Winterbotham, Frederick William
(1897–1990), airman and intelligence officer
, was born on 16 April 1897 in Stroud, Gloucestershire, the younger child and only son of Frederick Winterbotham, solicitor, of Painswick, Gloucestershire, and his wife, Florence Vernon Graham. He was educated at Charterhouse School. On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 he joined the Royal Gloucestershire hussars, transferring to the Royal Flying Corps when it was formed in 1916. The following year he was taken prisoner after being shot down during a dogfight over Passchendaele. His family thought he was dead, for he was reported as killed in action, and he was later to read his own obituary in a local paper. Upon his release in 1918 he went to Christ Church, Oxford, to study law, taking the shortened course for returning servicemen. He obtained his BA in 1920 (such degrees were unclassified).
Winterbotham spent nine years as a pedigree stock breeder, but in 1929 had a complete change of career when the deputy chief of air staff drew him into MI6, to run a new air intelligence section. From 1934 to 1938 he spent much time in Germany, with a cover story that he was ‘persuading people in Britain to see things the Nazi way’, but in actuality spying on German developments in air warfare. He used Baron William de Ropp and Alfred Rosenberg as his main contacts, through them arranging meetings with Nazi leaders from Hitler downwards. He learned much by listening, but was disappointed by the reception of his reports in Britain. He later wrote about this period in Secret and Personal
(1969), which was revised as The Nazi Connection
(1978). With Sydney Cotton he developed a pioneer system of high-altitude photo-reconnaissance, which was to be extremely useful in the Second World War. He was also a firm supporter of Barnes Wallis's bouncing bomb, being instrumental in getting it taken seriously by the air staff, who sanctioned the ‘dambuster’ raid.
In 1940 Winterbotham moved to the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, to work on the penetration of German ciphers encoded by the Enigma machine. This began to succeed when the Luftwaffe signals were broken; the next step was to convey the information to commanders in the field. Winterbotham devised and supervised the special liaison units of young officers and technical sergeants stationed at battle command headquarters, who received enciphered radio messages from Bletchley (Ultra) and communicated them to the commanders. He was also the route by which Ultra intelligence reached the prime minister. His other role was, upon Winston Churchill's instructions, to indoctrinate American commanders before they could receive Ultra messages, for Churchill was concerned about the security of the Ultra system when America joined the war. Winterbotham thus became known to and respected by the American military leaders—generals Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Karl Spaatz.
The Americans soon began to develop their own system of special liaison units. In March 1944 the allies signed an agreement to unify the handling of Ultra intelligence throughout the world. That this happened was mainly due to Winterbotham. The ‘Ultra secret’ was never known by the Germans. It is ironic, therefore, that a confidential system known to thousands who honoured their wartime oath of silence was ultimately revealed by Winterbotham himself. This corporate act of silence was broken in 1974, when he produced The Ultra Secret
, which aroused universal interest. Ultra was shown to be a factor of the highest importance in the allied prosecution of the war; the book described how the Second World War was really won. Winterbotham was criticized by many for revealing the truth, but he had had the text of his book vetted by the authorities, who finally allowed him to publish it, though they did not endorse it.
In 1943 Winterbotham was appointed CBE. From 1945 to 1948 he worked for the British Overseas Airways Corporation. Thereafter he ran a small farm in Devon. In 1989 he produced his autobiography, The Ultra Spy
. He was a charming and companionable man, tall, clean-shaven, with a fresh complexion, fair hair, and blue eyes. Distinctly handsome, he had a disciplined air. In 1921 he married Erica, daughter of Frederick John Horniman
, tea merchant, MP, and founder of the Horniman Museum. They had one son and two daughters. They were divorced in 1939 and he had a brief second marriage, which lasted until 1946. In 1947 he married Petrea, formerly wife of John Jowitt, army officer, and daughter of Alfred Samuel Trant, ironmonger, of Brixham, Devon. They had one daughter. After his third wife's death in 1986 he married in 1987 Kathleen Price, an old friend from his youth. Winterbotham died on 28 January 1990 at his cottage, West Winds, Westbury Farm, Tarrant Gunville, Blandford, Dorset.
C. S. Nicholls, rev.