John Keen (1924–2019)
A tribute by Nicholas Keen to his father John Keen, who helped construct the original Bombes and the Bombe reconstruction now at TNMOC. John was one of the many unseen people connected to the work of Bletchley Park. A highly intelligent man, he will be greatly missed by family, friends and former colleagues alike.
John Keen was born in Norton village in 1924 to Harold Hall (later known in Bletchley Park circles as ‘Doc’ Keen) and Caroline Emily Eva and was the youngest sibling to brother Frank and sister Kathleen.
He grew up in Letchworth and attended Letchworth Grammar School, where he met his future wife Yvonne Haag. Yvonne was an evacuee from south London, and in about 1942 first spotted John at the back of the physics lab when she was 17 or 18. They married in 1948 and so started a very long and happy marriage for over 70 years.
John was an avid sportsman playing cricket – he bound the bottom of his bat with a linen wrap having seen Don Bradman play with the same on Parkers Piece in Cambridge. He also enjoyed Tennis, often playing with his cousin Alan Hewitt at the ICT sports ground in Whitethorne Lane Letchworth and he played Rugby for Letchworth. John was also a very good dancer and attended many events through work and at Knotts in Eastcheap.
After being married for ten years, they adopted their son, Nicholas.
John was a printer-design engineer working for BTM, ICT and ICL. He spent most of his working life in Letchworth or Stevenage. Later they moved to Cheshire, where John worked at Kidsgrove. Nicholas recalls that one evening John took his wife Yvonne and himself to the R&D facility in Letchworth works to see his latest printer invention. Nicholas remembers the scene of machinery whirring around and oh the noise! John was totally dedicated to his work, working late into the evening was the norm. His father was particularly proud of him when he had several patents registered under his name.
Music played a big part in his life. As a boy he would sing in his father’s choir at St. Michaels and go with his father to Ashwell church to pump the bellows while his father played the organ. He played the piano well, if a little frustratingly for himself as he was a perfectionist. Yvonne and he regularly enjoyed going to concerts, particularly in Stoke-on-Trent.
John was also a very good artist and he took a great deal of inspiration from the countryside and this was reflected in his wonderful paintings and ink and wash drawings, many of which were sold in local shops.
He adored his family. Hannah and Laura, his granddaughters, recall: as children he would watch us play as he manicured his and Granny’s immaculate garden with the dogs running by; the pride in his smile when we were all around the dinner table; and the way he lit up with excitement when we walked into the room. A man of few words, but immense love for us all.
John achieved the rank of sergeant in the Letchworth Home Guard where he commanded a troop of five soldiers operating a Spigot Mortar, however, he was kept in a reserved occupation by his father where he supported Doc Keen’s work with the Bletchley Park Bombe. Doc Keen built the Bombe from Alan Turing’s ideas and designs. The Bombe was the key machine involved in providing data to form the daily cribs for decoding the German Enigma transmissions. John never actually told his family exactly what he did during the war. ‘If you want to know what I was involved with,’ he said, ‘read that book’ and pointed in the direction of Code breaker in the Far East by Alan Stripp. However, Dad did spend time in India in 1945/46 working in WEC. He spent a year in Dehli and 6 months in Calcutta with holidays in Darjeeling. Time there was spent with his brother Frank, doing work linked to the Bletchley Park Bombes that were being operated by the Americans decoding Japanese codes.
Forty-six years after the war John returned to India and was accompanied by his son Nicholas. He loved visiting his old haunts of Ramjas College, walking around Connaught Place in New Dehli and walking down Chowringhee in Calcutta.
In the late 1990’s a gentleman called John Harper approached John to be part of team to rebuild the Bombe at Bletchley Park. After the war, all the Bombes and its plans were destroyed, so apart from a photograph and a bit of a blueprint, there was little to go on. John bought the CAD computer program and learnt how to use it. He then set about recreating drawings and making some parts of the electro-mechanical machine. As Nicholas recalls, “It has always tickled me that Dad must have gone through exactly the same thought processes to produce the plans and parts that his father did over 50 years before!”
John then went on to write a biography of his father’s work with the Bombe – code-named Cantab. Once John went to a Bletchley Park open day. There, many of the ladies, who had worked at Bletchley Park during the war as Wrens and Waafs, came up to John and said, ‘I knew your father’, ‘I’ve read your book’. Some even gave additional information that John reflected in future publications. He loved it!
Towards the end of his life he realized that Alzheimer’s dementia was beginning to take effect. He lived at home with his wife and a carer up until the last two years, when he moved to St Catherine’s nursing home in Letchworth (where his care was excellent).
Yvonne’s cousin Geoff, who knew John from his courting days with Yvonne said, ‘your father was a highly intelligent, inventive and creative man’. And although generally an introvert, we must add, ‘a man who was deeply committed to his family and loved us all from the bottom of his heart’.