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British codebreaker buried with honours

Jean Briggs, 92, helped break the WW2 Enigma code, but kept the secret for decades

By Jacqui Goddard in Miami


Jean Briggs, with husband Col John Watters on their wedding day. Picture: AP

As a teenager serving her king and country during the Second World War, Jean Briggs was forced to keep a secret that would not be shared for decades – one that saved countless lives and helped to guide the Allied victory.

The Womens Royal Naval Service veteran, who worked on mathematician Alan Turing’s Ultra programme that cracked the German Enigma code, finally received the blaze of glory that befitted her status as a heroine this week, however, as she was laid to rest with British military honours in Nebraska.

“It’s almost a perfect end to her story, that she got the recognition she deserved,” her son, retired US Navy Rear Admiral Robin Watters, said yesterday.

For the last 72 years she was Jean Watters, following her marriage to John Watters, a B-17 pilot with the US Army Air Corps to whom she became engaged shortly after VE Day in 1945. Col.Watters, who survived more than 25 bomber missions over Europe, died in June this year.

Growing up in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, she had aspired to become an artist and at the age of 18, due to her promising abilities in art school, was offered a student deferment that would have allowed her to avoid war duty and continue her studies.

“She declined and said ‘No, I’m going to serve my country,’” said her son, explaining how she enlisted in the WRNS and was subsequently picked for the top-secret Ultra programme.

“She had such a sense of duty for someone so young. They picked the right lady,” he added.

briggs.pngUltra was the top-secret designation given to encrypted German military communications that were intercepted and decoded by British operatives at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Led by Turing, the team built a machine that replicated the functions of Enigma, the German cipher that encrypted secret military signals. Cracking the code gave the Allies a critical window on enemy plans and manoeuvres and was described by Dwight T.Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, as having played a “decisive” role in bringing the war to a close.

Ultra was kept secret until the 1970s and was described by the historian Thomas Haigh as “one of the most celebrated aspects of British modern history, an inspiring story in which a free society mobilized its intellectual resources against a terrible enemy.”

The story was told in the film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing , in 2014.

Mrs Watters and others who worked in the programme were granted medals in recognition of their unique roles in 2009.

The confidential nature of her work at Bletchley and the knowledge of what was at stake if it became known, weighed heavily on Briggs during her role as an intelligence clerk working around the machines.

“She knew everything about what she was doing; she said they would have regular briefings on the information that was being derived from their work, and its importance,” said Mr Watters.

“She said she was so afraid…Think about having secrets on such a scale that even on an older person would be a burden. I can’t imagine at 18 years old having to keep one of the most consequential secrets of the 20th century.”

Watters was laid to rest at Omaha National Cemetery on Monday. Royal Navy officers served as pallbearers and the Union Flag was draped over her coffin.

“This was a lady who was very proud of her service to her country, but always so modest,” said her son.

Parkland: pressing for change



The National Rifle Association is facing a new adversary in the form of a political action committee formed by parents in a Florida community scarred by a school massacre.

Families vs Assault Rifles aims to defeat the electoral ambitions of congressional candidates bankrolled by the gun rights lobby and is seeking amendments to the National Firearms Act of 1934, including a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons.

NRA-supporting politicians have a decision to make: do they want to accept the NRA’s filthy blood money?” Jeff Kasky, a co-founder of the committee, said. “If they do, we will shine a big fat spotlight on the fact that they are selling their vote to a nefarious, unprincipled organisation that exists only to enrich its executive board. It’s a vicious cycle between certain politicians and the NRA — and we are going to break that cycle.”

His sons, Cameron, 17, and Holden, 15, are pupils at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 teenagers and staff were shot dead by an assailant armed with an AR-15 rifle in February. Cameron co-founded March for Our Lives, a pupil-led protest movement that has become a powerful voice in America’s gun reform debate.

Gun stores are now taking online orders for a more powerful weapon, the Gilboa Snake, a double-barrelled version of the AR-15.

Families vs Assault Rifles registered as a political action committee two weeks ago, on the day that ten pupils and teachers were shot dead at Santa Fe High School near Houston. President Trump visited some of the survivors of the shooting yesterday, but caused controversy by telling reporters as he boarded Air Force One for the trip to Texas that he was “going to have a little fun”.

The committee is soliciting $17 donations from supporters, representing the 17 lives lost at the Florida school. In the first few hours after its launch yesterday it received thousands of payments.

Mr Kasky, a lawyer, said that the committee would spend against congressional candidates backed by NRA money, bombarding media with advertising to expose their financial ties.

The NRA’s wealth has made it influential in US politics. It has spent $132 million over the past 15 years on supporting pro-gun candidates in elections, including Mr Trump’s campaign for office in 2016. Mr Trump said in March that he was ready to defy the NRA by banning bump stocks — accessories fitted to semi-automatic rifles to boost their firepower — and raising the age for buying a gun, but he has since backtracked.

Ted Nugent, 69, an NRA director, has dismissed the Parkland pupils calling for reform as mushy-brained children who have no soul.

Parkland outrage over school shooting video game

UPDATE: The game developer has backed down and the game is to be withdrawn

Jacqui Goddard in Miami


Parents of children killed in Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre have demanded a ban on a video game in which players take the role of a gunman stalking classrooms and hallways shooting students.

Active Shooter, which is due for online publication next week, allows users to simulate a mass slaughter in a school and score points for every civilian or SWAT officer they kill.

“Get ready guys. This is going to be a fun ride for all of us,” the game’s designer enthuses.

Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime, 14, was killed when a former student armed with an AR-15 assault rifle opened fire at MSD in Parkland, Florida, on Valentine’s Day, said yesterday: “I’m enraged, I’m outraged…They are using what happened to my daughter’s school, to my daughter, as a game and they should be put out of business.”

Active Shooter offers a gunman’s eye view of a school, showing the barrel of a gun in the foreground and instructions to “hunt and destroy”. A scoreboard keeps track of the body count.

Alternatively, the player can choose to be a SWAT officer tasked with extracting civilians and neutralising the shooter. Scenes include classrooms, corridors, the assembly hall and the gymnasium. Blood showers from victims’ heads and bodies when they are hit. The shooter’s arsenal also includes hand grenades.

A total of 4,685 people have been killed in gun violence in the US so far this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit tracking agency. That includes 22 shootings in schools, including at Santa Fe High School near Houston, Texas, where ten students and teachers were killed by an armed student on May 18.

The trend has prompted an increasing number of schools to seek insurance policies to cover the costs of mass shootings, such as payouts to families and counselling for survivors. Proposals by President Trump to give school districts the option to arm teachers and other school staff have proved an obstacle to some seeking coverage, due to the increased risk of liability.

In New Hampshire, families of teachers “killed in the line of duty” will receive a $100,000 payout under new legislation passed last week.

Jaime Guttenberg’s spinal cord was severed by a single bullet as she ran from the gunman at MSD. Thirteen other students and three teaching staff were also killed, and 17 wounded.

Mr Guttenberg has become a prominent gun reform activist since his daughter’s death and an outspoken critic of the National Rifle Association, which has resisted calls for a tightening of gun regulations. The organisation pumped $30 million into Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign and has faced a backlash for bankrolling politicians opposed to gun reform.

“The NRA should be joining me in the outrage against this game. The president should be joining me. They’ve all blamed video games for shootings instead of guns – where are they now?” said Mr Guttenberg yesterday.

Andrew Pollack, whose daughter Meadow, 18, was killed at MSD, said the game “crosses the line”. Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina, 14, also died in the shooting, called it “disgusting.”

Neither the game’s developer, Revived Games, the publisher, Valve, nor the game’s storefront, Steam, were available for comment yesterday.

A disclaimer on Steam’s page states: “Please do not take any of this seriously…If you feel like hurting someone or people around you, please seek help from local psychiatrists or dial 911.”

Slippery customers




They used to be a rare sight, outnumbered by their prey and elusive to all but the most persistent of hunters.

Now, Burmese pythons are being caught at an average rate of three a day in Florida’s Everglades wilderness, where they have established a stranglehold and devastated native wildlife populations.

“We’ve never seen anything like it. We’re seeing a 99% reduction in fur-bearing animals in Everglades National Park and surrounding natural areas,” said Mike Kirkland, manager of a python eradication programme for South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the area’s largest landowner.

“They are just top of the food chain down here. It’s extremely important to push back against this invasive species and restore some balance to the ecosystem,” he added.

Burmese pythons originated in southeast Asia but have had an established breeding population in the Everglades since 2000, as a result of people who once kept them as exotic pets dumping them in the swamps when they grew too big for comfort.

They are prolific breeders and apex predators, even sometimes taking down alligators and American crocodiles, and their effect on native mammals and wading birds — including threatened and endangered species — has been drastic.

“If you go to Everglades National Park right now you’ll be hard pressed to find a single squirrel, a single raccoon, a single possum, whereas if you were a park-goer back in the ‘80s or prior it was just teeming with life,” said Mr Kirkland.

Brian Hargrove, one of 25 hunters hired to search for Burmese pythons on SFWMD land, said: “I grew up here but it’s not the same. We don’t see the same fish, we don’t see any mammals. All we see really are pythons.”

Dusty Crum, also a hunter, said: “You used to drive in the Everglades and you’d see usually 20, 30, 40 rabbits on any given morning. I’ve only seen one since we started this programme – and he looked scared.”

Last week, Hargrove caught and killed the 14-month-old programme’s 1,000th Burmese python, measuring 11ft 2in. The average is 9ft, though the longest was just short of 18ft. Hunters get paid $8.25 an hour, plus a $50 bonus for every one they capture that measures up to four feet long, and $25 for every extra foot beyond that.

Wildlife managers admit that they have no idea of the size of the snake population now, estimating it anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000. About half of those captured were breeding females, which can lay up to 70 eggs in one clutch, once every year.

Randy Smith, a spokesman for SFWMD, said: “We would assume that taking 1,000 out, perhaps half of those being females with eggs, hopefully we’re starting to make a dent in the population but we don’t know.”