Clues of destiny – Alison Healy on the Crossword Panic of 1944

An astonishing series of coincidences

A series of innocuous crosswords in the Daily Telegraph led to a major panic, allegations of spying, and the threatened sacking of a headmaster. Photograph: Getty Images

What links crosswords and a five-letter word that means a sudden, overwhelming terror? The cruciverbalists among us will have already guessed that we are talking about the Crossword Panic of 1944. –

Yes, 80 years ago this month, a series of innocuous crosswords in the Daily Telegraph led to a major panic, allegations of spying, and the threatened sacking of a headmaster.

That headmaster was Leonard Dawe of Strand School, which had been evacuated from south London to Surrey during the war. When he wasn’t ensuring that the boys were conjugating their Latin verbs, he compiled crosswords for the newspaper. Two years earlier he had come to the attention of MI5 when Dieppe was an answer to a crossword clue on August 17th. The ill-fated Allied attack on the German-occupied port took place two days later. It was dismissed as a coincidence until this new series of clues began to run in May 1944.

Utah was the answer to one clue and was also the codename for one of the beach landing locations for D-Day. A few weeks later, Omaha, another codeword for a beach, popped up as a solution and was followed by Overlord, the codename for the D-Day operation. The final straw came on June 1st when the solution was Neptune – the codeword for the naval assault stage.


It was time for a little visit from the secret service. In a 1958 BBC interview, the headmaster recalled how the two men from MI5 “turned me inside out” and also put his fellow crossword-compiler Melville Jones “through the works”. At one point, there was a suggestion that the headmaster would be sacked but like all the best crosswords, the matter resolved itself.

After the Daily Telegraph recalled the astonishing series of coincidences in 1984, former students came forward and explained how Mr Dawe sometimes got pupils to fill in the blank crossword grids and he would then create the clues. It transpired that US and Canadian soldiers were camped near the school and some of the boys had visited the base and listened to the soldiers’ chatter.

Who knew that an innocent crossword could have led to such a panic? Speaking of panic, my own mother was known to break into a sweat if she ever discovered she was not in close proximity to a crossword. Her addiction to the chequered squares was so bad that she once committed mail fraud. When a newsletter arrived in the post for me, her eagle eye spotted a crossword through the clear plastic. She opened the letter, quickly solved the puzzle and resealed the plastic.

So it was not out of character for her to bring a crossword to one of London’s most hedonistic havens for hell raisers.

It was the late 1990s and we had accidentally found ourselves in Soho’s Groucho Club, that exclusive hangout for actors, musicians and artists. We were visiting family near London when I spied an opportunity to set up a swift interview with Irish chef Richard Corrigan at his Lindsay House restaurant.

I was working in the Farmers’ Journal at the time and there was nothing we liked better than stories of farmers’ children who had made good. And he was certainly making good. So good, that his day was turning out to be busier than expected and he asked us to wait for him in the Groucho Club.

I was beyond excited to be setting foot into this members’ only club where Wayne Sleep had taken Princess Diana for lunch and was called a little sausage by Oliver Reed. It was a regular hang-out for Kate Moss, Elton John and Madonna and Bono sang Happy Birthday to Bill Clinton there. Someone set someone’s chest hair on fire on one occasion, while a journalist had to be hospitalised after riding a bicycle down a flight of stairs. When artist Damien Hirst won the Turner Prize in 1995, he put his entire winnings of £20,000 behind the bar.

Disappointedly, we didn’t witness any wild shenanigans during our visit, but we did spy Jonathan Ross and his wife sitting across the way. And there were several beautiful women who looked vaguely familiar and might have been the IT girls of the day.

My mother was completely indifferent to the star wattage in the dimly lit club. After wondering why these people were in a bar in the middle of a working day, she dug into her voluminous handbag and removed the previous day’s Irish Times. Her glasses came out and she got stuck into the crossword.

If a crossword clue had sought her opinion on the Groucho Club, her answer would have been 11 letters – unimpressed.