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.
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”