Period Piece | Bletchley Park
A brief stroll through the non-fiction aisles in airport book stores can tell you a lot about the country you are in. On a recent trip to New York, the book stores were overflowing with political analyses, biographies, critiques of both presidential candidates and crazy drivel by conservative columnist and author Glenn Beck.
At London’s Heathrow, on the other hand, the non-fiction catalogue continues to flaunt an obsession with World War II (WW-II) tempered with a light smattering of Olympics, banker hate and “bloke history”—books that have titles such as The French Are Shit and The Germans Are Shitter!—“A new book by the author of The French Are…”
History magazines, military documentaries, WW-II histories, and several trillion copies of Operation Mincemeat are still piled high in shops everywhere (seriously, how can the Bible possibly be outselling that book? I have seen it in every book store everywhere in the world for the last two years).
Therefore you often see locals easily outnumbering foreign visitors at any of London’s many excellent war-related attractions and museums (such as the Imperial War Museums, or the outstanding Cabinet War Rooms).
So it was on a warm, somewhat balmy Saturday morning recently at Bletchley Park. The deceptively low-key complex of huts, utilitarian buildings, memorials, mansion and lake swarmed with visitors, hardly any of them on this side of 55. Indeed, the whole complex exuded the risk-free, sanitized, mute ambience of an upper middle-class old-age home. The kind of place where the troubled hero of a gritty detective novel has infrequent, fractious meetings with his even more troubled father.
But, in fact, Bletchley Park may well have played a more important role in the war than any of the equipment or personalities you can see in the museums back in London (barring, perhaps, Winston Churchill).
Starting shortly before the outbreak of full-fledged hostilities in Europe, and outside of a brief respite during Neville Chamberlain’s folly of a peace accord, Bletchley Park was home to the British government’s best minds in cryptography. This is why Bletchley Park today calls itself the “Home of the Codebreakers”.
Over the course of the war some 18,000 mathematicians, cryptanalysts, translators, German language specialists, and spies worked on thousands upon thousands of intercepts of German communications. During the D-Day landings at Normandy, towards the close of the war, it is estimated that Bletchley Park broke up to 14,000 coded messages per day.
It is hard to calculate these things. But it is generally believed, and quoted in literature, that the efforts of these code breakers may have shortened the war by almost two years. Saving, consequently, thousands of lives and billions in wartime expenses.
The site, of course, looks nothing like it. That was perhaps one of the reasons it was chosen to house the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS). The property was also well connected to London by road and rail, situated right next to a main telegraph line, and located midway between Oxford and Cambridge universities, from where the civilian and military leaders expected to hire staff. Initially the property housed only the mansion and associated buildings. But after acquiring the property, the GCCS quickly added several administrative blocks, huts, dining halls, offices, even a cinema hall.
Few people actually lived on site, instead commuting in and out every day. Which makes you wonder how the existence of the site remained unknown to the enemy till after the war. Today, however, Bletchley Park bends over backwards to get the public to engage with it.
For all its wartime heroics, this is actually hard to do. First of all there is the fact that most of the staff at Bletchley Park worked not in bunkers or tanks but in cramped little huts and with little more than standard office issue stationery. Not sexy at all for tourists who’re used to the Imperial War Museums with its tanks, guns, submarines and rockets.
Secondly, much of what the code breakers did is fiendishly hard to explain. Take, for instance, the famous Enigma cipher. A German coding system using an electromechanical device with rotors, Enigma was meant to be virtually undecipherable.
Of all of Bletchley Park’s exploits, breaking Enigma is perhaps the best known. The Park’s most famous resident was the computing pioneer Alan Turing, who was instrumental in figuring out how Enigma worked.
Born 100 years ago in London, Turing was something of a prodigy, becoming a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, at the age of 22. At Bletchley Park, Turing’s first major accomplishment was to help construct the bombes—massive electromechanical machines that helped to part-decrypt Enigma. Turing’s bombes took the pioneering work by some Polish cryptographers and refined it with help from mathematician Gordon Welchman (history has given short shrift to these Polish code breakers. Bletchley Park installed its own memorial to the Poles only some 10 years ago. Shaped like an open book made of metal, the memorial is small and easily missed).
Today these bombes are the highlights of a trip to the park. The tour guides and operators make valiant attempts to explain the mathematical and electromechanical thinking behind these machines. But most visitors can be seen scratching their heads afterwards. Coming prepared—even if that means reading a Wikipedia entry—is highly recommended.
A collection of permanent and temporary exhibits comprising the history of the Bletchley Park code-breaking effort and other elements of the war are housed in the war-era huts and brick buildings all around the compound. Your entry ticket includes a free audio guide that helps you go into plenty of detail if you wish. However, going on one of the free guided tours that depart every half-hour or so is highly recommended. This tour gives you an easily digested, hour-long introduction to the compound and its activities. Later, after a snack in the café by the mansion, you can walk around with your audio guide and immerse yourself in cryptographic detail.
If Enigma was complicated, then think about the Lorenz cipher machine, used by Hitler to communicate with the generals of the Wehrmacht. Vistors may be tempted to focus on Enigma and Turing, and ignore everything else. But cracking Lorenz was perhaps much harder and involved even greater technological brilliance. Those attempts would results in Colossus, the world’s first programmable computer. The working model housed in The National Museum of Computing is well worth the price of the additional entry price of a few pounds.
One of the more thought-provoking sights in the complex is the display space tucked into the basement below the ticket office and the bookshop. Signs pointing down the flight of stairs are easy to miss. But downstairs there is a working model of a bombe machine and a statue of Turing that is both captivating and somewhat haunting. The statue is constructed of tiny slivers of shale and serves to only magnify the otherworldliness of Turing’s visage.
In every photograph I have seen of Turing’s, he appears somewhat detached, even transcendental. As if he resides in some invisible quantum state and wirelessly controls a cyborg replica that inhabits our realm.
Turing was a genius and an eccentric. A popular Bletchley Park anecdote is about how Turing used to pedal a faulty bicycle that frequently had the chain falling off. Instead of getting it repaired, he calculated how many turns of the wheel it took to displace the chain. He then stopped every few wheel rotations, just before the chain was due to fall off, tightened it, and carried on.
His colleagues may have found Turing a bit strange. But his government not only branded him a criminal but also made the last few years of his life unbearably tortuous.
They couldn’t have treated a war hero worse if they tried.
Turing was offered the choice of prison or hormonal treatment, and chose the latter. The year-long treatment with a variant of oestrogen ravaged his body and rendered him impotent. A year later, he committed suicide.
A few years ago, then British prime minister Gordon Brown apologized for the brutal treatment meted out to Turing, but in 2011 the government refused to pardon his original charge of “gross indecency”. They said that his acts were a crime at the time. While the laws were unjust, they would not try to “alter the historical context and to put right what cannot be put right”.
A certain embarrassment about the country’s treatment of Turing seems to percolate through Bletchley Park (or maybe it was because I went looking for signs of remorse). The statue is placed not outside, like the memorial to the Poles, but in a basement. The guided tour I went on did not dwell on Turing as much I had expected, and didn’t refer to his criminal trial at all (on the other hand, statues of Churchill, directly responsible for millions of famine deaths in Bengal and relentless meddling in wartime military operations, abound all over the UK. Bletchley Park itself has one privately run museum dedicated to mountains of Churchill memorabilia, which is worth a visit even if you aren’t a Churchill fan).
On the other hand there are several people who believe that Turing gets too much attention for his work at Bletchley Park, to the detriment of other code breakers who worked on Colossus and the Lorenz cipher.
The legacy of Bletchley Park is, therefore, still a work in progress. There are many stories yet to be told, legends to unearth, and huts that need restoring. Currently, the tour guide told me, the government is raising funds from private sources and the National Lottery to restore many huts that have remained untouched since the war. Meanwhile, the trustees make ends meet through tickets and by renting out the venue for private events. During my visit, a hut by the lake on the estate seemed to be hosting some sort of Citroen car owners’ conference.
What most resonates after a calm, serene, often mind-boggling afternoon at Bletchley Park is the sheer complexity and scale of the war. Walking from hut to hut and from exhibit to exhibit illustrates how many people the war effort involved in addition to the civilian and military personnel usually highlighted in documentaries and museums. Wars were often won not only on the battlefield but also in the back rooms of stuffy huts by women with pencils and papers. And, of course, by geniuses such as Turing, Tommy Fowler and Bill Tutt—most of whom seem to have been later subject to years of ignominy or, even worse, social ostracism.
Bletchley Park makes for an excellent half-day out from London. Pack a lunch when you go and picnic on any of the lawns or outdoor tables. While the rest of the family is distracted by the sandwiches and soft drinks, pop into the huts on your own and geek out.
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