Saturday, May 23, 2015

London: Codebreakers' secrets unravelled at Bletchley

After another short ride on the underground we arrived at Euston Station to catch our train to Bletchley Park. Just in case you haven't seen "The Imitation Game," Bletchley, in Milton Keynes, was the central site of the United Kingdom's Government Code and Cypher School which during the Second World War regularly penetrated the secret communications of the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers. It is commonly believed that the "Ultra" intelligence produced at Bletchley shortened the war by two to four years, and that without it the outcome of the war would have been uncertain.

Our tour began with an orientation in the visitor centre taking us back in time. From here we wandered out to the lake, and just beyond it the mansion. What a beautiful setting. In 1938 the mansion and much of the site was bought by a builder planning a housing estate, but in May 1938 Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) bought the mansion and 58 acres for use by GC&CS. Inside it was beautiful with lovely thick carpets and stained glass windows. It contained the wartime office of Captain Denniston who was in charge of Bletchley. Here we saw an excellent Imitation Game exhibit complete with a lovely old bar.

From here we visited the garages housing the cars and Norton motorbikes used in transporting messages to and from Bletchley.

Most of the huts were exactly that, fairly makeshift prefab buildings. Since we were right beside the food hut we decided to have our lunch, cafeteria style just as it was back in the day. We had a meat pie in puff pastry. The lady spooned up enough beans and chips to last a week. I barely made a dent in the food on my plate while the other member of the party managed to demolish the whole thing.

Well fortified we went in the various, fairly spartan, huts seeing how they functioned from the collection of the intelligence to the code breaking. There were lots of opportunities to test our own skills at code breaking in the top secret huts. Perhaps I missed my calling. We saw the wartime office of Alan Turing.

The Poles had actually broken an Enigma code before the war started. This gave the people at Bletchley much help in their decoding except once the war started the German would reset their Enigma codes daily.  Turing's invention, the bombe was an electromechanical device whose function was to discover some of the daily settings of the Enigma machines on the various German military networks. Each machine was about 7 feet high and wide, 2 feet deep and weighed about a ton. As you can see from the picture it was terribly cumbersome and complicated. Women had to constantly clean it and reset it. This was very hot, heavy work in a confined space with oil fumes everywhere. The women didn't realise the importance of their work until many years later.

The museum in Block B including Enigma machines was fascinating. A reconstructed Turing-Welchman Bombe was demonstrated. It was very massive and very complicated. After the war all the bombe's were demolished. Not one was saved for posterity. It was only through people who had worked at Bletchley or companies associated with them that the bombe's have been reconstructed. No easy feat.

The secrecy imposed on Bletchley staff remained in force, so that most relatives never knew more than that a child, spouse, or parent had done some kind of secret war work or clerical work. Churchill referred to the Bletchley staff as "the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled". In July 2009 the British government announced that Bletchley personnel would be recognised with a commemorative badge.

In the museum were displays showing Japanese decoding, a difficult prospect. Hitler's "Lorenz" machine was also on display. This was used by Hitler to send personal messages. Eventually it could be decoded. An Alan Turing exhibit chronicled his life including his exposure as a homosexual and his sad, untimely death. It was interesting to see photos of non-working life at Bletchley including marriages among personnel, sports activities and parties. At the end of the war there were more than 9,000 people working there.

Bletchley was opened in 1993. Recently, there has been a lot of restoration of the huts with more ongoing. We really enjoyed our day and look forward to returning to Bletchley some day.





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