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George Scovell

George Scovell

George Scovell came to prominence during the British campaign against the French for control of Spain and Portugal (The Peninsular War) as the leading code breaker for the Duke of Wellington. Between 1809 and 1814 he developed a system of military communications and intelligence gathering for the British that intercepted French dispatches to and from the battlefield, and cracked their codes.

Under Wellington's command, code breaking and intelligence gathering played an important role in British victories such as Oporto (1809), Salamanca (1812) and Vittoria (1813), and Scovell was a key part of these activities. George Scovell served as an officer in the Intelligence Branch of the Quartermaster-Generals department.

A gifted linguist, he was placed in charge of a group of Spanish, Portuguese and other soldiers recruited for their local knowledge and language skills. Known as the Army Guides they began to develop a system for intercepting and deciphering encoded French communications. 

Initially the French used simple ciphers known as petits chiffres to encrypt communications. These were designed to be written and deciphered in haste on the battlefield and were generally based on 50 numbers each representing a key word or phrase. In the spring of 1811 this was replaced by a more robust code based on a combination of 150 numbers, known as the Army of Portugal Code.

At the end of 1811 however, the French adopted The Great Paris Cipher, a table of some 1400 numbers and derived from a mid-18th century diplomatic code. These tables included dummy numbers often used towards the end of a message to confuse any attempts to decipher the coded message.

For the next year, Scovell pored over intercepted documents. He made gradual progress using letters that contained some words and phrases written 'en clair' so that the meaning of coded sections could be inferred from the context. The information on troop movements gathered by Scovell's Army Guides was also crucial when making informed guesses about the identity of a person or place mentioned in coded letters.


When a letter from the king of Spain (Napoleon's brother Joseph) to Napoleon Bonaparte was intercepted in December 1812, Scovell had cracked enough of the code to decipher most of Joseph's explicit account of French operations and plans. This information allowed Wellington to prepare for the final battle for control in Spain (Vittoria) on 21 June 1813. That night British troops seized Joseph Bonaparte's coaches and discovered his copy of the Great Paris Cipher table. The process was complete.

In 1829, in recognition of his achievements, Major General Sir George Scovell was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of the Royal Military College at Sandhurst


John Quenby - former Chairman, Friends of the Museum

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