In the 2 May 1944 morning edition of London’s Daily Telegraph, the British Secret Service, MI5, saw “Utah” in the answers for the daily crossword puzzle. This was only days after the disaster at Slapton Sands, and troops killed there were slated for “Utah”, the secret code name for their landing zone on the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy. In April, other secret landing zone code names, “sword”, “gold”, and “juno” (the British and Canadian beaches), had also appeared in Daily Telegraph crossword puzzles, but they were common puzzle words and deemed coincidences. But the word “utah”, coming so close after the Slapton Sands incident, surely could not be a coincidence. MI5 immediately placed Leonard Dawe, the paper’s crossword puzzle creator under surveillance. Dawe was headmaster at a prestigious English public (read: private) school. He did the puzzles for the paper on the side as an intellectual exercise for himself and his students, and then gave the puzzles to the Telegraph. MI5 considered bringing him in but decided to wait.
During the war, MI5 had an extraordinary amount of success in finding, capturing, and turning German agents in Great Britain. Virtually all the information the Abwehr, the German intelligence agency, was receiving from the British Isles was planted by MI5. They planned to continue this with Dawe.
But for the next month, they could find nothing sinister about Dawe. This was despite more secret code words appearing in the puzzles: On 22 May, “omaha” appeared, the beach on which the US 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions were supposed to land. On 27 May, “overlord” appeared, the code name for the invasion of France. On 30 May, it was “mulberry “, the code name for the artificial harbors that were developed in great secrecy to supply the Allied armies over the beaches. And on 1 June, 15 down “god of the sea (7)” was “neptune”, the naval operations in support of Overlord. In spite of constant surveillance, MI5 had no idea how Dawe was receiving his information. With the invasion scheduled for 5 June, a mere four days away, they decided to dispense with the subtleties.
MI5 arrested Dawe, and ransacked his home and office. They found nothing incriminating. Needing evidence, they then forcefully interrogated him, and still the headmaster kept professing his innocence. MI5 still didn’t believe him but he refused to change his story. As a precaution, MI5 kept him in isolation until well after the invasion began even with the school wondering where he went.
Eventually Dawe was deemed innocent and released, and only years later, were the reasons discovered for the coincidences. In creating the crossword puzzles, Dawe only came up with half of each puzzle. He asked his students to come up with words to fit the rest. Once he had the words complete, he would then write the clues and submit it to the paper. The code words were appearing because the children frequently interacted with the soldiers and listened in on their conversations while they were on leave in London. Although the specific location and timings of the landings were not common knowledge among the soldiers and sailors, the code names themselves were. The students heard the soldiers talk about “Sword”, “Gold”, or “Omaha”, and if they fit, incorporated those fascinating words into Dawe’s puzzles.