Sunday, 3 July 2011

Bletchley Park

A state secret until the 1970s, Bletchley Park was home to the British government's top codebreakers during the Second World War and played an important role in the Allied victory.  It is now open to the public and having a free weekend on my hands, I decided to get on a train and pay it a visit (it is less than an hour's journey from London).  Much like it was during the war, Bletchley Park today is a hotch-potch of cottages, stables and huts nestling round an architecturally eccentric Victorian mansion.

The mansion and its estate had been owned by the Leon family but was put on the market in 1937 after the deaths of Sir Herbert Leon and his wife Lady Fanny.  It was bought by a property developer keen to redevelop the site as a housing estate but before this could happen it was acquired by M16.  Its location - adjacent to the railway - was an obvious asset and in the summer of 1939 the Government Code and Cypher School (later to become GCHQ) moved onto the site.  Bletchley Park would offer them a base safe from the anticipated air attacks on London.  To keep the purpose of the site secret, those arriving were referred to as "Captain Ridley's shooting party."

Anyway, to return to the present day - on arrival at Bletchley Park I was directed into Block B.  Admission for adults costs £12, and this price includes a free re-entry pass for the next 12 months.  Block B is one of the original wartime buildings (although the ladies loos were mercifully much more modern) and houses a fairly eccentric group of small exhibitions, as well as the shop.

It is probably worth noting at this point that I'd badly misjudged the sniffles that had been building up during the working week and within half an hour of arriving at Bletchley I had become quite unwell, and was pretty much unable to stop sneezing.  However, having travelled 50 miles to get there and keeping in mind the dedication of the codebreakers who worked at Bletchley during the war, I decided to persevere, although I do think that feeling so unwell probably meant I missed one or two things along the way (which makes the free re-entry pass even more excellent).

One of the first things you'll see in Block B is Stephen Kettle's statue and memorial to Alan Turing, probably the most well-known of the Bletchley Park codebreakers.  An astonishingly gifted mathematician who was an early pioneer of computer science, Turing's career and ultimately his life were cut short by his appalling treatment after he was outed as having had a sexual relationship with another man.  The exhibitions at Bletchley Park, however, make little reference to his sad death and concentrate instead on the incredible acheivements of his life.

In Block B we are confronted with a rebuilt, fully functioning model of the Bombe, a complex mechanical device used to break the German enigma codes which Turing helped to develop. Enigma machines - originally devised in peacetime for the purpose of preventing industrial espionage and keeping banking transactions confidential - worked by using a series of rotors to encrpyt messages, and the bombe consisted of a large number of rotors which effectively made it several Enigma machines working together, to increase the probability of breaking the code.  It was entirely mechanical and not programmable in the way that a computer would be.

The bombe - a very complex piece of kit!

This bombe was a prop in the film "Enigma"

Close-up of the rotors.
Block B also houses a large number of Enigma machines and other codebreaking contraptions, some of which are on loan from GCHQ and are described quite crypically, suitably enough.  It makes one wonder how many of these types of machines are still in use despite the huge advances in computer technology over the last couple of decades.

As well as the codebreaking devices, Block B exhibits many more everyday items from the Second World War, giving an insight into what life would have been like for those working at Bletchley Park.

Radio equipment

A gasmask for a baby
There was also an impressive collection of Airfix models of Second World War planes, tanks and ships, children's toys from the period and personal collections of veterans who served in different campaigns during the war and people who worked at Bletchley Park.

Upon leaving Block B I became a little disorientated due to feeling very poorly and sat for a while in the grounds before joining a guided tour, which began up at the mansion.  By the end of the war several thousand people worked at Bletchley Park and the mansion and its outbuildings which had originally made up the codebreakers' accomodation were joined by a number of huts and more permanent buildings.

Hut 8 (above) was where Alan Turing was based during his time at Bletchley Park.  Turing was initially put in a position of leadership, but was replaced when it became clear that his interests lay primarily in codebreaking.  He was joined by many of Britain's finest mathematicians and cryptanalysts, including Dilly Knox and Gordon Welchman.  Many of the codebreakers working at Bletchley Park were recruited straight from university, making its workforce - which also included a large number of female workers - predominantly youthful.  Many were housed with local people or placed in makeshift accomodation, and they made their way to work by whatever means they could find.

Today Hut 8 is used as an exhibition space, and sadly at present a lack of funding means that some of the other huts are in a sorry state of repair.  A number of them are boarded up and derelict which I found very sad - Bletchley Park may not be very glamourous, and the nature of its work was really quite nerdy and technical, but nonetheless it played a hugely significant part in the Allied victory and the talents and dedication of those who worked there deserves more recognition.

Bletchley Park is also home to the National Museum of Computing, which houses a rebuild of Colossus, the world's first programmable computer.  Colossus was designed by Tommy Flowers, a Post Office worker, in 1943 and a Colossus machine was operational at Bletchley Park by 1944.  Flowers' work at the Post Office was invaluable as the valves used to power telephone exchanges (which were in those days operated by the Post Office) were integral to the design of Colossus.  One drawback of these valves, however, meant that unlike a modern computer Colossus could never be turned off.  Despite this, it was a great success and by the end of the war ten of them were in operation helping to decrypt German intelligence.  

Colossus and its blueprints were officially destroyed after the war to maintain secrecy and the Colossus on display at Bletchley is the work of a dedicated team led by Tony Sale.  Using the remaining information about Colossus that survived the war, they rebuilt at Mark 2 Colossus in Block H, where a Colossus machine would have stood during the war.  It is a fascinating thing to behold - all wires, little lights and a constant stream of printouts.  Its inability to store any memory is another reason why it must be constantly switched on.

Apologies for the quality of these pictures - the bright sunlight flooding into Block H made it very hard to see how the pictures had come out!

After the guided tour was over, I went back to Hut 8 to have a better look at the exhibitions in there.  One of the exhibits was about "Pigeons in War".  Having seen a couple of stuffed pigeons who had been decorated for bravery during the war in the Imperial War Museum North, this little exhibition made for interesting viewing.  I still think it's wonderful that pigeons, as well as other animals such as dogs and horses, were recognised for their bravery during wartime.  The Nazi occupying forces severely punished anyone found aiding an Allied carrier pigeon and many clever methods were used to make the messages the birds were carrying as inconspicuous as possible, including removing a feather and placing a rolled up message inside its hollow part before reattaching said feather to the bird!  Special parachutes were also designed so that pigeons could be dropped from planes.

This cage was used for training carrier pigeons.

A pigeon parachute

Pictures of pigeons decorated for their bravery
After the pigeons exhibit, I decided to call it a day.  Despite feeling so poorly I had an excellent time at Bletchley Park and found the whole place fascinating.  I will definitely be going back again, and would urge any readers to visit too.  It would be very sad if such an important part of this country's history was lost due to a lack of funding, and given the current trend in government funding cuts Bletchley Park is dependent on visitor contributions more than ever.  I do apologise for the lack of technical content in this post - I wasn't at my most receptive during the visit and computer programming and codebreaking are certainly not areas that I have much knowledge of.

I had a much needed dose of cold relief when I got home!


  1. That's really fascinating - thanks for the detail and the great photos. So good to see the statue of Turing and amazing to see the complexity of the Bombe. I really have to make it to Bletchley myself soon - if only to see the pigeon parachutes ;)

    Great stuff - glad the lurgy didn't ruin the day.

  2. Really nice blog post with great pics :))

  3. Did you take a look around the computer museum while you was at Bletchley Park? It contains quite a few reminders of my childhood! :-)

  4. What an immense read, post more often please! 
    Is there any further reading you would recommend on this?

    Bletchley seo company


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