Alfred “Dilly” Knox

On this date in 1884, classics scholar and cryptographer Alfred Dillwyn “Dilly” Knox was born in Oxford, England, to Edmund Knox, an Anglican cleric and future bishop of Manchester, and Ellen (French) Knox. She died when Knox was 8. The fourth of six children, Knox was educated at Eton College and King’s College-Cambridge, where he studied classics and papyrology and was friends with Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes.

When World War I broke out, he was recruited by the Royal Navy to work in its cryptology unit, which broke the code for the German “Zimmermann Note” to Mexico that helped bring the U.S. into the war. After the armistice, he completed deciphering the work of 3rd-century BCE Greek poet Herodas from papyrus fragments. He married Olive Roddam, his former secretary, in 1920. They had two sons.

He also resumed his codebreaking work, and at the start of World War II was senior cryptographer at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. He believed women had a greater aptitude for the work and more attention to detail than men, and thus his staff included a coterie dubbed “Dilly’s fillies.” It was here he worked with project director Alan Turing on refinement of Turing’s “bombe” device that would be instrumental in breaking encoded German “Enigma” messages and help doom the Third Reich.

Knox did not live to fully see the fruits of his labor, dying of lymphoma on Feb. 27, 1943, after working from home for an extended period due to his illness. He received the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George for extraordinary service to the commonwealth.

Freedom From Religion Foundation