Secrets: A visit to Bletchley Park


Today I hand over to one of my favourite writers: my Dad.

Fluent in morse code, a radio amateur since the 1950s, and an electronic engineer, he was taken on a VIP tour last weekend of one of our greatest intelligence establishments: the National Code and Cipher Centre. 

I am green with envy: but it couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke. Here’s his take on Bletchley Park.

Last Saturday I visited a once top secret establishment.

One of the best kept secrets of World War 2, this is only just now being opened to the world.  And last Saturday I was lucky enough to walk its corridors: Bletchley Park. The epicentre of the code-cracking fraternity: the backdrop for so many unsung heroes, their stories kept under wraps in the name of secrecy.

How do you keep a secret ?

Secrets exist on many levels. There are those who want to build in a sensitive place, knowing many will hate the idea of their countryside being violated. There are those who wish to keep quiet their illegal activities. And, as the scale grows, there are those countries that wish to keep their intentions hidden from their neighbours.

And so it was in the 1930s, as Germany grew in power and was taken over by the Nazi party. Hitler persuaded his country to manufacture arms on a large-scale, and the Nazi party ensured that the people were threatened and bullied into submission.

Those who dissented either left Germany or were silenced.

In Britain, the thirst for enjoyment ensured that very few were aware of the extent of what was happening in Europe. The few voices raised were not heeded.To keep people from knowing what were Germanyʼs ambitions, Hitler adopted a brilliant coding machine so that his messaging could not be read.

Enigma.

This machine was unbreakable by any known technique. Listening stations in Britain, and the empire around the European fringe, could hear these signals, but had no idea what they were saying. If they had broken the codes, then doubtless the codes would have been changed and made even more obscure. But as long as the codebreaking was our secret, the enemy would carry on with the same codes. So we also had to keep our activities secret, and when the war began, this secrecy became vital for our national survival.

So how did we keep our secret ?

Our codebreaking activities were moved to a remote place, with good connections to the centre of Government: a remote country house in a small village called Bletchley.

Situated on the main line from London to the North West, Bletchley Park was only a few minutes walk away from the railway station.

With great secrecy and urgency , the process of recruiting codebreakers began. Personal knowledge was the main method, but the methods used were not restricted to that. For instance, a newspaper competition based on the time to complete the Daily Telegraph crossword was used, followed by careful selection, interviewing and preparation of those selected.

The brightest brains – mathematicians, linguists, and people with original thought were identified in the highest universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

Among these was Alan Turing, a fellow of Kings College Cambridge, who was to take a leading role in cracking Enigma codes. Many of those recruited to work at Bletchley Park were educated at Eton school, and a good number were from well-connected families. But the organisers of the Bletchley project were careful to select those most suited to the work.

This great family of brains finally began to crack the Enigma codes by looking for flaws in the coding process due to lazy or incompetent operators, and by keeping a thorough record of all that they found out, for future reference. Alan Turing led the process, and was instrumental in designing the “Bombe”, a machine to speed up the decoding process by searching all possible solutions to the Enigma puzzle, fast.

When the Germans started to use radio signals based on teleprinters, the Enigma solutions no longer applied. Once again the minds at Bletchley produced a method of solving these codes, and Alan Turing designed a machine capable of decoding these. The mchine used to do this was called Collossus, built by a Post Office engineer called Tommy Flowers. This was really the worldʼs first computer

How did we keep our secret ?

Those who were selected were asked to sign the Official Secrets Act, and to report to Bletchley Park. They had no idea of what they were about to undertake. The absolute importance of secrecy was stressed again and again during their activities, and even when the war finished, they were not allowed to divulge what had gone on. Thus nothing of Bletchley Parkʼs work was known until the lifting of the secret in the 1970s. A number of Bletchley Park folk died, never able to tell others – even close family – what they did for the war effort.

Many lives were saved, because of knowledge gained from Enigma intercepts,, in North Africa, fighting Rommel, in the Mediterranean, and in the North Atlantic fighting U boats, to name but three of the theatres of war..

Churchill described the team at Bletchley Park as “the geese that laid the golden eggs, and never squawked”

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54 thoughts on “Secrets: A visit to Bletchley Park

  1. Thanks, I like reading about Enigma. There is also information about Enigma in The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer by Jane Smiley

  2. One can see the writing block (not writer’s block!) of which you are a chip off. :) What a shame to die an unsung hero, perhaps having had to endure snide comments about all the nothing one had done in the war. I love the Churchill quote.

  3. Great write up, very well laid out and some great descriptions.
    I have passed Bletchley a few times – I used to live just outside Cambridge and my sister lives in Oxford so Milton Keynes in a “just passing through” type of place. Next time I think I need to stop off and spend some time there.

    On a related note – some years ago, I took the kids to a “Secret Nuclear Bunker” somewhere down the M11. They and I loved it. Well worth a visit.

  4. How interesting that must have been! My mother worked in ciphers for the Australian navy during the war and she was agog when “Enigma”, the Jagger-produced film came to our little town. To her, seeing that place where many of her heroes solved unknowable puzzles would have been a real thrill.

  5. It is amazing to think about someone signing up for this. Imagine! “Those who were selected were asked to sign the Official Secrets Act, and to report to Bletchley Park.” Would people do that today or would they be more questioning and less trusting?

    • Tammy, it was more, – many of those who were taken to BP were taken in “blind” cars, and didn’t know where they were going until they were told when they got there.
      John

  6. Kate, my mother was one of the operators who intercepted German messages. She never spoke about it until given permission, sadly this was two years after my father died, and to our amazement we (and she) discovered that he had been involved in similar work. Her parents never knew, but I was priviledged to go to a reunion and visit BP before the place was open to the public. The memories of these elderly people were a real eye-opener. There had been no recognition for their work until about 8 years ago when they were awarded a special badge. Mum was one of the few women awarded the defence medal as she had indeed been part of the defence of the realm, but could never say why.

    • Fascinating, NVF. Many radio amateurs became involved in listening and morse reading activities to intercept the enigma signals and write down the encrypted messages. Without these listeners, the folk at BP would have nothing to work on. Thanks indeed to your mother.
      John

  7. It’s a wonder the lights at Bletchley didn’t burn a bit brighter from all those minds collected in one place. Truly, though, what astounds me is the capacity for patriotic secrecy. I don’t know if it can be done in our age. Or perhaps I’m simply jaded by the mess my own country gets itself into daily by divulging the wrong secrets and shredding the privacy of the wrong people.

    • Cameron, remember that those who kept the secrets were often those who had been involved in the world of enjoyment which had just gone.
      When Patriotism is called for, there is a rich vein of people who will respond.
      Never lose hope in their existence. They are still one of our greatest secrets.
      John

  8. Dear Father of Kate, I so enjoy learning more about Enigma. I first read about Bletchley Hall when I read the book “The Enigma War” by Jozef Garlinski, published in 1979. I bought my first Apple computer in 1984 and a friend gave me a tutorial in which he emphasized the roll of Turing and Flowers in the history of the computer. So reading your posting today felt like “old home week” for me. Thank you. Peace.

    • Thank you DR. I have read a book called “Station X”,(Michael Smith), and “GCHQ” (published by Amazon) among others. The Channel 4 series called “Station X” was also a great source of information.
      John

  9. This is a fascinating mini-history that makes me want to know even more. I didn’t know much about Turing or Flowers, but in reading the recent biography of Steve Jobs I know Turing was mentioned more than once. Now I have a little more context. In a current environment where secrets of all kinds are made public daily, I have such admiration for the individuals who literally took their secrets to the grave. Powerful stuff!

    • Alan Turing was one of the first scientists to make the link between calculation and machines. Tommy Flowers brought electronics into the process with the advent of “Colossus”
      John

  10. Thank you for a very interesting post about Enigma.
    I read a novel called Enigma by Robert Harris recently. I’d suggest giving it a try if you haven’t yet. What struck me about the novel was not only the grueling, secret work of decoding German messages, but the daily privation of the people. There are a lot of descriptions of inadequate, bad food, lodging and so forth. It shows how tough life was in wartime England in so many ways.
    I’ve got to say, on both sides of the Atlantic, those WWII people were tough birds.

    • Indeed Gale. If you can get a copy of “Station X” by Michael Smith,
      (ISBN 978-0-330-45468-1), you will find that these people with their active minds, also turned their cleverness into the relief of boredom and hardship of which there was plenty. And yes, it was tough. I lived through it as a boy.
      John

  11. Interesting! I love to read about these secret organisations, and the work they did to save so many lives. I was going to end that sentence with ‘in simpler times’, but I’m not sure that’s the case at all… and I never knew they used a crossword to recruit codebreakers! Fascinating.
    Am I allowed to say that I’ve signed the official secret’s act or not? That I may or may not have done, just in case.

    • Thank you Tom. I would let the OSA remain a secret! The crossword was the “Daily Telegraph ” cryptic crossword, and you had to solve it in less than 15 minutes. I usually take 15 days!!!
      John

  12. John (Kate’s Dad) … Loved your Enigma story. It’s unfortunate that those who kept the vital secrets and were responsible for decoding that was critical to the war efforts were not recognized until decades after the war. The same thing happened with the Navajo Code Talkers in WWII.

  13. This is fascinating, John, and I’m sure actually seeing Bletchley Park was a unique experience for you. All those long unsung heroes and what they did, secretly, for the sake of everyone else is mighty humbling. Then, to live in silence of their work for so very long. Thanks for this amazing post. Penny

  14. I enjoyed this write-up so much. Secrecy, spies, codes, all very fascinating. As are the pictures, and the memory of these brilliant people working to decode the secret codes. Thank you, John, for making us part of your visit.

  15. Nice stuff John :-) Another way that the secret was kept was by not acting on everything that was known and by sometimes acting in a way that suggested that we didn’t know, thus lulling the enemy into a false sense of security about their codes.

    And, the intercepts of radio messages by Radio Amateurs also provided lots of key information for the war effort :-)

  16. I have just read your piece on Bletchley park i was fasinated. we owe all those workers a great debt, to the freedom that we now enjoy today. I cant wait to go and visit.

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