Friday, April 27, 2012

Underground at Bletchley Park

Photo: BP Ops Room as it was during WWII

Less than an hour's journey north by train from London Euston is a small railway station called Bletchley. A few yards along across the road, we  found the entrance to Bletchley Park past the Enterprise Car Firm. Open to the public and run by the Bletchley Park Trust, it's now a museum. All through World War II and for thirty years after, this astonishing place remained unknown to all but those who lived and worked there.

For a code-breaking centre, the location was ideal. It was safely away from London, and nobody knew it existed. Located on a north-south railway line, it could bring people from as far north as Scotland, and at the time, an east-west rail line called the Varsity passed through Bletchley en route between Oxford and Cambridge.

New recruits were not told what work they would be doing before they arrived; they only knew that their country needed them, and that they were required to sign the Official Secrets Act before they could begin.

From 1939 to the end of the war, this was where a motley crew of academics, military people and civilians worked in secret. Called by Churchill "the geese that laid golden eggs but never cackled," the codebreakers challenged and succeeded in unlocking the the formidably difficult Enigma code used by the German High Command, as well as Italian and Japanese military codes.

Many of these people were still in their late teens; however, their dedication to a gruelling daily round of accurate and detailed work in code breaking, as well as indexing mountains of decoded messages was legendary. It was also crucial to the war effort.

Recruits were drawn from pools of people who were considered well-suited to the task. Many were scholars, including Oxford and Cambridge professors and their most promising students. Others were linguists and Egyptologists, people skilled in translating ancient languages. Many were mathematicians, and still others were engineers and crossword buffs. A great many were young women.

From a handful of codebreakers at the beginning of the war, the Bletchley Park contingent grew to 9000 people. Among those who worked there were novelists Ian Fleming and Angus Wilson, along with WWI codebreaking veterans Dilly Knox and Frank Birch, and journalist Malcolm Muggeridge.

One mathematical genius was Alan Turing, who developed the "bombe" machine to help the codebreakers. This brillliant man, a founding father of computer science, was the first to raise the question of whether machines could be made to think. According to Andrew Hodges, he was also "a philosopher... strange visionary, and a gay man before his time."

Sadly, after the war, far from being appreciated, he died young after being punished under the law for his homosexuality. A limited edition stamp to commemorate Alan Turing was issued in 2012, and can be purchased at Bletchley Park.

At Bletchley too, Dr. Thomas Flowers designed Colossus, the first programmable computer. This was broken up after the war, but has been re-created as part of the computing museum.

As we learned on a very informative tour, none of the cryptographers or other denizens of Bletchley Park went near a post office. They had their mail delivered to them c/o Box 111 Bletchley. Outgoing mail was taken round the district and dropped randomly in post boxes over a wide area.

Many couples met and married while working at Bletchley; however, the security was so tight that they were unable to discuss their work, either while there or for more than thirty years after. Told to describe their work as "secretarial," many of the young people who did the crucial decoding that saved lives by shortening the war were never known, even by partners, parents, and children, to have made such a dramatic contribution to the war effort. Obviously, it was a long time before they could meet their old colleagues for drinks too.

All in all, the visit to Bletchley Park was fascinating look at a lot of history that I had known absolutely nothing about. Sinclair MacKay's book The Secret Life of Bletchley Park (Aurum Press 2010), one of many written since the silence ban was lifted, also provides a fascinating glimpse into the time and place.

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