Historical Oracle Visits...Bletchley Park
I promised that I would start posting some more travel-based material for you History lovers out there. My original idea was to produce full city guides for places across the UK. However, having thought about it, I decided that detailing historic sites across the country would be far more beneficial.
With that in mind, we start with one of my favourite places: Bletchley Park. During the Second World War, this was home to code breakers working to decypher the German Enigma code and Japanese cryptology.
Before the start of the Second World War, the Government Code and Cypher School, as it was called then, was based in the centre of London called 'Room 40'. By 1938, when war seemed all but certain with Germany, they moved to Bletchley Park - and old manor house and estate in Milton Keynes.
Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), bought the mansion and 58 acres (23 ha) of land for £6,000 (£386,000 today) for use by GC&CS and SIS in the event of war. He used his own money as the Government said they did not have the budget to do so.
Numbers rose as the war went on; from a relatively small team in 1938 to something like 10,000 people – code-breakers, Wrens, Women's Auxiliary Air Force, posh debutantes working on the cross-indexing system etc.
Amongst the fine men and women that worked at Bletchley, one of the most notable was Alan Turing. His most famous achievement was to design a machine, the Bombe, that would perform some of these codebreaking techniques quicker than a human could. The German Navy’s “M3” Enigma machines were unbreakable at this time due to more secure message key procedures, so Turing started working on this version of the cipher. Later in the war, when the German Navy started using an updated version of Enigma (the M4) and Bletchley Park couldn’t read the Naval messages any more, he took on the responsibility of developing techniques that would work on this new machine.
It is simply impossible to know how many codes and ciphers the men and women broke at Bletchley during the course of the war. This is largely because Bletchley was so mind-bogglingly successful. They read messages from the German army, navy, air force, secret service… even messages from the desk of Hitler himself. Countless thousands upon thousands of communications.
They cracked Italian and Japanese cyphers, and the operation was spread across the whole wide world. In posts from Cairo to Murmansk, dedicated secret listeners for the Y Service intercepted all the secret coded radio messages – and relayed them back to England, and ultimately back to this incredible code-breaking factory.
The other miracle was the secrecy; the fact that the Germans never really guessed adds to this astonishing success.
President Eisenhower credited the work of ‘BP’, as it was called, with having shortened the war by two years. Think for a moment of how many lives those two years might represent; the countless people saved simply by the ending of the conflict.
Bletchley veteran and distinguished historian, Professor Sir Harry Hinsley, reckoned it was three years. Apart from anything else, without Bletchley’s absolutely crucial intelligence, the D-Day landings in 1944 might never have worked, and in the extra time it would have taken the Allies to get a foothold in Europe, who knows how many more victims the Nazis would have murdered? And what sort of new and terrible weapons the Nazis could have developed?
Bear in mind the other great element of the Bletchley story: thanks to a brilliant engineer called Tommy Flowers, the computer age was brought into being there. He developed a code-breaking machine – the Colossus – that was in effect a proto-computer. Engineers at Google and Apple recognise and pay tribute to the Park’s importance.
After the war, the work of the Park was packed up (all decrypts carefully destroyed) and first moved to Eastcote, in north-west London.
What to see
Newly opened in 2014 by HRH The Duchess of Cambridge, the Visitor Centre in Block C offers a welcoming entry into Bletchley Park with a coffee shop, gift shop and an engaging multimedia, interactive introductory exhibition.
The Mansion at Bletchley Park houses a number of temporary and permanent exhibitions including:
- The Office of Alastair Denniston, Head of the Government Code and Cypher School, and the room where the US Special Relationship was born
- The Library, atmospherically dressed as it would have looked during WW2 as a Naval Intelligence office
- Wartime Garages, complete with WW2 vehicles
Visit the restored Codebreaking Huts 3 and 6, where Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence. In these iconic huts, the atmosphere is recreated with rooms dressed to resemble what they once were when Codebreakers worked there. Light-touch, interpretive exhibits allow visitors to experience how it was to work in wartime Bletchley Park. Plus “meet” some of the Codebreakers and listen to the men and women tell the stories of what happened inside them through the use of interactive exhibits, including sounds, projected images and authentic set dressing.
(1 March – 31 October) From 09.30 to 17.00 (last admission 16.00)
Winter opening (1 November – 29 February) From 09.30 to 16.00 (last admission 15.00)
Bletchley Park is open every day to visitors except 24, 25 and 26 December.
The Mansion, Bletchley Park, Sherwood Drive, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB Using Sat-Nav? Please enter Sherwood Drive, Bletchley, MK3 6DS, as the postal address may take you to the wrong location.
There is limited, free on-site parking available for cars, but car parking cannot be reserved. The car park includes 2 electric car charging points for visitors to use.