance through the woods.

The French artillery, despite not having fired a shot, decided that this was the time to retire to the rear to replenish their ammunition, but at the same time their infantry advanced on both fronts. 24eme Legere entered the village on their right flank, while the 62eme and 142eme legere advanced through the woods on the left. Once again the 35eme Legere refused to move forwards.

The 24eme Legere drove the Spanish cavalry out of the village and took possession of the western side.

The Spanish now made an all-out push forwards. The regiments Pantá de Sau, Talamillo del Tozo, Valle de Tena and Valdeavero advanced on a broad front. None of these regiments were able to find a reasonable target so fire was withheld.

The French moved forward in the centre, the 41eme Legere driving the Talamillo Regiment back to the rear. The 29eme Legere also managed to score decisively against the Valle de Tena Regiment.

On the Spanish left an attack by the Pantá de Sau battalion failed against the village, but on the French left the 64eme de Ligne, 62eme Legere and 38eme Legere advanced through the woods. The 62eme came against the Spanish Valdeavero Regiment and destroyed them.

The Spanish response was an attack across the whole line with the Generals at the forefront. Panta de Sau attacked the 24eme Legere and the Torres de Segre regiment killed many of the 62eme Legere.

The French countered with an enveloping attack. On the right the 73eme de Ligne and 5eme Cuirassiers advanced, the Cuirassiers coming against the Andrés del Rio light cavalry and winning the fight.

On the left flank the 38eme Legere and 64eme Ligne advanced against the Vales and Valle de Tena regiments, forcing the Valle de Tena to retreat.

The Spanish now went on to a defensive footing standing and firing against the French attacks. Torres de Segre held off the 62eme Legere and the Vales regiment sored equally against the 38eme Legere.

The French now switched their attention to their left flank. The 64eme de Ligne, 62eme Legere and 38eme Legere attacked the Alemanes and Torres de Segre regiments, causing many casualties.

The Spanish made a limited attack across the entire front. The Almensa regiment drove the 29eme Legere back with many casualties, and the Torres de Segre regiment caused the 62eme Legere to retreat.

The French attempted to mount an attack on their left flank, but a party of guerrillas intercepted and killed the couriers with the orders.

In the centre the Spanish prepared a new attack. The Alamenes regiment fired at the 41eme de Ligne and inflicted several casualties.

The French replied on their left with considerable success. The 64eme de Ligne destroyed the Vales regiment, while the 38eme Legere forced the Torres de Vedra to flee the field.

The Spanish finally employed their artillery against the 5eme Cuirassiers south east of the village and wiped them out. The French attacked on their right towards the village. The 24eme Legere killed many of the Pantá de Sau Reiment and the 73eme de Ligne drove back the Andres del Rio cavalry. General Morera de Monstant was forced to flee.

The Spanish regiments Panta de Au and Torres de Segre recovered and were able to reincorporate many of their men who had run from the field, but the French kept up the pressure with an attack by the 41eme Legere against the Alemanes Regiment.

The Spanish made a desperate counterattack in the centre. The only success was the Alemanes Regiment against the 41eme Legere.

Against this the French made an all-out attack. The 29eme Legere attacked the Valle de Tena and the 38eme de Ligne and 64eme de Ligne attacked the Torres de Segre.

The Spanish line broke and retreated.

Little Common 17 Sep 1940 06:45-07:40

This was an interesting battle to fight.  The rules were “Rapid Fire” and the game was fought on a grid of 6cm hexagon tiles with 3mm models.  It meant that there were more  labels, unit markers and casualty dice than I like to see on the table, but I have to keep a campaign record, so all the markers were needed.  The terrain needs a bit more modelling work, but to keep the campaign moving it was usable.


Assault parties from 80th and 107th Battalions of the German 34th Infantry regiment have landed at 06:00 southwest of the town of Little Common. The area is defended by 136th Infantry Battalion, consisting of 9th Company Devonshire Regiment and 4th and 5th Companies, Duke of Cornwall’s Light infantry.

It is now 06:45

E Little Common 17 0645 S


1st, 2nd and 3rd companies of the 80th Battalion advanced from the beach towards the minor road between the two river estuaries on the left flank. The assault company (5th) of the 107th Battalion moved towards the leftmost pillbox.

3rd Platoon, 34th Pioneer Company started to tackle the barbed wire defences east of the rail/river crossing while the Pz III and Pz IV tanks crashed through the wire, but were temporarily stopped by the hedgerow bordering the minor coast road.

The second wave barges jostled for position in their approach runs to the beach.

On the British side the 9th Company Devonshires left Little Common and advanced along the minor road towards the beach area. 4th and 5th Companies DCLI remained in their trenches.

At 06:50 the tanks broke through the hedgerows bordering the road just to the east of the western railway crossing. The Pz IV opened fire on the leftmost British bunker with no visible effect.

E Little Common 17 0650

At 07:00, as the German pioneers of 34th Company crossed the low railway embankment, a machine gun fired from the British pillbox and wounded one of the engineers. At this time, the second wave of German reinforcements began to move towards the beaches in their barges.

The 1st, 2nd and 3rd companies began to move forward through the hedgerow bordering the minor road west of the river. The pioneers of 34th Company moved to attack the leftmost pillbox with their flamethrower, while the Pz III bypassed the pillbox and moved north to attack the DCLI in their trenches.

The 5th Company DCLI entrenched on the British right flank, opened fire on the advancing 3rd Company 80th Infantry Battalion. One platoon suffered three wounded and one dead, effectively putting them out of action. The Germans hit the ground and fired back, killing two and wounding one of the DCLI.

At 07:07 the British commander, seeing the German tanks advancing towards the 4th DCLI, detached the AT rifle team to move by the main road to take them on. At the same time the 9th Devons reached the eastern railway crossing and began to move west along the railway track.

The 1st and 2nd Companies of the 80th Battalion continued their move towards the road bridge on the main road. The Battalion HQ moved up to support 3rd Company, who retired to the roadway behind the hedgerow. The 107th Battalion began to move east to confront 9th Devons. While the engineers continued to clear mines and wire from the beaches.

At 07:12 the 3rd Platoon, 34th Pioneer Company managed to use their flamethrower to take out the western pillbox, killing one man and inflicting serious burns on the other two. At the same time the 2nd company 80th Battalion fired on the 5th DCLI, killing two men and wounding two more. The Pz III attacked the 4th DCLI, wounding one man and the 7th Company of 107th Battalion managed to wound one of the 9th Devons. The Devons replied and killed one of the 7th Company, wounding two more.

The 1st and 2nd Companies of the 80th Battalion continued their advance towards the major road bridge, while the 3rd and 4th Companies and the Battalion HQ consolidated on the road between the two rivers. The tanks continued their attack on the trenches of 5th DCLI. The 7th Company, 107th Battalion advanced east along the railway track to confront the 9th Devons.

At 07:19 80th Bn HQ took up a spotting position on the minor road between the two rivers, while the battalion heavy weapons company advanced ahead of them. The 5th Company 107th Battalion continued to move north along the hedgerow to outflank 5th DCLI on its left. The 3rd Platoon, 34th Pioneer company took up a position to attack the western pillbox with its flamethrower. Meanwhile the two tanks continued to advance towards the trenches of the 4th DCLI in the centre.

On the beaches the 34th Regiment HQ, a JadgdPanzer I and two pioneer platoons disembarked.

The 5th DCLI came under fire from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th companies of the 80th Infantry, suffering one dead and two wounded. The 4th DCLI had two men killed from the mortar fire of 8th Company of the 107th, and three killed and two wounded by the two tanks. The 5th DCLI returned fire, wounding one of the officers of 80th Battaluion HQ, while the newly arrived 9th Devons wreaked devastation on the 7th Company 107th Battalion with their rifles, killing five men and wounding a sixth.

E Little Common 17 0723

The 1st and 2nd Companies of the German 80th Infantry Battalion continued to move north towards the major road bridge, and the JagdPanzer 1 of 521st AT Company, newly landed, followed them. The 34th Pioneer Company began to deal with the mines on the beach between the two rivers, but suffered three men wounded by mine detonations. The 179th Pioneers continued clearing barbed wire from the beach exit near the railway track. The 5th Company 107th began to move north along the hedgerow to outflank the 5th DCLI while their 8th (heavy weapons) company moved east to take on the 9th Devons.

The 2nd Company, 80th maintained a covering fire against the now enfiladed 5th DCLI in their trenches while the 1st Company continued to move towards the main river bridge. Three more men were hit, and a further two from the supporting fire from 4th Company machine guns in the hedges to the south. 3rd Company , 80th Battalion also continued their fire from the hedgerow, killing another of the 5th DCLI.

The tanks fired on the 4th DCLI in their trenches, wounding two men, while the mortar and machine guns of 8th Company, 107th Battalion accounted for three of the 9th Devons, one killed and two wounded.

At 07:29 the 4th DCLI quit their trenches and beat a hasty retreat to the north. They had suffered five dead and six wounded from their original strength of sixteen. The AT Rifle team continued to move west in an attempt to take on the German panzers. The 5th DCLI, surrounded on two sides, continued to fire, but with no effect, while the 9th Devons, advancing on the southeast front, inflicted three casualties on the 7th Company 107th Battalion.

The 107th Battalion, now severely disrupted by British defensive action, were unable to continue their attack. The 80th Battalion continued to move forwards on the left flank with two companies while the third infantry company and support units maintained fire on the 5th DCLI. The 4th DCLI having been removed from the picture, the tanks now swung southeast to take on the 9th Devons, killing two men and wounding a further two.

The 5th DCLI retreated from their trenches on the right flank, while the Devons, now faced by tanks and heavy infantry weapons, began to withdraw The commander of 136 Battalion ordered a general withdrawal to the northeast, towards Bexhill.

E Little Common 17 0739



A bit of a challenge (updated)

Some years ago I studied Mark Urban’s wonderful book “The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes”.  I then put the theory into use by devising a computer programme to reproduce in a simplified way the coding system for use as an intellectual exercise and also for reenactment purposes.

I spent a week in Jersey posing as a British code breaker in the 1790s deciphering a blind text in French that my programme had encoded for me.  This was most satisfying for me, quite interesting for the visiting public and totally boring for my wife, who shared the same cold, damp room.  She was engaged in sewing, and my other task during the week was to retrieve dropped needles, for she was unable to bend in her period corset.

A couple of days ago, the BBC’s programme “Antiques Roadshow” featured a small patch box dating from 1785 with an encoded message that they were unable to decipher.  It was too much of a challenge to resist:

The top of the box.  Image supplied by and copyright BBC Antiques Roadshow.
The top of the box. Image supplied by and copyright BBC Antiques Roadshow.

Here is my working on the code:

At first sight the code appears to be

663- 5446- 45- 5-9288 166- 8503 45- 288

I noticed that some numbers have a line above them, and the dashes are actually a mark like a sideways comma. Rendering these symbols with an apostrophe for the “comma” mark and an asterisk for the overscore, and if I read it correctly, the code reads:

66’3 54*46’ 4*5’ 5’92*88 16*6’ 85*03* 4*5’ 2*88

My first clue was that there was also a scrollwork in English on the box. Since the top also read “Anno Domini 1785” there was a chance that it could be Latin.

The engraving (in English) around the box side.  Image supplied by and copyright BBC Antiques Roadshow.
The engraving (in English) around the box side. Image supplied by and copyright BBC Antiques Roadshow.

Starting with English and surmising that the double 8s were probably double Ls (other possibilities in English are E,F,O,S and T), I quickly – well, after a couple of hours of brain-bending – found out that the overscored numbers 2*,3*,4*,5*,6* are the vowels A,E,I,O,U. If 4* is I then 5’ has to be F, S or T, because it is used in a two letter word (IF, IT or IS).

Although there was only one sentence to work with, the lucky part was that two groups of letters were repeated (4*5′ and 2*88).  After I had worked out that the final 4*5’2*88 was actually two words it was easy.  I tried all two letter words as possibilities for 4*5′, and then a comparison of three and five letter words ending in the same double letter and achieved:


Here I ran into a problem.   The only word that makes sense for 16*6’ using the remaining available letters is “BUT”.   If that is correct I have:

?T? ?I?T IS SMALL BUT LOVE IS ALL. Possibly the second word is “GIFT”, but I cannot find a three letter word with T in the middle and no vowels. Could there be some carving errors, or did I mistake the carving?

From my logic above, if the first word is “THE”, it should be rendered as 6’63*   not 66’3.

To be fair, I have seen in 18th century texts the word “the” spelt as “hte” and this would make sense if I missed the overscore on the 3. I was working with a still image from a video representation.

So my conclusion is that the message probably:


By examining the letters and numbers in order, here is my best guess at the whole code.  Numbers and letters in bold are those used in the sample:

1 b   1′ n
2 c 2* a 2′ p
3 d 3* e 3′ q
4 f 4* i 4′ r
5 g 5* o 5′ s
6 h 6* u 6′ t
7 k 7* y? 7′ w or y
8 l   8′ x
9 m 0 v 9′ z

If you can add anything to this, please let me know by adding a comment to this post.

The TV programme is  available until 7th February 2016 to British residents at

Small scale barbed wire

Preparing my next very small scale Operation Sealion battle I need barbed wire to slow up those pesky German chaps.  Everything I have is far too big, so what to do?

Searching the toy cupboard for inspiration I found some items originally bought to indicate musket smoke.  You can get these pipe-cleaner like objects in any store devoted to the hobby of “crafting”.    Never try to use them for cleaning pipes!


Take a cigarette lighter and find a wind-free spot outdoors.  Carefully and without breathing light one end and burn off all the fluffy bits.  When the remaining wire is cool enough to touch, wind it without much care and not too tightly around the thinnest thing to hand (I used a large paperclip after trying several alternatives).  For extra effect, occasionally back-track and wind over a previous coil.

You  will get filthy in the process, but the result is pre-aged coils of scale wire, as seen below with some 3mm models yet to be painted.  I know that to scale the wire is about six inches in diameter, but it works for me.


The photo shows some over-large first attempts and the final solution (not Mr. Hitler’s one, but my own).

Next task: Beaches.

Getting smaller…

Over the Christmas period my gaming space has been reduced by the necessary movement of furniture to accommodate a fairly large tree in the living room.  So the campaign has continued using game tokens on various boards from the Richard Borg games; “Memoir 44” and “The Great War”.

To enhance my plastic game tokens I invested in some 3mm (1/600) models by Odzial Osmy, supplied by Magister Militum, which I glued to the coloured plastic counters.

However, I have been so impressed by the quality of the models that I have decided to duplicate my GHQ 6mm forces for the Sealion campaign with 3mm models which I can use with the hexagon terrain that I have developed for 2mm scale 1700 period games.

One issue I have found is that British infantry are moulded in both upright and prone positions, but Germans are all prone.  Although even at this scale helmet styles give the game away I am working on using various infantry sets (British, German, Polish and French) to produce both armies in upright and prone positions.  Likewise all artillery will have a towed and deployed option, as supplied by Odzial Osmy.

Naturally at this scale identifying the models can be somewhat tricky, so I have based my models with allowance for a small label at the rear of each base, or alternatively a system of coloured dots or stripes (still to be decided).  My current game is still at a figure:man scale of 1:10 but I want the models to be available for 1:1 scale in future.  All bases are 15mm wide.  Depth is normally 15mm but deeper if needed to accommodate the models and a 5mm ID label.  Bases are cut from nominally 1mm (but nearer 1.5mm) MDF with corners snipped to prevent fraying.

To help with identification of infantry types I have opted for a simple convention:

Rifles are arranged in a single row of 4. (At the 1:10 figure scale I don’t need to worry about automatic wepons in a platoon).

MG teams (tripod mounted) are 3 figures to a base grouped around the MG.

Command groups are 2 or three figures, possible with a light vehicle.

Mortar and AT rifle teams are as moulded.  LMGs may stand in for AT rifles.

Engineers are one in front (with mine detector) and three behind.

Engineers with flamethrowers are two in front and two behind.

And here are the forces for both sides for the German landing at Little Common.  The bases have been given one coat of Basetex green, which will match the gaming area.  I plan to give each base a second coat and then tackle the models.




Winchelsea 17 Sep 1940 07:30


This battle, part of my Play-By-Email campaign of Operation Sealion, was fought using the “Great War” game board with terrain tiles from Memoir 44 and Battle Cry, with some home-produced sea hex tiles.

Units were 13mm plastic game counters topped with 3mm models.

The rules used were my home-grown experimental fast play set.

D Winchelsea 17 0646
The game board as described in the text. This is only the relevant part of the map.

Area Map

Area D Winchelsea 17 0646

This is the map at 06:45 on 17th September. Lettered locations are referred to in the text below.


The initial assault force landed at 06:00 and have made little progress.  The first wave of reinforcements was due at 06:45.

At 06:46 the two 88mm guns on the Siebel Ferry (location A) opened fire on the pill-box in map square D3, but with no effect. The barge at E (square F3) with the pioneers (tasked with destroying the pill-box) continued towards the beach, and two more barges with infantry reinforcements from 98th Mountain Battalion began their run in to the shore.

Two rifle platoons from 3rd Company, 98th Battalion, dug in at C (square D3), made an assault on the pill-box supported by machine gun fire from D (square D3).  The British MG in the pill-box opened up and they ran back to their trenches, fortunately with no casualties. The British maintained the machine gun fire and kept the Germans’ heads down.

At 06:52 the engineers’ barge beached at B (square E3/E4) and two platoons of pioneers and a machine gun platoon began to disembark onto the mined beach. The 88mm guns kept up their fire from the ferry, which started to move closer to the target. The exchange of fire continued between the entrenched German infantry and the British in the pill-box.

The pioneers began to work their way through the minefield at B but 2nd Platoon 54th Pioneer Company suffered two casualties and withdrew with them to the barge for evacuation. Firing continued against the pill-box and there was confusion and congestion offshore as more barges, struggling to manoeuvre in the wind and tide, ended up off the same beach area.

The remaining engineers continued to clear the minefield at B, which they reported safe by 07:20. Infantry units that had moved off the beach began consolidating for an attack on the British-held pill-box, where the defenders were still keeping all-comers at bay.

At 07:13 the ferry with the two 88mm guns drifted onto a sandbank in map square E3, but was able to free itself after a few minutes and attempt to close the range on the pill-box.

At the same time the 98th Mountain Infantry Battalion HQ with its attendant MG and pioneer platoons landed north of point E (square F3). This part of the beach was unmined. They immediately began to move west with the intention of the engineers dealing with the pill-box under covering fire from the machine guns. Meanwhile elements of 6th Company, 99th Mountain Infantry Regiment, part of the initial assault force, began to cross the stream towards the minor road leading to Winchelsea.

At 07:21 two more barges beached in map square F3, north and west of point G. One contained elements of 1st and 2nd Company, 98th Regiment, and the other a platoon of infantry from 5th Company, 99th Regiment with more engineers and a 75mm Infantry Gun.

Offshore there were still several barges jostling for position and the next wave of reinforcements was scheduled to land at 07:30.   Formation “Sauhaufen” had been established. Onshore the lone British machine gun crew and the minefields on the beach were holding up this operation considerably, although casualties since the 06:00 assault had been fairly light, amounting to one tank, six dead and two wounded.

The tactical situation at Winchelsea at 07:29 is shown below. Note that lettered locations are not the same as the map above.  Sharp-eyed readers will also note that the entrenchment shown in square F4 seems to have a wandering nature!

Area D Winchelsea 17 0729

To be continued…